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Bathing the Elephants in Sri Lanka

By on Jan 14, 2012 in Sri Lanka | 1 comment

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Bathing the Elephants at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

Bathing the Elephants at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

There have been a few times in all the years that I have travelled and all the countries that I have visited that I have truly had an experience that has left me so humbled. So as I laid upon the stomach of a small Asian elephant, rising with every breathe that he took and feeling his coarse skin against my hands, I couldn’t help but shed a small tear at how magnificent these creatures truly are. Niki and I were in the small town of Sigiriya, in the central plateau of Sri Lanka. The day before we had climbed Sigiriya Rock and waking up early after a gang of monkeys attacked our guesthouse, we had planned to head south to the city of Kandy.

Magnificant Asian Elephant at his morning bath, Sri Lanka

Magnificent Asian Elephant at his morning bath, Sri Lanka

Just before 8am the sound of a trumpeting elephant erupted through our room and as I peered out through our room’s dusty little window, I saw two mighty beasts lazily walking past our window. Niki was out of the door before I could even mention the phrase “elephants on parade’ and I was content to let her take some photos whilst I finished packing. A good 15 minutes had passed and I thought I should go find my wife who I had a strong suspicion that wherever she was, that she would be surrounded by an interested group of men. As whenever I left her alone in Sri Lanka, men would come in all directions to start up a conversation – whether friendly or with other intentions. So as I strolled down the road to find her, it came as no surprise that she was surrounded by two men whilst she took photos from a small bridge. Her images were of a small Asian Elephant on his side being bathed by a young mahout, who upon seeing us called us down to the river to have a better look.

Bathing Time for the Elephants at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Bathing Time for the Elephants at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Climbing down the muddy embankment with Niki in toe, I stopped at the bank and felt my jaw drop. There was this creature that I had seen all over Asia, in a natural setting away from the touristic stage. There were no tourist buses, no tricks or elephant artwork, no elephant poo postcards and no amusement park atmosphere. I knew it wasn’t the same as seeing a Wild Elephant, however there was something special about seeing the mahout care for the young elephant as if a child of his own. Beginning to understanding, at least to a small extent, the bond that they share in the form of a working partnership that has been existent for hundreds of years in this part of Asia. Niki and I were then invited to enter the river.

Beautiful Asian Elephant bathing at Sigiriya

Beautiful Asian Elephant bathing at Sigiriya

The coarse hair ran through my fingertips, the elephant’s eyes gazed upon me before contently blowing water over its back and continuing to rub the cool earthy mud over its body.  All this whilst the young man used a sturdy coconut shell to scrub the elephant’s skin of the muddy dust that clings to the air in this part of Sri Lanka. Nervous like I was on a first date, I couldn’t help but lay my ear against the elephant’s skin. I wanted to hear the sound of his beating heart and feel the rise of his stomach as air filled its lungs. I laid there in the moment, tranfixed in a world of discovery and felt humbled at the size and placid nature of the elephant. After I helped wash the young elephant’s leathery skin, which I wasn’t much good at, I slowly retreated back to the bank with a tear in the eye and a sense of awe at some of the amazing experiences you get to partake in when you travel the world.

Bathing with the Elephants at Sigirya, Sri Lanka

Bathing with the Elephants at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

The dilemma of elephants in tourism is a juicy conundrum.  New technologies are replacing the need for elephants in agricultural and logging industries, coupled with the high expense of feeding them, often mahouts either have the choice of releasing them (which they may not survive), destroying them or potentially engaging them in tourism activities. However elephant tourism if done wrong, can be cruel and tacky, with elephants made to do tricks and ‘perform’ for the paying tourist. Ideally in the wild is the best place to see them, however with this not always possible, many successful elephant tourism operators (orphanages and rehabilitation centres) have been developed. This organizations have helped create a sustainable way of fostering a balance between using elephants in tourism to enable tourists to get up close with the animals, whilst meeting animal welfare standards and continuing to promote the growth of the Asian elephant population. It’s up to us and our travel choices about which type of elephant tourism will win out in the future!

This post is part of the India and Sri Lanka: The Search for the Forgotten Tree blog series.

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