June 2016 – it was all getting too much, must escape! Whilst I thrive in the emails, questions and general human dilemmas of work, June spelt the end of yet another contract. It took me a long time to commit to my trip to Sri Lanka. My mind was a boggle; I kept coming up with excuses not to travel. I let the fear of the every non EU day get to me. The British masses raged amongst a tide of anger at the deafening Brexit fallout or should I say result, depending on what side you stood on. The whole country and seemed plagued by this uncertain future. Friends were unfriending each other on Facebook, statuses going up in flames on twitter, hate crime rose, whilst sterling dropped, A Nation divided and confused! “Just think of the elephants! Just think of the elephants!”– BOOKED!
As the aircraft came into land on this quaint island, all I could see was rainforest with a scattering of the odd building. December felt like a perfect climate for any holidaymakers escaping the arctic temperatures of Northern Europe. Most of the days were humid with a scattering of clouds, with the Sun making the odd appearance. Nevertheless the locals always smiled and strangers became friends. Arriving at my first stop for the night, the budget hotel overlooked a private beach where the stray dogs looked like they were taking their own vacation.
With globalisation opening up world markets and borders so many countries such as Sri Lanka have become economically dependent upon tourism. Before you travel one is inundated with a ‘to do list’ of iconic wonders to see, do and experience. I wanted to experience the wonder of Asia’s elephants and Leopards. I had already travelled the magnificent savannahs of Africa, and now I wanted to see these wild creatures in the rich Eden known as Sri Lanka.
That being said, you can escape the west without a warning of things to avoid whilst holidaying abroad; ‘don’t approach stray dogs and cats as you may catch rabies, don’t wander about alone at night, wear appropriate clothing and be respectful of the local culture, and don’t carry valuables or large amounts of cash on you’. As a lone female exploring the port town of Negombo, I expected to become a target for opportunistic street vendours selling trinkets and souvenirs – but back home they don’t warn you that you’re not going to be able to walk past even one local without being stalked down the street, or in my case, into the local church, all for the sale of a tuk tuk ride, or a tour around the town.
All I wanted to do was visit some of the local churches and temples, but nothing had prepared me for this. Not even the intense heat from the midday sun had stopped one man, who at first sight appeared to be dozing in the strategically placed chair outside his shop, from calling out to me to take a step into his shop of Sri Lankan treasures. What made them so determined, so motivated? Was it survival or dreams of an economic empire? The power of persuasion is a curious concept, and as I journeyed around Sri Lanka’s southern region, I found myself stepping closer to the feral existence of the dogs and cats, and further away from a species I had grown up side by side with.
My mind was my own – my understanding of rabies was that is a visible disease; with symptoms including foaming of the mouth due to over production of saliva, seizures, disorientation, staggering due to paralysis of the hind legs and weakness. Some of the dogs and cats I saw looked like they were being fed and watered by the locals, whilst others looked like they were suffering from severe skin conditions, injured paws and legs, and emaciation, but no rabies was visible in any of them. Over the ages, dogs have become universally known as ‘Man’s Best Friend’; we brought them into our homes, and made them our companions, and our protectors in exchange for love, shelter and food. So why had they ended up of the streets of the 21st Century? What made it so much worse was discovering that the majority of stray dogs were female. Many were used for breeding, and then turned out onto the streets, with the male puppies taken in by people, and the female puppies discarded. Still many of the ones I approached wanted to play, wanted cuddles, wanted to be loved.
Whilst one species relied on money and persistence in their efforts for survival, the other relied on the kindness and compassion of others to keep on living, to survive. The locals were relentless in their attempts to sway us out of our hard earned currency. Each conversation with the locals would begin with, “Where are you from?” followed by an array of Sri Lankan souvenirs, and the inevitable inflated costing. I found myself thinking, “I could probably find that for less in Camden Market!” Had the Sri Lankan locals ever heard of the word “Brexit”? It appeared not – here they were trying to sell their charms to us at marked up prices, whilst back home the British faced an ever uncertain political, economic and social future.
Sri Lanka didn’t seem like an economy that was struggling, especially with Safari’s costing up to 45 US Dollars In comparison to its northern neighbour, India, I had seen very little comparative poverty, the air seem clean and unaffected by pollution, and the streets were fairly clean. Likewise, Udawalawe and Yala National Park with their evergreen landscapes made ever more luscious by the Sri Lankan monsoons, had captured the imagination with wildlife including; elephants, Eagles, Kingfisher birds, crocodiles, spotted dear, wildebeest, mongoose, warthogs, and dancing peacocks. It was a wildlife photographer’s paradise.
