Monday, June 17, 2013

Travel Monday: A visit to Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is a popular orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for baby and adult elephants in Sri Lanka.

It is located on a 25-acre coconut plantation adjacent to the Maha Oya River and north-west of Kegalle town in the Sabaragamuwa District.

The orphanage is open daily and proceeds from ticket costs go towards maintaining the facility and caring for the elephants.

Opening hours are between 8.30 am and 6.00 pm daily.

There are handlers who are responsible for all of the elephants at the orphanage.

Adult males do light work such as transporting feed. They are chained and managed individually. The female and baby elephants, on the other hand, freely roam as a herd during the day. 

The elephants' diet consists of large leaf quantities of jackfruit, coconut, sugar palm, tamarind and grass, which are brought in daily. Each adult animal is given around 75kgs of this roughage per day. In addition, elephants are also fed 2kgs of a food mixture containing maize, rice bran, powdered gingelly seeds and minerals. They are usually fed in their stalls.

Although elephant calves are not generally bottle fed at the orphanage, there is bottle feeding of elephant calves at 9.15am, 1.15pm & 5pm each day for local and foreign tourists to observe.

The main attraction is the opportunity to observe the elephants bathing from the river banks of the Maha Oya River. Bathing hours are at 10.00 am and 2.00 pm daily. The female and baby elephant herd are walked approximately 400 meters to the river. Once at the river, the elephants lie on the riverbeds and some of the handlers give each of them a scrub and clean.

It is a treat to watch as the elephant herd is led towards the river and to see the interactions of the herd as they bathe and play. 

There are a few things at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage that may put some off their visit... A few things to consider.

The first is a commercial-driven one - if you want to take a close-up photo with the elephants while they roam around or if you want the experience of feeding one of the elephant calves, there is an expectation for payments or tips for the attendants or handlers. This puts people off, especially if they've already paid the Rs 2,000 foreign tourist ticket.

Secondly, the actual (and perceived) treatment towards the elephants can upset some people. The handlers tend to carry long sticks or spears which they use to manage the elephants. Some handlers tend to freely use these sticks or spears to the dismay of visitors. In addition, I've heard some visitors criticize the orphanage for the chains on the legs of adult male elephants and seeing them undertake heavy work (i.e. transporting logs and bundles of leaves, which is the feed for the elephant herd)

While this is somewhat negative (and I've heard more than this too), I think it's important to bear in mind that visiting for a couple of hours never gives you the full picture.

I have heard one local story about a handler who got massively drunk one evening and was found passed out lying on the middle of the road in the wee hours of the morning. He could have easily been run over by cars, and would have been had it not been for one of the elephants he cared for. Apparently, as the story goes, he was saved by the elephant who came and stood over him to protect him from oncoming traffic. Now, if this story is true, that says quite a lot about the relationship between the elephant and handler, and how they do things at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage!

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