By Aaron Smith
Volunteers save animals from existence of forced labour, offering them a place where they can relax and have fun.
A black tire swings from the branch of a palm tree as five-year-old elephant Sujee tugs on it with her trunk. Sujee is one of two elephants that reside at The Elephant Freedom Project in rural Sri Lanka. Kyle Spiteri, a 24-year-old volunteer from Australia, is busy developing new ways to entertain his two elephant charges — Sujee and two-year-old Washtu.
“We have set up a whole range of toys,” says Spiteri. “Big barrels and cardboard boxes with small holes cut out so the elephant has to roll them to get the treats out, we use tires wrapped in rope, dirt mounds with food scattered throughout, and elephant balls which are simple hard plastic Swiss balls that you find in any gym. The ideas we’ve come up with are simple, but incredibly effective and fun.”
Founded in 2013 by Ananda, Nick Good, and brothers Tim and J.R. Beltman, the Elephant Freedom Project was born out of a belief that captive elephants in Sri Lanka needed a place where they could find peace and be treated with respect. Tim Beltman and Good originally travelled to Sri Lanka in 2012 with a volunteer company that set them up at an elephant riding place where they were to help care for the elephants and guide volunteers.
“People don’t realize the suffering these animals endure whilst training for elephant rides,” explains Spiteri.
“At the tourist riding places, often misnamed sanctuaries and orphanages, elephants are not allowed to play. They have to work seven days a week, don’t have access to drinking water when they desire it; when they aren’t working they are chained to a tree with little to no space to move and may suffer severe abuse.”
YouTube is full of disturbing videos that support Spiteri’s claims of mistreatment and it’s a shocking reality for travellers who might not have thought about the repercussions of the elephant-riding tourism trade. Tim reached out to others in the community and that’s when things started to come together.
“We started thinking, what if we could create a place where the elephants don’t have to work?” says Tim. “What if we could start a project where the elephants are free from their chains forever? What if we can have a place where they are happy, walk around freely, drink when they want, can play, get excellent care and all the love we can give?”
So that’s exactly what they did. In Sri Lanka you need a licence to own an elephant and these often end up in the hands of the wealthy. Elephant owners make good money by renting them out to tourist riding outfits or wood logging camps. This is where Sujee and Washtu could have ended up, but instead they are being “rented” by The Elephant Freedom Project and have a fenced in 2,500-square-metre enclosure to roam around in with volunteers whose tasks include walking, feeding, bathing and playing with the elephants — but this comes at a price.
“The Elephant Freedom Project solely depends on donations and volunteers to keep the project running,” explains Tim. “It’s a major expense to rent an elephant, pay for its food and a dedicated keeper. It comes to around $2,000 Cdn per month, per elephant. Unfortunately, at this time, we don’t have the funds to buy the elephants outright, but that’s the dream.”
The Elephant Freedom Project runs throughout the year and the “fee” for volunteers goes straight into keeping it up and running. The project cost $449 for a week, which includes shared accommodation, meals, airport transfers and an on-site English speaking co-ordinator.
To find out about how you can volunteer visit govoluntouring.com/node/2425