The day after I went to Udawalawe National Park to see elephants in the wild (as well as all those other wonderful animals), I visited the Elephant Transit Home. In Singhala, the name is "Ath Athuru Sevana."
This is basically an elephant orphanage, but the "transit" in the name means the elephants are in transit - moving from being born in the wild but having problems, to being temporarily in the Elephant Transit home, to then returning to living in the wild when they are ready to fend for themselves.
Elephant babies are sometimes abandoned for no apparent reason. Or the mothers die in or shortly after childbirth. Babies sometimes can't keep up with the adults, or wander off, and become lost. Occasionally, they are injured or become sick. All of these baby elephants need intervention in order to survive.
And that's where the Elephant Transit Home comes in - the various guides keep an eye out for any orphaned or lost or abandoned babies. I'm not sure if the ETH has staff who also go through the park to see if any babies need help. But when a baby elephant is found orphaned or whatever, they are brought to the ETH.
Here, they are examined by a doctor, to see if they are ill and need to be quarantined so that they don't infect the others. The baby ellies are fed formula every three hours, and the formula adjusted if needed. The babies are cared for by the team, but they also remain living in the wild on the property. Human interaction is minimal. The whole purpose is to keep these elephants wild, so they can return to the national park and live in their natural environment.
The baby elephants learn to eat leaves from branches that are cut for them. Eventually, they learn to pick their own leaves from trees and bushes. When they are about four years old, they are weaned from the formula, and are outfitted with collars and tracking systems, so that the staff can follow their movement in the park when they are released.
And this is the first and only elephant orphanage where the babies aren't caged, enclosed, or chained at any time. There are other elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka, but they run it as a business. They don't return elephants to the wild. They don't let the ellies run wild and free. Whole different practice. And I didn't want to be part of that. (I got this info from the guide at Udawalawe, as well as having read about the differences in the places.)
At the Elephant Transit Home, the elephants come to an enclosure for feedings, and this is when tourists can watch from the viewing stands. The rest of the time, the ellies roam the property along the lake, eat leaves if they are old enough, play in the mud, and make friends with the other orphans.
They've been taking care of orphaned elephants since 1995, and have released over 100 elephants back into the wild. Here's their website: http://www.eth.dwc.gov.lk/
So, I rode in a tuktuk the 25 km or so (15.5 miles) to the ETH. I paid my entrance fee (500 rupees - just about $3.35 US.) I made my way to the viewing stand, because I wanted a front-row seat.
And it was wonderful! Baby elephants are like babies everywhere - when they are hungry, they make themselves heard. They know when it feeding time. They snort, and bellow, and make little baby trunk trumpeting noises. When the gate is opened, the first few through come running up to the feeding stand to get their bottles of formula. Well, not really bottles - the feeding staff use a huge funnel attached to a tube, and pour in the formula into the ellies mouths. A little sloppy, but it works.
A few of the littlest babies were sort of herded to one side, where they were fed out of big bottles - maybe a liter or couple of quarts in the bottle, with a pour spout. Each tiny ellie had a staff member who fed them their specialized formula, while the babies drank and, in the manner of babies everywhere, made a bit of a mess.
After the small elephants came through, the medium-sized ellies followed, and eventually the largest ones. Some were more demanding and impatient and noisy, some were more mellow about getting their formula. As each elephant received his/her formula, they were gently herded to the branches so they could rip off the leaves and eat them. (The tallest staff guy had a thin PCV pipe that he used sort of like a shepherd's staff, nudging along recalcitrant elephants.) The smallest ones ignored the leaves and played in the mud bank alongside the moat that separated the elephants from we viewers.
Some elephants seemed to have buddies and they ate in pairs. One or two of the larger ones pushed around the medium-sized ellies, and there was almost an elephant fight. It really was a big mass of slowly moving elephant confusion for a while!
But whether eating or playing or just milling around, all of them were careful around the little-to-small elephants, somehow.
Eventually everyone was fed for the noon slot, and they were gently herded back to their area by the lake. All of the elephants turned and headed back through the gate. Except one small ellie. Somehow, this one decided that there was a chance. He turned and headed back to the feeding area. You could see this little elephant version of Oliver Twist saying, "Please, sir, may I have some more?" And as in the story, one of the feeders chased him back to join the others. It really was a funny sight!
So I want to share my personal experience. I'm one of those eternally maternal people. I'd mother the world if I could. Baby animals, students, children I've known, nieces and nephews - doesn't matter, I'll mother them all.
I noticed that one of the smallest baby elephants, one of the little guys being fed separately, just didn't seem happy. Nor did he look well. (I think it was a he, they have rounded backs while females have a flatter back.) This little ellie seemed to be a bit pale in color. I could see his little ribs. His face and head looked drawn and bony. He just looked unwell to me.
Yeah, twenty-five years of teaching will do that to you. Pick out the child who is being bullied on the school yard? No problem. Pick out the elephant who looks sick, in a crowd of something like 45 elephants? Yeah, no problem there, either.
So I kept my eye on little sad elephant. Not that I know a thing about elephant body language, but some things are universal. Hanging head. Slumped shoulders. Looking at the ground. Not interacting much with the other children or elephants or whatever creatures. His body language just screamed unhappy little guy.
This really was one sad and unwell baby elephant.
He just looked depressed, and dejected, and spent a lot of time alone.
Although he did perk up at one point, and played with his trunk. I couldn't get a photo, but he figured out how to swing his trunk from side to side, and then swing it around in circles in the air. He played with this for a while. And then stood and looked sad some more.
Another little ellie came up to keep him company, and I was happy to see that he was making friends. Oddly, the other little elephant stuck his trunk into little sad guy's mouth. Weird by human standards, but it seemed comforting to the little sad one.
Well, after all of the elephants had returned to their living space, we visitors left the viewing stand and wandered the property. Some people went to the museum, others straight to the parking lot to their bus or taxis. I did a little shopping, since the funds help support the ETH. And I went to the ticket office to make a donation toward baby elephant formula.
I figured, why not. I told the lady that I noticed one of the littlest elephants who didn't look too good. That I thought he looked sad and unwell. I described him as being pale in color, and thin and bony. (Sucking in my cheeks and trying to look thin.) The woman came out of the ticket office and went over to where two of the feeding staff were relaxing, and spoke with them in Singhala. They knew exactly which baby ellie I was talking about. Apparently his mother died, and he was alone for a few days, no one is sure how long. So he is new to to the ETH, and he didn't have nourishment for those days he was alone. He's under the doctor's care, and is getting special formula with medicine. And they are keeping an eye on him.
I guess that's also why he was looking so sad and dejected. Elephants definitely mourn the loss of one of their family members, and this little one was still mourning the loss of him mama elephant.
I told the woman that I was worried about him, so I just wanted to make sure they knew he was looking unwell. And that I was happy to hear that they were taking such good care of him. And said thank you. So this lovely woman reaches out, pats my shoulder, and thanks me for worrying about the baby elephant.
Yeah, bonding over baby ellies.
So, after that story, I'm sure you can recognize my little friend, the sad little elephant, in the photos.
And lots of enlarged elephant photos below.