Pinnawala, Sri Lanka….How many countries are natural homes to Elephants? I say there are at best, just a handful. Africa, India and South East Asia could possibly be where one can see these majestic mammals roaming around in the wild, domesticated at homes, worshiped in temples, decorated and paraded in streets and protected in sanctuaries. You may even find sculptures and motifs in literature, they symbolize strength, wisdom and stead fastness. They have been used in warfare and stories have given a hue of white colour or even wings to them. I have always considered elephants to be something respected, admired and wonderful.
Sri Lanka has more than four wildlife sanctuaries protecting elephants and enthusiasts throng their safari tours ,even though they are highly priced. It is an adventure to see the greats graze, play fight, tend their calves , move around at their own sweet will and to know their life in their own habitat, is worth every penny spent.
When I reached Sri Lanka, it was raining heavily, land slides and flash floods forced the reserves to temporarily close down for safe keeping. I was sad and depressed and found that even postponing, as well as rescheduling my tour, was going to be of no help in my wild life enthusiasm. Having given up hope, but still having a few days to spare, I tried googling , what else and where else I could spend my time in Lanka. To my joy I came across a place called Pinnawala, which was a short deviation of about 10 kms on the highway from Colombo to Kandy. It was described to be a sanctuary for orphaned or neglected elephants, which Interested me to check it out for what it was known to provide.
The next morning I hit road and headed towards the village, which was about 90 kms from the capital. A couple of hours drive led me into a forest road, which had habitations. On either side of the road I noticed farms houses with platforms on stilts, offering an elephant ride into the valley, for maybe an hour or even longer. The prospect was enticing but my objective was to learn about the sanctuary and adventure on a captive mammal took the back seat.
On reaching Pinnawala I noticed the ticket counters were lined up by a good number of people. The rains had not hampered the interests of the many visitors and quite a large number of Europeans were also enthusiastically walking towards a herd of elephants, which were tended by trained mahouts. I noticed many people eagerly posing, as well as taking pictures of themselves with the animals. I saw some trying to feed the animals with bananas, which they had smuggled inside. The mahouts instructed the visitors not to feed the elephants and even cautioned the animals, calling them by name. The mammals obeyed their respective mahouts command.
I also noticed the Mahouts on receiving a tip, calling the mammals close enough and encouraging the Europeans to take pictures, touch, as well as feel them. It was sure enough a close encounter with the huge beasts and the joy among the visitors was immeasurable. Children were scared, shy and fretted going near the animals, but they sure did not want to leave the place for the sheer love for the animals.
I was a bit early for the feeding time and was disappointed when told that the routine of the more than fifty elephants getting into the river for their bath, was cancelled due to the river and valley being affected by flood. I therefore looked around at the herd of more than about a hundred elephants and enjoyed watching the young calfs pushing each other, in a playful fight or pull at each others tails; while their mothers kept watch over their game. Some of the older elephants plucked tufts of grass and knocked them on their own foot ,more than once, thus dusting away the sand, before swallowing the whole lot of it. Did they chew the grass before swallowing? Yes they did.
I was told that this sanctuary was started by caring for one orphan elephant and now is taking care of about a hundred. They were also taking care of those bred in captivity. I was told that an unfortunate calf that lost one leg treading a land mine is also being tended, and felt happy that it was soon to get trained ,using its artificial leg that had been devised. All in all, I thought that the whole project was a noble cause even though many would consider robbing an animals freedom to be a cruelty committed upon the mammal.
I had, when I was younger, already been to a similar sanctuary at Mudumalai, in Tamilnadu India, as well as had the opportunity to ride an elephant through a jungle in Thailand, up a hill in Cambodia and even into a fort in Jaisalmer India. I had occasion to see decorated elephants paraded during the Dhasara festival in Mysore, during the festival of Muharram in Hyderabad, Pooram in Thirusur, Kerala, all of which did seem very impressive but at the same time captive. This sanctuary however gave me an experience unlike my earlier experiences. This sanctuary was natural, quite large and I felt many mammals were being left on their own, to spend time unto themselves, in the remotest corner of the sanctuary, unmindful of the mahouts and the visitors.
My visit was very satisfying. I realized that It is one thing to stay far away and enjoy watching the behaviour of the mammals in the wild; while it is another feeling one cherishes when he stays close, tends, touches, feeds and interacts with the so called wild animals, exchanging love and affection .I guess, whatever said, done or experienced, It is all but a matter of perspective and ones own freedom of choice.