I was on a bus in Sri Lanka, going from Trincomalee to the Golden Cave Temple at Dambulla. Fantastic caves with wondrous Buddhas – but that’s not what this is about.
Trincomalee is the second largest deep water harbour in the world, after Sydney, and so very strategically located that it’s been a garrison port at least since the Portuguese colonised Sri Lanka. And still there are a lot of troops stationed there.
I had wondered what Sri Lanka would be like, after its terrible conflict. It feels like it still carries a deep painful bruise from the violence both to its body and to its idea of itself as a multicultural multi-religious nation. We have a knowledge of that pain from Christchurch. So… on the bus … and we’d just driven past another military camp, where sometimes there are checkpoints.
‘Mind you’, said our guide,’ you would not want to be driving at night. It is very dangerous.’ My mind went to men with guns. ‘It’s the elephants. They wander where they will, and they’re hard to see on the road at night, until it’s too late.’
Peer carefully past the driver’s mirror … it was the best shot I could get as the whole busload rose to its feet. An elephant and her calf, deciding to cross the road in front of the bus in front of us, and fading into the long grass and scrub.
From then on, we were straining our eyes, trying to distinguish the difference between the grey slabs of karst rock, and what could be elephants. Some were.
Later, we were in Colombo. Some from our ship went to the National Parks, more elephants – and others to the Elephant Orphanage and Elephant Foundation – many more elephants. We’d been to an elephant rescue enterprise in Phuket, of which more shortly – so I opted to get a driver and have a look at the city.
The traffic! Once, we were in Palermo in Sicily, for a conference on System Dynamics and Chaos Thinking – in short, how chaos self-organises into some form of operating system. I thought the traffic there was a prime example of chaos. No discernible rules – yet it functioned. Colombo is even more so. Tuk-tuks, scooters, open trucks, cars, all in fluid movement. My driver told me we were driving down a one-way system. ‘But there are vehicles coming towards us.’ ‘Yes, it’s Saturday afternoon, so there are no traffic police on duty at the intersection, so some people choose to come this way.’
We stopped at the Gangarama Temple, and walked into a courtyard, at just the time the temple elephant arrived to make her obeisance to a very beautiful jade Buddha.
Earlier, we’d been in Phuket. In Thailand, the elephant is everywhere – in crafts, carvings, temple sculptures, and even in their own letter of the alphabet – but not in nature. The numbers are down from about 50,000 elephants in the 1950s, to maybe 3,500 now, and perhaps 500 of those are in the wild. Jungle clearance for agriculture removed their habitat, and the elephants were co-opted into that clearing, as log-shifters. Thailand once was 70% forested: it had got down to 20% when a new forest protection law was passed in 1989. Redundant elephants. And they’re not cheap to keep, at 200 kilograms of food a day.
So, our trip was to an elephant sanctuary – The Green Elephant Sanctuary Park which is a refuge for rescued elephants. It’s no small undertaking, working on elephant-scale. Buying an elephant out of slavery, rehousing not only her, but also her rescued and rehabilitated mahout and his family because that’s a one-to-one relationship … it’s huge. I say ‘her’, because they only rehouse the cows. The males are too disruptive – and generally more expensive because they’re too valuable as workers.
Tourists provide a source of income, and a group of elephants are rostered to be fed, mud-bathed and cleaned by people like us who all seem to develop a great goofy grin when we can get close enough to touch these gentle giants.
‘On duty’ when we were there, were a mother with the first calf actually born at the sanctuary, a couple of other youngsters brought in with their mothers, and 9 others –standing patiently and calmly waiting for us to feed them bananas and sugar-cane. Of course, we tended to gravitate to the ones with young – and the solos getting less attention would sometimes help themselves to the food baskets.
Off to another pool for a rinse-off with buckets – then through a sort–of-car-wash (left of picture) – duty done! A much easier job than hauling logs – and I’m sure much more to an elephant’s liking than the alternative tourism jobs of taking people for rides or performing in animal shows.
Those elephants who are too old, or ‘not suitable’ to be rostered, (=too brutalised through chains and beatings) get to stay in the retirement part of the park.
So – a big tick to the Green Elephant Sanctuary, for their all-round ethics. And yes, the facilities for the tourists are as good as those for the elephants – I wasn’t surprised to learn that the originators are Swiss!