Friday, June 21, 2013

Elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka Elsie Gabriel

Elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka

Elsie Gabriel

“……I guess for the first time in my life I shopped for Poo paper. No, not toilet paper, Elephant poo paper!!  It’s called Pachyderm paper, which is made from elephant dung. So these orphans are actually walking and talking paper factories too! Holy Shit!”……read on…..

I was amazed at the endless march by these gigantic creatures of ‘Royalty’ which greeted me as I got off my vehicle. Up close and overwhelming. Baby ones, teenagers, hefty adolescents, young adults to elderly matriarchs, alert mothers, protective fathers and of course the naughty stray ones all in tow! Elephants!
 Yes, herds of them being driven across the pathway to the May Oya river . I was in Pinnawela, in the heart of the Sri Lankan forest areas.
I followed right behind them as the line ended and guess where they led me to? A leisurely bath in the frothy, bubbly, delightful river about fifteen minutes away .
At first I  watched their antics from the comfort of  the river bank and then later in superior comfort over lunch from the terraces of the Pinnalanda Restaurant  uphill of the river. Large trunks spraying water at each other, Mother elephants showing off  bathing skills and chasing little ones into deeper depths to help wash off. I simply soaked in the sun and all that the elephants had to offer in their wet charades.

As  far as I could remember I grew up believing that elephants have either  served as beasts of burden in war and peace. Some religions have regarded elephants as gods, and many a times they have been symbols of royalty.
I first recall sighting an elephant with utmost gleeful delight as a child at a circus and later on at the local zoo. Elephants have entertained in festivals around the world. For centuries, the elephant's massive tusks have been prized for their ivory. Or rather envied or butchered for their tusks, now making them an endangered species.
As the elephants frolicked in the river, stomping around I couldn’t fathom how they could all be orphans. Well, they were happy orphans. Enjoying their freedom to the maximum during their daily bathing ritual for sure.
The Elephant Orphanage is a peaceful sanctuary for lost, rescued, injured or abused elephants and attracts visitors from all over the world. Sri Lanka is the only country providing a safe retreat for young orphaned elephants. The adult elephants work in the orphanage itself, earning their keep by helping with various chores, such as collecting food and managing the herd.
The Pinnawela orphanage is situated northwest of the town Kegalla, halfway between the present capital Colombo and the ancient royal residence called Kandy in the hills of central Sri Lanka. Visiting the elephant orphans is surely a must on your to do list while visiting Sri Lanka or any other nearby Indian ocean destinations close to Sri Lanka like Mauritius or the Maldives.

This center was established 1975 by the Sri Lanka Wildlife department. The twenty four acres large elephant orphanage is also a breeding pace for elephants, thirty elephants were born since 1984, and it has the greatest herd of elephants in captivity in the world.
Well, Elephants are orphaned for a number of reasons. Habitat destruction and fragmentation is one of the main causes; due to irrigation projects, developing of industries, agricultural projects and human encroachment of forests the elephants have lost over 40% of their natural wild habitat in recent history. Orphaned young elephants whose parents have been the victims of poachers or accidents are tamed, reared  and trained here  to eventually become working contributors.
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage offers a brilliant chance for the victims of these situations as some of the main objectives of the orphanage revolve around giving the orphaned elephants a wonderfully happy and healthy life, including allowing for natural social behaviour, good medical treatment and food satisfaction thus making this one of the most successful captive breeding programmes for Asian elephants.
Elephants here are habituated to humans .The elephants, which roam freely in the parkland, are 'herded' by their mahouts  just before being taken to feeding sheds inside the orphanage enclosure. I was lucky to get to caress them and feed them milk in elephant baby bottles. The baby one’s guzzled down enormous quantities of milk. And of course bathing the older ones and spraying them with fresh water showed me how independent and blissful they all were. What family, which family? In the end I guess, it’s your new adopted family  and friends who nurture you, which ever part of the world you eventually land up in.

Of course in every park around the world something catches my eye and I shop for sustainability. But I guess for the first time in my life I shopped for Poo paper-Elephant poo paper!!  It’s called Pachyderm paper, which is made from elephant dung. So these orphans are actually walking and talking paper factories too! Holy Shit!
Elephant dung has large percentages of fibre which makes it easy to prepare for the manufacture of paper. High quality stationary and decorative paper is the outcome after the dung is dried  and treated. This ofcourse gives an extra source of income to the locals around too. Dried flowers, leaves, tea and husk is added to give various different colours and textures to the paperus.

