Sama's story

Published : Sep 09, 2011 00:00 IST

Sama walks back to the orphanage after a community 'bath' at the Maha Oya. - R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Sama walks back to the orphanage after a community 'bath' at the Maha Oya. - R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

AT 4-30 p.m. on a Friday, a herd of elephants reluctantly made its way from the Maha Oya (river) back to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, about a kilometre away, after two and a half hours of fun and frolic in the river and on the mud banks.

As the herd trudged up the narrow stone-paved, souvenir-shop-lined street, one strange-looking elephant caught the eye. For those who had seen and known Sama (meaning eternal peace), a cow elephant and a victim of a landmine blast at the orphanage about 80 km from Colombo off the Colombo-Kandy highway, it was an unbelievable sight. She hopped on her left fore leg because a portion of the right fore leg had been shorn off in the blast, and completed normal' steps with her hind legs. It did not seem strange now for the other elephants in the herd. Sama was about five when she was brought to the orphanage 16 years ago. She lost a leg when she stepped on a landmine in the northern jungles. Because of the strange way in which she walked, ate and even rested, the other members of the herd kept her at a distance.

About seven years ago, when I first saw Sama and discussed her condition with the orphanage veterinarian, Chandana Rajapaksa, he was worried: Because of her increasing weight and because of the unnatural position of her legs [and efforts] to balance herself, [the alignment of] her joints and her spine has changed, he told me. But she was otherwise healthy.

Sama was apparently not in pain but her posture could affect her internal organs. For instance, there was the real problem of the rib cage putting pressure on the lungs and the heart. The bones are becoming deformed. There is pressure on her internal organs. There is nothing much we can do, the vet told me.

An international effort was mounted to help Sama overcome her handicap. A team comprising an orthopaedist, a veterinarian, an elephant expert, a physiotherapist and an elephant trainer tried to get Sama used to an artificial limb ( They failed three times. Sama did not accept the trans-tibial prosthesis. Veterinarians had tried it earlier. But Sama preferred to overcome her handicap on her own than take support of a prosthetic appliance.

The mahouts agreed that there was a time when Sama was not tolerated in the herd. But that situation has changed and no one really knows how or why. It took many years for the herd to accept her. Sama has her own ways and she is quite independent of the herd too, one of the mahouts said.

For instance, most other elephants use their fore legs to hold down the coconut fronds and tear them using their trunks. Sama has to work twice as hard since she can use only one of her fore legs. First she tears apart the fronds and then repeats the action to make the fronds into small, consumable chunks.

While wildlife officials and non-governmental organisations are not sure how many animals have fallen prey to the millions of landmines planted across the Northern Province, it appears that Sama's survival is peculiar. Animals were known to bleed to death once they stepped on a landmine. Besides, veterinarians attending on her had told me that at some point her lungs would collapse because of the pressure of her ribs. She has survived so far despite her backbone growing more crooked with each passing year.

The orphanage was started in 1975 by the wildlife department on a 10-hectare coconut grove on the banks of the Maha Oya. It was primarily designed to afford care and protection to abandoned baby elephants found in the jungle.

R.K. Radhakrishnan
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment