Working with Elephants in Sri Lanka:
A Volunteer's Journal
Jon and I have been working, playing, and relaxing here at the Millennium Elephant Foundation’s (MEF) elephant bath and eco-farm for about three weeks now. Time is flying by, and we will be leaving sometime at the end of next week.
Before we came here our expectations were relatively low because of some things a former volunteer we had spoken to told us. Fortunately for us that particular volunteer was a complete joke, and this place has turned out to be pretty great.
Jon and I are sharing a room in a bungalow that also houses seven other volunteers, all of whom are from the
and all of whom are a lot of fun to spend time with. There are 7 elephants on site here, most of which are either elderly or require special medical attention. Each elephant has its own mahout (elephant keeper).
Jon and I work with the same elephant, Lakshmi, who was the first captive elephant to give birth in
. Her daughter, Pooja, also lives at MEF with us. Lakshmi is a movie star… you can see her in ‘Tarzan, The Ape Man.” Our days start much earlier here than in
Colombo with wake up occurring at 7:15. Though never typical, a typical day might look something like this:
A Day in the Life
7:30… head to our elephant’s sleeping area… clean it… head to river… wash Lakshmi for about 45 minutes with Lakshmi’s mahout, Jaysena (who has a large moustache as well), using coconut shells.
9:00… head across the street for breakfast…fresh rotti, a sampling of curries, tea or fresh pineapple and mango fruit juice…about 60 cents a person.
9:30... do project work… anything from working on the eco-farm to making a display for the tourist museum to taking a nap because you were up all night with “loose motions” or because you are lazy.
1:00…lunch… sometimes… then continue project work unless it is too hot, in which case you read on the patio or go to town for a shave.
3:00… prepare the elephants’ food… if the truck has delivered it, stack about 50 coconut palms per elephant… if not, go in to the forest with your mahout to find food… if lucky, get to ride the elephant into the forest to pick up food.
5:00… have cold lion beer on patio… talk about how sore you are and show each other your blisters.
6:00… have another cold beer… ask each other, “If you could have anything to eat right now, what would you have?”… typical answers: Kopp’s double cheeseburger with the works… those little water chestnuts wrapped in bacon… real
7:00… dinner… try to spend $1.20… fail.
Recent Projects in Sri Lanka
Crudely fashioning cement pads for the elephants at their sleeping areas. Some of the elephants have gotten foot rot from standing in their urine every evening, but now the cement pads will drain that nasty business away and also help us to clean up better in the morning.
* Clearing a paddy field for the eco-farm so we can plant some aquatic vegetables, none of which I have ever heard of. The farm was started about 6 months ago in hopes of someday having some sort of sustainable crops with which to feed the elephants. Right now that vision becoming reality is very far away.
*Building a volley ball court on the grounds. This project is not finished yet, but the mahouts and grounds workers seem to be anxiously awaiting its completion.
Jon and I have decided to stop shaving…ourselves. This is because we have discovered the following experience: Walk in to a clean, cozy barber shop. Sit down and ask for a shave. The barber will lather us up and shave us with a brand new razor. Then, lather us up again and give us another full shave.
For me, the barber will then spend another 10 minutes or so (depending on how many people are waiting) perfectly shaving around my moustache…brushing it out 5 or 6 times as he looks at it from different angles to assess the spatial distribution of the flowing hair.
After finally satisfying his perfectionist standards, give the barber the approving nod and settle back for aftershave…followed by moisturizing lotion…followed by powder...followed by a face massage. Stop at this point and the bill is 30 cents. If there is no one waiting, we may get lucky and get our hair dashed with pink hair tonic and the receive a great head massage. This costs an extra 20 cents. This isn’t Cost Cutters either, these guys are good.
Plenty of Poop
The one constant in our lives here at MEF, day in and day out, is poop. Here are several examples:
The first thing we do every morning is put on green rubber gloves, go to our elephant’s sleeping area, and throw about 20-30 loaves of elephant dung into the river below. Sometimes I pretend like I am Wilt Chamberlain throwing up a little sky hook from the baseline. Sometimes Jon pretends he is in the army throwing grenades from behind a bunker. Usually though the reality that we are throwing poop in to a river every morning is entertaining enough.
For the farm, we have done plenty with poop, including:
*collect fresh water buffalo dung in the paddy fields surrounding MEF
*collect both fresh and decaying elephant dung
*break apart dried elephant dung for compost
The mahouts seem to think that elephant dung is good for their teeth as they brush their teeth with excrement laden water frequently.
I am currently working on a display for the tourist museum with another volunteer, Jenn, that is entitled “Plethora of Poop.” As you may be able to guess from the title, it is all about elephant waste. Titles of the different sections of the display include: “Consulting the Consistency,” “The Scoop on Poop,” “Faecal Fodder,” “Refuse Use,” and “Poo-Power.”
As Jon and I wash our elephant every morning, he keeps me constantly up to date with any activities going on with Lakshmi’s back end…as well as any other elephants nearby. He loves (and I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it myself) to lift up Lakshimi’s tail to make her fart. During our first week, Jon was scrubbing out Lakshmi’s bum when she decided to relieve herself. This prompted Jon to exclaim “This is so sweet. This is the greatest day of my life.”
Dammed with Dung
We have been experiencing a pretty severe drought recently. The river is very low with little flow. Consequently, the great amounts of dung dropped by the seven elephants has not been getting washed down stream.
A small section of the river that has been damned (using elephant dung of course) to bathe the elephants in has essentially become a small lake of elephant poop (where the mahouts brush their teeth). A week ago we decided to try to clean this area up, and for the first time in our lives we were literally knee deep in shit… for an hour and a half… which was probably the reason why several of us got infections in the small scratches and cuts we had on our legs. As I write this, it is raining. Hopefully the situation will improve.
Eating spicy curry dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner has its intestinal consequences… and Jon of course is sure to always give me the daily report of his own. His favorite adjectives include fiery, gangly, and sloppy.
Seeing that this email is going down hill fast, I will end here.
I hope all of you are well.
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