I realize that this entry is out of sequence but it deserves singular attention. While in Sri Lanka I was fortunate to meet up with a veterinarian named Deepani Jayantha. She develops and manages elephant-related projects for the Born Free Foundation in Sri Lanka. It was definitely my good fortune that Deepani was available to accompany me to several locations in Sri Lanka, including her Rathambalagama village project in Habegamuwa. This well-kept secret is a gem of a project, run expertly by Deepani, who throws her entire self into her projects.
Human-elephant conflict is growing in Sri Lanka and the challenges increase each day. In an effort to create solutions to the conflict, Deepani designed a project around a local village bordering the Udawalawe National Park, where wild elephants live and the Elephant Transit Home is located. Her goal was multi-layered: to educate villagers about elephant behavior, identify and plant crops elephants don’t like, improve human welfare at the local elementary level school and employ local people in positions that benefit the community, such as at the school library.
Deepani was instrumental in developing an innovative revenue-generating crop project for the village school, one acre of trellis growing passion fruit. The children plant and manage the crop, harvest the fruit and sell it, with all revenues going to their school fund. I was quite surprised to learn that the elephants don’t like passion fruit, because their wild counterparts at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee find it quite delicious.
Thanks to Deepani’s fierce commitment to conservation, her projects are totally green. Not being one to compromise, she defends an elephant’s need to live free in the forest. When humans present a problem for elephant welfare, Deepani looks for ways to alter human behavior instead of placing all need for change on the elephants.
With our shared passion for elephant welfare you can imagine the lively discussions we had. Of the greatest concern is human encroachment on the country’s national parks, the increased commercial use of elephants in festivals and religious events, general ignorance and greed that result in the poor welfare experienced by captive elephants and the pressure being put on the government to release captive elephants to the West.
With such a large number of orphaned calves living at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, zoos around the world are putting political pressure on Sri Lanka to release the elephants. What a serious disaster this would be, not only for the individual elephants who would be stripped of any future possibility of returning to the wild, but also for the dangerous precedent it would set. These baby elephants, both in Pinnewala and the Elephant Transit Home, need to be rehabilitated and released back to the wild in order to replenish the depleted population. Sending elephants off the Island will only push the population closer toward extinction. To ensure the viability and survival of the species, living in the wild must be seen as the only option.
Deepani walks the walk, living a frugal lifestyle by choice. She takes no resource for granted and lives unobtrusively with the garden lizards that grace her atrium, leaf-eating moneys that occupied the area before the neighborhood was built, civic cats that quietly scamper across her second story balcony and mongoose that disappear into the vegetation outside her gate. The local produce seller even knows to save browning bananas for Deepani to feed to the birds that find shelter in her garden. It was an honor to spend time discussing the trials facing wild elephants and the deplorable treatment of the captive ones. We may not have come up with all the solutions but spending time with a kindred spirit is always good for a battery recharge.
Be sure to follow this dynamo. I have no doubt that she will be instrumental in bringing about great changes for the elephants and forest and village people in her beloved Sri Lanka.