In the end, whether you are an orphan or not, whether you are an elephant or not, it is each to his own as you experience metamorphism into adult life.
"We humans define ourselves by the ways in which we treat animals"  It was Julian Huxley who once said this, I believe.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

‘Y’ for YAK! Elsie Gabriel

‘Y’ for YAK!
Elsie Gabriel
After an overnight train drive from Kolkatta to Jalpaiguri, we eventually leave behind the  West Bengal flat preamble in the east. We drive down by car, the hills leading out from New Jalpai Guri to Sikkim abruptly change into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, rounded  mountains  thick in evergreens  and some sharp mean mountains ribbed with rocks. A tangle of winding mountain roads lead towards the extreme North East of India, lower Himalayan ranges  and away from the base.
Oh, to just drink in the pure air of the mountains, perfumed with the breath
of pines and mountain ferns, and a thousand aromatic shrubs and plants that render every hillside ever green from base to summit, is being truly a blessed traveler.
I could feel myself laying aside the bondages of social conditions, and getting back to nature, pure and unadorned, except with nature's charms and graces.
The road is a narrow zigzag, making an ascent of 4000 feet in a distance of three to four hours depending on traffic around the mountain roads. It starts with the North Bengal forests and then onwards to the road alongside the mighty aqua marine coloured Teesta River. Primula flowers and other alpine plantations are a special feature of the beautiful vegetation leading  closer up  to the top ,to  this magnificent Changu lake in Sikim.
Be warned of the narrow turns which are so short that a long car like the Innova is compelled to back up to negotiate with other vehicles.. When the top is finally reached, the view of the surrounding country is simply beyond description.
Changu Lake known as the ' source of the lake' in Bhutia language is located around 35 kms away from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. Steeped in holiness, the Tsomgo lake or more popularly known as Changu lake is a popular tourist destination,if you ever visit the North East of India. Nestled on Gangtok Nathu La highway, the lake towers to an altitude of 14,400 ft. Numerous devotees come here to worship the lake. The beautiful towering jaggered mountain terrains surrounding the peaceful lake add more charm to this massive water body. Placid water, cool breeze and picturesque location make it an ideal picnic spot for people.
Thousands of tourists flock here to experience the peace and tranquility. The lake is held in high esteem by both the Hindus and the Buddhists. Kyonqnosia, Kyonqnosla Alpine Sanctuary, Tseten Tashi cave, Nathula pass, river Lungtze Chu and a little Shiva temple are some of the other added attractions close by the lake which may want to visit.
Enjoy watching or even riding the Yak around the lake, fury mountain buffalow like animal which is a big attraction with kids and adults alike. Seeing the Yak for the first time brought back childhood memories of ' Y' for Yak! It is a gorgeous fury creature which lives only in regions which have temperatures below ten degrees.
There is a beautiful temple near the lake . It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The melting snow from the mountains surrounding the lake is the source of water for this lake. Tsomgo Lake gives birth to a river called Lungtze Chu which meets the river Rangpo-chu further down its way. It is said that Lamas used to make predictions about their future by studying the colour of the lake. The dark colour of the river used to indicate problems in future while light colour reflected peace and happiness. But fortune favoured me on this trip to the Eastern Himalays and I was gifted with this wonderful rainbow just above the lake which was mesmerizing!
Being located in the restricted area of the Indo China border, the Tsomgo Lake can be visited only by obtaining Inner Line Permit from the Police through the Tourism Department,your taxi driver or travel agent. The best time to visit the lake is from March-May and October- December.
Some of the other major attractions of Sikkim are Orchid Sanctuary, Yumthang Valley, Pemayangste Monastery, Rumtek Monastery, Pelling, Khecheopari lake, Yuksom, Namchi, Tashding, Dudbi Monastery and the adventure sports, waiting for you to explore every aspect of Sikkim.
Gangtok city is a perfect example of synchronization between traditions and modernity. The discotheques, fast food outlets, posh markets and other modern amenities gel so well along with some of the important Buddhist religious sites.It is heady mixture alright, and sometimes you wonder if you are in India or else where at this heavenly adobe.
Your Changu lake trip can not be complete without eating 'Maggie' or noodle soups on your way downhill, from all those stalls lined up by Bhutanese people. Ofcourse snowfall greeted us to a wonderful surprise on our descent downhill and I couldn't resist having a snow ball fight with my children, husband in tow, making life time ‘mountain’ memories forever.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fishing buddies- Dolphins at Chilka Lake Odhisha.

