Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

2008 Orphan Elephant Release

Another eight rehabilitated juvenile elephants conquered the wild in Udawalawa National Park in Sri Lanka

Report by Dr Deepani Jayantha

June 14th 2008 was a very busy day for the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) staff, with work starting in earnest before dawn.  Eight rehabilitated orphans had to be loaded onto two trucks to be transported to the Udawalawa National Park (UNP). The operation started around 5am and by 7:30am the loading had been completed. Mali (Female), Murali (Male), Nalaka (M), Madhumali (F), and Baby Blue (M-tusker) were placed in the first bigger truck while Atlas (M), Daskon (M), and Marga (M) were led into the smaller truck and tethered securely. All the animals were lightly sedated before loading to reduce stress, and the keepers were using ropes instead of chains to make the process as gentle as possible. Out of the animals, Baby Blue, Marga, and Nalaka were foster-parented with the aid of the Born Free Foundation. Nalaka was the youngest of the whole group at 3 years and 10 months, with a small build and looking very cute. 

Four individuals – the three sponsored through Born Free and Madhumali – had been fitted with radio-collars for tracking after the release (supplied by Born Free and the Elephants Umbrella Fund) whilst the others wore simple leather collars to aid visual identification.This is the eighth batch released to the wild, making a total of 64 rehabilitated juveniles released so far from the ETH.

Photo (c)ETH

The loading was not difficult – keepers said these animals (all roughly the same age) had close relationships from the time they had shared at the ETH, since Madhumali had been group leader since the last release and the primary allomother (carer for the younger animals). They added that Nalaka and Madhumali were the most obedient of the rehabilitating juveniles at the ETH, and least likely to cause any trouble. The keepers observed that after these animals had been loaded one calf left at the ETH, who had an especially strong bond to Madumali, temporarily refused to join with the rest of the group, although she settled down again soon afterwards. In the truck itself, the juveniles enjoyed breaking and feeding from branches of mango trees that were hanging over them, whilst always keeping tactile contact among each other for reassurance. No ‘bad’ behavior was observed in the juveniles while in the trucks.

A Buddhist chanting (pirith) took place lead by the Rev. Omalpe Sobitha Thero and blessed (holy) water was sprinkled over the juveniles in the trucks before they were sent to the wild.

Meanwhile the Minister of Environment, Rt Hon Patali Champika had reached the ETH premises together with a crowd of government and non government well-wishers.

He planted an Ebony tree in front of the ETH to commemorate the event and unveiled a sign board announcing the proposed Education Centre to be funded by Dilmah Conservation. The official assembly was held at the new headquarters at the entrance to the park itself, and speeches were kept to a minimum as the animals were waiting in the trucks.

Dr. Suhada Jayawardana made a presentation on the success of the ETH rehabilitation programme over the last ten years, and proudly spoke of the calf born to Sandamali, who was released with the first batch in 1998. In his speech Dr. Suhada said that since 2002 the mortality rate of orphans arriving at the ETH has been reduced to 15% from 40% in the first years. They receive about 15 orphans annually, and thanks to the increasing facilities at the centre (supported by Born Free) they have been able to save many young elephants.

  • (c) ETH Release of elephants
  • (c)ETH Elephants in the wild

The two trucks and a line of vehicles headed to the Seenuggala clearing amid a cloud of dust (it is the dry season in the park). The site for unloading the animals had been prepared using the JCB donated through Born Free, so that the trucks could drive down to a level where the elephants could easily step from the back onto the ground. Just before unloading, the juveniles had a cool spray from a water tank to refresh them after the long journey from the ETH. The keepers easily cut the ropes around the ankles of the animals and the juveniles peacefully got down from the trucks. Nalaka was the first juvenile to leave the truck and Atlas was the last. The exceptionally animal loving and sympathetic keeper, Tenison, guided the juveniles to the wild while a throng of well wishers and journalists observed the event in a half-circle around the trucks. I had a special privilege to record the whole event from the top of a tree! After unloading, all the juveniles gathered at the edge of the scrub jungle, some making deep rumbles as if saying ‘Where we are?’ Don’t worry gentle giants, you have conquered the wild now, away from human hands, and once again you have the opportunity of living free. Then as a single group they went little further into the scrub jungle, out of sight.

Thanks to Thusitha Ranasinghe and the ETH staff for their assistance in producing this report.

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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