Millennium Elephant Foundation is a haven for elephants in Sri Lanka, a country where elephants are either kept as pets by the rich and powerful, or as ornaments of religious festivities by the clergy. In either case they are not treated the way they should be.
Tamsin didn’t say it in so many words, but this was the gist of what she said to me.
I had never planned to go to an elephant orphanage, let alone Millennium Elephant Foundation, but my good friend Jo Saunders who I met through Virtual Tourist hooked me up with Albert, a friend of hers who was on a fact-finding mission about the reality of elephant orphanages. Since I didn’t have any particular plan for the day, my whole tour of Sri Lanka being one big chunk of flexi-planning, I decided to go along with it.
Albert was going to be meeting Tamsin at Millennium Elephant Foundation, who again was a friend of Jo Saunders. Jo is the lynchpin for travelers going around in Sri Lanka. She’s the one who can open doors for you if she happens to like you.
Anyway, we arrived at Millennium Elephant Foundation around noon, around half an hour’s drive from Kandy, and waited for Tamsin to come out who was busy with the elephants inside. She’s the volunteer and Project Manager at Millennium Elephant Foundation.
The place wasn’t exactly swarming with tourists, June being the off-season in Sri Lanka. Even then there were quite a few tourists roaming about. Surprisingly, most of them were of Arabic descent. Albert explained that many Sri Lankan Muslim got their daughters married to people from the Middle East which has resulted in giant extended families extending all the way from Sri Lanka to Middle East. And they visit Sri Lanka quite often for family reunions.
Tamsin arrived to cut short our chit-chat about the consequences of Sri Lanka Middle East inter-marriages. `
Looking at Tamsin, you can’t imagine she hails from the UK. It was your typical hot and humid day in Sri Lanka and that girl was moving about bursting with energy as if it was spring in England.
I guess that’s what love does to people. And Tamsin is in love with the elephants, ever since she was a little girl, she told me. She could see it in her aqua-colored eyes, which lit up every time she talked about her lifelong passion.
And Millennium Elephant Foundation is the ideal place for her to play out her childhood fantasy. She is involved in pretty much all the aspects of Millennium Elephant Foundation. You send an email to them, and it’s likely she will answer it herself.
Tamsin has been with Millennium Elephant Foundation for the last two years and although she has got just a year to go, she feels she’ll be here a lot more than that.
But what Millennium Elephant Foundation is really about? What was the need for it? How does it work? We bombarded Tamsin with these questions and she was all too happy to answer them.
What is Millennium Elephant Foundation Exactly?
Millennium Elephant Foundation, Tamsin says, has been around since 1999 and it came into being because there was a dearth of places in Sri Lanka where those elephants that had gone their useful life but couldn’t adapt to the wild again could be kept and nurtured. The MEF charity was founded in August 1999 with the assistance of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
The concept behind the sanctuary is that elephants being used either in religious festivals or domesticated by politicians or rich people can’t go back to the wild. They rarely adapt. Hence Millennium Elephant Foundation came into being.
There’s Pinnawala elephant orphanage, which is located in the Pinnawala village in Kegalle District of Sri Lanka, some 90 km from Colombo.
But Tamsin isn’t exactly fond of Pinnawala elephant orphanage, which is more like a zoo rather than a proper sanctuary for the elephants where all the elephants are kept in cage like structures. Elephants are not treated well there according to Tamsin, kept in cages, babies chained. Moreover baby elephants are bottle fed by tourists.
Tamsin says that tourists are given preference instead of the elephants at the Pinnawala, while at Millennium Elephant Foundation, although tourists are welcomed, elephants’ convenience is never sacrificed for the sake of visitors.
The tourist attraction part is there to generate the funds to manage the elephants. Millennium Elephant Foundation has come up with different programs tailored to different people’s needs. You get to pay different prices for admission depending on what you want to do inside. There are options for short rides, medium rides, long rides, elephant bath or just a simple entrance fee priced at Rs.1000.
How do they get the word out? Mostly through word-of-mouth and tourist operators’ recommendation. If the driver brings the tourists to the Millennium Elephant Foundation, they get commissions for it. If however, the tourist approaches MEF directly through the website and gets registered on it, he gets a 15% discount. So make sure you visit their website before actually landing there.
At MEF there are no cages, elephants are relatively free to roam. Each elephant has a dedicated Mahout – caretaker. They have a specific schedule for each day – walk in the woods, bath in the river, sleep, eat at specific intervals etc.
We moved to one end of the grounds where Tamsin says a sort of an observation deck is going to be built for the tourists to view the elephants placed in the grounds below. At the moment there was just one standing all by itself chained to a tree. In addition to that, her hind legs were also chained together.
I asked Tamsin about the chains. She replied that elephants no matter how docile they appear are in fact quite powerful creatures. They really pack a punch, and if they develop one of their tempers they can be really destructive. She remarked that the chain used to tie them to the tree is for all practical purposes useless because they’ve got the power to break it. It’s just there to tell them to stay where they are. The chains in the hind legs serve a different purpose.
Many of the really big elephants have their hind legs loosely chained together. Although they can freely with this arrangement, this is just to ensure that the animal doesn’t start charging in a bout of anger and destroy things, which something of this size is more than capable of doing.
At the moment there are 8 elephants at Millennium Elephant Foundation ranging from age 10 till 40, although they’ve got enough space to hold double that amount.
Do elephants fight? Sometimes fights do break out but the mahouts are capable of handling them before they get out of hand.
The mahouts carry a stick with a hooked end which they hit on the pressure points along the legs of the elephants. That doesn’t really hurt the animal, what with all the thick skin but it helps to direct the animal.
Elephants are more than capable of taking a bath themselves, but still the mahouts give them a bath. I asked Tamsin why this is so? She said that mahouts take great pride in their particular elephant. A dirty elephant reflects badly on them.
Elephants don’t have ribs like humans do so they can only lie down and stand up with great difficulty. They usually sleep standing up, and sit down for just a couple of hours. Tamsin says once they get older, they have trouble getting up, hence they avoid sitting down at all. But standing for so long is debilitating, so the Millennium people help the older ones lie down or stand up.
Elephants that eventually die at Millennium elephant Foundation are buried in the grounds at the back.
The reason they cannot be sent back to the wild is that an elephant or any animal for that matter has to be broken down behaviorally so that it obeys human command. And once this is done, it’s next to impossible to adapt back to the wild. When the animal is relatively young, that is a possibility.
It was almost an hour now since we began our relentless barrage of questions but Tamsin was kind enough to take us through the entire perimeter of Millennium Elephant Foundation, showing us the elephant sleeping quarters and all, in the midst of which we chanced upon a rather large rat snake. In fact Tamsin literally stumbled upon it. Are elephants afraid of snakes, or get bitten by them? Tamsin wasn’t sure, so she asked one of the other helpers.
It appears they are not, just like they are not afraid of mice, which is just that – a myth. And there have been no recorded instances of snake bites with respect to elephants.
Tamsin was getting late for a brainstorming session, so we bid her farewell and went onto the next elephant orphanage on our itinerary.
Millennium Elephant Foundation has become a major tourist attraction, garnering support from Tripadvisor recommendations as well as other vacation-related websites pertaining to Sri Lanka. And it’s always eager to embrace new volunteers and if you feel this is your cup of tea, go and register yourself at their website.