Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage – A Home for the Mighty Ones

Sri Lanka is well known for its perfect coastlines, abundant wildlife, green tea-plantations in the hill country and for its unique culturally-rich history. Among them, the abundant wildlife in Sri Lanka is a must see for any tourist—local or foreign—and is an adventure of a lifetime for the enthusiastic travel nut. Amongst the other wild life animals and endangered species, Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus)—a subspecies of Asian Elephant, is a tremendous attractions of every visitor. Sri Lanka is estimated to have the highest density of elephants in the Asian region making it a welcoming place for elephant lovers all over the world.

However, the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka has been raised significantly during the last three generations which has caused dramatic changes in elephant’s habitats and its population overall. Nowadays, the Sri Lankan elephant population is considerably found in the lowlands of the dry zone in Sri Lanka and also wildly spread in the National Wilderness parks or in sanctuaries. You can also see the elephants in many temples of Sri Lanka, specially the most sacred ones. During the ruling of British, elephants were hunted as a form of sport and Major Thomas Rogers, a British Army Major, is known to have killed more than 1500 elephants while Captain Galleway and Captain Skinner of British Army, are reputed to have shot half that number each. They and many other individuals in the past must have created elephant orphans by the hundreds if not thousands. Animal hunting is currently illegal in Sri Lanka, but with the elephant lands being taken over by villagers and farmers for settlement and permanent cultivations, the Sri Lankan elephants are consequently forced to seek safe habitat. Thus, these giant beasts of the animal kingdom wind up coming to villages and cause a threat to crops, humans and their daily lifestyle. These elephants are often tragically shot or injured by the local farmers. Also, the Sri Lankan elephants are largely injured or killed by falling into wells or pits in their quest for water during drought periods causing abandonment of their baby elephants which result in thousands of orphan elephants.

A home for the elephants
A home for the elephants

The Pinnawala (Pinnawela) Elephant Orphanage was initiated and established in 1975 by Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife with the intention of looking after the orphaned, abandoned or injured elephants. The concept of an elephant orphanage was the first in the world. The orphanage was originally set up at Wilpattu National Park, then moved to Bentota Tourist Complex, shifted again to the Dehiwela Zoo, and then finally relocated at Pinnawala. In 1978, the National Zoological Gardens took over the elephant orphanage from the Department of Wildlife and The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is now administrated and managed by the National Zoological Gardens (Dehiwela Zoo). The establishment of this elephant orphanage has also resulted in a captive breeding program to raise elephant population in Sri Lanka and the first baby elephant birth was reported in 1984. Since then, over 20 elephants have been nursed by the warm-hearted staff at Pinnawala, making Pinnawala one of the most successful elephant breeding centres in the world. Some elephants being raised at the orphanage are occasionally given or “donated” to foreign countries and temples.

The Guard-stone of a giant elephant at the entrance
The Guard-stone of a giant elephant at the entrance

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is located at Pinnawala Village in Kegalle town, approximately 71km from the Commercial capital Colombo. The humble tourist attraction of elephant lovers is a less than two hour drive from Colombo on the Colombo – Kandy highway. The 25 acre abundant land provides a home for more than 70 elephants and has a caring, devoted and driven staff to nurse, feed and monitor the health of elephants daily. More than 48 mahouts (or elephant drivers) are presently working at the orphanage to bath and ensure the well-being of the elephants and to make sure these beautiful and magnificent creatures of nature don’t pose a danger to the daily visitors.

My trip to Pinnawala started at 5.30 in the morning allowing enough time to get breakfast on the way and to reach in time before the baby elephants are bottle-fed at 9.15am. The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage opens at 8.30am and the visitors need to buy a ticket from the main counter.

Local Tourist – Adult Rs. 100
Children Rs. 30
Foreign Tourists – Varies between Rs. 2000 – Rs. 3500
(*1 Sri Lankan Rupee equals 0.0077 US Dollar)

What I really like about this Elephant Orphanage is it doesn’t give you the regular, routine feeling of walking passing the cages of animals observing them within a safe distance. Instead what you get for a reasonable price is simply the best and precious. You get to walk pass the magnificent elephants casually wandering in and around the orphanage lands with their mahouts. Once the gates have been opened for the visitors in the morning, the young and adult elephants are gathered to an extended open area by a few mahouts to let the elephants eat and roam freely with mahouts’ supervision. The herds of elephants are fed large quantities of jackfruit, coconut, sugar canes (kitul), palm leaves and grass in this bare land area where visitors can observe the elephants closely, take pictures or even touch them under the mahouts permission if the elephant is a particularly tame one!

I was fascinated by the entire view at the top of the hill of giant beasts eating and playing in herds within just a few inches from me.

"Breakfast time, pal!"
“Breakfast time, pal!”

No walking pass a cage, no limitations. Isn’t that the best way to experience and observe nature? A friendly mahout holding an elephant goad who was standing on a log monitoring a small herd of elephants willingly shared a great deal of information about the orphanage with us. He pointed at a female elephant eating sugar canes alone with her mahout—nearly 50 feet away from where we were standing—and mentioned that she is the grandma of the orphanage family at Pinnawala.

A friendly mahout.
A friendly mahout.

She is known as the oldest member of the orphanage and as it seemed she is now being closely monitored and cared for as her age and conditions required more care and tending.

