Life as an elephant volunteer

Volunteering with elephants at Inspire Sri Lanka. Meet one of the girls, this is Manika.

Ayubowan (hello!) from Kegalle, Sri Lanka! For two weeks, I am volunteering with Inspire Sri Lanka, a charity project that is home to an elephant sanctuary and supports a local girls orphanage, among other projects. There are many elephant sanctuaries in this part of Sri Lanka, but I was fortunate enough to find Inspire Sri Lanka, which is a much smaller project that allows for an intensive, hands-on learning experience while supporting conservation and local community service. There's a lot going on here, so expect some more posts and videos when I get home about the elephants and the rest of my trip.

I traveled to Sri Lanka alone, but have been fortunate to meet up with three other volunteers from England, and we’re all learning and exploring together. Each of us has been working with a specific elephant each day and building a relationship with her. Sitha is a 60-year-old elephant showing her age a bit with a few cuts and sores that are tended to, and Manika is younger, about 40, and adorably cute and hairy! 

Everyday we meet at 7:30am and walk to the jungle meet the elephants and their mahouts (handlers) at the elephant beds. Each day when I approach Sitha, she extends her truck to smell me. She recognizes me and I greet her, always still with a little trepidation and respect that she could squash or charge me at any moment if she wanted to! I tell her to lift her foot (yes, I now speak elephant language), and then unhook her chain that keeps her at her bed overnight. 

Working alongside the world’s largest land mammal can be quite intimidating. These are captive elephants, but we have to accept that they are still wild animals. We are under supervision of their mahouts, each elephant’s handler who works exclusively with them. The mahouts we work with are very good to the elephants and you can see they form a special bond with them. It reminds me of the bond I have with my dogs --their leader, their caretaker, their parent.

We tell Sitha, "Ho," (stay) as we start cleaning up all of the branches from her bed and leftovers from the leaves she’s eaten -- and of course, there’s lots of elephant dung to clean. We can pile up all of Sitha’s branches, and when we tell her, she’ll lift them up with her trunk and place them in the compost heap, essentially making her own bed very quickly. This makes our job easy. We joke that Manika is lazy, because she makes the volunteers and mahout do all of her clearing.



After the beds are clean, we take Sitha and Manika on a short walk to the elephant park and down to the river, where they get a bath. We do this using the elephant language commands we have learned, telling them to move forward, backward, toward us, away from us and so on. For fun, we often get to ride the elephant! The girls will lift up their front legs, allowing us to use their leg like a huge ladder and climb on! It’s an experience that is out of this world, riding an elephant that you care for each day through the jungle.

Leaving the jungle, we walk the elephant down a road with traffic -- imagine sharing the road with an elephant during your morning commute, that’s how they do it in Kegalle!  The neighbors along the road we walk love the elephants and are lined up ready for us to walk by. They treat the elephants with fruit each morning as we pass. The elephants are quite used to this and know to stop at their houses along our walk. 

When we get to the river, we tell them to lay down in the water, “Hida!” and we splash water on them and scrub them using coconut husks. It’s a bit like a loofah spa treatment for them and like playing hopscotch for me because I’m on the lookout for snakes swimming by while I’m scrubbing her! Owen, my volunteer counterpart, gets a kick out of this. 

 One of the other volunteers, Owen, and I give Sitha a bath each morning, scrubbing her with coconut husks.

After their bath, we lead them to their daytime spots and then clear their area, which is filled with branches and leaves from the day before and you guessed it, more elephant dung. The rest of our morning, we spend time learning about the elephants (their anatomy, health and conservation efforts) and practicing commands and mahout skills. We feed them treats (they love bananas and all parts of the banana tree), ride them and splash around more in the water with them.

It’s not all fun and games though, we are here to help and make a difference. We do a lot of labor, like building a stone wall for the elephant park. It’s a dirty job volunteering, but the elephants are captivating and majestic creatures and getting to be close to them in a natural environment makes it all worth it. 

It’s a shame these elephants were ever captured from the wild, but at least now they have a good place to spend their remaining days. Sitha has a slight limp in her walk due to an injury she sustained when she was captured. Another elephant here, Tangama, makes it clear to us that she likes to be left alone. We all stay clear of her because she’s usually in an unpredictable mood. Tangama, Sitha and Manika have a good life now and dedicated mahouts looking after them. Fortunately, it’s now illegal to capture elephants in Sri Lanka, so they should be the last generation of captive elephants here (I wish the same was true for other countries).

It’s sad that in another 200 years, Asian elephants may no longer be roaming the jungles. In another post, I’ll explain more about the treatment of these animals, the importance of conservation and how they need our help. For now, I’m enjoying every minute of my time with these fascinating and beautiful elephants.

More photos from my experience are on Facebook. 

A note about the chains: A few of my friends who saw my photos on Facebook asked about the chains that are sometimes on the elephants. The elephants are chained by a foot when unattended (mainly at night so they don’t stray). It’s not right for an elephant to be chained, but these are captive elephants, they can't go back into the wild and they are forced to find a place in our "civilized" world. They still have a very natural habitat at the elephant orphange. While you may at times see the chains around their necks in the photos, this is the chain that was around their foot that is just placed out of the way on their neck. They are not confined or chained by their necks.