Deforestation, poaching and civil war have had a devastating impact on Sri Lanka’s elephant population.
But an orphanage for elephants is working to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.
Asia Calling correspondent Naeem Sahoutara has this story.
As the sun rises over the lush-green mountains in the Sri Lankan province of Sabaragamuwa, a team of vets is preparing large bottles of milk.
There are two orphaned baby elephants here at the Pinnawala Elephants Orphanage, and they’re definitely hungry. The calves, Pandula and Migara, are impatiently consuming their breakfast.
“These are the orphaned elephant babies, they come from the wild. So we have to look after them during their lifetime. And their ages are below five years; four-and-half year[s] and four-years.”
Chandrika Priyadhashani, the research and education assistant at the orphanage, explains to me.
The two baby elephants were rescued from Ritigala forest several years ago.
Over recent decades massive development has seen elephant habitats in Sri Lanka shrink. Thousands of acres of thick forest have been cut down to make way for residential areas and agricultural land.
“So many wildlife animals lives were damaged, especially the elephants, they need big forests. So many of our elephants’ babies were orphaned,” said Priyadhashani.
As their habitat has been drastically reduced, elephants now wander into farms in search of food. Hundreds have been killed by people in surrounding communities because they are seen as a nuisance, even though they are endangered.
In response to critical threat to the elephant population, the orphanage was established in 1975.
“We have started with five orphaned babies, now they are big elephants. Three of them are living in here, the other two have died. Our first aim is conservation,” Priyadhashani told me.
Today it is believed there are about 6,000 elephants still in the wild in Sri Lanka. But three decades ago their population was estimated to be as high as 24 000, according to the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Department.
As well as Sri Lanka, Asian elephants are also found in India, Thailand and Indonesia, but the sanctuary here in Sri Lanka has played a significant role in conservation.
The first elephant was born in the sanctuary in 1984, and many more have followed. There are around 88 elephants here at the orphanage, including 20 baby elephants.
There is also a push to improve awareness about the endangered species. After four decades, the center has become an iconic place to visit, spread over 25 acres of land visitors can learn about elephants, as well as watch them bathe and feed.
At 4pm fun time starts. Sirens are blown to stop traffic outside the orphanage, as the elephants form a train to cross over to the river, where they bathe and swim twice a day.
Mathali, an elephant in her 40s, was once orphaned, and now leads the herd.
“When she was younger she showed so many qualities, especially mothers qualities. She can manage the elephants very well. And I think she is a leader selected by themselves [the herd].”
Many elephant calves that have spent time here are later released into the wild.
In the meantime, orphaned calves Pandula and Migara, are still waiting for an adoptive mother and a herd to call their own.