Elephants are one of the most majestic, intelligent and beautiful animals on this planet. Part of the reason I wanted to explore Sri Lanka was to get closer experience with them however I knew I had to find somewhere I shared the same values and ethics with.
I spent hours online researching organisations and chatting with friends to find somewhere that treated elephants with the respect they deserve. I was shocked and angered by the amount of companies I came across that still offer elephant rides, keep them chained and confined in small spaces, ask for tricks and work them to the ground. I wanted no part of that and neither should any of you.
Karlee Blair, who I met through Instagram directed me to the Elephant Freedom Project and I got so excited when I started reading about them that I knew we had found the perfect place to experience elephants.
Found in Kegalle, between Kandy and Colombo, the project is run by a small family who have set up a shelter for captive elephants who have been enslaved and neglected for many years by industries such as wood logging and elephant riding. They are the only place where there is no elephant riding – never. In a place surrounded by many elephant riding businesses they are the only ones trying to make a real difference.
Currently they have just one elephant staying, Kumari, meaning ‘Princess’. She is 47 years old and due to her history of being a slave to the logging industry she will never be able to be reintroduced to the wild. The Elephant Freedom project have provided her with a safe haven and allow her to live the life she deserves.
With the project, you can choose between a half day morning or afternoon, a full day experience or you can even volunteer for 1, 2 or 3+ weeks. For Kumari’s welfare spaces on the day are limited and for this reason please make sure you book in advance. We chose the full day experience which included caring for Kumari, cooking class, lunch, a visit to the dung factory and the local school. The cost is 10,500 LKR per person which works out at approximately £45.
09:00 Welcome to the project and an elephant safety talk.
We were welcomed into the family home and were offered some tea, coffee and juice. It was then time for a quick safety briefing before the real fun began.
09:15 Clean Kumari’s bed
You will not believe the size of elephant poo. Well, actually given their size you probably can. Each morning Kumari’s bed needs to be cleaned and on that day it was our job to do it. I offered to go first to demonstrate how it’s done, so I popped on a pair of gloves, picked up the poo and launched it into the jungle to decompose. There was something quite satisfying about it but I wish I could have thrown it at Farley!
09:30 Meeting Kumari and joining her on her daily walk
Her Mahout called out her name and Kumari appeared slowly from the jungle stopping with each thud to eat more of the jungle around her. We were introduced to Kumari and then let her lead the way through the jungle as we followed and accompanied her on her walk.
We reached a clearing where Kumari stopped to enjoy the plants, the bark, the tree leaves and all the foliage around her. Did you know elephants need to eat 149kg of vegetation a day which means they spend nearly 80% of their day eating! My kind of life!
We were then handed a bag of Kumari’s favourite fruit and were invited to approach her and feed her. I was a little nervous with being so small in comparison but she was so gentle natured taking the fruit from my hand. After Kumari had had her snacks it was time for us to have ours.
11:00 Tea time refreshments
11:30 Cooking class with the family
After a quick refreshment refuel, we were shown how to make three different Sri Lankan homemade curries using their traditional cooking methods. We were taught how to crack coconuts the right way and then shown how to grate the coconut shell on the traditional stool, a piece of equipment that every home in Sri Lanka has. The ladies made it look so easy, but it was definitely harder than it looks! It was an interesting part of the day and let us learn more about their culture.
12:30 Washing and bathing Kumari
I was so excited about this moment. We walked down to the local river to find Kumari relaxed and submerged in the water being scrubbed by her mahout with a coconut shell, living her best life! Her Mahout held out his hand and gestured to me to come closer. This was a moment I had only dreamed of, how often do you get to wash an elephant!
An elephants skin is really quite tough so scrubbing with a coconut shell takes away all the parasites that collect on their bodies. Together Farley and I washed and scrubbed Kumari whilst she blew bubbles in the water clearly enjoying her spa. Her Mahout said to give her a hug which I did and it was indescribable. Farley hugged her next and she wasn’t so keen. She went to get up and with her size you could tell Farley was nervous, he didn’t want to get squished!
Bathing Kumari was so much fun. I could have stayed in that lake with her all day but alas all good things must come to an end.
The homemade curries that we had cooked earlier were served up to the entire group including those that had just arrived for the afternoon session. It was one of the best meals during our entire Sri Lankan trip, compliments to the chefs. Oh wait… that’s us!
14:00 Visit to the dung factory
Yep, a dung factory! It was actually a really interesting opportunity getting an insight into a local factory where all of their products are 100% recycled. Ok, so it may be from elephant poo but hey it’s still organic! The dung factory turns elephant poo into recycled paper products such as note books, diaries, greeting cards, photo frames and animal ornaments. No trees or toxic chemicals are used during the paper making process. I love the company name too – Mr Ellie Pooh!
15:00 Visit to the local school for English conversation
After a trip to Mr Ellie Pooh, it was time to catch the bus into the town to visit a local school. The bus itself is a crazy experience – it doesn’t stop to let you on, you are lucky if you get a seat and it reminded me a party bus with it’s blaring music!
The school we visited is for children and teenagers of all ages that want to learn or better their English language. We sat down to talk with small groups around the classroom and rotated every 10 -15 minutes.
They were fascinated by all of us and asked so many questions such as where I was from, what are my hobbies, what my job is and if I knew the Queen. Hearing about their lives, their role models and their goals was a real culture shock. It was so lovely to meet them all and get an understanding into their livelihoods.
17:30 Thank yous and goodbyes
Before we knew it, our time with the Elephant Freedom Project had come to an end. The whole experience was truly unforgettable and I highly recommend the project to anyone travelling Sri Lanka. It is by no means a mass tourist attraction and all the money they make goes into supporting Kumari and saving other elephants that need rescuing.
As a final note, if there is one thing I would like you to take away from this read it is to do your research on what companies you choose to support as not everywhere treats their elephants with the love and kindness they deserve. Avoid places that use chains and NEVER go anywhere that promotes elephant riding.
Thank you for reading,
Love Steph & Kumari