Newfane resident lays groundwork for elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka

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NEWFANE — Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund hopes to help at least one elephant during her lifetime.

That might be an understatement with the work that's underway.

"I just zipped up one bag full of all my equipment, which is like 50 pounds of equipment," the Newfane resident said as she was getting ready to go to the airport on Sunday.

She's coming back on Aug. 11 after training and educating veterinarians while treating and caring for elephants held in captivity.

Burbank-Hammarlund started down this road by helping the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWC) with fundraising, project development and outreach services pro bono about three years ago. She said she "got hooked" on the organization's mission and its ability to get things done.

Now she's leading the EleVETS project, which calls for the training of 20 veterinarians in Sri Lanka, and the caring for and treating of elephants in a two-day workshop. Then 50 captive elephants in five Buddhist temples will be looked at and treated during Kandy Perahera, a big cultural festival.

Also, elephants will be selected for the New Life Elephant Sanctuary, the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. Burbank-Hammarlund has been working for two years on finding a location. A 400-acre piece of land, owned by a Buddhist temple, is expected to become home to rescued elephants that have been in captivity. That will be built once the organization raises $1 million.

Elephants being rescued "need to retire or can't work," Burbank-Hammarlund said. "They're not well enough or the owners can't care for them anymore. That project is slowly coming about. During the planning of that project, we realized there's a real lack of good veterinary care for elephants who live in captivity."

Sri Lanka has a lot of veterinarians, she said. But they don't all know about treating elephants.

"There's about 200 elephants living in captivity and a lot of them do not get any veterinary care," Burbank-Hammarlund said. "It's a miserable life for them. They really suffer from all sorts of injuries."

Through EleVETS, elephants will be treated for wounds and infections as well as eye, foot and digestive disorders. The overall health and condition of the animals also will be assessed.

"Lack of adequate veterinary care often leads to chronic disorders: irreversible joint damage, painful foot abnormalities, parasitic disease, intestinal illness, dehydration, infections and abscesses, and stereotypical behaviors — common symptoms of neglect of the most basic biological, emotional, and physical needs of elephants," according to the SLWCS.

All the services from the EleVETS program will be free for veterinarians, elephant owners and temple custodians — thanks to sponsors, donors, foundations and pro bono services of many people, said Burbank-Hammarlund.

For 18 months, Burbank-Hammarlund has been planning the programming with Director of Veterinary Programs and Research at Elephant Care International Dr. Susan Mikota, and Dr. Ashoka Dangolla, from the faculty of veterinary medicine and animal science at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.

"This project is just sort of the start of something I want to be part of until I die," Burbank-Hammarlund said. "It's not an easy task. I know it's going to take a lot of money to build the sanctuary."

Burbank-Hammarlund said elephants in Asia have been pushed out of their habitat and sold from the wild so they could be held in captivity.

Elephants were ridden by people in "riding camps." Taming for that activity requires beating and starving of the animals, according to Burbank-Hammarlund.

"This doesn't happen in all countries or by all people who own elephants," she said. "Our goal is to help the ones living in captivity to live healthier, and have some semblance of life that addresses their physical and emotional needs."

She's planning a trip back to Sri Lanka in March and will be announcing openings for other volunteers to come help build the wildlife sanctuary.

Her blog — slwcs.org/blogaliyajourney — will be updated with stories, photos and videos from the trip.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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