Addressing the elephant in the room

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

Addressing the elephant in the room

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Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

A peaceful sanctuary or an exploitative tourist trap? This is the conundrum at the centre of the debate about Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.

Tourists who do some research often end up wondering whether they should visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Ethical travellers want to support animal welfare projects and see examples of positive change. But can conservation and chains go hand-in-hand? Because this is what you seem to get here.

In this post, I am going to attempt to answer these questions – to give you some guidance on whether you should visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. And I’m going to do this in a way that almost every other blogger or animal welfare activist has NOT done it… by going to the source and asking the orphanage directly about the concerns.

Let me first give you some brief background information.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

My visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

I was in Sri Lanka a couple of weeks ago doing a trip around the country that was part of a conference I was attending. Sri Lanka’s tourism board had included the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in the itinerary. When I saw this, I was hesitant – I had previously read criticisms of the orphanage and wasn’t sure I wanted to go.

But then I began to look at it from a different perspective. Even when a country’s tourism board is covering my travel costs (as was the case this time) and even when I have a commercial arrangement with a destination (I didn’t this time), I write the truth and try to give you – the reader – the most accurate depiction I can. So I started to see a visit to Pinnawala as an opportunity to shine a light on the Elephant Orphanage.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

I expected, based on reports I had read, to find a lot of bad things to write about. As it turned out, that wasn’t the case. What I found was a conservation project that – although not perfect – is doing a lot of good. I found that a lot of the elements that worry visitors actually have reasonable explanations… and that often the concerns are based on misunderstandings. And I discovered that many of the problems come from the expectations that visitors have, compared to the reality.

What I am particularly pleased about is getting the chance to question the people who run the orphanage and hear their side of the story. That perspective is missing from almost all the reports about the site. (I have read quite a few critical stories about the orphanage from people who haven’t even visited it and seen anything for themselves!)

What are the concerns about the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

The main concerns that have been raised by animal welfare organisations and visitors are based around these issues:

  • That the elephants are often seen in chains
  • That the elephants are ‘paraded’ to their bathing for tourists
  • That there is too much contact between tourists and elephants
  • That elephants will never be released into the wild

It is true that it can be a bit of a shock to arrive at somewhere called an ‘orphanage’ and see animals in chains and crowds of tourists.

You might be expecting this (a photo I took from one angle):

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

But you actually end up in the middle of this (a photo I took from a different angle):

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

So there’s an issue here about expectation-management. When a tourist doesn’t have enough information in advance, they can be shocked by conditions that are unexpected.

Sameera Rathanayake, Assistant Curator

During my visit, I was able to have a long chat with the assistant curator of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, a man called Sameera Rathanayake. He is a biologist who has been working at the site for more than three years. He tells me that, when he was a child, his heroes were not actors or sporting stars – they were people like David Attenborough or Steve Irwin.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

As well as chatting with Sameera informally, I recorded an interview with him. I am going to include a lot of his answers in the quotes below but, if you would like to hear the whole interview, you can listen to it here:

Release to the wild

When the orphanage opened in 1975, there were 5 elephants Now there are 88 of them. Most of them have been rescued because they were injured or abandoned by their mothers. Some were born in captivity.

However, none of them will ever be released into the wild.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

I asked Sameera about that.

“Because these guys are abandoned in the wild, and some of them have some sicknesses, they would not survive in the wild. We have to take care of them very keenly. Here we have daily medication, daily keeping an eye on them, and especially food. The whole year they get the food constantly but in the wild they will face many difficulties to find food and especially water.”

“Here they have formed their own family and they live together. So we don’t separate them again. The small ones are born here, they’re born in captivity, and so they don’t know how to get food and how to mix with the other wild elephants. So they live with their mothers and they live until they die here.”

Separating babies

In one section of the orphanage, I saw a group of four baby elephants being kept in small pens with hardly any space to roam around. There was no explanation about why there were separated from the rest of the herd, so I asked Sameera about them too.

“Those are orphans, they lost their mothers, so we have to take care of them. They have no mothers so they don’t get any milk. So we have to be mummas for them. After they have grown, we will mix them with the herd and they will get some new friends and brothers and sisters and they will form a new family there. Until that, they will have human mothers.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

Separating males

But most of the herd is able to wander around freely in a relatively large space at one end of the site, away from the tourists. At one stage, I pointed over to that area and asked Sameera about it… and why there were a few elephants being kept away from it.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

“This is the main area where the elephants are roaming freely. We have nearly 30 acres to move here and there to the main herd. And we have some males – in the wild the males are individuals, they leave the herd when they reach maturity, especially the teenagers, in the nature, to prevent the inbreeding.”

“In the wild, in the herd there are adult females and smaller males and females. The adult males leave the herd. Same as here we maintain that here also. We have to individual the males and we have a herd and the dominant female controls the herd and we have to separate the males and the males live individually.”

