A skinny nut-brown mahout, or elephant driver, picks out a young calf bathing with a herd in the Maha Oya River in central Sri Lanka.
Daha, - "come" - the mahout says to the two-year old female, named Suppumalee. "Suppumalee, daha," he insists. The animal leaves her morning social engagement, and lumbers over. She, like the others squirting and splashing in a muddy festival of trunk touching - lives in this "elephant orphanage" in the town of Pinawalla.
Suppumalee came here after she fell in a village well. Here, with about 60 other elephant orphans, Suppumalee is given milk, gourmet tree branches, and a name. Her caregivers are mahouts - a special caste of men who live closely with elephants their entire lives.
The Pinawalla orphanage, which started in 1975 with four parentless pachyderms, is a byproduct of the ongoing "human-elephant confrontation," as it is known in Sri Lanka - an island where tens of thousands of elephants once roamed.
Today, the jungle habitats that link centuries-old elephant traveling corridors from the dry north to the wet south are steadily being cleared. At the turn of the century, 70 percent of Sri Lanka was forested. Today, only 20 percent of the island is covered by the jungle. Wild elephants now number about 2,500, due to poachers, land mines, and a century of programs to thin and push out the moody creatures, who often rampage villages when their habitats are cleared.
Elephants play "a crucial role in the culture and ceremonies of this island nation... [yet] the very survival of these majestic creatures is threatened," said Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer who has resided in Sri Lanka since 1956.
Elephants, known as Aliya in Sri Lanka, are an ancient symbol of strength and dignity. "Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme," the Buddha once said. The elephant holds up the universe in ancient myth, plays a role in wedding ceremonies and religious processions, and was indispensible in clearing coffee, tea, and rubber plantations. The government conducts relocation programs, and special teams try to manage the wild elephant migrations. But both record limited success. Still, the Pinawalla orphanage - and a recent court ruling - are indicative of some progress.
Last November, a Sri Lankan special court ruled in a case that has not been appealed, that pet elephants - a local status symbol - have rights, including happiness, roaming space, and a full belly.
Prior to the ruling, anyone could buy an elephant. Now, buyers must have enough land (several acres), enough income to feed and shelter the two-ton mammals, and show a willingness to keep them happy.
"Elephants are very intelligent animals and they understand the meaning of affection and love," says Sagarika Rajakarunananyake, head of a "Friends of Animals" group in Sri Lanka that filed the case.
The Pinawalla orphanage has become one of Sri Lanka's most famous wildlife attractions; last year some 750,000 visitors trekked to the site, 235,000 of whom were foreigners. In the past two years, the Sri Lankan wildlife service opened another orphanage in the southeast.
At the Pinawalla orphanage, when babies come from the wild, they are frightened. But, says Suppumalee's mahout, "When the new elephant comes, all the other elephants show it a lot of love. They crowd around, they form a shelter above it with their bodies, and make it feel welcome."
When elephants are happy, they make a low and deep sound, not unlike a cat purring, and "their ears flap a certain way," says the mahout, who adds that elephant moods change very quickly. "I will speak with one and come back five minutes later, and he's very different. It's the way of elephants."
The young man, trained by his grandfather in the ancient "elephant language" of the mahouts, says he speaks regularly with the elephants in the 30-40 word vocabulary, most of which are commands such as hari, "pick up," pic cit, "let go," and ida, "give way."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society