Finding Sanctuary

A Refuge for Sri Lanka’s Stressed Elephants

Elephants have been a cherished part of Sri Lankan culture since ancient times, and their often heroic images decorate Buddhist and Hindu temples countrywide. At the revered Temple of the Tooth in Kandi, antique elephant tusks adorn the main shrine. Children eat Elephant House ice cream and wash it down with Elephant Brand soft drinks. Yet despite their omnipresence in Sri Lankan society, elephants are on shaky ground, as their habitat and lives are threatened by development.

Elephants at the Pinnawala Orphanage in Sri Lanka are refugees from an uncertain future. The elephants frequently come into conflict with farmers in their island home, formerly Ceylon.
Sara Pipher

At the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, a conservation center run by the National Zoological Gardens, 69 elephants, 20 of them under five years old, eat, work and bathe before the eager eyes and camera lenses of local and foreign tourists. Founded in 1975, Pinnawala is home to many second- and third-generation animals, the progeny of the original "adoptees." The oldest tusker, Raja, is 60; the youngest baby arrived three months ago. For most visitors, the highlights of the trip are watching zookeepers bottle-feed the infants, and watching dozens of elephants cool off in the Maha Oya River. The air at Pinnawala rings with bellows and trumpeting, and the cries of "mahouts," wiry men in sarongs and flip flops who care for and instruct the elephants.

Pinnawala’s chief purpose is the raising and long-term care of orphaned elephants. Dr. Samanthi Mendis, the orphanage’s veterinary surgeon, explains that babies occasionally fall into pits in the jungle and are discovered by wildlife rangers, who transport them to Pinnawala. One three-legged adolescent was rescued after stepping on a land mine.

And increasingly, rural villagers, dependent upon their crops for survival and income, kill adult elephants that stray into their farmlands to feed. They shoot the trespassing animals, or chase them with fire, sometimes leaving them alive but badly burned. Often the victims are mothers of infants who in turn are left alone and defenseless.

The issue of accessible rangeland and food is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s elephant problem. "Farms are built on elephant paths," says Mendis. "That’s not the elephants" fault. And they are drawn to the sugarcane and rice." There are between 2,500 and 3,000 wild elephants in the country, yet scientists who study the issue say there is only enough available land to support 1,600 of them. To make up the difference and find the 660 pounds of vegetation they must consume each day, elephants are wandering farther and farther into developed areas to feed, threatening farmers" crops and, occasionally, their lives.

Nalin Rajapaksha, a local guide with the Centre of Eco-cultural Studies in Sigiriya, understands this dilemma acutely. Twelve years ago, a mature elephant tromped through his family’s fields in a late-night feeding spree, and in the process destroyed three-quarters of their house.

"I know it’s not the elephants" fault," Rajapaksha admits, "But they can eat a paddy in an hour that can feed my family for a year." Nighttime elephant invasions near Sigiriya have intensified in recent months because of drought. Now, during cultivation season, Rajapaksha spends his evenings on elephant patrol with his neighbors. Typically, they shout and set off firecrackers to scare the animals away. In extreme cases, persistent elephants are tranquilized and transported to Uda Walawe National Park in southeastern Sri Lanka.

A second elephant home in Pinnawala, Ath Athuru Sevana ("Elephant Transit Home"), cares for baby elephants with the intention of returning them back to the wild. It has had 17 success stories in placing orphans back into the jungles of Uda Walawe, where they have joined existing herds. "All 17 released baby jumbos are doing well," says Jayantha Jayewardene, project director of the Protected Area Management and Wildlife Conservation Project. Elephants there can be "adopted" for a monthly fee of 10,000 rupees ($102).

Conservationists have developed educational programs for school children in rural areas to teach them about the legacy of Sri Lankan elephants, and to encourage responsible farming practices in the future. But those programs can only do so much, acknowledges Mendis. "Education is one thing, fighting to survive is another," she says.

Centuries ago, elephants were property of the royals and killing one was a serious offense. With any luck, Sri Lankans" enduring love of elephants will persevere. The island’s environmentalists say an opportunity exists to create programs and policies that consider the needs of elephants and humans. They say that farmers can be offered incentives for living peacefully with elephants. Rapid compensation could be made for any property damage the animals cause, perhaps offset by tourist dollars from places like Pinnawala. More educational resources can be developed to teach farmers how to coexist with wild elephants. Additional protected land can be set aside, and "elephant corridors" built to connect the country’s national parks.

In Sri Lankan mythology, elephants had wings and were responsible for bringing rains and ensuring prosperous harvests for their human neighbors. Today, the people of the Island Kingdom have a chance to return that kindness.