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Anything for the Elephants!

Author: TS Buchanan
Date of Trip: January 2016

It’s 7:00 in the morning. It’s 35 degrees already, the sweat is pouring off me and I’m shoveling crap. Literally … shovelling crap. But not just any crap, I’m shovelling elephant dung.

And I’m having the time of my life!

In the interest of accuracy, I’m actually in an elephant’s day bed, picking up piles of poop with my hands to throw it over a trench into a much larger pile of poop. Anything to make the lives of these elephants more pleasant. Once we get the day beds cleared and cleaned, it’s off to spend some quiet time with my new BFF, Ranmenika before her mahout, Andala, arrives. We bring Ranmenika up to get her vitamin ball and then it’s bath time … my favorite time of day. I can never get enough of watching this massive girl go down the steps to the river and slowly lie down on her side so we can start washing her. The next 45 minutes are spent in the river scrubbing her all over with coconut shells to get the dirt and grime off her body. Occasionally she entwines trunks with her good friend Puja, who is bathing right beside her today. She also likes to flap her tail on the water. This time she almost gets me; naughty girl … but nice try, I’m on to you, sister! Truth be told, Ranmenika is notoriously cheeky and playful, and quite frankly, has yet to meet a piece of fruit she didn’t like. After her bath, it’s time for breakfast and I’m starving. We all head up to the main house and wolf down some eggs and bread.

Such is a typical first 2 hours of a day-of-the-life of a volunteer at Sri Lanka’s Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF).

I volunteered at MEF in January of 2016, with 12 others from all over the world; Canada, Australia, the UK, Romania, Colombia, Germany, Alaska … All like-minded people from vacationing professionals, to retirees to students, and all interested in adventure, travel and conservation. We immediately get along like family. But no divas need apply … the accommodations are spartan; cabins with cots, a mosquito net and ceiling fan, outdoor showers, cold water only, which trust me, in this heat …. is most welcome.

After breakfast, it’s time to clean the night beds. If we thought the day beds were a challenge … we were sadly mistaken. More than 100 chunks of dung have to be cleared away from where Ranmenika sleeps. We also scrub and sweep the base with water and dettol and then clear out the long drainage ditch to make sure everything flows away from her. Then we get rid of the previous day’s food (banana and coconut tree branches and large logs) so it doesn’t rot in her bed, and clear away anything sharp that could make hurt her or make her uncomfortable when she sleeps.

When we’re done cleaning and clearing all the night beds, we take a break before lunch, gathering in front of the cabins where the wifi works best. Some folks shower but I don’t see the point when the afternoon is going to mean even harder work and more sweat in this intense heat. But let me be clear: it’s January and I’m from Canada so I’m not complaining …)
Let me introduce Ranmenika She’s a 40-year-old beauty (elephants can live as long as 80 years) who fell into a well when she was just six. Local villagers managed to rescue her, but she had already been abandoned by her mother. She was eventually adopted by a well-meaning family, but she had to earn her keep so she spent much of her younger years working at a temple during Perahera festivals. The hard work gradually took its toll and Ranmenika developed serious internal organ issues, so her owners brought her to MEF. At first for some medical care, but finally as a place to live out her life in comfort, where she is cared for by some very loving people with only her best interests in mind. Ranmenika is currently one of seven elephants under the care of MEF. Most pf the elephants are rescues from temples or the logging industry, who came here for treatment and a safe place to live out the rest of their lives.

After lunch, the chores depend on what’s needed around the 15-acre facility. That could mean tending the organic gardens, clearing and cutting elephant grass into bales, doing a river clean up, painting buildings around the facility or taking dung to the paper factory next door. (That’s right, they make paper out of dung!). While I was there we were also building steps for the elephants to get down into the elephant grass field; mixing cement, hauling it in wheelbarrows to the steps, filling it with rocks, flattening it down …. The sort of work I don’t normally find myself doing at home to say the least. Some of the volunteers were also helping to rebuild the house of a local MEF employee whose house was destroyed by the tsunami, and others were helping with social media to spread awareness of MEF. Once a month everyone heads to neighboring city Kandy to spend some time at the Senara Foundation, a facility where mentally challenged Sri Lanka kids get together for some exercise, companionship and general silliness; always the highlight of the month for the volunteers. About once month a group of volunteers also climb Adam’s Peak to raise money for MEF.

Walk … Don’t Ride

In the afternoons, the elephants are available for tourists to ride; not ideal but the money helps pay for their care. But as of this past February, MEF broke ground on two massive free roaming areas where the elephants can do just that; roam about as they would in the wild. The goal of MEF is to eliminate riding all together and instead allow tourists to walk with the elephants, watching them go about their business in a fairly close to natural habitat.

Ultimately; elephants are not on this earth for our entertainment and shouldn’t be in captivity at all, but unfortunately, these elephants could never survive back in the wild, so MEF is the best possible situation for them.

We knock off around 5:00. Shower time for most, and time to check emails, sit around chatting and having a laugh before dinner at 7:00. The evenings are spent laughing some more, playing games, having a beer, playing with the dogs, swapping stories, comparing bug bites, and relaxing. We’re usually pretty tired, so bed time comes early here.

In the morning I’ll roll out of my cot at 6:30, splash some water on my face, brush my teeth, put on some flip flops and get ready to shovel crap all over again.

And I can’t wait!

How to get to MEF: Take the train from Colombo to Rambukkana (About $2, takes about 2 hours) Pay attention to the signs because they don’t announce the stops. In Rambukkana, grab a tuktuk to MEF (about 15 minutes) They all know where it is and it should cost about $5.

What to do on your time off: Tons! MEF has a book with details on your weekend options. Maybe head to Kandy for some shopping in the local market. Bus or tuktuk are you best bets. Depending on traffic, it could take between 45 min to 1.5 hours. Bus will cost less than $1 and a tuktuk should cost about $15 depending on your haggling skills. More money, but a long tuktuk ride can be fun.
Or, head to Hikkadewa, a surfer’s paradise beach on the West coast. Take the train to Colombo. In Colombo get a ticket for Hikkadewa (1.5 hours, for less than $2!) Plenty of cheap places to stay. Eat, surf, go to a club!

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