Reading the Opinion Column in The Island during the last several days, it seems to me that an elephantine blunder has been committed by those responsible for removing the two three-year-old baby elephants from their respective mothers at the Pinnawala orphanage. What is worse is the seeming inconsistency in the statements made by the Diyawadana Nilame (DN) who supervised the operation for nearly six hours and watched the resistance of the mothers and Minister Lokuge who has been making a number of pronouncements on this matter.
I think the DN went on record saying that the removal was a temporary affair and it was done to familiarize the babes with the Perahera environment as the Dalada Perahera is now on. Was it then the idea to have the babes walk in the Perahera this season? Instead, they are found tied up in the DN’s official residence. Is that because of because of the public protests? Evidently, the babes are only three years old. Others say that under the present law, baby elephants under five cannot be weaned away from their mothers. I have not looked up the legal status, but several knowledgeable persons have remarked that the removal of the three-year-olds was illegal.
I wish to raise three points in this letter.
The first is to ask if the philosophy of the British bourgeois/purist philosopher Locke, who wrote that the children of the poor and of the unemployed who were supported by public and private charities, were an unnecessary burden on the nation and should accordingly be put to work at the age of three, since they were capable of producing more than it costs to maintain them. So, doesn’t the situation of the two babies born to two female elephants who were orphans at Pinnawala elephant orphanage, according to the statement attributed to DN Dela, were brought for them to ‘familiarise’ themselves with the Perahera environment’ (disguised terminology for putting the baby elephants to work as Perahera exhibits, I suppose), qualify for the application of analogy of Locke’s philosophy? Why allow the elephant’s become a burden to the nation? "Why not put them to work at the age of three?" could be the argument.
Point two is that the birth of baby elephants is a great event for the whole elephant herd in the wild. This is not only a general observation of people who have seen the care and protection an entire herd gives to their babies, but also seen from the following Jana Kavi (Lullaby):
"Aettinniyak lath daru pembareya;
aetini raele saematama kiri ereya….."
This reference to other she elephants coming to bear milk is something interesting. The folk tradition must be based on observations. In Mr. Ratwatte’s letter published in The Island of 4th August, he referred to baby elephants being fed by the mother as well as aunts. Could this be confirmation of what the composer of the folk lullaby wrote? Baby elephants are the pride of the herd. As one who has observed such scenes, they are protected not only by the mother, but also by the male of the herd and other females.
Point three is that Mr. Ratwatte has also referred to the elephants at Pinnawela being unhappy animals. He wrote that this could be seen from their faces when taken out twice for the daily bath in the river. What he said about the elephants’ love for water is true. Community bathing is something that elephants in the wild engage in with great pleasure, especially when the young ones are with them. Many of us have seen them wallowing in tanks like Minneriya and the Mahaweliganga, engaging in water sports for hours. I have seen it on many occasions in Sri Lanka and even among the African elephants in Kenyan games reserves.
As I recall, even our other domesticated elephants, each of whom is attended to by a single mahout, when taken for the bath at Katugastota before the Perahera seem to resort to water in a happy mood. So, if, as Mr. Ratwatte says, the Pinnawela elephants do not display that happiness and enthusiasm for water, it must be considered a serious situation. Even in the wilds of Africa, elephants love water. I watched them for a whole night at one of the game reserves where there was a female herd frolicking with their babies in just a shallow muddy pool close to the tourist bungalow. It seemed, however, that the whole affair was arranged for the tourists, including the filling of the hole with water, introducing the right amount of salt in the muddy water. Elephants need salt and I saw an elephant drawing sea water one early morning behind one of the wildlife bungalows at Yala.
Bandu de Silva