Sri Lanka's Orphanage for jungle jumbos

By Mick Elmore
The elephants of Pinnawela are a clean herd. They bathe twice a day. Pinnawela's elephants are also the world's biggest orphans. The parentless pachyderms live on 10.5 hectares of palm grove called the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, 80 kilometers north-east of Colombo.

Although the nearby Maya Oya river is not part of their playground, only a dumbo would dare deny 50 elephants their bath. As the mass of orphaned youth head towards the rocky rapids, it's best to get out of their way.

At play in the river they are like children on recess. There are introverts, rough housers and groupies around the most popular pachyderms. There is even a bully or two. The really troublesome fellows, however, are separated and must bathe in a secluded cove: a detention of sorts.

Watch them for a long time and their individual characters start to show. In fact, some of them have more personality than a lot of people. Each elephant has special needs, says S.S.M. Seelaratne, 43, curator of the orphanage since 1994.

"We have a file on each one. All the information we know about them, including their horoscopes," he said.

There are now 53 residents at the Pinnawela orphanage, which opened its doors on February 17, 1975, with only six beasts. The Wildlife Department managed the orphanage until 1982 when the Zoological Department took over. That same year Seelaratne joined as assistant curator.

The orphanage has 42 employees, receives Rs 900,000, (US$15,790) from the government every month, and charges foreigners Rs 75 (US$1.30) and locals Rs 10 to enter. "It used to be that very few tourists came here. Now they all do. All of them I take on tours spend a morning here," said A. A. Winialasiri, who has been a tourist guide with Hemtours for 15 years. "I never get bored with it," he said.

The Ceylon Tourist Board doesn't either. Pinnawela is good news for tourism, Sri Lanka's seventh largest foreign exchange earner. "It's become a tourist attraction. On every itinerary we include Pinnawela," Vipula Wanigasekara, the Board's Marketing Director said.

Companies in Colombo are considering sponsoring elephants at the orphanage. That's another idea that could develop into a big benefit for Pinnawela, he said. Pinnawela orphans have found foster homes in zoos around the world including China, the United States, Japan, Pakistan and England.

"Zoos are welcome. We don't charge anything but they pay for transport and their costs. The most recent country to receive Pinnawela elephants was Japan. On April 19th we sent two baby elephants to the Tokyo Shima City Zoo," Seelaratne said.

"We don't reintroduce them because the elephants in the jungle won't accept them," he said. They do get along fine at the orphanage, however, where 10 have been born. "The first was Sukumali in 1984. Now she is pregnant. We hope for a birth in January," Seelaratne said.

Pinnawela averages five arrivals a year. Most have lost their mothers. Others include injured elephants such as six-year-old Sama who lost a foot to a land-mine in the north-east earlier in the year and the old man of the herd, Raja, who poachers blinded in a failed attempt to take his tusks. Their biggest problem is loss of habitat, Seelaratne said. There were an estimated 30,000 elephants when the British arrived in 1815. Today there are about 6,000 left; about 2,500 working in captivity and the rest in the wild.

The situation is the same in Sri Lanka as it is in Thailand and the rest of Asia; the elephants are losing its habitat to our insatiable appetite for more: more space and more consumption which require more sources and take more land.

Elephants have played a crucial role in Sri Lankan society for centuries and Pinnawela's success assures them a niche in the future.

Hopefully Sri Lanka can protect some areas so wild elephants remain a part of the island nation, Seelaratne said adding, "I like elephants. They are important to Sri Lanka. They are beautiful."
(Courtesy Bangkok Post)

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