IT was afternoon soak-time in the ``Maha Oya'' (Big River). An elephant herd (22 of various sizes, tended by two mahouts, or keepers) quietly splashed, submerged their heads, and nudged their neighbors, obviously enjoying each other's company.
Wisps of vapor rose above trees and vines in the jungle on the opposite shore, like plumes of smoke from campfires, as a visitor surveyed this primitive scene and struggled to remember that he hadn't traveled into the past.
The world hears much about the ethnic strife between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, a tiny island nation off India's southeast coast. Much less noticed is the work of the world's only elephant orphanage here.
The unique experiment began in 1975 and is operated by the government's Department of Zoological Gardens. It provides shelter on a 25-acre coconut plantation for a problem just too big to ignore: orphaned baby elephants.
A typical youngster brought in will be just under three feet high and weigh 150 pounds. Five mahouts provide around-the-clock care. The younger babies receive special attention, including five bottle feedings (five quarts each) of powdered milk each day.
The present herd numbers 22. All, save one born in captivity, were brought here by the Department of Wildlife, which has rescued them from the perils of civilization. Some had fallen into water holes or into one of the numerous deep gem pits dug by miners in the countryside. Some of their parents have been killed by farmers defending their crops. In a few cases, poachers have killed the adults for their ivory tusks, though the elephants here are not as sought after for this purpose as in some countries. Conservationists here say that man's deforestation is the primary enemy of the elephant.
Official estimates warn that while there are nearly 3,000 wild elephants on the island (with another 500 used by man for logging), their number is declining by about 50 per year. In the wild, the annual number of births is about 150.
In spite of considerable international attention and coordination over several decades, there has been only one birth of an elephant in captivity here.
In the course of the orphanage's short history, 90 calves have been brought in. Nearly 70 have been placed within the country or in zoos around the world. Several of that number have been given as presents to visiting dignitaries.
Here in Sri Lanka, elephants are used at temples in religious ceremonies, and by the Sri Lankan Army, for which they serve as mascots.