Gone Astray

Values fall by the wayside for a humanitarian aid worker in Sri Lanka.

| Summer 2016

“I could get nothing into perspective.”

— George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”

I was midway through my second trip to Sri Lanka when I passed an injured elephant wandering near the road. He was pacing back and forth, just at the edge of light forest and grassland, holding up a leg, in which a bullet was lodged. The wound, open and weeping, was wearing him down with each moment. He hung his head low and he moved his lethargic body as well as he could. His suffering was slow, protracted.

I reasoned that one of the squatters in the nearby forest must have shot him. This was a stretch of fertile earth beyond any established town, where the people hack away brush and light fires to clear the land. They erect cardboard houses with a board or two of wood siding, and work to survive day by day. When the elephants come near, the people fight them off; there is the threat of being trampled in the night, or of losing the gentle beginnings of crops, devotedly planted and protected. I imagined the shooter was displaced from his former land like all the others around him, displaced by the endless civil war or the tsunami’s killing waves, squatting illegally near national conservancy territory. He’d set up a modest shelter and hoped not to be moved again.

Like the shooter, this elephant was caught between disasters. The war, the tsunami, increasingly privatized land, a growing human population: his land was disappearing quickly. Between the fences and the encampments, there was nowhere for him to flee when the shooter raised the rifle. Maybe he charged. Maybe he was starting to turn around. As I passed by, I imagined him receiving the bullet in his flesh, trumpeting his shock and pain.

I struggled to believe that a wound the size of a bullet could affect a body as enormous as his, but I could feel the grief and loneliness that radiated off of him. He was stuck in human territory with nowhere safe to hide. I felt it heavy in my chest: to die slowly and without companions, to be surrounded only by strangers and aggressors in such a defeated state. I stared at the elephant’s slow pacing from the backseat of my three-wheeled taxi. The nervous driver passed carefully but at some speed.