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Brightly-decorated elephants march in this year’s Kandy Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka.

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In it for the elephants

Newfane volunteer assists Sri Lanka’s endangered wildlife

BRATTLEBORO—Last month, Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund left her home in Newfane to board a plane for Sri Lanka — arriving just in time for one of the country’s oldest and grandest of Buddhist festivals, the Kandy Esala Perahera.

But while this 10-day celebration of fire-dancing, costumed acrobats, and traditional song flooded the streets of Kandy, Burbank-Hammarlund was tasked with a less festive job.

Instead of a lavish costume like many of the party goers, she wore a simple jacket. The back read: “elephant tranquilization team.”

Along with her Sri Lankan veterinary team members, Burbank-Hammarlund said her job was to be at the festival “just in case the elephants ... dozens of them dressed head to toe in brightly colored garb and adorned with lights ... ran wild, which they didn’t.”

For three years, Burbank-Hammarlund has been volunteering her time to the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society from the faraway reaches of New England. Her pro bono work has included project development, fundraising, and outreach services that have aided the Conservation Society in a number of projects.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is a nongovernmental organization that describes itself as “an international, community-based organization committed to the research, conservation, and protection of Sri Lanka’s endangered wildlife, communities, and natural habitats.” Their overarching mission is “helping people, elephants, and other wildlife, co-exist peacefully.”

Shopping spree

Burbank-Hammarlund is now director of development at the Conservation Society, a title that brought her to Sri Lanka in pursuit of the organization’s latest partnership endeavor, Project EleVETS.

From Aug. 1 through Aug. 6, Project EleVETS brought a team of elephant experts to work with Sri Lanka’s veterinarians and elephant owners in an effort to improve the health and general care of captive elephants.

The morning after her arrival, Burbank-Hammarlund’s work began with a shopping spree for elephants. She purchased medicine needed for elephant care, and supplies for the two-day intensive workshop that was soon to follow, in which more than 20 new EleVETS would receive their training in captive elephant care.

The Conservation Society notes that there are more than 200 captive Asian elephants currently in Sri Lanka. Most, they say, are used in the tourist industry, for religious ceremony, or are kept as symbols of personal prestige, yet many don’t receive proper veterinary care.

Burbank-Hammarlund’s team, which was led in part by Dr. Susan Markota, a veterinarian who works with Elephant Care International, and Dr. Tharaka Deepal. from the University of Peradeniya, also spent the week visiting 50 captive elephants, many living on the grounds of Buddhist temples throughout Sri Lanka.

Some of these elephants were treated by the EleVETS team for painful foot abnormalities, parasitic diseases, intestinal illnesses, joint damage, dehydration, infections and abscesses. Burbank-Hammarlund says many of these sometimes chronic disorders are due to shackling and continually working of elephants in the tourist industry and for festivals such as the Esala Perahera.

After being permitted to enter these Buddhist temples (only by wearing a jacket that read “doctor,”) Burbank-Hammarlund wrote this in her blog: “As EleVETS Project Manager, I must be patient and nonjudgmental. I am an outsider in a culture steeped in longstanding traditions I do not understand with elephant management practices that — from my eyes and my heart — are not humane.”

The treatment of captive elephants in Sri Lanka brings up a larger issue, one that the Conservation Society refers to as “the human/elephant conflict.”

Collision course

While elephants are often revered and used in religious celebrations, both Buddhist and Hindu, their existence also symbolizes something darker for many in Sri Lanka.

As the need for land and crop cultivation grows, the corridors, feeding grounds, watering holes, and travel paths of the Asian elephant have been cleared for farmland and homes.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop the elephants from continuing to travel their age-old paths of migration or from visiting their customary stomping grounds.

The Conservation Society says that each year in Sri Lanka elephants are responsible for the deaths of about 60 people, and the destruction of more than 3,000 homes.

They estimate crop damage, due to elephants, at about $10 million per year.

As a result, the Conservation Society says between 150 and 200 elephants are killed by humans every year.

Experts say that, 100 years ago, 10,000 to 15,000 elephants roamed Sri Lanka. Now, the population is closer to 4,000.

In their mission to mitigate the human/elephant conflict sustainably, the Conservation Society has come up with a number of projects, including one that supplies solar-powered electric fences to farms, and another that educates farmers on how to cultivate various crops, such as citrus and aloe, which elephants don’t like to eat.

Project EleVETS was created not only to improve the level of care for captive elephants in Sri Lanka, but also to lay the groundwork for another project in the making, the New Life Elephant Sanctuary. It will be the first sanctuary in Sri Lanka for captive elephants.

The Conservation Society says the new sanctuary will provide “high quality veterinary care and offer sanctuary to Sri Lanka’s working elephants (young and old) who have spent their lives shackled in chains, abused and exploited in Sri Lanka’s rapidly growing tourism industry.”

The president of the Conservation Society, Ravi Corea, who founded the organization in 1995, hopes that “away from noise and pavement of cities, festivals, parades, and pageants, free from the pain of the bullhook, riding chair and leg chains, elephants living at New Life Elephant Sanctuary will have the opportunity to ‘just be elephants’ — most for the first time in their lives."

For the past 15 years, Corea has been incorporating volunteer programming through the Conservation Society, by bringing people like Burbank-Hammarlund from around the world to play active roles in the organization’s many projects.

Reflecting on her own recent journey, Burbank-Hammarlund wrote, “This work has not been easy for me in so many ways — physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

“The life of a Perahera elephant must be pure misery,” she continued. “But that’s why I’m here, to maybe help change that just a little bit.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #422 (Wednesday, August 23, 2017). This story appeared on page A5.

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