When I decided to visit Sri Lanka, I knew that I wanted to see the beautiful elephants from Asia first hand. There are many popular places in Sri Lanka to encounter them – with the most touristy being the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage – but I could not support going any of the places as they keep their elephants in chains and the elephants are used mainly as an attraction rather than an animal to be admired. After many failed Google searches, I almost gave up on my quest to see elephants in Sri Lanka.
But… then I found the Elephant Freedom Project. Situated nearby the Elephant Orphanage, the Elephant Freedom Project allows you to volunteer, hands-on, with the elephants of which they are caring. They offer ½ day and full day volunteer packages, and also 1-2-3 week volunteer programs as well which allows you to truly come to know the elephant. This is a small family-run project serving as a shelter for captive elephants. The Elephant Freedom Project is the only place in Sri Lanka where there is 100% NO elephant riding. Instead, you can accompany the elephants on jungle walks and take pride in knowing that you’re helping to provide them with a safe and protected home.
The Elephant Freedom Project offers refuge and freedom from work and hardship to the elephant Nilame at the moment. At the project, she is free from working in the riding and the wood logging industries.
Because we were short on time in Sri Lanka, we only had the ability to volunteer with the Elephant Freedom Project for one day; it was, however, one of the most memorable days I have ever had traveling.
Our day began on just two hours of sleep. After a very delayed flight from the Maldives, we arrived at the Elephant Freedom Project at 5:30am! By the time we were taken to our room and settled into bed, it was 6am and our alarms were set for 8am for breakfast. I figured that wake up would be a struggle, but with the thought of elephants, we were as cheery as could be!
First, we fed Nilame some water before heading to go clean her bed. “Cleaning her bed” is a very proper way of saying “clearing the elephant shit.” Believe it or not… elephant dung is heavy! And covered in flies. And smelly. But, nonetheless, we enjoyed throwing it away and cleaning up for Nilame.
We then had the opportunity to walk her through the jungle. It was absolutely beautiful — tropical, lush, and thoroughly humid! Nilame roamed as she pleased, everytime she stopped, we stopped. There was no rushing, no hurrying, no pushing, simply relaxing.
After washing her off,
…we went to Maximus, the Elephant Dung Paper Factory. They introduced the world to elephant dung paper in 1997 and it was actually really interesting to watch the process from start to finish. Variations in the elephant’s diet, age and dental state give each batch of paper a unique color and texture. Colour varies with the type of food consumed: Coconut, Kitul or Jak. Texture depends on whether the Elephant is able to chew the food or not. Fully digested fiber gives the paper a smooth finish while half digested fiber makes the paper coarser. Interestingly enough, the factory employs solely female workers.
By the time we arrived back to the project, the house smelled of various flavors and spices. We walked into the kitchen to see lunch sizzling, and had the opportunity to partake in our very own Sri Lankan cooking class! I wish I could name all of the dishes that we helped prepare, but let me just say, the food was absolutely phenomenal! Plus. it’s always amazing to have a home-cooked meal.
With bellies full, we walked down to the river to find the mahout washing Nilame with a coconut husk. We were allowed to join him in washing Nilame while wading in the beautiful jungle river. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to be so up close and personal with such a huge, graceful animal – and my favorite animal at that!
Last but not least, we changed into more conservative attire and took the local transportation into town to visit a local school. The school is for people of all ages that want to learn or better their English language. We sat down to talk with small groups around the classroom and it was lovely getting to experience local Sri Lanka.
And before we knew it, our time with the Elephant Freedom Project had come to an end. It was truly an unforgettable experience and something that everyone MUST experience while visiting Sri Lanka!