Use of chains

The males are not just kept separately. They are also sometimes chained, particularly during the period known as ‘musth’ when they become sexually aggressive. Some of the females are also chained at times because they can also be aggressive when there are challenges for the leadership of the herd.

This is one of the most controversial parts of the treatment of the elephants here and I made sure to quiz Sameera about it, who clearly knows that it’s an issue tourists have.

“Most of the people who are coming here are criticising that we are chaining and we are harming the elephants. But in Sri Lanka, taming the elephant history is more than thousands of years. So we have a traditional methods to control elephants and we are using iron and steel chains to chain the animals. There are some reasons. If we use cables or ropes, it cuts into the flesh and it’s not a better way to handle elephants. But the chain has loops and it ventilates the skins and the heat conductivity is more than the other synthetic items so the chain is the best way and it’s very strong.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

“But most of the people coming here are thinking we should free the animals – but we have free animals and we have chained animals. We have to chain, especially the males, because they are very aggressive in the musth period and normally males, they are very dominant, same as humans.They have human culture, human influence, so they are very aggressive guys. So for the safety of the people, safety of the other animals, other males and babies, we have to chain them – but not for a long time.”

The bathing ritual

The chains are most confronting for visitors during the bathing sessions, which happen a few times each day. This is where tourists normally get the closest to the animals – and it’s also the location where most photos on social media are taken from.

The elephants are walked down from the large area where they roam, past shops and restaurants, to the river where tourists gather around and take photos. Although it’s not officially allowed, the mahouts (elephant keepers) will often ask for tips from tourists to let them touch or pose with the animals.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

It does feel a little like a sideshow and this is definitely one of the areas that makes me particularly uncomfortable. I put the question about balancing tourism with conservation to Sameera.

“The main purpose is conservation but we have to maintain the elephants. We have 88 stomachs to feed, 88 big mouths to feed, so we get about 17 tonnes of food per day for them. So the tourists are coming here, they have to get a ticket, and the money goes to a fund and from that fund we take care of all the medication, all the food, workers’ salaries – all are maintained by the tourist attraction.

“Controlling the tourists, especially we have to notice them, because these guys are semi-wild. They have human influence but a wild habit. So to take care of the spectators we have to have some boundaries and separate the animals and to control the people who are coming to show them the habits.”

“We have to spread the word of conservation, we have elephants. It’s a good attraction, most people of the world are elephant enthusiasts, elephants are very rare. So there’s a saying ‘in the future, the children will see elephants only in picture or video’ but here you can see a big group of elephants every day very closely with humans.”

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

My conclusion

Here’s my take on the situation. There are some issues at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage but I feel like many of the problems have been overblown by other commentators. It is not fair to claim, like others have, that the elephants are being exploited to make money from tourism. I genuinely believe that the welfare of the elephants is the number one priority. But at the heart of the legitimate concerns that do exist is the relationship between tourism and conservation.

In order to fund the conservation, tourism is necessary. But in order to provide tourism, there are some changes to the way the conservation is practised. However, this is the case with projects all across the world and is not a new issue.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

The other issue is that tourists expect some kind of idealistic elephant nirvana. They have been fooled by promotional and social media images, and allow their imaginations to create a paradise in their heads. When they see what is required to logistically run an orphanage – chains, pens, fences – their dream is shattered.

As I have mentioned a few times above, not everything is perfect. There are some things that I think could be changed to make the conservation project better. But my feeling, from what I was able to learn, is that it is a fundamentally positive site.

I would encourage you to make up your own mind – but please consider the point of view that I have presented here from the people who run the orphanage, because it is often not reported.

Overall, the biggest immediate change at Pinnawala needs to be an improvement of the education of tourists – both beforehand and during the visit. I think there needs to be more information available and more explanations for visitors on why things are the way they are. My conversation with Sameera put things in a new light for me and it would be nice if all visitors had that opportunity.

Where is Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is about 100 kilometres northeast of Colombo and it can take two and half or three hours to drive there. The official address is B199, Rambukkana 71100, Sri Lanka. You can see it on a map here.

How do you get to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

Like much of Sri Lanka, it can be a bit tricky to get to Pinnawala independently. The best way is to get a train from Kandy or Colombo to the nearest station, Rambukkana, from where you can easily get a tuk tuk for a couple of dollars. You can check out the train timetable here.

When is Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage open?

The orphanage is open every day from 0830 (8:30am) until 1730 (5:30pm).

How much does it cost to visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

For foreign visitors, entrance costs LKR2500 (US$16) for adults and LKR1250 (US$8) for children (aged 3- 12). There is a much cheaper ticket for Sri Lankan locals.

Where should you stay near Pinnawala?

If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the Green Land Guest House which the elephants walk right past.
For something affordable but comfortable, Hotel Elephant Park is great with views of the river.
For good value luxury, you should try MaOya Retreat Pinnawala with a nice pool.
And if you want to splurge a bit, have a look at Villa Pinnawala.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Sri Lanka Tourism Board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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