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State Orphanage at Pinnawela, Sri Lanka, Is Home to Bunch of Really Big Babies

November 29, 1987|G.G. LaBELLE | Associated Press

PINNAWELA, Sri Lanka — The youngsters at the government orphanage here are as adorable as any tots. But it doesn't take long to see that adoption could lead to big problems--positively elephantine ones, in fact.

The youngest orphan, Soma, has grown to about 175 pounds in just six months, and she and her fellow foundlings each put away seven gallons of milk a day.

Fortunately, this unusual orphanage--for elephants only--is set up to handle such weighty problems. Its hospital is a huge shed, and bath time finds the youngsters splashing in the slow-flowing Maha Oya River, just across the road.

Orphanage director S. S. M. Seelaratne also said that the 16 babies and seven adults at the orphanage, which breeds elephants, cause little trouble for the mahouts, or handlers.

"These are wild elephants," he said. "They're gentle."

Known for Docility

The remark may seem odd. But elephants from Sri Lanka, the war-battered island off India's tip, are known for docility. It was man taking advantage of the beasts' gentleness that gained them ancient fame for fighting in wars and doing other dreadful deeds.

Today, the tank has replaced the elephant in battle, and Sri Lanka's own Tamil civil war is fought far from this hilly retreat 45 miles northeast of the capital at Colombo. There are no war orphans here, Seelaratne said.

But as far back as the Punic Wars, in the 3rd Century BC, soldiers of Rome and Carthage battled on elephants from Ceylon, as the island once was known.

The elephants at Pinnawela seem no relation to their military ancestors as they amble into the Maha Oya for their bath.

Bath in River

"Eli hai"-- lie down--one mahout shouts, and Mathali obediently topples her eight tons sideways into the river, her feet with white toenails briefly rising above the water.

The mahout, K. G. Sumanabanda, climbs atop Mathali's neck and begins scrubbing behind her ears with a coconut husk.

"This one is pregnant," he says.

The father is nine-ton Vijaya, also sire of the only baby bred so far at the orphanage, Sukumali, born Oct. 5, 1982.

All the other residents were rescued from the jungle, says director Seelaratne.

Hunted for Ivory

"Sometimes their mothers and fathers are lost. Some hunters still shoot the big elephants for the tusks," he said. "Some fall into gem pits and cannot get out."

Sri Lanka is known for its gems, especially sapphires, as well as for elephants, which are carved on Buddhist temples built as far back as the 5th Century BC. But hunters seeking ivory did in many of the beasts. And there is less jungle today in which they can wander.

Nowadays, development can be more dangerous than hunters for elephants. The orphanage was opened in 1975 as the island was clearing away jungle to develop rice plantations.

Seelaratne said some of the elephants had been displaced by a giant project to dam Sri Lanka's largest river, the Mahaweli.

Ban on Elephant Sales

Bradley Fernando, director of Sri Lanka's zoo, estimates the country, about the size of Ireland, has somewhere between 500 and 3,000 elephants. Many are in national parks.

Sri Lanka has a ban on selling elephants abroad. But Fernando said that some Pinnawela beasts had gone to foreign zoos in trade for other animals or as gifts by Sri Lankan leaders.

Pinnawela's elephants also take part in festivals, such as the one each summer at nearby Kandy in which about 100 elephants draped in bright caparisons parade in honor of a tooth of Buddha kept in the famous Temple of the Tooth.

But mostly the orphanage likes to keep its elephants lazing around at home. "Our aim is to breed elephants," Fernando said. "If the elephants come and go, you cannot achieve this."

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