I have a soft spot for elephants, especially baby elephants. There's something about the way they move and look you in the eye. There seems to be a given trust from the onset. How many animals, especially of an elephants size, tender that. Not many. Our first stop of the day was at the Elephant Transit Home, or ETH. The ETH is a place where orphaned elephants from around Sri Lanka are brought to live until they are roughly four or five years old, an appropriate age to be released back to the wild.
The ETH was established in 1995 under the Department of Wildlife Conservation. There are around 40 elephants at the ETH and to date over a hundred have been released back to the wild. It is quite the program and 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of its inception. Dilmah's participation extended to the 'welcome centre' and infrastructure. The ETH sees a lot of visitors and with Dilmah Conservation's assistance the centre has become a more tourist friendly facility with a great indoor educational area that gives background on Asian elephants, 'tuskers' and their African cousins. The first steps in aiding a specie's well being is always through education and the centre did a fine job on that front.
We arrived twenty minutes before the 9am feeding, the elephants are fed eight times a day, and staked out a good vantage point. I set up my camera and at 9am the handler opened the gate and ushered over one or two elephants at a time for feeding. It was quite the show watching the little ones running to the feeding station where they were fed powdered milk. After each one had had their allotment of milk they shuffled closer to us where some branches had been laid out on the ground. This was the second stage of the morning feed and one that required natural eating skills, they'd place a foot on the branch to hold it in place, then using their trunks they'd strip leaves from the branches before couriering them to their mouths. It was quite the process. I took in the feeding, walked the centre, then wandered the grounds for a bit to get an overall feel for the place. Upon leaving we donated enough local currency to buy some powdered milk which is used to feed the elephants, it was the very least we could do, then we were off.
From the ETH we visited Mankada, a MJF Foundation Centre for Empowerment through Sri Lankan Traditional Arts and Crafts. The heart and driving force behind Mankada was a chap by the name of Ajith Mohan Perera. Ajith is perhaps the most famous of all Sri Lankan potters, but one wouldn't know it from meeting him. It wasn't till the end of our meeting that he gave me a book covering his work that I realized I'd been talking to a master. It's funny, I'd always thought pottery was bowls and mugs, never really given it much thought. The book Ajith gave me changed my perception very quickly as his work was so intricate one would never take it for pottery unless one tapped it with a finger. But that is his story, we were there to see Mankada.
Ajith had set up Mankada as a way for wives of sugar cane workers to help provide for their families. The sugar cane season is a relatively short one and when it's over incomes leave with the harvest. Training these women up has given these families a source of income year round. As we entered through the gate Ajith greeted us warmly and we sat down for an introductory natter. Dilmah had laid on quite the schedule for me but I was a bit behind on all the particulars, so Ajith filled me in on the centre. Mankada is sponsored by the MJF Foundation and with the resources Ajith has managed to share his skills with the woman so that a vast collection of wares were produced on the site, including my favourite, 'Save the Elephants' mug. Ajith had arranged a demonstration for me and as I watched a new mug was completed in a jiffy. It brought a smile to my lips as I watched the potter make the trunk, which doubled as the handle, and put it in place. There are many sides to Mankada. Wives of sugar cane workers are given employment, but on their terms, after all they have families so many work from home. The dining area also doubled as a classroom for the children where they could study after school, and many of the 'units' made at Mankada sent a message, such as 'Save the Elephant,' and to help spread that message Dilmah included a miniature elephant in many of its tea offerings that went over seas. It appeared to be a win-win for all concerned. It was a great project and Anjith's passion for helping those around him was plainly evident. When our tour was done we sat down to an incredible traditional Sri Lankan lunch that had been prepared on-site. It was my first time eating with my hands. They all got a good laugh when I learned the correct technique, kneed, collect and push with the thumb, very nice. We finished it off with desert, Buffalo Curd topped with Treacle.....what a treat, all served in a ceramic bowl.
After our visit to Mankada it was off to Udawalawe National Park for a safari. Udawalawe was established in 1972 and became Sri Lanka's fifth national park. It encompasses 31,000 hectares of predominantly grassland and scrubland and also contains the Walawe reservoir which covers 3,500 hectares making it one of the largest in the area. The terrain makes it a perfect spot for elephant sightings as we would find out. I was introduced to my safari driver, Gunay, and we got underway in his big red and black Mahindra 4X4. The tour lasted around three hours and Gunay had an experienced eye for wildlife. It seemed every half minute or minute he'd roll to a halt and point out another exotic beauty, it may have been a bird, a water buffalo, a monkey or more often than not, an elephant. The park is expansive and even though there were others out on safari it never appeared crowded. I managed to get some great shots and when we came across a couple of bulldozers clearing some bush, I asked Gunay why? He boiled it down to diet. The brush that was being removed was Lantana camera, an invasive plant that was adversely affecting the biodiversity of the park and one that neither the elephants or water buffalo would eat. The dozers were rounding it up so they could replant with something that would mesh with the existing biodiversity and that the elephants could feed off of. I thought this very proactive, as even though Sri Lanka has Asia's highest density of elephants there are already habitat issues at stake, why lose more to an invasive plant. At one time the elephant used to roam most of the island nation, today its movements are somewhat restricted by agriculture and a growing human footprint. That is why the national park doubles as a wildlife sanctuary. It was nice to see that through the ETH and the National Park concerted efforts were underway to protect the beautiful beast that has played, and continues to play such a large role in Sri Lankan culture.
With the safari over Gunay took me back to the Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort for the night. Tomorrow I would be heading out to some of Dilmah's MJF Foundation's projects and from what I'd heard it was going to be a busy day so what better place to rest up at then the GUSR.