Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka by Jacintha Vroom

African and Asian elephants have become an endangered species in the world. Of course, most of us can watch elephants in the zoo. Nevertheless, these animals, in general two to five years at the most, usually live in a small area, only remotely resembling their natural habitat. However, if you ever want to watch an Asian elephant herd in their place of origin, Sri Lanka is the place to go.
Sri Lanka’s elephant orphanage is an unforgettable experience. The beautiful island, also called “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” is situated off the Southeast coast of India. The people are very friendly and nature is astonishing. Elephants are the national pride of Sri Lanka, so it is not surprising that one cannot get around the elephants, real or fake ones. Tourists can buy all sorts of elephant gadgets or wooden elephant carvings, some more elaborately decorated than others. But without a doubt, to see the real animal is the best. That is an amazing experience. If you’re lucky, you can get a glimpse of a wild elephant while driving through the jungle. It can also happen that you’ll come across a working elephant carrying wood or heavy material ordered around by its master. But the best way to see these beautiful animals is either by taking a safari through one of Sri Lanka’s National Parks or visiting the elephant orphanage in Pinnawela. The orphanage is situated halfway between Colombo, the present capitol of the island, and Kandy, the cultural capitol. If you ever visit Sri Lanka, you should definitely do both. I have been there and done that and can whole-heartedly say that these experiences will remain with you forever. In this article, I will only focus on Pinnawela.

There are just a few elephant orphanages in the world and Sri Lanka has one. In time, it became one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attractions. Thousands of tourists visit the place every year and are in for an unforgettable experience.
In the 1960’s, Sri Lanka’s elephant population was near to extinction. This sad state of affairs gave some people the determination and energy to do something about it. They wanted to try to save the elephant. In order to protect the remaining elephant population a few more national parks were founded. In addition, the Sri Lankan Wildlife Department established an elephant orphanage in 1975. Originally, the orphanage was situated on a coconut property on the Maha Oya River at Rambukkana. The orphanage moved from time to time and eventually it was relocated to Pinnawela, where the orphans still live. Its primary goal is to give baby elephants, who lost their mother or herd in the jungle, a safe place to stay so they have a good opportunity to mature. In many cases these babies lost their mother either by abandonment in the wild or because the mother had died or had been killed by people. Land mines, a consequence of the struggle between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils, can harm the animals as well. For example, an elephant stepped on a landmine in the northern part of the country and lost part of its foot years ago. The elephant was brought to the orphanage and manages to cope with the shorter leg. In time, Pinnawela grew into one of the largest elephant orphanages in the world. It is said that Pinnawela has the biggest herd of captive elephants in the world.

Even though the large mammals live in captivity, they roam in a large area that is quite similar to their original habitat. In addition, the animals are allowed to form a herd structure. Twice a day, the elephant herd takes a 400 meters walk to the river where they can bathe and have fun for several hours. The young ones especially enjoy splashing in the water. It is a great opportunity to get very close to these elephants and there is no fence separating you from the animals. The elephants are used to visitors and there are always several “human foster fathers” around to keep an eye on them. It is even allowed to touch the animals. And you can also watch the little ones get a bottle of milk. The main part of food for the babies consists of milk. The older ones usually eat different sorts of leaves, grass, bark, and fruits. That is such a moving sight. Cameras click all the time, which is of course not surprising.
Not only orphans are harboured at Pinnawela, but also new babies are born. In 1984, the first baby elephant was born in the orphanage. Many have followed. The baby elephants, that arrived at Pinnawela in the early days, are grown up now and are ready to have babies of their own. So they gave birth to a new generation and the orphanage expanded.

It can be expected that the orphanage, which gives a new home to a large number of animals, costs a lot of money. Many people work there to take care of the animals and their duties involve making food and feeding them; they have to clean and maintain the area, they have to check the animals for diseases and buy medicine, and guide and answer questions from the visitors. All in all, a huge amount of money is spent every year. The Sri Lankan government sponsors the orphanage, and local as well as foreign visitors are an important income tool because they have to pay a small admission fee. Voluntary gifts are also an important way of financing the orphanage.

The elephant orphanage in Pinnawela is a beautiful initiative and gives every visitor a moving experience, and at the same time, each visitor helps the animals by paying the fee or donating some money. The orphanage gives baby elephants without a mother a new home and a new future.