One weekend, my parents told me that we were going on an adventure. They would not tell me where we would be heading, but it would be a day trip from Kandy and our driver, Sumanasena, and his family would be joining us. Although we left early in the morning, the sun was already making it very clear that the day would be a scorcher. The air was distorted from heat rising from the dusty roads leading to our destination. If recreating the scene in a movie there would surely be screech of a single hawk overhead. It was that kind of oppressively hot day. Indicating we had arrived, Sumanasena pulled our van up to a clearing under a tree and the two families groggily exited. The ride had been long, and we stretched our limbs. Janelle, asleep on Mom’s shoulder, had damp hair that was plastered to the side of her face where she was sweating against Mom in the heat. Probably 50 feet away a group of men crouched in the shade of a tree. The workers were moving as slowly as we were. As was often the case, I was feeling a bit car sick. The warmth was not helping and I was not sure I wanted to be wherever we were. One of Sumanasena’s sons was albino and we had to be especially careful to keep him out of the sun. He stood near the van under an umbrella while we got the attention of the workers who were slowly rising from their crouched positions.
Although moving at a snail’s pace, the worker who approached us was animated and friendly. He welcomed us and gave us some history about where we were and I quickly forgot that I was feeling queasy. We were at an elephant orphanage!
The elephant orphanage was founded in 1975 by the Sri Lankan Wildlife department to care for the numerous unweaned solitary calves that were being discovered in the jungles. Elephants can stand shortly after birth but rely on their mothers and the herd for some time. After pregnancy, which lasts for 22 months, the female gives birth to a single calf and very rarely twins. The calf can be 160-250 pounds, but despite their size they are vulnerable. The calves do not wean until 18 months to three years later, so they will rely on their mothers for that time. There are other females in the herd, usually juveniles without calves of their own, who are attracted to the youngsters and help look after the calf. The Wildlife department was encountering an increasing number of orphaned elephants who were dying after their mothers were killed sometimes by farmers protecting their rice paddies or villages from damage or from falling into deep pits. The goal of the orphanage was to foster these orphaned juveniles until they could survive on their own.
We followed the guide who took us around to the front of the building where we had been standing and there they were – young elephants of many sizes. The youngest stood shorter than I and was possibly the cutest creature I had ever seen.
After explaining the life cycle of the herd, the guide asked if we wanted to feed the baby. All orphaned elephants were bottle fed. I was handed a glass bottled as thick as my arm which the infant clearly recognized as her lunch. Lifting her trunk and searching for the bottle, she pulled my arm towards her open mouth. I was struck and a bit intimidated by the strength of the appendage but she guided the nipple into her mouth and quickly finished the bottle. I fed her a second bottle and patted her head which was covered with what looked like soft fuzz, but was actually more like the bristles of a broom. She seemed to enjoy the contact and rubbed her head against my body almost knocking me over in the process. Janelle, now awake and full of smiles patted her as well. After her lunch, it was time for all of the elephants to bathe.
I am told that the elephant orphanage has become a popular tourist attraction, but on this sweltering day in 1982, there was no one but our group to view the bathing ritual. Twice a day the elephants are lead to the river to enjoy bathing and cooling off in the water. We followed them, rather they eagerly lead, us to the shore. Two elephant handlers known as mahouts were already in the water with two juveniles. Our small friend paced at the edge of the water seemingly afraid to enter. As the rest of the elephants entered and began rolling and splashing in the flowing river, our guide led us slightly upstream from the rest of the group. With less action, the little one entered the water following its handler. I was asked if I wanted to join. A dip in the river sounded delightful and I folded and rolled up my pant legs and waded in. I wish I could remember the name of my large yet tiny friend. In my mind I refer to her as Aliya, the Sinhalese word for elephant. After wading into the river she quickly rolled on her side. The mahout gave me some coconut husks and told me to use them to scrub her back. The coarse hairy husk resembled Aliya’s bristled top, and I gently massaged in the indentation where her head met her back. The mahout laughed and indicated that the elephant was tougher than I was treating her and showed me how to really scrub. Together we pushed and pulled the coconut across her skin like we were scrubbing the floor. Her ears flopped back and forth and we moved our focus to behind her ears. Like a dog who collapses when being scratched in the right place, Aliya contentedly rolled back and forth in the water flapping her ears and trunk. The larger downstream elephants were a bit more measured, but also seemed to be having a good time. Sucking water in with their trunks and splashing it over their backs. When Aliya joined in there was no longer a chance of staying at all dry. I gave into the fact that I’d be wet from head to toe, so I put my arms around her in the water. Feeding and swimming with Aliya was one of the most amazing animal encounters I’ve ever had. I am not sure why I was afforded this unique opportunity. From videos and pictures I see posted today, it appears visitors to the elephant orphanage witness the twice daily trips to the river from a safe distance, while my interaction was very hands on. In 1982, the same year as our visit, the organization began a breeding program. Perhaps the increase in population and popularity of the refuge is the reason why my experience is no longer the norm or perhaps we were just there at the right moment, but I will never forget that playful exchange with a baby elephant. It is possible that little Aliya is still bathing in Sri Lankan rivers today. She would be in her mid thirties. We went back to the elephant orphanage several times with students and visitors who joined us in Sri Lanka, sometimes riding the elephants and sometimes feeding them but never swimming with them again.
When we travel in 2017, we will be visiting an elephant refuge although not the same one as the one we visited with Sumanasena and his familiy. We will be traveling to The Millennium Elephant Foundation. We have adopted the elephants for the year leading up to our visit and are learning about their lives. We are all looking forward to meeting them.