Elephant in our tourism: The less-spoken tale

Thursday, 3 February 2011 00:21 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Imagine a presentation on tourism for Sri Lanka without featuring an elephant or a herd of them in it. They are everywhere. In the wild, on the beaches, among humans; mostly serving them and when not getting in conflict with them.We in Sri Lanka indeed have reason to celebrate their existence among us. There had been over 10,000 of these majestic species present at the beginning of this century on this very island, a feature unmatched by any other landmass of this size, where a diversity of natural habitats and a wide-spectrum of species of animals, birds and other beings exist.

At national parks of the likes of Yala, Uda Walawe, Wilpattu and Kaudulla, elephants are observed by visitors on special vehicles, often overcrowding them with scant regard or respect of the fact that visitors are intruders in the wild habitats of these inhabitants.  

The ‘wild elephants’ one observes on the way to the Uda Walawa Park, between the sluice gate and the park entrance, waiting behind the electric fence to be fed with desserts of bananas and buns by passing visitors, is but one testimony to the sad side of the tale of our elephants even within protected areas.

From July to October ‘The Gathering’ offers a spectacle at Minneriya, where already too many visitors are said to be getting too close to ensuring the wellbeing of the observed.

Working elephants

On our beaches, it is yet another story. At Arugam Bay and several other coastal areas of the east and the north west, they roam in the wild and become tourists themselves. Yet, on the west and the south in the vicinity of beach hotels, elephants in captivity are used for rides by tourists on soft-sand, toiling hard, almost all day.

Not at all a natural phenomenon and an antithesis to the conservation mantra in tourism of ‘take only photographs… leave only footprints’.

In August, in their majesty yet domesticated, elephants ride for days, some having travelled for weeks on asphalt roads, to perform traditional ritualistic chores at the pinnacle of all pageants, the Dalada Perehara.

Supplementing this annual event are many other lesser events all over the island, where elephants take centre-stage in pageantry, all year around. In the old days, elephants serving the temples were revered as sacred and were treated with much respect. Today, most double as working elephants performing tasks unbecoming of them.

In areas of the Cultural Triangle such as at Habarana and Dambulla, elephants are made to walk with tourists riding on their backs on surfaces alien to them, much like they do in several tourist areas in Thailand.

Survival battle

Away from the trajectory of tourist brochures and attention of tourists, elephants take on a survival battle with humans for the ‘sins’ they commit while seeking food within their lost habitats.

In Africa, it is reported that about 19,000 elephants are killed each year, mostly for their ivory. Thankfully, our numbers are nowhere near there, yet given that we only have an estimated 6,000 left with us and only a few hundred of them are tuskers, our own human-elephant conflict needs to be dealt with, with much care and attention.

According to wildlife officials and other studies, Sri Lanka loses close to 200 of its estimated total population of 6,000 elephants each year as a result of the conflict between man and elephant. Most deaths are inflicted by angered villagers shooting or setting deadly traps for elephants who damage their crops or challenge human presence.

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was setup in 1975 to be a quaint purpose-built facility, with the primary objective of offering a caring foster home for orphaned elephants, most of whom were babies. It was to release these orphans to the wild, upon their growth.

Today, it has weaned away from that objective and instead become a centre for breeding of elephants in captivity. It was to be the conscience-point of support of caring humans for the animal in the midst of the then emerging human-elephant conflict. The transit home for elephants at Uda Walawa was also set up with the same objective.

Today, the Pinnawela orphanage has turned into a bustling tourist attraction where ‘showing the elephants off’ has overridden the feel, caring hard work and commitment of those in charge of the elephants. The recent fiasco of the death of Neelagiri, supposedly at the hands of an angry mahout, is testimony to what can go wrong in such circumstances.

While the incomes earned from tourism can be used to support even better care for the animals, haphazard development and the ‘dog-eat-dog’ type of competition around by restaurateurs, shopkeepers and other ‘fast-buck-earners’ has created an environment, which takes a good portion of the humane element of the facility away.

What we must remember is that what visitors to Pinnawela, (both local and foreign) value most is the underlying purpose of its caring for the orphaned elephants and not so much the glitter or the glamour of its surrounds. This will be true of the Uda Walawa transit facility too.

Turning a new leaf

In the elephant-tourism story, Sri Lanka can indeed turn a new leaf. We do not need to follow the bad examples of other countries where respect for animals and caring comes in lesser proportions than it is here among us.

With a rich backdrop of a heritage as the country that established the world’s first- ever wildlife park by a Royal decree of King Devanampiyatissa as far back as the third century BC, we could establish our unique selling proposition in the area of the elephant-tourism relationship, not as a destination that offers elephant rides but as one that cares and nurtures its elephants with love and affection.

I venture to propose that such positioning will bring Sri Lanka tourism much more yield and benefit than the few dollars earned through inflicting pain on these majestic yet hapless giants.

I am encouraged that we have occasion now to shift our focus on wildlife away from that on the land to that of the oceans. It is a welcome development that upon the end of our security restrictions on the waters around, we are now able to promote activities such as whale and dolphin watching.

These new ventures should be thought of as a way to release pressure placed on our elephants and other wildlife and not merely as another lucrative source of making fast bucks.

One big natural theme park

As a destination that has so much in such a small space, Sri Lanka can be compared to one big natural theme park. We do not need to create superficial experiences or events to stand tall among other destinations or in competing with them. Our many cultural and religious festivals/events, village ‘polas’ or trading fairs, traditional craft villages, heritage sites, gardens and wildlife parks, virtually unspoilt serene beaches, fishing communities and rural lifestyles all offer unique and exotic sensual experiences to visitors to this land.

What we need is to first get the basics right of these opportunities. These include defining how they should be managed, ensuring their conservation, facilitating  comfortable movement by road/water and air as may be required, safety of visitors at all locations, provision of facilities such as toilets and comfort centres, access to good interpretation and information facilities, quality guiding services, descriptive location signage in language versions including how visitors are expected to behave, an environment free of hassle from touts offering socially unacceptable services and a posse of well-trained service personnel at all levels of operation.

Ambassador for orphans

In a recent contribution to a newspaper, author/activist Aditha Dissanayake wrote: “In his life and death may Neelagiri be an ambassador for all the other orphans like him who are ‘rescued’ from one tragic situation only to end up in an even more tragic, pseudo-sanctuary. Neelagiri, may your death pave the way to a better life for your kinsmen. May all that pain have not been in vain.”

I believe that those of you in tourism can be catalytic in ensuring that Pinnawela or Uda Walawa do not become  ‘pseudo-sanctuaries,’ as she presented it.

As was said earlier, the founder fathers of the facility intended it to be the conscience-point of support for Sri Lanka in her sad take on the human-elephant conflict. As Aditha reminded us of Julian Huxley’s words in her conclusion: “We humans define ourselves by the ways in which we treat animals.”

Let those in tourism step in to make good that defining, joining hands with all caring Sri Lankans.

(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected])

Recent columns