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Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Elephants at Pinnewala: Man versus Wild

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 You can judge the heart of a man, by his treatment of animals.’

A roar emanates from the crowd as the first of the lot comes from around the bend. Heads turn excitedly and expensive cameras start clicking everywhere. The vibrations in the earth make our hearts race.

The land looks like this. There is a river, the banks of which are sloping. There is no mud near the banks, it is all rocks. High up on the rocks, there is a narrow lane, on both sides of which are shops. From my position down below, I can only see the Café perched at the very edge of the rocks. It’s balcony commands the best view of the river.

It is from this lane that they are now coming. A few men are running in our direction, screaming at anyone who is daft enough to stand in the way. Their green shirts reveal that they are in uniform. A few of them have sticks in their hands.

We have all been standing here for the past half an hour. The ones who came first took their positions near the river.  Others stand on the rocks. I turn my gaze away from the path, to the people in the café. Standing in the balcony with their mocktails in their hands, they seem like a privileged class watching the proceedings from the galleries. A few feet ahead of me, a stone’s displaced, maybe by a restless foot, and hurtles down fifteen feet into the river.

Look mommy, elephant!” a young boy screams.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

And we have been standing at the riverside, waiting for the elephants to come have their daily 11 am bath. Scarcely has the boy exclaimed, and they come into full view. There are eight or ten or them, no, that looks like twenty, my mind tells me, racing to count the heads.

To be honest, I am not overwhelmed, let alone being scared. I am from India. Back in my state in Kerala, there are plenty of elephants and I have always adored the specie, these lovely gentle giants. Of course, I have never witnessed the animal’s legendary rage or the havoc it can wreak when perturbed.

The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is one of the most visited tourist spots in Sri Lanks. It was established in 1975 to provide sanctuary to baby elephants orphaned in the wild. With 88 pachyderms in 2011, it is now the largest elephant captive breeding ground in the world. Like many others, we have driven down from Colombo to Pinnewala, and after spending a couple of hours here we shall set forth for Kandy – Sri Lanka’s cultural capital.

The facilities at the main ticketing reception impressed me. The notice boards are helpful, the floor spotless.

They elephants complete the fifty odd metres of the lane and are now on the rocks. With each step they take, the din in the crowd becomes louder. Many here have never seen an elephant before. An atmosphere is being built, second by second and it is all happening subconsciously, through the murmurs, the buzz and the craning of necks. Short men and women stand on their tiptoes to look above the heads. Kids are being lifted on shoulders. The mahouts are not smiling or lapping up the attention though. For them, this is daily routine. Work.

As the first of the herd walks down the rocks, I am surprised to see the animals’ nimbleness. They walk easily on these uneven boulders. All around me, a thousand cameras start clicking all at once.

In a matter of minutes, the herd has assembled near the river.  All the mahouts are yelling commands. There are huge fat iron chains on the animals’ legs. I am disappointed but I suppose it is necessary. A few questions on freedom flit around my mind. The chains are needed so that the animal does not run away. But, so what if it runs away? Why should it be captive at all once its health is recovered? Are they looked after when they are young only so they become a tourist spectacle at a later stage. Are the authorities doing anything to rehabilitate them back into the wild? It reminds me of Thailand’s famous tiger temple. Magnificent tigers, drugged, walking around like docile kittens, on leashes, people and friends posing with them.

A whoop of joy from the crowd breaks my reverie. A naughty elephant has filled his trunk with water and sprayed it all over himself and his mahout.

Some seven eight elephants are being bathed at the same time. The rest of the herd is tethered at the banks, awaiting their turn. I can only concentrate on their chains.

Soon enough I realize that tourism’s darker face has cast its shadow over this little village too. In most parts of the world, manual labour has never found financial appreciation, and Pinnewala is no different. The mahouts are desperate to earn some quick money. So, they are going up to tourists and telling them that they will let them pose next to the elephants and take pictures, for a small fee. Want to feed the elephant a banana? Pay an extra 100 LKR. Want to touch the giant? 100 LKR again. Those who just come and stand without paying are rudely spoken to.

It seems that the mahouts can profile the visitors too. They know it is the white man, who will pay them for these little treats –  to personally touch or feed the elephant. So they keep hounding this breed of tourists. A young American couple splash some water on an elephant and the mahout immediately asks for money. The two walk away, disgusted.

Near me, an elephant looks uncomfortable. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure that it is standing half on rock, half on water. It wants to adopt one surface, and tries to move but so strongly is it tethered that it is unable to move at all, or help itself. It keeps raising one leg in the air, but loses balance as it tries to move forward. It should fall, but so strongly is it chained that it can’t. I look around for a free mahout. They don’t understand my language. I point at the elephant but they are not interested. They know that I am here only for today so maybe I care, but they have been here, every day for years. They can’t be bothered by an elephant that is in momentary discomfort. It is not a moment though. The elephant stays in that one spot for twenty minutes, groaning and snorting.

An Irish woman is as furious as me. Irritated, we walk over to the post where it is chained and try to loosen the bonds only enough for it to move a few feet. It’s a bad idea. Immediately half a dozen mahouts are upon us shouting and yelling. We try to tell them that we aren’t trying to play hero here, but they aren’t listening. Can’t blame them, if the elephant hurts us, it will be they who lose their jobs.

I have had enough, and like Pontius Pilate, I choose to wash my hands off this affair and leave. I walk back over the rocks, and saunter past the shops on the roadside. They are all selling elephant merchandise – tees, hats, bandanas, figurines. Like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, here too people greet you with a smile.

An old man who has been eyeing me for some time beckons me. He takes me into the largest shop on the road. “Not a shop, sir, it’s a factory. Let me show you how we recycle elephant dung and use it to make things.”

I walk inside, into the rooms and see  the processes  - dung procurement,  collection, processing, drying, cooling and its conversion to paper. In a little room at the end, they are selling a number of recycled products – ashtrays in the shape of an elephant’s leg, pen stands, colour pencils, diaries, paper – everything made from natural dung. It’s beautiful.

Twenty  minutes later, when I come out, the elephants are being walked back from the river to their stables. The shopkeepers come outside, and everyone is smiling. I walk to my cab and we are on our way to Kandy. I can’t stop wondering if tourism, again, corrupted what was once a good initiative. A few questions of freedom flit around my mind.

                                                     ---  The End ---

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