There are basically two general types of elephants – African and Asian and Sri Lanka has one of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world. They have both wild and captive Asian elephants.
This post is dedicated to the captive elephant population. There are wild elephant sanctuaries here in Sri Lanka but the work I am doing is with the captive elephant population.
Elephants have been in Sri Lanka for hundreds of years. However, like all things, when man gets involved, they don’t always get used in the most appropriate means. Here in Sri Lanka captive elephants may be used as logging elephants meaning they are chained to cut logs and made to haul them out of the forest as the main means of transportation for this industry. This has resulted in the elephants being overworked, malnourished, and even harmed. Many logging elephants break their legs due to the weight they are forced to haul over long distances and over long periods of time.
One thing I didn’t know about elephants before coming here is that elephants cannot lie down for long periods of time. With the anatomy of an elephant, if they lay down they are actually cutting off their ability to breath. While they are in the water that is different, since as we all know, water adds buoyancy so they are still able to breathe. As you can imagine, having a broken leg could actually be a death sentence for an elephant if it is left untreated and/or they are in too much pain and feel they must lie down.
This is why Millennium Elephant Foundation exists. It is they only one of its kind in Sri Lanka. It is the only organization in Sri Lanka dedicated to the welfare of captive Sri Lankan elephants. The elephants here are either here recovering from injuries, like broken legs, or they are here to live out their retirement. In some cases, MEF actually pays the owners of the elephants to keep them here so that they aren’t used for logging or other purposes.
One thing I would like to point out is that it may be disturbing to see the elephants chained and the mahouts carrying what looks to be spears. However, they are done for a reason, mostly for the safety of the elephants and those around them. The MEF compound is not fenced off which means that if an elephant really wanted to it could run into the road, on to some else’s property, etc. That is one reason they are chained. For example, one of the previous enrichment activities involved having the elephants push tires around. They got so use to this that some of them started chasing after cars!
Another reason for the chains is that, like most animals, they go into heat. Male elephants go into heat for 3-6 month periods and can be extremely aggressive so they must be chained so they don’t attack other elephants or humans. Female elephants also go into heat, for shorter, periods of time, and can become aggressive as well.
MEF is working on fundraising to purchase a fence to enclose the property so they elephants can be let off of the chains. This will also be a departure from the traditional training of a mahout and how they are trained to care for the elephants.
The spears are used to direct the elephants. They are not sharp and in reality an elephant’s skin is so thick that getting jabbed doesn’t hurt at all but is more like a gentle spanking. MEF is working with the mahouts to train them on other methods of controlling the elephants that evolve rewards vs. pressure points.
This seems to be a much more humane way to treat elephants than what others are doing, not saying there aren’t other good organizations out there.
It really has been eye-opening to see why places like this exist and how they operate. Plus I have the added bonus of getting to observe and even play with elephants every single day.
I hope you have learned a little from this entry and now you can enjoy some of my favorite elephant photos!