The elephant orphanage
Pinnawala is the elephant orphanage in the central part of Sri Lanka. It is located on the main road between the cities of Colombo and Kandy.
Pinnawala became one of the most popular tourist attractions. And for tourists, the most interesting are feeding and bathing of elephants.
The history of the Pinnawala orphanage
The elephants are very important and sacred animals in Sri Lanka. You can see them on safari tours in national parks, in orphanages, and sometimes freely walking along roads.
The first orphanage was established in 1972, it was located at the Wilpattu National Park. Later it was moved to the National Holiday Resort at Bentota Beach, and then to the Dehiwala Zoo, close to Colombo.
In 1975 Sri Lanka Wildlife Department established Pinnawala orphanage to care for and protect five baby elephants, found in the wild. Over the years, the orphanage developed and today there are 93 elephants living in Pinnawala. In 1978, the orphanage became a part of the Department of National Zoological Gardens Sri Lanka. Thanks to this project, the income from tickets is used to help the maintenance of the elephant orphanage.
Also, mahouts (keepers) take care of the diseased and wounded elephants. During the 1990s, about 260 elephants died as a result of gunshot injuries or land mine explosions during the armed conflicts in Sri Lanka. And some elephants were saved from some private owners who kept them in captivity.
The feeding of elephants
Pinnawala orphanage is located in the village of the same name, surrounded by coconut plantations, on the banks of the Ma Oya River. For visitors, the feeding and bathing of elephants are definitely the highlight moments in the orphanage.
Baby elephants are fed from their birth until they are five years. Every baby needs 7 bottles of milk (750 ml each) for the feeding time, a total of 35 bottles per day. Usually, the feeding time is between 9 and 10 a.m., and from 1 to 2 p.m.
Usually, the elephants are fed in their stalls and about 150 kilograms of food is necessary for one adult elephant per day.
Their main food is grass and leaves, but they also bamboo, coconut, sugar cane, tamarind (a leguminous tree), rice bran, corn, bananas, jackfruit, and other fruit. They could drink up to 50 gallons of water a day!
Generally, the feeding of the elephant is only allowed with the help and permission of keepers.
Twice a day the keepers take elephants to the river to bathe.
They have to cross the road to come to the Ma Oya River. During their walk, the traffic is stopped and visitors have to move from the path, which is surrounded by a few shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Usually, the elephant bathing time is between 10.00 am and 12.00 pm, and between 2.00 pm and 4.00 pm.
Well, it is a really interesting and amazing view.
The elephants are bathing and lying in the river surrounded by coconut trees.
For a moment it seems that they are free and enjoy themselves.
But there is something a little bit shocking for visitors: most elephants are in chains!
And of course, this scene causes different comments, such as that the chains hurt elephants, that they are used as an attraction in order to get money from tourists, etc.
But there is another side of the story.
Why are the elephants in chains?
First, all elephants are semi-wild. It means that nobody can control them completely.
Well, it is especially hard considering that their height is between 2 and 3.5 m (6.6 and 11.5 ft), and their weight is between 2,000 and 5,500 kg (4,400 and 12,100 lb). So don’t tease them and always be at a safe distance, especially if you meet them somewhere on the road!
The Sri Lankan elephant is one of the three types of Asian elephants. Their skin is darker and they are smaller than African elephants. Also, their ears are rounded and smaller than those of African elephants.
Usually, the male elephants are in chains, but during the night, and female elephants are also chained in their stalls. Male and female elephants and baby elephants are kept separate. But, during the day, you can see them together, eating and bathing. And elephants adore water!
Let me tell you something more about the chains. Mahouts (keepers) used them for a few reasons.
The first and main reason is security. The chain is hanging around their neck and limbs, to prevent harming themselves when running, and in the period when they could become sexually aggressive.
Also during the walk to the river, the path is usually full of curious tourists who would like to get closer to the elephants. It could frighten them and cause different reactions. During examinations by a vet, the foot chain also serves as a safety device. Although it may be shocking to see them in chains, the chains are there because of elephants’ and people’s security.
The elephant’s trunk
Elephants have an unusual part of the body: their trunk. And there are some interesting facts about it:
- It consists of the nose and the upper lip.
- The trunk can be 2 meters long and it can weigh about 140 kilograms.
- The elephant drinks water filling its trunk and then pouring the water into its mouth.
- The elephant uses its trunk to drink, smell, pick up food, and touch.
- While swimming, elephants use their trunk to breathe.
- The trunk can retain about 6-7 litres of water at one moment.
Paper products made of elephants’ dung
Since elephants are herbivores, their dung is used to make various products, believe it or not. And we were shocked, too when we heard and saw it 🙂
Near the main road and in the path leading to the river, there is a Dung-Eco Maximus shop where you can buy these kinds of products.
This company has manufactured handmade paper made of elephant dung and other waste matter since 1997. It is a process that promotes environmental protection as well. In the shop, you can see a small demonstration of the process.
So, the elephant dung is collected and sterilized by boiling. After that, it became a pure fiber, and depending on the food, age, and teeth, different structures, and colours are obtained. And this fiber doesn’t smell a bit!
Then these fibers are put in the mixing machine, and sometimes natural colours are added. After a few hours, it becomes the pulp, which is shaped into balls and each of them is sufficient for making one sheet of paper. The pulp is put into wooden screens and under the heavy press to squeeze the water. And then they are left to dry in the sun. This manufacturing method is completely ecological, without the use of chlorine and acids.
There are various products such as notebooks, cards, diaries, pens, calendars, paper lanterns, souvenirs, even jewellery, and bags. Unbelievable 🙂
How to get to Pinnawala
Pinnawala is located 13 km northeast of Kegalle town, approximately 78 km (48 mi) from Colombo and 40 km (25 mi) from Kandy.
The best way to visit Pinnawala is with an organized tour with some local agency, as we did. Or if you want to go solo, you can catch a train from Kandy or Colombo to the nearest railway station Rambukkana and then by tuk-tuk to Pinnawala.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is open for visitors every day from 8.30 am until 5.30 pm.
The entrance ticket for foreign visitors costs approx. 16 dollars for adults and 8 dollars for children. But for Sri Lankan locals it is much cheaper. Close to the orphanage, there is Pinnawala Zoo.
Many years of hunting by British colonialists since the beginning of the British invasion on the island and the economic development of Sri Lanka have caused a significant reduction in the number of elephants. And that is one of the reasons why the Sri Lankan government has decided to establish the Pinnawala orphanage to preserve elephants. Today, about 3,000 elephants live in Sri Lanka.
Although it looks that the elephants are kept in captivity in Pinnawala, they get food, water, and veterinary care on a daily basis.
But they will never be released back to the wild because they could not survive alone in the jungle.
So baby elephants and adults elephants live together, just like one big family.
It is wonderful to watch them closely while they are eating, walking, and bathing surrounded by palms in the river. And it is a strange feeling when you touch the wrinkled skin of the elephant’s trunk…
Well, all these things make the visit to the Pinnawala orphanage an extraordinary and unforgettable experience.