Six Hours. In less than 6 hours yesterday, I was lucky enough to be working alongside very diverse people dedicated to changing stories of escalating conflict into new stories of compassionate coexistence. Some of the stories were obvious. Some were very subtle and you had to pay close attention to how they were Change Makers too.
Along with my tiny-but-mighty team of Supun Priyankara Herath and Sarath Kumara, the morning was for the elephants and the villagers, working for peace with DWC’s (Department of Wildlife Conservation) Mahinda Wijayasinghe and Sanjeewa Wikrama, the Wasagamuwa Park Warden, and my favorite monk of the Weheragala village (those larger stories coming soon, still sorting photos and facts).
The afternoon was for the street dogs, the children who were curious about how to change a life, the woman who saw a chance to change her dog’s life and came running up the road, and one little boy who cannot walk or talk or sit up or chew his food or hold a toy and yet can chortle and laugh alongside his un-complaining widowed mother. I’ve been working on writing proper stories about so many animals and people here, to tell the true stories of love. Oh for that window of time to do them justice!
Every one of these people believes in the power of being willing to walk the path of Compassionate Action, even when the steps are not always clear. We might not speak the same verbal language, but we speak the same language of the Heart…
Yesterday’s gift was breathing with wild elephant families at sunset. A surreal experience and an exquisite reminder of what so many of us are fighting for.
Nothing in conservation is what it seems—there are the fights you expect and the ones you don’t. There are the conflicts that you can understand (even when you can’t always resolve them), and the conflicts that you can barely dream might have a resolution in them.
To those who don’t really know me, it may seem like my work is to fight for keeping wild elephants wild while extending humane care to those already held captive. Or perhaps to stem the flow of the suffering dogs seen around every bend in the road, or to enable local subsistence farmers to keep their crops in the ground until harvest, while simultaneously offering their children options and choices for a different future.
But that’s not quite the work, not really. What it really is, for me, is the willingness to go with fierce love to where I am called, to be relentless in living my life as an offering of the dharma, and to remember to be happy along the way.
And then sometimes there are wild elephants at sunset..
“Elephants in Captivity” is a complicated topic, with many countries entangled in its web via logging, patrolling, temple duties, and/or tourism of many shapes and sizes. More of the story is being heard as the mainstream media starts to pick up the pieces of a puzzle that, even when put together, will have no clear picture of how to fix all that has been broken. Education is key, as is an active empathy for a once-wild animal that is now living in a world that is not its true home.
It’s currently low season here in Asia, but many are planning holidays for the high season soon to follow. If plans include interacting with elephants, consider if your ”pachyderm love” is truly helping or hurting what you care about.
It might be easy to fall into the trap of loving an “elephant experience” (bathing, hugging, “too-close selfies”, etc..) more than loving the elephant itself. A “hands off” sanctuary that places the needs of an elephant before the desires of a tourist or volunteer is a great place to start changing the story from “they exist for us” to “they are deserving of as much respect and space as we can possibly give them”. Sometimes it’s about taking something OFF your bucket list…
Isuru and his Amma are quite extraordinary. They live a km or so away, alone in a dark brick house after Isuru’s Tata passed away, and although Isuru cannot walk or talk or sit up or eat by himself, he sure can smile and laugh, and when you visit him his eyes will follow you everywhere, telling you all sorts of stories until you learn how to follow the thread. His Amma, who does every and any thing for him and has every reason in the world to complain about how hard life is, instead smiles lovingly, letting you know clearly that she makes the choice, every single day, to be happy.
Since meeting Isuru in December, we’ve been bringing sacks of staples to his Amma every month. Rice, Dahl, Tea, Sugar, Milk Powder, Vegetables and Fruit, Soap, Washing Powder and Coconut Oil are just a few of the offerings that we gladly supply each visit as we work to source some larger items for their house.
I used to think we were the ones bringing nourishment when we pull up in the tuk tuk every few weeks with sacks of food, but yesterday it was clear that sometimes you get fed with food, and sometimes you get fed with smiles.
The wonder of the wild ones. I watch them and they watch me, and who knows who is really saving whom. The conditions are challenging, the myriad of problems in turning multi-layered conflict into unilateral coexistence is not for the feint of heart, and the uncertainty of the future for the wild ones is on my mind every day. On the days when I see gunshot wounds in a crop-raiding bull or speak with a family impoverished by that same innocent bull, the answers are as nebulous as the monsoon clouds. The sustaining belief in the power of Compassionate Action is real, yet no doubt the complexities of the issues are as well. With poets by our side, we’ll continue the good fight for the peace of wild things…
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. (Wendell Berry)
Working alongside the Department of Wildlife Conservation, we spent a rather amazing day in the world of tracking/darting/treating a wild elephant in need of veterinary intervention. It is an honor, in every sense of the word, to learn and serve with these fine people, all working so hard to keep Sri Lanka’s elephants wild…And safe…
Stories to come as soon as a rainy day keeps me bound to the IPad. When the weather is good, the work is too big to get the stories out of my head and on to the page.
A sunset spent witnessing wild elephants in their wild homes is a surreal experience, and an exquisite reminder of what so many of us are fighting for. Nothing in conservation is what it seems—there are the fights you expect and the ones you don’t. There are the conflicts that you can understand (even when you can’t always resolve them), and the conflicts that you barely dream could ever have a resolution in them.
