Young, wild and free


My first encounter with elephants was at the age of 5 when I was taken to the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawela. Since then I’ve been there on several occasions, more recently as part of our course work. But this post isn’t about Pinnawela. It’s about the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawa – ‘Ath Athuru Sevana’, where elephants are rehabilitated and released back to the wild.

Last month the 3rd year students following Conservation Biology were taken on a field visit to the ETH under the guidance of Prof. Deepthi Wickramasinghe. Our main objective was to learn about the Ex-situ conservation (conservation of a species outside their natural habitat) methods that are adopted at ETH. We got to know a lot about the rehabilitation programme by speaking to Dr. Vijitha Perera, Wildlife Veterinarian and Officer in charge of the ETH.

‘Ath Athuru Sevana’ was founded in 1995 by Dr. Nandana Atapattu who was the Deputy Director, Veterinary and Research of the Department of Wildlife Conservation at the time. It was the first of its kind in the world. Today, Ath Athuru Sevana is one of the very few orphanages in the world that rescues orphaned elephants, rehabilitates and successfully releases them back to the wild.

The elephant calves brought to the ETH are those who have been orphaned (most often after the mother was shot dead) or separated from the rest of the herd. They are brought in from all over Sri Lanka. Some of them are found in very critical condition after being caught in snares.

Namal will not be released to the wild due to his prosthesis
Namal will not be released to the wild due to his prosthesis

These animals have had a rough start to their lives and as a result, are very vulnerable. In addition to the mother’s milk, they are in need of love and care. However these animals are brought to the ETH with the aim of rehabilitating and releasing them back to the wild. Therefore it is important that human contact is maintained at a minimum and so the officers have been advised against petting these animals.

Elephants are very social animals. Their social structure is what helps them learn the basic survival skills such as removing grass from the soil and applying mud on their skin as insect repellent. At the ETH they learn these things by interacting with and observing one another.

The elephants are fed milk every three hours at the following times:

12 midnight, 3.00 am, 6.00 am, 9.00 am*, 12 noon*, 3.00 pm*, 6.00 pm*, 9.00 pm

*Open to public viewing.

Rushing to get their share of milk!
Rushing to get their share of milk!

It must be noted here that the visitors can only watch the elephants being fed from a distance.

When they’re not drinking milk, these elephants are allowed to freely roam in a part of the Udawalawa National Park, where they have enough and more space and food. Only a very few officers are allowed to be in close proximity to these animals when they’re in the open space. There is no fear of these infants roaming far and deep into the park’s forest as they’re conditioned to come back every three hours to receive their fair share of milk.

Udawalawa National Park is the selected release ground for the elephants who have been rehabilitated in the ETH. The elephants’ social interactions are observed and these are used as indications to determine when they’re ready to be released back to the wild. Most elephants are ready to be released by the time they are 4 years old. Radio collars are attached to these elephants for tracking purposes. The rehabilitated elephants are released in groups of 3 or 4. When they’re released in small groups there is a greater tendency for them to integrate into the wild herds.

As tempting as it may be to pet these infants, it is best to avoid doing that for our own good as well as theirs. If elephants get over their fear of humans at a young age and become fond of human company, once they’re released back to the wild, they can easily fall prey to poachers who capture and sell them to temples. Having no fear of humans can also mean that as adults they can encroach on villages in search of food, escalating the human-elephant conflict.

In my opinion, Ath Athuru Sevana is a place everyone should visit. Seeing those orphaned elephants gives you a reality check on how intense the human-elephant conflict has become. Man’s careless and selfish behavior are what have caused these calves to lose their mothers; but it is also man who takes them under their wing, and prepares them for their future. Ath Athuru Sevana serves as a reminder that good always triumphs over evil.

A quiet walk back to the forest where they remain until the next feeding time
A quiet walk back to the forest where they remain until the next feeding time

Images courtesy:

Uvini Senanayake, Sahan Siriwardana, Sanjaya Weerakkody