One by one they come; elephant calves of various sizes running single file along the dusty path towards the feeding station. As they line up along the railing, wildlife officers place a tube inside their mouths and pour milk through a funnel. The calves gobble it down contentedly.
Other calves stand huddled in a group under the shade of a nearby tree, trying to stay cool in the sticky, mid-morning heat, as they chomp down leaves. One calf slowly makes his way towards a muddy pool. He flaps his ears and falls into the water onto his side, making a small splash. Gasps and cries of “Awwwwwww” can be heard from the crowd gathered on the viewing platform, followed by the sound of clicking cameras. The other calves eventually follow suit and we find ourselves privy to a baby elephant pool party as they frolic about and spray each other.
I watch on, with a grin from ear to ear. Many of the young animals at the Elephant Transit Home, on the western border of Udawalawe National Park, have suffered trauma in their not-too-distant past, so it is invigorating to see them so joyful. In Sri Lanka, elephant calves often become separated from their herds when they fall in wells or abandoned gem mines, or get their feet caught in boar traps. Others lose their parents to poachers; others have been caught by exploding land mines. Some are left with lifetime injuries.
One such elephant is Namal, who we watch being bathed from a distance. He was found with a snare injury on his hind leg as an infant. After several attempts to save the limb it was decided that amputation was the only solution and a prosthetic leg was made for him. Unlike most of the elephants at the home, who will return to the wild when they are able to fend for themselves around age five, Namal will see out his days at the facility. I feel a bit teary as I see him being washed and his stubby leg being taken off and reinstated.
Established by Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1995, Ath Athuru Sevana (Elephant Transit Home) cares for, feeds and rehabilitates orphaned elephants before they are tagged and released back into the national park in batches. Eventually, they break off and join established herds.
The calves spend most of their time hanging around a reservoir in the neighbouring park and return to be fed every three hours and the public is permitted to view the spectacle four times a day. When we visit the youngest elephant being fed is just two weeks old and naturally leads to the most oohs and ahhs.
Sri Lankan elephants are the largest and darkest sub-species of Asian elephants, with patches of skin pigmentation on their ears, face, trunk and belly. There are believed to be up to 3000 living across the tear-shaped island at the bottom of India’s southern tip, about 900 of which reside in Udawalawe National Park. They live in herds of 12 to 20 led by the oldest female, or matriarch. According to the WWF, the Sri Lankan elephant population has fallen almost 65 per cent since the turn of the 19th century as humans encroach on their habitat for farmland, cattle grazing, gem mining and timber extraction. They are now protected by law and killing one can lead to the death penalty.
Since its inception, more than 100 elephants from the Elephant Transit Home have been released, with 15 going on to have calves of their own. They include Sandamali, who was found among a herd of buffaloes after somehow losing her family. As she grew, she developed strong mothering instincts, letting younger calves looking for a suckling alternative use the lower edge of her ear lobe and her teats. After her release a radio collar was placed on her and a couple of years later she was found to have given birth to a male calf.
Bullet is another success story. He was found limping in a village which had been ravaged by the civil war when he was about three months old. A gunshot wound on his right leg had become infected. When he arrived at the centre, where he was given his name, he was in so much pain he refused to drink milk and had to be force fed but with treatment he was cured within a few months.
Another elephant, Thamali, had her foot caught in a land mine when she was four. Scared by the noise of the explosion, the herd ran away and left her. Villagers treated her wound with Indigenous medicine before she was taken to the home, where she was cared for before being released with only a slight limp. I feel a little warm and fuzzy knowing the entry fee we pay goes towards buying food for the elephants at the home and their care.
Angela Saurine travelled as a guest of G Adventures.
Singapore Airlines flies to Colombo via Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. See singaporeair.com
G Adventures’ offers tours in Sri Lanka that include a visit to Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home. See gadventures.com.au/destinations/asia/sri-lanka