Elephants and Turtles - A Sri Lankan Volunteering Experience
Volunteer work can be enriching and rewarding. Last summer I travelled to Sri Lanka with an English company called ‘Plan My Gap Year’ (PMGY) which specialises in organising volunteer programmes abroad. The company has multiple bases in many countries around the world including Ghana, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Australia and Vietnam and volunteers run all the programmes. I was keen to become a part of this extraordinary effort to support local fauna. I signed up for the ‘Elephant experience’, realising that this project entails looking after abused and severely underweight elephants and soon enough several of my friends also asked to join me.
My duties in Sri Lanka were multiple and exciting. Each day started with grooming the elephants at nearby rivers. Washing the elephants was a way of communicating with them and I received training on how to use coconut shells to scrub the elephants’ skin so that the pachyderms were thoroughly clean. Elephants’ diet includes the consumption of grass, leaves and fruit and feeding the animals was an important part of my routine - seeing the elephants consume large quantities of watermelons and bananas was hilarious. Other duties ranged from taking the elephants for walks to cleaning their beds, both of which tasks soon became my favourite activities. During the afternoon, I had the chance to explore the country, using the company’s tuk-tuks to visit beaches and make purchases from local shops. Nevertheless, the best part of my day was undoubtedly taking care of the elephants.
My friends and I went to see an elephant festival in Kandy, which included a vibrant display of dance, music and colourful costumes as well as one hundred decorated elephants. Kandy’s ten-day Esala Perahera is the most spectacular of Sri Lanka’s festivals, and one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia. The procession through the streets of Kandy is held nightly throughout the festival. The first five nights are relatively low-key but during the final five nights, the Randoli Perahera, things become progressively more spectacular, building up to the last night (the Maha Perahera, or ‘Great Parade’). This features a massive cast of participants including as many as a hundred brilliantly caparisoned elephants and thousands of drummers, dancers and acrobats walking on stilts, cracking whips, swinging fire pots and carrying banners, while the replica casket of the Tooth Relic itself is carried on the back of the Maligawa Tusker elephant. Each elephant had elaborate painting and they were guided by flame handlers. Many people were playing tambourines and the bongos. The area was covered with stalls where one could buy local delicacies. Many tourists attended the festival. That night we stayed at a youth hostel and we discovered a frog in my friend’s bed. The frog had to sleep outside!
Working at a turtle sanctuary was another thrilling Sri Lankan experience and I was eager to watch the hatching of baby sea turtles and to be the one to release them into the great ocean. The aim of this sea turtle conservation project is to monitor sea turtle activity. One of the most important activities undertaken by volunteers at the project is the maintenance of its hatchery. Within the sanctuary of the specially constructed hatchery, collected and rescued eggs can hatch safely away from predators, before being released into the sea at night-time. In order to teach locals and tourists about turtles and to protect their future existence by doing so, a small number from each hatching group are kept back for a short period, and this also enables a 'head-starting' programme before release. The hatchery program is designed to maximise the number of hatchlings reaching the sea and surviving through the critical stages of their early life. My friends and I shovelled sand from the beach back to the sanctuaries and we helped to bury the turtle-eggs some of which were already ready to hatch. Attention to detail was vital as we proceeded to scoop the sand from the eggs when the hatchlings started coming out of their shells, making their way to the big wide world. We were instructed to place them in our hands, wash them with seawater and segregate the males from the females. The females are almost extinct and for this reason we positioned them at a safe location to ensure they could produce more offspring. The males we released into the sea.
Overall, it was an unforgettable trip, and one which opened my eyes to a different culture and way of life. I would recommend a Sri Lankan experience to everyone.