SABARAGAMUWA — As the sun rises over the lush mountains in the Sri Lankan province of Sabaragamuwa, a team of veterinarians prepare very large bottles of milk. The babies, Pandula and Migara, are orphans and they are definitely hungry. Once presented their breakfast, they impatiently consume it.
The babies are two calves at the Pinnawala Elephants Orphanage.
Chandrika Priyadhashani, the research and education assistant at the orphanage, says, "They come from the wild, so we have to look after them during their lifetime. And their ages are below five."
Pandula and Migara were rescued from the Ritigala forest several years ago.
Over recent decades, massive development has seen elephant habitats in Sri Lanka shrink. Thousands of acres of thick forest have been cut down to make way for residential areas and agricultural land.
"So many wildlife animals lives were damaged, especially the elephants. They need big forests," Priyadhashani says. "So many of our elephants’ babies were orphaned."
As their habitat has been drastically reduced, elephants now wander into farms in search of food. Hundreds have been killed by people in surrounding communities because they are seen as a nuisance even though they are endangered.
In response to the critical threat to the elephant population, the orphanage was established in 1975.
"We have started with five orphaned babies, now they are big elephants," Priyadhashani says. "Three of them are living in here. The other two have died. Our first aim is conservation."
About 6,000 elephants live in the wild in Sri Lanka. Three decades ago, their population was estimated to be as high as 24,000, according to the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Department.
In addition to Sri Lanka, Asian elephants are also found in India, Thailand and Indonesia. The sanctuary in Sri Lanka has played a significant role in their conservation.
The first elephant was born in the sanctuary in 1984, and many more have followed. There are about 88 elephants at the orphanage, including 20 baby elephants.
There is also a push to improve awareness about the endangered species. After four decades, the center has become an iconic place to visit. Spread over 25 acres of land, visitors can learn about elephants, as well as watch them bathe and feed.
At 4 pm, the fun begins. Sirens are blown to stop traffic outside the orphanage as the elephants form a train to cross over to the river, where they bathe and swim twice a day.
Mathali, an elephant in her 40s, was once orphaned and now leads the herd.
"When she was younger, she showed so many qualities, especially motherly qualities. She can manage the elephants very well. And I think she is a leader selected by [the herd]."
Many calves that have spent time at the orphanage are later released into the wild. Pandula and Migara are waiting for an adoptive mother and a herd to call their own.