He also showed us a young female elephant, “Dinuda”, who was being taught to do light work. She was chained to a tree only a few feet away from us, and was being handled by a really young mahout. He let us touch Dinuda and take pictures with the young female elephant who he said sometimes can be unruly. She was loving the attention from the visitors, specially the little children. Stroking the trunk and touching the stiff skin of an animal 5 times my size is an experience worth taking a risk for and one that I would never be able to forget!

Bucket list items 2014 - Dare to touch an elephant. CHECKEDDDD!
Bucket list items 2014 – Dare to touch an elephant. CHECKEDDDD!

After petting her for a while, we saw a big stall made by wood on high elevations so that when you climb the stairs and enter it, you can feed a giant elephant on the ground below you raising his trunk at you for food. There were three mahouts and an officer who let the visitors feed the animal with close supervisions for a small fee. The children fed the elephant baskets full of mangoes, banana, papaya, pineapples and watermelons and he kept raising his trunk for more! That’s elephants for you.

"Pineapples are my favorite!"
“Pineapples are my favorite!”

After taking enough pictures, we went to the open area with a roof over us, to watch the bottle feeding show at 9.15am which is a popular item of the daily routine at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Four baby elephants were each chained to a post in a circle few meters away from one another. There were hundreds of children and tourists—local and foreign—gathered and ready to see the 4 baby elephants drink milk. Calves born in Pinnawala are not usually bottle fed, but a few baby elephants each year are kept at Pinnawala and bottle fed as a tourist attraction. At 9.15am, a truck full of elephant food bulk approached the premises and a few mahouts unloaded large quantities of sugar canes and put them near the elephants. A zoo officer bought a large barrel of milk, placed it on the center and filled bottles with milk from the barrel. Four other Zoo officers took the bottle and started feeding each baby and it was the most adorable thing I have ever seen in my life. The baby elephants were so eager to drink the milk and playful at the same time.

Bottle-feeding milk.
Bottle-feeding milk.

It was a million dollar view and a moment! The officers kept filling the bottles with milk and feeding these hungry baby mouths again and again showing us that raising a baby elephant might not be for everyone. The baby elephants were so lively and playful that it was hard not to laugh when they drank every bottle in less than 3 seconds flat and waited for another one. For people who’d like to bottle feed a baby elephant could buy a ticket at the entrance gate and the zoo officers kindly let the children and tourists bottle-feed these energetic elephant babies when the ticket was shown. It was surely a wonderful view seeing humans getting acquainted with the elephant babies and trying to feed them. It became even more entertaining once the elephant baby near us started growling a little when a mother carrying a little child tried to bottle-feed him which scared the human baby and made him cry. Awwww!

“Come on, sweetie, it’s baby elephant like you!,” The mother smiled.

After the bottle-feeding and their various meals, the elephants are let to roam freely during the day around the sanctuary in herds while on mahouts’ watch. At 10am, the mahouts and officers take the elephants across the road, down a lane, to the Maha Oya river where they are let to bathe in from 10am – 12pm. We walked down the lane passing the numerous shops with clothes, souvenirs, handicrafts and some smoothie stalls and waited at the river bank for the elephants to arrive and jump in the water. After a few minutes of waiting, I saw the elephants walking in line calmly and then going in to the water as the crowd of people enthusiastically watched and cheered. I sat on a balcony of the restaurant where I could watch and take pictures—or better, capture these giant beasts’ playful moments in water, up close. The long-lasting trees on the river banks provided natural shade for the visitors and provided a cool breeze on the sunny day. It was the perfect weather, perfect atmosphere and the perfect getaway that I could have ever imagined. The amazing view of mountain range across the river as I watched the elephants bathe in the river relaxed my mind and I wished I could stay there forever and not return to the city. The elephants bathed in water spontaneously as the mahouts scrubbed them with coconut husks while some other mahouts watched the unruly, young and wild, mighty creatures, closely. Some baby elephants splashed water at each other, wrestled and played with one another. The more adult ones remained calm in the water or relaxed their bodies resting under the water. Surprisingly, some elephants did not seem to like the idea of bathing and remained not bathing for the entire time in the water! “Hey, bathes are not for everyone!,” they might shout at you if these lovely animals could speak. I watched the largest land animal’s playful behavior up close and it is one of the best views my eyes were ever lucky to have witnessed. After the elephants finished bathing, the mahouts took them back to the orphanage and fed the adult elephants some more. The baby elephants were to be bottle fed again at 1.15am and the elephants would once again be taken to the river at 2pm and bathed until 4pm so the next round of tourists can enjoy the same routine of the elephants. The baby animals are again bottle fed at 5pm and the orphanage would eventually close at 6pm for visitors.

All in all, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a very special place, providing a home for the abandoned elephants and a chance for the visitors to observe elephants at close quarters and enjoy a day full of entertainment and endless fun. It is more interactive than a zoo or a park and helps raise awareness in people of the behavior of elephants in an enjoyable way. The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a great distraction from the city life for the locals as well as a must see spot for foreigners on their way to Kandy. I left with the satisfaction of experiencing a great joy with the entire short tip, but it was upsetting to leave the mighty ones and the playful young ones behind.

For the images please click on the gallery. Enjoy! 🙂

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