Preserving the Peaceful Pachyderm
“JUST look at those cute babies! How adorable! You mean that fellow coming toward us, named Lanka, is only seven months old? And that shy lass over there, Kanchana, is eight months old? And all these hurrying out of the woods with their stiff baby hair sticking out all over them, what are they up to? Oh, no wonder, it’s feeding time! You feed them five times a day and give them seven bottles of milk each time, every bottle containing one full liter? Why, that’s 35 liters, nearly 10 gallons where I come from! No wonder each one weighs about 200 pounds [90 kg], despite being only a few months old!”
We are at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage some 53 miles [85 km] from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s principal city. When baby elephants that have been abandoned or injured are found in the wild, they are brought to this orphanage and raised to maturity. Some 15 were there when we visited. Ordinarily they are mixed in with adults and are scattered over a large area of open woodland, but at feeding time the babies are called for their milk rations. These orphans waste no time getting there and locating one of the three or four attendants waiting with bottles filled with milk.
They curl their trunks overhead, open their mouths wide, and swallow as fast as they can while the attendant tips the bottle up and pours. No time for nipples on these bottles! The milk gushes out and sometimes spills over the sides of their mouths. One, bigger than the others, was chained to a post to give the smaller ones a chance. Very upset by this “discrimination,” he rocked from side to side, raised his trunk high, and filled the air with his shrieks of protest. Once these babies have their fill, they crowd around you, lean on you, even wrap their trunk around your leg to claim your attention.
The Elephants’ Bathtub
Toward the end of the day, it’s bath time. All the elephants, big and little, are herded a half mile down the road to the bank of the Maha Oya River. It is shallow and very wide with big flat rocks sticking out of the water. Three or four women are there washing their clothes, beating them on the rocks to shake the dirt loose, then spreading them out to dry. From a distance it looks like beautifully colored quilts stretched out over the rocks. Thick lush jungle lines the far bank of the Maha Oya. It makes a picturesque and huge bathtub for the elephants.
They waste no time, wade right in, the babies leading the way. All are hesitant, however, about lying down. So the attendants splash water on them and poke them with long poles. Thus encouraged, the elephants lower themselves into the water for a cool soaking. Some of the big ones lie down with heads submerged but have the tip of their trunks sticking up to serve as snorkels for breathing. The sun has been hot, and the water must feel soothing on their thick skins—their name pachyderm means “thick-skinned.”
Mr. Bradley Fernando, director of the national zoo, has oversight of the orphanage. He points out to Awake! the purpose of the zoo: “Initially, we simply want to keep these baby elephants alive. Then for the long term, we intend to build a breeding herd.”
Yet what possible enemy could the peaceful Asian pachyderm have? Although considerably smaller than his African cousin, the adult Sri Lankan elephant still weighs in at four tons or more and stands ten feet [3 m] high at the shoulder. Such huge size alone is enough to discourage most predators. The leopard in Sri Lanka, much like lions and tigers in other lands, gives a grown elephant a very wide berth indeed.
So who is the possible enemy? Man. The elephant needs land; man wants land; man gets land. And the Sri Lankan elephant faces extinction. At least, that is the way Asiaweek sees it:
“Sri Lanka’s ancient kings considered it a sacred duty to protect wildlife. They issued edicts—perhaps the world’s first conservation laws—creating sanctuaries around the extensive irrigation reservoirs they built. Hunting was permitted and practised in other areas, but the elephant was never killed for food or sport. And only kings had authority to have the beast captured and trained for royal and religious processions or used as domestic beasts of burden. During colonial rule all that changed. Elephants were prized as big game.”
Civilization Brings Trouble
In former days the elephant was never killed for sport, but when Western civilization arrived—and with it the sportsman—things changed. What of the elephant hunter? The book Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon, by J. Emerson Tennent, notes: “One officer, Major Rogers, killed upwards of 1400; another, Captain Gallwey, has the credit of slaying more than half that number; Major Skinner, the Commissioner of Roads, almost as many; and less persevering aspirants follow at humbler distances.”
Tennent further stated that the colonial government offered a few shillings a head for killing elephants—they were viewed as pests. In a few years’ time, 5,500 claims were made for this reward. Tennent concludes: “The incessant slaughter of elephants by sportsmen in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] appears to be merely in subordination to the influence of the organ of destructiveness, since the carcase is never applied to any useful purpose, but left to decompose and to defile the air of the forest.” Ivory was no factor in Sri Lanka, for “not one elephant in a hundred is found with tusks in Ceylon, and the few that possess them are exclusively males.”
Asiaweek resumes its account of how the elephants’ lot deteriorated during and since colonial times: “Their jungle preserve, no longer protected by royal decree, was cleared for tea plantations. In 1800 there were probably 50,000 elephants on the island. In 1900 there were 12,000. Today, even after 50 years of strict conservation laws, the population is under 3,000.” Asiaweek also dismisses ivory as a big factor in the slaughter, although putting the ratio of elephants having tusks as 1 in 20 rather than 1 in 100. It then cites the real reason for the Sri Lankan elephants’ peril: “The real threat is man’s relentless quest for land. As more marginal cultivation encroaches on their natural habitat, Sri Lanka’s elephants face extinction.”
Yala National Park
Dr. Ranjen Fernando, president of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, commented to Awake!: “Largely because of the efforts of our society, the first wildlife conservation area was established as a game preserve in Yala in 1898. In 1938 Yala became our first national park, and others continue to be added. We consider these parks to be a national treasure and want them to continue as a protection for all our precious wildlife.”
We had scheduled a trip to Yala National Park, and Fernando’s reference to it only increased our interest. We thanked the attendants at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage for the kindnesses and courtesies shown us, waved our good-byes to the orphans and adults still enjoying their bath in the Maha Oya (I’m not sure they noticed), and headed for Yala National Park.
We spent three nights there in a bungalow on the shore of the ocean. A guide drove us around to see the animals—you’re not allowed out of the car. We saw deer, wild pigs, several big iguanas, many beautiful birds. One peacock spread his gorgeous tail and did a mating dance, weaverbird nests were hanging from the trees, and painted storks were very impressive in their stately beauty. We were disappointed by not seeing any leopards, though they are there. However, we did see several herds of our old friends the Asian elephants. They seemed peaceful and contented in their protected parkland.
The elephant does need plenty of room. And with the human population explosion, arable land commands an ever-increasing premium. Conservationists express growing concern at just how long governmental commitment to the elephant’s survival will remain firm. Only time will tell.—By an “Awake!” staff writer.
[Pictures on page 15]
At bath time the elephants are cajoled into lying down in water, where they use their trunks as snorkels
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Baby elephants orphaned in the wild are nurtured to maturity at Pinnawela