Sunday, January 21, 2007

Baby Elephants

Nothing upsets a baby like having its toy stolen, and what fool would steal a toy from a baby elephant whose shoulder already reaches higher than that idiot’s head?

One did. We’re at the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, an institution that no longer brings in elephant babies made orphans because of the war. But it still has elephants—lots of them. Those original babies have grown up and produced their own offspring, one of whom has wandered up a hill to socialize. When the little guy comes to a stop, he has a length of bamboo tucked into the end of his trunk.

He’s immediately surrounded. Both human adults and children crowd around wanting to touch this adorable (if huge) baby. He seems happy enough with the attention—is probably used to it we decide.

Every day hundreds of people pay twenty dollars each to enter the orphanage and watch the elephants. Their feeding and bathing times are the same every day, giving the public something to watch. We’ve come for the bathing, but, first, have climbed this hill to watch the elephants browsing and milling around at its foot.

“Get back,” one of the mahouts calls out to the crowd … or words to that effect. His order produces almost no result. Hands reach out and touch the baby. Hands pat his hips thighs, back, tail, nose, ears and legs. Little girls giggle about the roughness of his hide. Boys posture and yell. Adults want their pictures taken.

“Get back,” the mahout repeats.

Far down the hill more people are watching the bulk of the herd, enjoying the sight of babies wound around momma’s legs, of trunks waving, of lumbering strides as the elephant moms move slowly to their positions in the herd. They’re getting ready to go swimming, a case of assuming their places in the pecking order.

Halfway up the hill a three-legged elephant stands between two juveniles. “He lost his leg in a land mine explosion,” my daughter says. She’s been here before and has told us about the history of the orphanage—established to care for the elephant survivors of the long and bloody war between the Tamils and Sinahlese. Most of the original orphans are gone—this one remains.

“They tried to give him a prosthetic,” our guide tells us. “They fitted two different ones, but he just wouldn’t accept them.”

I’m looking down toward the crippled fellow when a blast of sound splits the air and brings my hands to my ears. It’s as loud as an air raid siren and just as sharp. I jump. The crowd around the baby elephant scatters. Out of their midst comes the baby, the end of his trunk held up and curled around his bamboo stick.

“What happened?” I ask. “What was that all about?”

“Someone tried to steal his toy,” my daughter says. “His stick,” she adds seeing my confused look. “Someone tried to take it away from him. He got mad.”

“Someone was very lucky that that baby’s a nice baby,” I said, watching the huge rear end and the funny, little string of a tail. “So, let’s go watch as they come to the water.”

Which is exactly what we did, sitting down to lunch at a table overlooking the swimming hole. We’d just had time to order a beer when the gang started making its way down through the town to the river. First came the bulls with their mahouts riding. They moved into the water, long chains connecting leg irons to huge bolts set into rock ledges. Many lowered themselves into the water, the better to accept the attention of scrub brushes and showers of water administered by the mahouts.

Next, the cows and calves appeared. They waded in, the babies ducking under each other in a game of ambush. Finally, the juveniles appeared—our bamboo stick boy now trailing an inner tube.

No one else seemed to want to play, though, and he abandoned his inner tube in a pool near the shore in favor of following his friends into deep vegetation on the far side of the river. Even for elephants, it seems, some things are better than toys.


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