Apoi! Aiyyo! Aliyo! Working and Holidaying among Elephants in Lanka

Courtesy of The Sunday Times

For Erin McClory and her family, elephants were the company they sought on their first family holiday in 15 years. “My mom volunteered with monkeys in South Africa last year, and decided she wanted to do a similar trip,” the young Canadian volunteer from Toronto told the Mirror Magazine. The group of four picked to volunteer with the LEO (Life, Equality and Opportunity) foundation and spend time at an elephant conservation programme offered by the foundation in Pinnawalla.

 ALIYO WORK 33A volunter bathes an elephant–Pix by Amila GamageThe simple living arrangements didn’t bother them – they wanted a project where all the proceeds went toward the animals themselves. Erin’s mother Kristina explained that the 11 volunteers from Canada, England and France at Upali’s Elephant Safari were a mixed bunch, ranging in age from 18 to 67 years. Living on the premises, the volunteers shared the 3 bedrooms that came equipped with bunk beds and had a common room overlooking the river. They would take weekends off, sometimes travelling down to the beach.

“A typical day begins at 7:30,” Kristina explains, adding that their roster would usually compose of chores like gardening, cleaning the elephant beds with an opportunity to help bathe the elephants being considered something of a perk. In the afternoons they would do some additional volunteer work – visiting a girl’s orphanage and a home for the disabled every week. Evenings would bring English classes with the staff’s children coming in to learn.

Another project involved a garden for the elephants that would allow the property to become more self-sustaining. “Amarasiri [their coordinator] spoke directly with the mahouts to find out what the�elephants�like, and what is good for them, and not a single thing in the garden will be for anyone but the�elephants,” says Erin. “When we left, we had transplanted 2 rows of pineapples, 5 banana trees, and 4 papaya trees. There are plans for pumpkins and melons to be added, more pineapples, and more papayas. We were also building an oven to make rice balls for the�elephants.”

While it might sound like a tiring vacation, Erin says she wouldn’t have it any other way. �“I think this volunteer vacation was preferable to us because we don’t like to be typical tourists,” she says adding that “despite the tricky politics of many such trips and the white saviour complex, we felt like we were accomplishing something�” Even if they didn’t see improvement in the short term, the family hoped for a better future for Sri Lanka’s elephants. “It helps that during their time here, they really felt they got to know the animals well. “I was humbled by the giant, graceful�elephants, and I feel blessed to have been able to get to know four of them,” says Erin. “Their intelligence and compassion for each other was clear immediately. Each one had a very clear personality as well, which was so nice to get to see and know.”

aliyo work 11 ALIYO WORK 22

While they felt the owner, Mr. Upali himself was committed to the animals, they quickly realised that it wasn’t the mahouts or the people who worked most closely with the elephants who dictated how they would be put to work. Though they wished the elephants weren’t put to work, they felt it was better they did tourist rides than the much harder logging work. “So overall, of the groups we researched, though LEO was not exactly what we were told, it did seem to be a good fit for us,” says Erin. “This was our first encounter with�elephants, and it was a humbling experience to get to know them, along with all of the people who care for and about them.” They were so inspired by their trip that they hope to return to see the progress the project has made.

“The people may have been the warmest, most welcoming, hardest working, and genuinely happy people I have ever met in my life,” she says. “We are already planning a return trip in 2 years, to see the people we built relationships with, and to see the fruits of our labour (literally!).”

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