Ride an elephant, bathe an elephant, have an elephant shower me with water, basically enjoy really close contact with tame elephants; this was what the Millennium Elephant Foundation promised and I was brimming over with excitement at the prospect. That is… until I saw the elephants and my courage gave way *sheepish grin*
There were three in a row munching on an assortment of greens strewn at their hefty feet. Rani, Lakshmi and Bandara were introduced to us by our guide, Jayasooriya. I stood at a safe distance wondering how their massive proportions had not factored into my earlier happy imaginings of bathing with the elephants.
Rani’s unusually vigorous swaying wasn’t helping my nerves. But what I hadn’t realized was that her owners had arrived to pay her a visit and, having spotted them a little distance away, she’d begun her excited elephantine jig.
This is one of the functions of the Millennium Elephant Foundation. As Mrs. Samarasinghe, President of the Foundation explained to us, the organization dedicated to the welfare of captive elephants, provides the animals with ample space, food, a river that runs through the property and medical care at no cost to the owners of the elephants. For elephants whose owners can’t afford to take care of them anymore, it is a new lease of life. Some of the other aspects of the Foundation include a mobile vet unit that travels to any part of the country to treat injured elephants and a museum that educates the public. The Foundation also has a large number of volunteers who enjoy the unique experience of interacting closely with and caring for elephants. As expressed by Mrs. Samarasinghe, “My main objective was to care for elephants who had completed their working lives; while at the same time giving to the domestic and foreign tourists an opportunity to stroke or play with tame elephants.”
Approaching her with presents of sugar cane, belli, bananas and other fruits, Rani’s owners were as happy to see her as she was them. Stroking her and speaking affectionately to her, they commenced stuffing some of the fruits into her mouth as she took the rest in her trunk. From the outside an elephant’s mouth looks small and fleshy, which left me wondering how Rani was able to fit all that food in her mouth with the sugar cane sticking out. But then I remembered the rock-solid rows of teeth set in the heavy jaws of an elephant skull I had just seen at the Foundation’s elephant museum.
The museum is a mine of information on elephants, ranging from general facts about elephants, details of the human-elephant conflict and elephants in peraheras, to a mahout’s role, translations of the commands that mahout’s use and also a detailed diagram of over 90 nila points or nerve centres on an elephant’s body. There is also a display on the personalities and physical characteristics of the elephants at the Foundation.
Leaving Rani with her adoring owners, we headed down to the river. Raja, a tusker owned by the Dalada Maligawa, was lounging in the water, his snorkel-like trunk conveniently resting on his cheek so that he could breathe while staying submerged. An occasional swish of the tail and a puff of air through the trunk were the only movements of this pampered pachyderm. If there was ever an opportunity for me to bathe an elephant, this would have been it. But, generous soul that I am, I decided to let my friend have a go before me 😀
I took the camera from him and watched as he waded towards Raja with a coconut husk. Soon he was grinning from ear to ear as he splashed water on the elephant and scrubbed with the husk. When he returned to the bank, I could feel the exhilaration emanating from him. That’s it! I’m going in!
The first things I noticed were the wiry hairs on Raja that pulled at the coconut husk and left a pulpy white trail on him and how his skin kind of scrunched up around his neck. His ear fascinated me. It was so thin, almost soft, in comparison to the rough hide on the rest of his body. His spine protruded and it was funny how his great big belly rose and fell every time he sighed – in bliss, I would imagine. Whenever he stretched out a leg, I would back away afraid that he was going to stand up. A mountain of elephant rising so close above me would have immediately sent me into panic mode. But thankfully, Raja was only interested in shifting his weight around to find a more comfortable position. It was difficult to imagine that this lazily lolling mass of elephant had damaged part of a roof and power line pole when he went into musth only six months ago. This is why the staff at the Foundation is careful to guide and warn visitors. Jayasooriya had already pointed out two elephants that we should steer clear of, due to their unpredictable dispositions.
Happy with our experience of bathing an elephant and sufficiently covered in elephant dung infused river water, we headed towards the exit. Along the way we saw a visitor carefully mount Bandara whose back was covered with a light blanket. While giving the random visitor a ride around the property is a good form of exercise, the Foundation ensures the elephants never carry more weight than is comfortable for them. In fact, howdahs used in the Habarana region to take tourists on safaris are terribly harmful to elephants causing deep wounds and spine injury.
Find out about becoming a volunteer, donating, supporting the project to ban the use of howdahs and much more at the Foundation’s website: www.millenniumelephantfoundation.com
Thanks to Mrs. Samarasinghe for taking the time to meet with us