Pinnawala: close encounter with elephants

It’s one thing to find yourself eye to eye with an elephant in a circus or in a zoo. It’s a whole different story to have a close encounter with these majestic beasts in picturesque Sri Lankan surroundings, with acres of land in sight. That’s what the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage offers: a few hours of observing these true rulers of the jungle while they run around, bathe, eat and play.

Are there any more wild elephants left in Sri Lanka? The answer is yes, but every year the number decreases and sadly, it’s us humans that are the cause. Baby elephants lose their parents to poaching and are suddenly left to their own fate, other elephants are wounded by landmines or lose their habitat due to deforestation. And that’s where the Pinnawala Orphanage comes in.

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How does it work?

The Pinnawala elephant orphanage, about 40 km west of Kandy, was founded in 1975 in an honest attempt to give injured, abandoned elephants or healthy retired animals at risk a place to stay. Quite a successful attempt: there are about 75 elephants at the orphanage today. The animals or fed, cared for and nursed but none of them are returned to the wild since they have either become dependent on humans or they’re too damaged to survive on their own. So it’s a sad as well as a wonderful thing that places like Pinnawala exist. The elephants may not be free, but at least they’re alive and together, in a wildlife-like environment. A bittersweet solution to a never-ending problem.

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The different sites

There are three main sections at the orphanage. First there’s the semi-wildlife area where the elephants roam around in the open. Second there’s the area where the little ones are being fed. Third, there’s the river on the other side of the street where the elephants are escorted to for bathing, twice a day.

The open area 

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Over 20 acres of space for the elephants

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Raja, a blind elephant of over 80 years old.

The elephant walk

My favorite part of visiting the orphanage was watching the elephants coming down the street to bathe in the Maha Oya river. There are no real restrictions on where you can stand as the elephants pass and since the alley is quite narrow, you could actually touch them if you wanted to. It’s truly an overwhelming sight to see these huge, magnificent creatures slowly trundle toward you, especially because there aren’t that many caretakers that accompany the herd so for a few moments, it’s just you and the animals.

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They take up the whole road!

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Bathing in the river

It’s equally pleasant to observe the elephants as they cool down and play around in the shallow water. The best place to watch is right at the shore where they enter the water but there are also a couple of hotels that offer a view over the water, like the Hotel Elephant Park. It depends how close you want to get.

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The baby arena and a few concerns

As for the rest of the orphanage, I have mixed feelings. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but I got the impression at times that the handlers (they’re called ‘mahouts’) were more interested in earning tips (by taking photos of you with the animals or by letting you touch them) than in answering any questions you might have about the elephants. They had quite an aggressive approach too, for ex. they would deliberately push away the animals that you tried to photograph with a metal stick if you didn’t hand over a tip first, or they would just hop in the picture themselves right before you took it. Also, I read that the females are chained in stalls at night, so that’s why you’ll sometimes see animals with chains around the neck or paws. It doesn’t look comfortable at all…

As for the baby elephant feeding session, I didn’t even stick around till the end. The baby was chained while the food was basically just out of reach and while other tourists found it funny to watch how the animal was desperately trying to stretch its trunk to its maximum, I’m more of the opinion that feeding time shouldn’t be made into a stressful event for the amusement of the spectators. There was a bottle of milk going around too, but it wasn’t the kids that were allowed to help feed the elephant or any random lucky person, it was the person who waved the most cash. It was chaotic and far from endearing.

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So, with that said…

I have no doubts that the initial intentions to build the elephant orphanage were sincere, but perhaps, due to its own success, it grew out to be more about the tourists and the money they spend rather than about the animals’ welfare. On the other hand, if you’ve never been so close to an elephant in the semi-wild that you can sense the breeze on your face as it sways its trunk and flaps it ears and feel the ground shake a bit as it strides along, this experience will still blow your mind. The surroundings are beautiful and vast and even if it’s not paradise (not for the elephants nor for you), I do believe that, of all possible situations these injured or abandoned animals have been (or could have been) in, this is the fairest of them all.

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  • People are dicks

    • Some people really are, unfortunately.

      • Elephants are walking unchained down the street behind a caretaker, but then a baby is chained to eat? Pretty suspect.

        • Probably because a baby elephant is more likely to be playful and less predictable than the older animals who have gotten used to the circumstances. Either way it made me sad to watch.

  • These are wonderful images, but I so wish that people would stop using animals to make money. Elephants are such beautiful gentle creatures, they deserve to live their life in peace.

    • I agree. The orphanage is ‘saving’ these animals from situations they wouldn’t even be in if people would just leave them be in the wild.

  • I love, love, love elephants. Before I visited Sri Lanka, I got to hear the same concerns from a lot of people as you mentioned – how the mahouts in Pinnawala were sometimes (often?) rude and only interested in tips, and how the elephants were chained up and some of them didn’t “look happy” or well cared for. Also how, since its popularity shot up, the place has become commercial in terms of bringing in more and more elephants (including babies) only for adding to its numbers. Anyway, I debated for a long time between Pinnawala and another, smaller elephant sanctuary in the area called the Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF) and finally ended up visiting MEF. I enjoyed my time there thoroughly, although there were no babies there (awwww), only older rescued elephants. I only hope and wish that someday we humans would be conscientious enough and animals in forests and sanctuaries around the world could be safe, well cared for, and kept happy. Hoping, wishing. <3 Thanks for this beautiful post, I really do so love elephants! <3

    • I hope so too, but I doubt it, we can’t even treat our own species with respect, let alone the animals we share the planet with… Let’s just hope there will always be a minority that doesn’t give up!

  • Sad to hear about the bad treatment 🙁