Millennium Elephant Foundation

The Millennium Elephant Foundation the only NGO in Sri Lanka who is trying to help privately owned captive elephants. I came across their foundation on Instagram and contacted them. Evi (volunteer coordinator and social media manager) was willing to tell me a lot about the foundation, and I could ask her some questions about the coronavirus too. She told me that the main reason for elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka is a Buddhistic festival named the 'perahera'. Here they walk parades with traditional music, dances, fire and unfortunately also elephants. These elephants are getting dressed up in robes and lights, heavily chained, in honor of Buddha.

The government gifts elephants to 'special' people like businessman, temples or important families. These people only see money and like to send the elephants to work like the tourist industry, logging industry or the elephants are chained up behind the temple or in back gardens 24/7 unless they have to do a perahera.

It is illegal to buy and/ or sell elephants in Sri Lanka so we as MEF 'hire' the elephants from the owners to give them a better place with us. Which means that we are not the owners of the elephants or the real bosses of the mahouts (elephant caretakers).

We try to give the elephants more freedom than they ever had before by taking the chains off, letting them play in the free roaming area, go on walks in the jungle, let them socialize with each other and give them the medical care and love that they deserve.

Our main goal at MEF is to abolish our elephant riding package by offering the elephant walk experience. This is an experience where the guest would get a museum tour, elephant feeding, 45 minute walk with an elephant, elephant bathing and a few photo opportunities.

We were extremely close to our goal, but in 2019 tourism dropped because of the eastern bombing attacks and in 2020 of course the Covid-19.

How does COVID-19 effect the Millennium Elephant Foundation? 

"The only income at MEF is tourism. Visitors and volunteers. At this moment we have not had any visitors since march so it is very hard for us to take care of the elephants, money wise. Usually on good days we welcome around 200/ 250 guests a day, now 0."

"On the other hand our elephants have more free time than ever and they are enjoying it a lot. They are running, grazing and having fun with each other all the time, which is amazing to see. They are having the best time of their lives. Some of our elephants are 100% retired already (no rides or walks) due to old age and they are spending more time with the other elephants than before as well."

How do you feel about the way the corona situation is being handled by the government?

"The Sri Lankan government did an amazing job. They closed the airport on time and created a curfew very early. Which of course is not a good thing for all the touristic places, but health comes first. There were about 1900 cases in Sri Lanka with 11 deaths, which is compared to other countries not much! I have felt very safe during the whole period." 

How do you think the future is going to look like for the MEF regarding to COVID-19? Are there things going to be different due to the coronavirus?

"As I said already, our goal is to abolish elephant riding as soon as possible. To get to this goal we need at least 50 people a day to come for the walk experience. We were very close but now we are back to stage 1 again. We will do everything we can to still do it as soon as possible but it is going to take months and even maybe years to have the same amount of visitors again."

"The airport will open again on the 1st of august but this does not mean that everything will be back to normal again. We are going to have a hard time but we will only get stronger as I believe!"

How do you think the tourist sector with elephants is going to look like when tourists are allowed again to come to Sri Lanka?

"I think (not confirmed) that MEF and Pinnawala (elephant zoo) will be the only elephant places in Sri Lanka that will be open for tourism again. There are a lot of elephant places who had to close down and had to send the elephants back to the owners again."

"If this is true it would be good for us as we would get more visitors who want a hands on experience with the elephants as Pinnawala does not want people to touch or feed the elephants due to the Covid-19 situation." 

If people want to help/support your foundation how can they do so?

"We have started a 'go fund me' online to help support us for the elephants food, medication, mahouts salaries and the owners fees. This is helping us a lot!"

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      International Aid & Development - COVID-19
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