With their eagerness to please their passengers, the jeep drivers drove very closely and aggressively up to the wild animals with no consideration for the distress and upset that they were, to my eyes, causing them. I struggled not to compare them with the beauty of the safaris I had taken in southern Africa. What’s worse was they were keeping the engines running disturbing the wildlife’s natural peace. Unlike in Africa, I noticed many of the animals turning their backs and quickly moving away from us because we had disturbed their peace and quiet. Rather than being an organic experience for both safari goers and the animals themselves, the experience began to feel more like a business transaction, void of compassion and emotion. I could understand that the parks wanted to ensure that we as travellers got value for money, however, it is this flick of the switch that has turned countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa into hubs for trophy hunting and poaching. Such sentiment detracts from the safari experience, and very little consideration and thought goes into, what will happen when there are no animals left to see?
Being able to see Sri Lankan elephants in the wild was a wondrous and moving sight. I noticed many of the older elephants didn’t have tusks, and interestingly I learnt that only up to 7% of Sri Lankan elephants grow tusks, unlike their African family. Knowing that this prehistoric species is under threat from trophy hunters and poachers in other areas of the world such as Africa, made me want to do more to help. As a growing species, I believe, we as humans, need to show them more kindness and acknowledge that they too have a voice, perhaps not in the conventional sense, but all living creatures have a right to be heard. I never saw any Leopards, but in a way, I was relieved that they had evolved to remain hidden to live their lives in peace. However, not all the animals I saw, had been so lucky, with some being forced to give up the wild, for the chains.
I always believed that Safaris were an opportunity to see and learn more about animals in their wild and natural environment, to understand their role in our world, and admire their beauty from afar. Instead, we have begun to view them as object up for sale, and we conversely risk selling their existence for a quick dollar. For example, during my trip to the Kataragama temples in Kudaoya, I saw an elephant chained up outside the Hindu temple, with its “owners” using it as bait for tourists, to take photos with him and feeding him fruit and vegetables. In a middle of a hub of temples, where people from all walks of life and faiths; Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim come to share their blessings and prayers, there he was, an elephant tied up and weighted by chains, as nothing more than product of greed. Other more touristy areas of Sri Lanka such as Galle, saw men sat at the roadside with pet monkeys and snakes in baskets – photo opportunities of these vilified animals were available for a small price. Some might argue that these “owners” were simply trying to earn a living. Human compassion, is human compassion, and you can’t deny it, or make excuses regardless of geography, culture or tradition; not in a new world where markets are dictated by intelligent consumers.
Many of these elephants are transported from organisations fronting as sanctuaries. Examples of this include, Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary, where injured and sick elephants of all ages, are taken from the wild under the guise that they need treating, but instead they are utilised as money making schemes, where they are beaten into submission so that tourists can touch them, feed them and ride them. This includes babies, who like the adults are chained up so tourists can make contact with them during feeding time. This is a well-known fact amongst the locals. In addition, these elephants are often loaned out to temples and towns folks for festivals and parades. What justification is there to overlook our morals and indulge in these selfish moments?
The Elephant transit home in southern Sri Lanka, is a facility where injured baby elephants are nurtured back to health and then released and returned back to their mothers in the wild. The babies ranged from new-borns to 7 years old (the maximum age at which they are returned to the wild). Their days are spent roaming freely in the neighbouring Udawalawe National Park. The only time tourists can view them, is during their 3 hourly feeding sessions, where they are herded into a spacious feeding pen with a station for milk and an area where fresh grass is laid down for them to eat. Tourists are not permitted any physical contact with the elephants, and watch from behind a wire fence so as not to disturb the animals. There is a large sign stating ‘The Jungle Is Quiet, You be quiet too’, encouraging silence amongst the eager spectators. The youngest elephants were let in first, and they wandered in in pairs or 3 at a time, a bit like Noah’s Ark. Some of them were very naughty, with one new born who kept running back for more milk. Others got a gentle tap with a thin stick, from the carers when they tried to push other elephants out of the way, but judging by how often the carers were ignored, I would say that these elephants were very happy and carefree.
In my quest to escape an island in flux over its political, economic, and social future, I found myself in a garden of Eden where the temptation to succumb to capitalist ideals was rather worryingly growing influence. Whilst as human beings we have a primal instinct to survive, we also must not forget our human selves hold a great capacity to feel raw emotion and compassion. I left Sri Lanka feeling torn between admiration for it’s natural beauty, and disappointment at it’s desire to please opportunistic visitors. My heart broke every time I saw an elephant desperately plodding away to escape a jeep full of tourists chasing them to get that coveted photo, which would prove “they had seen a wild elephant!”. On the other hand, as tourists we have a responsibility to these animals to lead with our hearts rather than our often disillusioned egos. We as humans are conditioned to believe that making any type of emotional investment will hinder the survival of our species. But without emotion, how do we measure our senses; pain, happiness, suffering, jubilation, compassion? I would argue, in a Garden of Eden where temptation is rife, the survival of our species on a dying Earth relies upon our sense of compassion to ensure it’s ecology continues to evolve.