Creating sustainable change rarely has a direct path, and the complexities of resolving Human Elephant Conflict on a very crowded planet can be overwhelming. Some days though, you get lucky enough to quietly watch families of wild elephants simply being elephants, renewing the hope that the beauty you see is the beauty that can be saved.
We’re back in Cambodia now, ready to take our “Elephants Can’t Read” project to the next level! Meeting with the Community Board of the local education department, we reviewed how a year ago today we delivered school supplies to 127 kids going to Putrom 2 Primary School, many of them children of the minority ethnic Bunong, living not far from the border of Vietnam, and with long family histories in elephants.
Yesterday we helped the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment get children from 3 rural villages registered for the new school year, and soon we’ll set them up once again with all the school supplies they need, and also tend the library we built for them last year, filled with over 800 books, art supplies, and all kinds of mad love.
Trunks up for solid collaborations and for helping communities whose lives are intertwined with elephants—village by village, elephant-sized love changes lives, for the animals, the people, and the habitat they all call home.
We’re back in Thailand now after a challenging time working in Myanmar on several deeply saddening elephant situations. The trade of what some may call “elephant parts”, but we call “pieces of the bodies of sentient beings”, with every possible bit of these innocent animals being sold to the highest bidder. It is the most complex movement of illegal trade we’ve seen, and it was heartbreaking, eye opening, and never, ever, what it seemed.
From Myanmar, the main market for the the ivory, and the tail hair and elephant skin, is China. The market for elephant skin in China is huge. And this is, if it’s possible, more tragic than the ivory, as the murdering of entire elephant families and herds is done for skin. For the tusks, you need the big papas. For the skin, any age is a target…
CITES is slated to be held in Sri Lanka at the end of May 2019, and we’ll be there. It’s a bleak time for elephants, but more and more people around the world are fighting for the survival of the remaining wild ones, and for the humane treatment of those held captive. United we stand, in hopes that together, we can reverse the tragedy before it is too late as we fight for what’s right, for a kinder world for us all. We won’t give up, and we know you won’t either.
When you want to help elephants have a better life, particularly in countries that have known tremendous hardship and suffering, lending hand and heart to the school that resides in the elephant’s forest and near their sanctuary is a sound way to shift a past filled with conflict toward a future of coexistence. Although people from around the world help change the future for wild and captive elephants, in the end it will be up to the people who live among them to chart their future, and as anywhere, education is key.With boundless gratitude to the good people of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), in November Heart of Ganesh was able to supply and deliver much-needed school supplies to every one of the 127 children living in the middle of these elephant lands. Many of these children did not have the most basic learning necessities, let alone story books. The wonder and awe we witnessed as they opened their very own books inspired us to go right back to the Fundraising Drawing Board and create a proper space for MANY books, and the very first Lending Library of its kind in the commune.First the buildout: shored-up walls, brand new roof, and a fresh clean cement floor with a surrounding sidewalk. Next came newly built tables and shelves, and 2 locking glass bookcases to keep the brand new supplies safe from rats, rain, and theft. Then several coats of paint inside and out, with many volunteers from EVP lending their hands, hearts, and humor. Books have been purchased, art supplies are coming, and we’ll make sure to get photos of opening day when all of the children and teachers of Putrom 2 add their “leafy” handprints on the tree that graces the side of the library!Any sustainable project in rural Cambodia is fraught with consistent and unforeseen challenges, but what surprised us more than the challenges were the unforeseen miracles! Here’s one—Meet Savoun. Savoun was a teacher in Putrom for 7 years before falling out of a tree harvesting honey and breaking his back in 2015. Thanks to the consistent and steadfast support of ELIE, Savoun was able to receive the surgery and health care that saved his life. And now, Heart of Ganesh is preparing to get Savoun back in the classroom again, teaching in the soon-to-be wheelchair-accessible library! Savoun’s life, and that of his family as well as the the lives of all the students at Putrom 2, are set to change for the good in ways that were unfathomable a few short months ago.
Savoun in the library building then Ngok joined the team! Translators who speak Bunong, Khmai, and English and with a solid background in education are not around every corner! We’re thrilled that Ngok will enable HG to ensure Savoun has the supplies and support he needs to run a sound library, as well as implement plans and projects for fellow teachers and excited students to get the most out of hundreds of new books and dozens of art supplies.A few more hurdles remain for HG before opening day (March 29th!), with the greatest being the funding and building of a very long path! Without a vehicle capable of getting Savoun to school, the building of a cement path that his wheelchair can navigate is in the works. From his home, through the easement of 2 farms, across the broad school field and ending at the door of his classroom and library, this is no small feat. But the only way forward is through, so through we will go!
Bringing books and art into the school and the homes of rural teachers and their students will stretch open the close-in walls of village life, slowly creating additional options and choices for the future. At the same time, there is so much worthy of conservation here—from the surrounding dwindling forest and its elephant habitat, to the ways of ancient Bunong life that might be held in story and art as times quickly change. It will take creative minds to conserve what is so easily lost while claiming what is waiting to be found, and the new Putrom 2 Primary School Library is almost ready for 127 children to do just that! Stay tuned, more good news from the Heart coming soon!