Fishing buddies- Dolphins at Chilka Lake Odhisha.
Elsie Gabriel
Bobbing up and down, circling the boats were dolphins! Wooooooo! With  bulging foreheads  and blunt, rounded heads they belonged to a rare species of dolphins alright. The fishermen kept looking out for them and their safety while showing them off. So where were we? In India, at the Chilka lake, the worlds second largest lagoon, yes in Orissa, now called Odhisha.
The motor boatman switched off  the engine out of sheer respect, and with equal mutual serenity, the dolphins would swim around in groups. We were lucky to catch a group racing each other endlessly but ours was a crazy chase punctuated by switching off the engine and then switching on the engine to catch-up with them and then again switching off….yes ….it was hilarious but fun. Watching dolphins without  disturbing them or getting too close had to be kept in mind. They are said to be part of the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins.
In 1981, the Chilka Lake was designated the first Indian wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. It is with pride that India boasts of such a richly gifted biodiversity hot spot at this world renowned wetland site.
The Chilka Lake is a brackish water lagoon, spread over the districts of Odisha state on the east coast of India, at the mouth of the Daya River, flowing into the Bay of Bengal. It is the largest coastal lagoon in India.
Satapada is where you will catch your tourist boat, which is located at a distance of 48 KM from temple town of Puri. It is nearly 100 KM from Bhubaneswar. National Highway (NH) number 203 A connects Satapada to Puri.
The lake supports fisheries that are the lifeline of the community. Mind you, the dolphins and fisherfolks are best buddies as they guide each other into fishing spots, a social phenomenon passed down from one generation to another, both for man and Dolphin.
I was happy to discover this unwritten mutual agreement which was the binding force between man and nature here. You should hear the boatmen whispering out of sheer adoration for these creatures, during the dolphin trips, once you are out at the mouth of the ocean,it is sacred ground for them.
It is also the largest wintering ground for migratory birds on the Indian sub-continent. The lake is home to a number of threatened species of plants and animals. It was sublime for a  bird watcher like me, binoculars and camera and nature!
The lake is an ecosystem with large fishery resources. It is said to help sustain more than 150,000 fisherfolk living in the villages on the shore and islands.
The lagoon hosts over 160 species of birds in the peak migratory season. Birds from as far as the Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal, Aral Sea and other remote parts of Russia, Kirghiz steppes of Mongolia, Central and southeast Asia, Ladakh and Himalayas come here. These birds travel great distances; migratory birds probably follow much longer routes than the straight lines, possibly up to 12,000 km, to reach Chilka Lake.
Sadly, greed takes a front seat when such a rich biodiversity hotspot is discovered. There are many threats to the ecosystem of the lake such as siltation, shrinkage of water surface area ,decrease in salinity and fishery resources, fights between fishermen and non-fishermen communities about fishing rights in the lake are also endless.
The rapid expansion of commercial aquaculture of prawn has contributed significantly to the decline of the lakes fisheries and bird population too.
It is feared that the lake may not retain the same ecological characters because of great human action constantly raiding the lake.
See the lake ,in all its natural wonder and genetic diversity, good time to visit ofcourse would be winter as it is very warm during the other months.
Talking to the local elders and fisherfolks with my half broken Bengali but well polished Hindi, a hectic mix of queries were well answered to my satisfaction. Fishermen recalled that when they would call out to the dolphins, to drive fish into their nets, the dolphins would oblige!! And this was a meaningful routine, year after year.
I kept wondering, each time they spoke with so much zest and passion, that if ever my grandchildren came back to visit, would the locals still be there or would the fishing village be transformed into multi storied iced fish storage complexes and corporate factories???
I pray that the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) which is the flagship species of Chilika lake [and  the other bottlenose dolphins as well] stay on and multiply like our children’s children!
Well, If that doesn’t happen, tell your children that the Irrawaddy dolphins have a seemingly mutual relationship of co-operative fishing with the traditional fishermen.  Castnet fishing with the help of Irrawaddy dolphins is a social lesson we could well learn from, what say?