Like so many travellers, when Hannah’s planning a big adventure, wildlife features pretty high up on her list! This year, she visited Sri Lanka and couldn’t miss the chance to visit the Elephant Transit Home.
A world of wildlife!
I always like to pack as much wildlife into a trip as possible, but sometimes finding a responsible project abroad can be tricky. So when I began planning my Sri Lanka trip last year, I wanted to be sure that I was careful about choosing the activities on my itinerary.
Sri Lanka is one of the best wildlife spotting countries in South Asia, with national parks teeming with exotic birds, an ocean home to the largest mammal on the planet and even elusive leopards hidden in the forests. But there’s one creature you can bank on seeing during your holiday…elephants, lots of elephants. Where to see them is another question.
The Elephant Transit Home
At Rickshaw, we are often asked about arranging trips to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, but due to our uncertainty about the welfare of the animals there, we opt to support another organisation instead, the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe.
On recommendation of our Travel Specialist, Ceri, I decided that my trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the country’s famous Yala National Park, and though it was a huge highlight of my trip, it was pipped to the post by an elephant experience that I won’t forget at the Elephant Transit Home.
What does the ETH do?
The Elephant Transit Home is an elephant orphanage lying less than half an hour’s drive from Udawalawe National park. Run by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the ETH provides a humane alternative to taking abandoned animals into permanent captivity, seeking to rescue and rehabilitate orphan elephants before returning them to the wild when they are ready.
In time for the morning feed!
We headed to the ETH on route to Yala, arriving just in time for the morning feed. This is one of the only times a day that the elephants can be observed up close before they return back into the wild of the park. After paying a small entrance fee of around £5, we made our way to the quiet viewing platform. As the staff prepared the milk we soon heard the sound of trampling feet and trumpeted cries. Yes, the babies were on their way and before we knew it, we could spot the first trunks and flapping ears. I watched as youngsters of all shapes and sizes formed an orderly queue to get their first glugs of milk of the day (they knew the drill)!
A helping hand
Amongst the herd, one particular elephant caught my eye; one that didn’t quite look like the rest. With only three legs to walk on, it had been fitted with a prosthetic limb to help it along. I was saddened to learn from our guide that this particular elephant had fallen victim to an exploding landmine which had remained hidden in the ground since the civil war; sadly, an all-too-common fate for elephants and people alike in Sri Lanka. Watching it learn to adapt to its new limb really drove home the importance of human aid in supporting the elephants of Sri Lanka and enabling these creatures to live a free life with a balance of support and independence.
A healthy distance
I’d read a little about the Elephant Transit Home before my trip and had learnt that the staff at the orphanage strive to ensure that they keep a healthy and respectful distance from the elephants with as little interaction as possible during feeding times. So I was pleased to witness this first-hand as I observed the elephants happily receive their meal before plodding away to play with one another freely. I watched as a few cheeky youngsters tried their luck by re-forming the queue, and while some of the more crafty ones outsmarted the keepers, others weren’t so lucky and were jostled away by their friends.
Back into the wild
As the final youngsters finished their milk, I watched alongside a dozen other spectators as the keepers threw handfuls of leaves and branches for the herd to tuck into. Unfazed by their audience on the viewing platform, the elephants munched through the twigs, getting to grips with navigating their small trunks as they tried to get a hold on their food- this is where they needed some practice!
Before we knew it, half an hour had gone by and feeding time was up. We watched with smiles on our faces as the herd placidly made their way back into the open expanse of the park plains.
For me, this was an experience like no other. Although it doesn’t compare to seeing elephants in the true wild, getting the opportunity to observe these gentle creatures at a respectful distance in a caring environment was a real privilege and it gave me real hope for their future.
If you want to find out more about the ETH, you can read more about them on the Born Free website, an organisation that has supported the ETH for a number of years, providing essential resources behind the scenes, mainly building a veterinary hospital and providing veterinary equipment.