Me & baby elephants face-to-face on the road to Thanamalwila

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These little devils will break your heart with their rather amusing antics! I watched these two baby elephants (may be 6-9 months not more) rounds up the corner and reach the bar for their regular feed – ETH, Udawalawe

Uda Walawe National Park lies South of the central hills of the island, 180 kms from Colombo. It surrounds the man-made reservoir of Udawalawe, a mixture of abandoned teak plantation, scrub jungle and grassland. During the dry season many herds of elephant roam the park. Which is usually between May and September.

Traveling on Thanamalwila road about 10 kms before the park entrance is the Elephant Transit Home (ETH). The orphanage was established in 1995 by the Department of Wild Life with funding from Born Free (UK) to rescue and nurture baby elephants. The place was opened to the public eight years later. At the time of my visit about 25 baby elephants were in care. These juvenile elephants have strayed away from the sides of their nursing mothers and herd while roaming inside the vast expanse of the National Park. They have been rescued brought in by the small team of dedicated wildlife officers. Some animals carry the tell-tale signs of injuries – torn ears, scars or a broken leg. A juvenile of very tender age was wailing in its pen without the warmth of its mother’s company. These elephants are all nurtured and cured prior to been reintroduced into the park reserve.

The ideal way to visit the Elephant Transit Home is to combine with a visit to the Udawalawe National Park early in the morning or late afternoon. The orphans at the ETH can only be viewed when they are been fed. The feeding times are 9am, 12 noon, 3pm and 6pm. At this time they can be watched from the viewing platforms for about 20 minutes while they are given milk.

As the bell tolls the baby elephants are seen lining up in queue, slowly ambling into pens for feeding. Workers pour cow’s milk by the gallon and the babies guzzle hungrily at the bottles. The littlest ones appear hungriest and they actually refuse to go away without receiving some extra milk. The rest of the time the animals spend in the National Park out of the view of people, in preparation for their return to the wild when they are about four years old.

One adolescent male elephant stands out in my impressions, his name is Namal. Drawn to the animal who had a prosthesis hind leg I asked the caretaker for permission to get a close look. Many animals suffer injuries in the hands of cruel men who try to protect their cultivation by setting up crude devices. Namal’s injured leg makes him too vulnerable to return to the wilderness.

In stark contrast to Pinnawala Orphanage and elsewhere, where elephants are seen in captivity the ETH has completely done away with tethering the animals. While visitors are kept at safe distance the workers are familiar in handling the animals without the use of any harsh methods.

A small herd of wild elephants are seen grazing in the shore line of the reservoir. Their entrance to the road is barred by protective electric-wire fence. Close at dusk a drive across the dam and reservoir makes way for a picturesque view. The skies are enveloped in warm rays of pink and orange that melts into the far horizon of purple mountain ranges. The still lake is a mirror image of the grandeur of the beautiful sunset. The rippling water add texture to what could have been one of Turner’s oil paintings.

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