Three years ago I came to Millennium Elephant Foundation for six weeks to volunteer with the elephants. I was lucky enough to be allocated to Madhu, a then 16year old boy and his 23 year old mahout Sanjeewa. Madhu has wonderful black skin with barely any white/ pink patches of pigmentation and long legs as he is still growing. He has the most gentle, loving nature and his relationship with Sanjeewa is amazing- they have been together for nine years- during my time here I fell completely in love with Madhu.
So now 3 years later I am back at MEF, sadly Madhu is no longer here- his owner, a monk, has chosen to move him up to the Habarana area where where the dreaded Howdah is used. A howdah is a seat which is put on the elephants back, tightly strapped and then loaded with up to six people (although four is the legal limit) to go for a ride. This may all appear harmless enough but actually can cause major damage. Firstly an elephant is actually not a “back” animal- like a horse, but a feet and trunk animal- as this is where their strength lies. Secondly the howdah is strapped so tightly to stop it slipping that straps hinder the ribs, stomach etc. Thirdly the four corners of the howdah can dig into the hips and shoulders of the elephant. Fourthly the spine can also be damaged.
Sadly and even though Madhu has only been wearing a howdah for roughly nine months he already has a wound on his left hip, he is thin and his spine is being visibly affected. I am told by Samjeewa that he is becoming angry and unhappy. Thankfully Sanjeewa is wonderful. I had first hand experience of howdah damage when I was first at MEF. Another elephant, Sumana was here and had been cruelly looked after by her owner. She had numerous wounds from a howdah, the biggest being dinner plate sized and one inch deep- NOT EXAGGERATING! Unfortunately owners can become greedy and can make alot of money from this business.
I urge anyone considering going on a howdah to rethink their options. There are a few places (like MEF) that should you want to ride an elephant you can do it bare back- nothing quite like it!!!
Enjoy the elephants and Sri Lanka!!!