Pack your trunks

It’s a warm, hazy dawn in the south Asian bush and the 30 orphans of Sri Lanka’s Elephant Transit Home in Uda Walawe National Park are waking up to a day that will bring eight of them the surprise of their young lives: they are going to be released back into the wild.

There were 12,000 elephants in Sri Lanka a hundred years ago, and today there are still 4,000,  a large number on a fairly small island.

Every year, dozens of babies get separated from their herds, or fall into wells or ditches. The Elephant Transit House receives much of its funding from foster parents, in Sri Lanka and overseas, who sponsor an elephant’s feeding costs and the wages of carers. With one-to-one attention, the babies are nursed back to physical health, and given the love and care they need to try to overcome the trauma.

The release is a special day in Sri Lanka: Government ministers arrive and the staff put their hands together in traditional greeting, while orange-robed Buddhist monks honour the occasion with their blessings.

Back at the paddock, the sun is up and the heat building. Getting the stubborn youngsters onto the trucks isn’t easy — some already weigh more than a tonne. The first in, five-year old Baby Blue — found just a year ago, living in a buffalo herd — complains noisily at being pushed on board.

His carer pats his trunk and murmurs in his ear, while funneling pint after pint of milk into his wide-open mouth. Once he’s aboard, four other young males follow less unwillingly and they’re all given leafy sugar cane tops to keep them busy.

Of the two girls in the group, confident Minoli — rescued from a canal when she was six months old — shuffles on board quite happily. Little Senani, on the other hand — rescued from a well when she was just five months old — is still timid and has to be quietly persuaded to enter the lorry.

Her Sri Lankan foster mother, Senadhi de Silva, looks on in tears, but has already signed up the monthly 25,000 Rupees (about £100) to foster another orphan when the Transit Home receives its next arrival. It’s a huge sum of money in a developing country.

A dusty and bumpy half-hour ride takes the two trucks to a specially prepared release site. A lurching water truck pulls up alongside and hoses down the orphans with a shower of water mixed with elephant dung, to rid the orphans of their strong human odour, which wild elephants find unwelcome on youngsters trying to join their herds.

When it comes, the release is quick but strangely moving. With the ramps down and the ropes untied, the orphans shamble out. Baby Blue, at the back of lorry number one, barges forward through his peers and wheels off into the bush, shaking his ears at onlookers and shrieking with surprise and delight. The less experienced orphans follow, uncertain what to do or where to go, in a place with no apparent barriers.

After a minute they find a gap in the thick bush and follow each other deep into the park, with the radio-tracker hot on their heels, waving his antenna in the air.

The next morning, the tracker reports all eight elephants are still in one group, and they’ve walked 4km. Within weeks, most of them have integrated into various herds. It’s all over for another year or two, when the next batch of youngsters will be ready to leave the Transit Home to brave a new life in the bush.

Photo © Mel Bedggood

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