Stepping down from the truck, the elephant stopped, raised his head, and trumpeted. The ringing cry was a command for three other elephants hesitating in the vehicle - follow him to freedom.
Wildlife workers released the four elephants - one female and three males, all juveniles raised in captivity - at a remote water hole on Saturday, the first stage of a landmark experiment in Sri Lanka's wildlife conservation program.The four were among dozens found in jungles across the country, orphaned by fighting in Sri Lanka's 15-year war against Tamil separatists or by the spread of habitat-destroying farms.
Sri Lanka opened its first orphanage for baby elephants 25 years ago, trying to save a native population that now is down to no more than 2,500. The orphanage, now home to 61 elephants, was a success - giving wildlife workers the confidence to try something riskier.
About two years ago, the government started an "Elephant Transit Home" next to Uda Walawe, a 120-square-mile wildlife park established in 1972.
The station was meant to raise the elephants in a way that minimized human contact, keeping them as wild as possible to increase their chances of acceptance by other elephants when they were returned to the wild.
"Domesticating elephants is not a good way of conserving them," Nandana Atapattu, Sri Lanka's top wildlife official, told reporters Saturday.
"When we started the transit home for elephants, scientists laughed at us, " Atapattu said. "They said it cannot be done - but today we have come to the pinnacle of this experiment and it is a success."
Saturday, wildlife workers loaded the animals into a blue truck for the short trip into the wildlife park.
The wildlife experts and officials held their breaths when the truck stopped at the water hole. The leader of the pack, a 6-year-old the workers called Gamini, stepped out first.
Pausing, he trumpeted, scaring the edgy people watching him.
At his signal, the other elephants - Anusha, 5, and males Anurudha, 4, and Pandula, 3 - stepped down as well.
They followed him into tall grass and trees, and soon disappeared from sight.