Getting them adapted to milk powder and a new environment is a special programme that calls for utmost patience.
The Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is a major threat to the survival of Asian elephants. Sri Lanka’s rapidly expanding population of more than 20 million people is worsening the conflict; as humans encroach on elephant habitat for farmland, cattle grazing, gem mining, timber extraction, wildlife trafficking, and commercial agriculture. This leaves the elephants with ever shrinking, fragmented forests. They are drawn to village farms in search of food. This close contact between humans and elephants often results in crop and property damage, injury, and death. In Sri Lanka, HEC kills an estimated 70 people and 250 elephants every year.
Most Transit Home babies are orphaned due to HEC. There are many ways this can happen. Herd members may be killed, leaving a calf to fend for itself. When villagers chase away wild herds to protect their crops and homes, a calf can get lost in the commotion. Babies are caught in traps, animal snares, abandoned wells, and gem mines. Others suffer painful injuries to their trunks and mouths when they attempt to eat a ‘hakkas patas’, a mini bomb hidden in food, originally intended for wild boar.
A lone elephant calf cannot survive on its own. When villagers discover a lost baby elephant, they should contact local authorities. Once the Department of Wildlife Conservation is notified, the Transit Home staff is dispatched to investigate and assess the situation. If the baby is healthy enough, they may decide to wait and see if the calf’s herd will return to claim it. If the animal has been on its own too long, is dehydrated, or suffering from exposure or injury, it will be relocated to the Transit Home. Once arriving at the Elephant Transit Home, it will receive medical attention and 24 hour care if needed. A special hospital building is located on site for treatment. The age of the new arrivals can range from just a day to several months old.
In the wild, a calf will nurse until 3 to 5 years of age. Transit Home orphans receive milk daily, every 3 hours. Fresh cut grasses and free foraging allows the orphans the choice between milk and browse, or both. A specialized milk kitchen with a solar heating system was built for the preparation of the milk. A baby elephant can consume 40 liters of milk per day. With a capacity of 40 calves, the Transit Home keepers prepare 1,600 liters or 240 packets of milk each day. Most orphans are fed with the use of a plastic tube and funnel. However, very young babies are bottle fed, and some orphans prefer to drink their milk from a bucket. Either way, each orphan has its own unique way of drinking.
Transitioning an orphaned calf to cow’s milk formula can be risky business. Intolerance, diarrhea, and dehydration can severely threaten the life of an already weak and stressed baby elephant. While some orphans can easily digest the formula, others may have difficulty. If there are problems, three different kinds of modified formula will be tested. In time, most orphans are able to adapt. Just before feeding, the keepers gently herd the babies from the free-range area to a gate leading to the milk feeding area. During this time, babies who are too young to join the herd are fed their milk. Once the little ones are finished, the older animals are allowed to enter in small groups. Staggering the groups reduces pushing and shoving and ensures each elephant gets their share of milk. Milk feeding is a delight for both locals and tourists. Tickets are on sale at the Transit Home. The public can observe feeding at 9am, 12noon, 3pm, and 6pm.
Rehabilitating 40 wild baby elephants is not an easy task. Besides regular feeding, monitoring, and cleaning, the treatment of injuries, wounds, abrasions, fractures, infections, dehydration, and malnourishment is part of the daily routine. The Transit Home includes a hospital with indoor and outdoor treatment areas, a pen for very young animals to stay together, a surveillance system, 24 hour staff monitoring, in-house veterinarians, trained keepers, and guards. Its senior Department of Wildlife Conservation veterinarians are highly dedicated and specialize in wildlife medicine. Not only do they look after the orphan elephants, they are also on-call to treat the wild elephants and many other species too. Thanks to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and donations by outside organizations, the Transit Home facility, grounds, and staff are constantly evolving and improving.
The Transit Home is located in Udawalawe National Park. It includes an open range area, forest, and access to the Udawalawe reservoir. This allows the elephants to enjoy their natural habitat and behave as they would in the wild. Special electric fencing and keeper surveillance means the orphans are never chained or tethered. Except for feeding time, the orphans are free to roam as they please. Human contact is kept to a bare minimum. Except for the very young, sick, or injured animals, staff does not handle or touch the elephants. This hands-off approach is to ensure that these orphaned wild elephants do not get used to interacting with humans, especially due to the high level of human-elephant conflicts. Over acclimation to people could prove dangerous once the elephants released to the wild. Tourists are allowed to observe the milk feeding from a viewing platform located at a comfortable distance from the babies. Tourists are welcome to video and photograph the orphans; however, touching or close contact is permitted.
The orphans are free to socialize and make friends. Once introduced to the Transit Home, they very quickly form small family groups. Often, older orphans will take younger calves under their wing. Older female orphans who ‘adopt’ younger calves are called allo-mothers. Orphans of similar ages often become best friends, playing, eating, and sleeping together. Displays of affection, mock fighting, and play can be observed. These kinds of behaviours are inherent in elephants and can be observed in wild family groups too. The staff pays close attention to family groups, noting which animals have bonded. These groups are fed together and observed. When possible, the Transit Home tries to release bonded animals together, to the wild.
Every year, the Transit Home releases a group of orphans. This group is called a batch. The release is the most important day in a life of a Transit Home orphan. In the wild, a calf will stop nursing at 4-5 years of age. Therefore, the Transit Home believes this age is acceptable for release. Batches are made of at least 4 animals. During their rehabilitation period, the orphans form small family groups. When possible, the Transit Home keeps these groups intact to be released together.
Radio ranmitter Collar
Radio transmitter collars are fixed on a few of the orphans in each batch for monitoring purposes. Each collar emits a unique frequency allowing the staff to track the calves. Each collar is equipped with a special sensor to detect if it has stopped moving for more than hours. If it has, it may mean the collar has fallen off or the elephant is sick, injured, or deceased. Monitoring is done by triangulation, physically tracking and observing the calves. This is a difficult and time-consuming task. The Transit Home monitors orphans regularly just after release, then less frequently over time.
To date, 103 orphans have been released into the wild. Of that number, management reports 7 animals have died.
Integration with wild herds is the ultimate goal. This may happen in several ways. Certain groups do not integrate and prefer to stick together. Sometimes, orphans will join with babies released from previous years.
Other orphans, especially males, break off and shadow wild adults, oscillating between independence and the comfort of their batch. In the best cases, orphans completely integrate into a wild herd. Wild females may adopt one or more of the babies. Complete integration into a wild herd appears to be more successful when the released group is small in number.
Likelihood of survival after release is very good. It is especially wonderful when released Transit Home orphans, who are now adults, live in wild herds with calves of their own. In 2000, two female orphans named Maththali and Sandamali were released in a small group. Both babies fully integrated with wild females and now live together in a herd. Maththali and Sandamali are doing exceptionally well. Both orphans are now mothers to two wild born calves of their own. To date, 15 released orphans have become successful mothers. A total of 16 babies have been born in the wild to these ten mothers.