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The Pinnawala elephant experience
Pinnawala village is located 90 km northeast of the capital, Colombo, in Sabaragamuwa Province of Sri Lanka. Over the years the name Pinnawala has become synonymous with elephants.
Mostly because of the orphanage that was established in 1975, to provide much-needed care and sanctuary to orphaned baby elephants that were found in the wild. There are also several other places in town, where you can go for rides and interact with the animals.
After deciding on Sri Lanka as our next travel destination, we quickly put Pinnawala on top of the list of places we wanted to visit. I had seen so many dreamy pictures on social media of elephants playing and cooling off in the Maha Oya River, so I couldn’t wait to experience these gorgeous creatures up close myself.
We decided to stay one night so we would have two opportunities to experience the elephants, first in the afternoon and then the next morning. After researching all the hotels in the area, Hotel Elephant Park seemed like the perfect spot, as it’s located right next to where the elephants enter the river.
The price is reasonable, I paid $45 / 380 nok, and the rooms held a pretty good standard. I also have to point out that the breakfast is among the best we’ve had on the island so far. Juice, eggs, fruit and lots of different pastries, which you can enjoy on the balcony overlooking the river.
I might have been a bit naive while dreaming about this place. When we first arrived at our hotel, there were about six elephants in the river. To our surprise, they were all chained to different rocks. Of course, I understand that they need to have some method to keep the animals in place while herding them through the city, but to see the animals try to free themselves from the chains was quite heartbreaking.
As mentioned most of the elephants come to the water twice a day, at 10 am and 2 pm, with large groups of visitors from the orphanage following. However, a small group comes down about an hour before. They all wear thick chains, so I guess they are more difficult elephants that have to be separated from the rest. It looked like the chain gang coming down the street, not a very nice sight at all.
After talking to some other travelers and researching online, we decided not to visit the orphanage. So I haven’t seen the conditions the animals are being held in with my own eyes. The scars from the chains were enough for me.
However, we were told about clearly distressed elephants being chained down in small quarters with lots of people being able to freely touch and interact with them. I don’t know if I’m just being super sensitive, but that certainly doesn’t sit right with me.
Pinnawala is probably much better than many other captive elephant facilities in Asia, like Sri Lanka’s Colombo Zoo or the horrible Phuket Zoo with their elephant shows. It truly seemed like the elephants enjoyed their time in the river, the ones without chains.
However, as a sanctuary I believe that they should have the welfare of the animals as their highest priority, not pleasing the tourists to earn money.
The handlers were pushy about getting people to wash, feed and take pictures with the animals. Once they had someone willing, they grabbed the elephant by the ear with a pointy metal spear and dragged it over. And expected a tip afterward of course. Be sure to pay up or else you’ll have a pretty uncomfortable situation on your hands.
I saw more than one handler demand a larger tip, using quite rude hand gestures. So the river ended up feeling more like a tourist attraction than anything else, and from what I gathered the orphanage definitely is.
Also, there were a lot of younger elephants with their mothers, which points to the orphanage breeding to keep the animals as a tourist attraction. I thought the whole point of the orphanage was to take care of only the elephants that wouldn’t survive in the wild.
After our visit, we’re left with quite mixed emotions about the whole experience. Yes, the orphanage takes in hurt and mistreated animals and I get that they have to earn money for the project to survive. But it seems like there should be better ways of going about it. Less close interactions with the public would be a great way to start. Somehow I don’t see those tips make their way back to the orphanage anyway.
That said, I don’t want this to come off too harsh. I’m by no means an animal expert, these are just my thoughts and reflections. The chains might be a necessity to be able to bring the elephants to the river and keep them there, I don’t know. They were quite concerned about people’s safety. And another huge positive is the gorgeous riverside location itself, definitely worth a visit even without the elephants.