In my first week in Sri Lanka, I visited Pinnawala elephant orphanage. I still have yet to make my mind up about the ethics of this place. Truth be told, I’m relatively ignorant and with an organisation like this, it is difficult to know how ethically it is.
We took a bus early in the morning to reach the centre for opening time because our volunteer leader was determined that all 7 of us would get tickets to feed milk to the baby elephants. With a lot of smiling and a bit of sweet talk, we managed to get our tickets. If there’s one thing I learnt about getting around Sri Lanka, it’s that everyone seems to know someone and it helps if you do, so don’t be afraid to talk to people and make friends.
Another thing about visiting tourist attractions in the country is that there are “tourist prices” and “local prices”. Tourists generally have to pay about 4 times what the locals do. It may feel unfair at the time but truth be told, you’re very likely paying a lot less than you might at home.
On entering the orphanage, we were faced with a beautiful stone carving. We followed the path up past some enclosures and reached the top of a slope. The view I was faced with was my first real sighting of Sri Lankan rain forest. I was simultaneously blown away and somewhat disappointed. The backdrop of vast rolling countryside is undeniably impressive and views like that were still some of the highlights of my trip. The elephants themselves however, were a slight disappointment. Okay, it may not be fair to claim the elephants were a let down; it was more to do with the way they were homed. I was pleased to see them out of chains and on a large area of land but it didn’t seem anything like their provisions in the wild.
A disclaimer here: I am no expert. In fact, I know next to nothing about correct care of elephants and I’ve found it difficult to get my hands on reliable sources of such so anyone with more knowledge than me, please share your experiences.
Off to one side, away from where tourists waved their cameras I could also see elephants doing forestry work. Perhaps I was mistaken but I had thought that was what my voluntary work aimed to avoid. All the same, I took many photos against this stunning backdrop.
Next, we walked on down towards some enclosures. This is where the “orphanage” part seemed to really come in. Homed in stable-like buildings are the elephants too injured to be with the rest. These injuries were mostly results of the recent civil war. This includes one elephant which stepped on a land mine. It is a slightly upsetting site.
Next to this the baby enclosure. It was feeding time! There were 3 baby elephants chained in what seemed like too small a space, and surrounded by enthusiastic tourists. We queued up and one by one were given joint handling of a warm bottle of milk with the elephant handler. This was rapidly tipped into the little one’s mouth. The whole process took moments. Not much for your 250 rupees but that is only about £1.20 and you get to see the little ones up very close. They and absolutely adorable. The divide between tourists and babies here was, in some places, non-existent and many tourists were simply walking up to them to have their photos taken. Our volunteer leader looked on disapprovingly.
“Even at this age, they’re very strong and can grab you.” She told us. Almost as proof, one of the babies decided it no longer cared for posing and turned right toward us. It reached out it’s little trunk and grabbed our leaders handbag. Almost in slow motion they seemed to play tug of war. For a moment, it looked as though the handbag could be reclaimed but suddenly, it was torn from her grip and the little elephant threw it to the ground, then, with great determination, trampled it. Luckily there was nothing breakable of value in there and most of us couldn’t stop laughing. But, yes, even the little elephants are very strong and determined creatures, so keep an eye out.
After this, we left the sanctuary itself, and crossed the road. Here is a little market place, aimed at tourists. It is still part of Pinnawala and you need a ticket to get in before 4 while the shops are still open because the elephants parade along the road. We wondered up and down and had a go at bargaining with varying success. Personally, without any experience, I felt uncomfortable trying to ask for a lower price and one shop owner, seeming to sense this, knocked 100 rupees off a necklace without my even asking.
Then suddenly, and without apparent reason, the road emptied. Shop keepers began moving their wares inside. I thought perhaps the shops were closing for lunch and continued to wonder. Then, our volunteer leader was beckoning. “Quickly girls, quickly”. It seemed it was elephant bath-time. Before I knew what was happening, I was trotting a half-walk, half-jog down the road, looking for safety as a huge heard of elephants ambled right for us. At seemingly the last moment, we ducked under a barbed-wire-wrapped barrier to safety and turned to watch the heard make their way to the river. If you google Pinnawala, it is mostly photos of this bath time you will see. It is an idyllic photo opportunity. We posed for more photos of course, then stopped for a cup of ever so sweet tea in a little cafe and headed home. It was a wonderful morning. Though the whole establishment is clearly aimed at tourists, it is worth a visit if you’re in the area.