‘You can judge the heart of a man, by his treatment of animals.’
A roar goes through the crowd as the first of the lot turns around the bend. Heads turn excitedly and expensive cameras suddenly loom out of everywhere. A few men are running in front, in their green shirts, shouting at anyone foolish enough to stand in the path. The vibrations in the earth are enough to make anyone’s heart thump.
We have all been standing here for the past half an hour, some on the rocks, some near the river and some up there, in the cafe perched at the edge of the rocks. I turn my gaze away from the path to the people in the café above, and standing in the balcony with their mocktails in their hands, they seem like a privileged class watching the proceedings from the galleries. A few feet ahead of me, a stone’s jolted out of its inertia, and hurtles down eight feet or so.
“Look mommy, elephant!!” a young kid screams.
We are at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, at the riverside, waiting for the elephants to come have their daily bath.
Scarcely has she uttered the words, when they come into full view, and there might be eight or ten or them, no, there are at least twenty, my mind tells me, racing as it counts the heads it sees. As an Indian tourist, I am not overwhelmed, leave alone being scared. Back home in Kerala, I have seen plenty of elephants and I have always adored the specie, for its gentleness. I have never witnessed the animal’s rage, or the havoc it can wreak when perturbed.
The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is one of Sri Lanka’s most visited tourist spots. It was established in 1975 to provide sanctuary to orphaned baby elephants found in the wild. With 88 pachyderms in 2011, it is now the largest elephant captive breeding ground in the world. Like many others, we are driving down from Colombo to Kandy, and have stopped here to see a few hours in the lives of this animal. While buying our tickets, I am already impressed by the facilities on display, the notice boards and the spotless floor. It is quite popular, Pinnewala.
They have completed the fifty odd metres from the road to the rocks. Every time they take a step forward, the din in the crowd becomes louder. There are many here who have never seen an elephant before. An atmosphere is being built by the second here, and it is happening subconsciously, through the murmurs, the craning of necks, the lifting up of kids onto the shoulders. The mahouts are not smiling or lapping up the attention though. For them, it is daily routine, work. As the first of the herd walks down the rocks, I am surprised to see how nimble these animals are and how easily they walk on these uneven boulders. All around me, a thousand cameras start clicking all at once.
In a matter of minutes, the herd is near the river, and mahouts are yelling commands. I am disappointed to see huge fat iron chains on the animals’ legs but I suppose it is necessary. A few questions on freedom flit around my mind. The chains are needed so that it doesn’t run away. But, so what if it runs away? Why should it be captive at all once its health is recovered?. Are these people doing anything to rehabilitate them back into the wild? A whoop of joy from the crowd breaks my reverie, as a naughty elephant fills his trunk with water and sprays it all over himself and his mahout.
At one time, the mahouts bathe some seven eight elephants. The rest of the herd are tethered at the banks, and are awaiting their turn. I can only concentrate on their chains.
Very soon I realize that the darker face of tourism has cast its shadow over this little village too. In most parts of the world, manual labour has never found financial appreciation, and Pinnewala is no different. The mahouts are desperate to earn some quick money. So, they will only let you come and pose next to the elephant if you pay them some cash. Want to feed the elephant a banana? Pay an extra 100 LKR. Want to touch the giant? 100 LKR please.
It seems as if the mahouts know how to profile the visitors too. It is the white man they know, who will pay them for these little treats – of getting a chance to personally touch or feed the elephant – so they keep hounding them. A young American couple splash some water on an elephant and the mahout immediately asks for some money. The two walk away, disgusted.
Near me, an elephant is looking uncomfortable. It does not take an Einstein to figure that it is half standing on rock, half on water. It wants to adopt one surface, and tries to move but so strongly is it tethered that it is unable to move at all, or help itself. It keeps raising one leg in the air, but loses balance. It should fall, but so strongly is it tethered that it can’t. I look around for a mahout but they don’t understand my language. I point at the elephant but they are not interested. They know that I am here only today so maybe I care, but they have been here, every day for years and can’t be bothered by an elephant that is in momentary discomfort. It is not a moment though, the elephant stays in that one spot for twenty minutes, groaning and snorting.
An Irish woman looks equally furious. Irritated, we walk over to the post where it is chained and try to loosen the bonds only enough for it to move a few feet. It could be a bad idea for us, and immediately half a dozen mahouts are upon us shouting and yelling. I have had enough, and like Pontius Pilate before me, I choose to wash my hands off this affair, and leave.
I walk back through the rocks up to the road, and saunter into some of the shops on the wayside. They are all selling elephant merchandise – t-shirts, hats, bandanas, figurines. Like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, the people inside greet you with a smile. I come out and an old man who has been eyeing me for some time beckons me. He takes me into the largest shop on the road. “Not a shop, sir, it’s a factory. Let me show you how we recycle elephant dung and use it to make things.”
I walk inside and look at the different sections – the procuring of dung, its collection, processing, drying, cooling and conversion to paper. There is a little room at the end, and inside they are selling a number of recycled products – ashtrays in the shape of an elephant’s leg, pen stands, colour pencils, diaries, paper – everything made from natural dung. It’s beautiful.
When I come out, the elephants are being walked back from the river to their stables. The shopkeepers come outside, and everyone is smiling. Fifteen minutes later, I leave in my cab for Kandy, wondering if tourism, again, corrupted what was once a good initiative. A few questions of freedom flit around my mind.