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I was lucky enough in August 2017 to have a 10 day trip in Sri Lanka. I say lucky because I would have never though and imagined how beautiful this country is.

One of the stops of this organised trip was at the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, right in the centre of the country and just 40km from Kandy.

In true honesty I have never been a big fan of zoos. It may be just me of course, however I find it hard to understand why, as humans, we need to visit animals in an enclosed space. 

I still remember a movie called Planet of the Apes where the evolution of the apes had the upper hand on the humans. One of the scenes was about apes going to a zoo to watch what humans were doing in cages. 

The visit was organised by the Sri Lankan tourism board that asked me, as well as other 2 bloggers, to write a Pinnawala elephant orphanage ethical review.

My believe, as blogger, is to write always the truth, what I experience, what I see, either positive or negative. And also in this case I made sure, prior to the visit, that I could write all I felt and I saw.

I was indeed paid the ticket and the transportation but this would not change my opinion. 

I think that a blogger can attract audience only if she/he’s honest about the experience otherwise the blog itself would have a short life.

Beside all this, my honesty can be sold but for much more than a ticket and a trip….joking of course LOL

So, what is the mission of this orphanage. Essentially to save the baby elephants, left behind by the herd. Alone they would not survive.

There is one problem though, they can be saved in captivity however they would not be able to survive if they go back in the wild. This is why the orphanage has both babies and grown up adults.

Babies at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Babies at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

The ethical review

Am I an expert about the elephants world?

Obviously not.

So why asking a blogger?

There is a good reason, the web and Google. 

Let me better explain. Try to google “Pinnawala elephant orphanage”. Check the results. Do the same on YouTube. 

You will notice that some of the articles in the first and second page, mostly from blogs, have raised some important issues that work against the Pinnawala orphanage and the way they manage the elephants.

The orphanage direction does not agree on some of the comments and it is now in a process to produce more informational material dedicated to media and visitors to show how the orphanage works.

I read, for example, that the orphanage was offering rides but I was absolutely said that this has never happened. Elephants owners outside the orphanage may offer this but there is no affiliation with the orphanage.

Based on my 10 days trip from coast to coast, I must say that elephants are popular animals in Sri Lanka. You see them quite often in the street. I definitely saw more elephants there than horses in my home country for example.

As we spoke with the chief curator, one of the first comments was that they were hardly asked or interviewed by bloggers and that they would love to answer any question we or anyone else has. That was a great start.

Entrance fee and the crowd

The ticket to enter the orphanage costs around $15 for adults and $8 for kids. The Sri Lankan local entrance fee is much lower.

It is a popular attraction.

One of the concerns is that the orphanage is there to make money and not to look after elephants. 

We met the Chief Curator, Sanjaya Ratnayake, and doctor Bangara. We had a very long chat.

There are 80 elephants in the Pinnawala elephant orphanage of which half of them adults, both males and females.

They eat up to 150kg of food and drink up to 100 liters of water each day. The babies (up to 5 years old) can drink up to 40 litres of milk each.

The orphanage is based on a 30 hectares land

Do some math and you can soon understand the scale of this operation.

I live in Melbourne and with $15 I can just about buy a pint of beer in the city.

I fully understand that living cost is different but still the orphanage employees many people, sometime doing a dangerous job too.

The maintenance of this space is expensive, to say the least.

Abuse or not

One of the biggest concerns on the net is that people saw elephants with chains, and I did too.

Was I surprised?

Indeed I was…..till we talked about the musth. What is it?

To make it very simply, the musth is the male period, when elephants get super aggressive, they fight, they are violent, in an unpredictable way. You may have seen some TV footage when they chase giraffes or kill rhinoceroses. They are dangerous.

Usually the elephants are isolated by the herd when they have a musth period. 

The problem comes when the environment does not allow isolation, as this 30 hectares orphanage or, even worse, in a zoo. Too small

The elephants during the musth period are therefore chained to a tree in the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, very far away from each other.

The musth period may last 2-4 weeks or much more in some cases.

Moreover the elephant during the musth has a constant dripping of urine that causes also problems with the legs skin. It also moves the head in a crazy loop to spread the own smell around.

Beside listening to the curator and the doctor I later investigated on the web and contacted some zoos. I really wanted to listen to different sources before writing anything (you can see below a list of resources and websites).

Nobody likes chains, I don’t. So I checked what’s happening in zoos

As far as I understand zoos have essentially 2 options (I am still waiting comments from a few other zoos I consulted):

  • they avoid the problem and they have only females that can’t reproduce on their own obviously
  • they isolate the elephants in cages but do not chain them. This however has another side effect, elephants tend to damage themselves against the bars (remember, they are unpredictable and super excited) 

I also read on the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine about the use of Leuprolide Acetate (LA) as possible help. Have a read. Does the LA help? Well there are unfortunately many “could” in the text, just to say there is still a debate on it.

With all this background can we say that the use of the chain is an abuse? Or are the bars worse? or the administration of LA?

There is one fact, the musth.

I find it personally very hard to say what is best for the elephant herd in a place like the Pinnawala elephant orphanage.

I only understand that the elephant in musth may kill other elephants if not isolated. 

I just say that I find hard to judge any approach.

Chief Curator Sanjaya Ratnayake was injured during an elephant feeding (on musth period)

Chief Curator Sanjaya Ratnayake was injured during an elephant feeding (on musth period)

Elephants delivered overseas

I read that some of the elephants are delivered overseas to other zoos. 

Being not a fan of zoos I do not see the need. I understand however there is also an issue with over population and possibly monetization. 

The orphanage is “only” 30 hectares. They are planning to extend it so that elephants have more space, which is great.

Should I visit Pinnawala elephant orphanage, or not?

I am not here to say yes or no. I can give only my personal thinking.

This trip was for me a big opportunity to see, talk with the people working there and have a first hand experience.

I see a small difference between the zoos and this orphanage. If the baby elephants are not rescued they would die. The zoos have similar situation as well as animals that are there to be watched but there was really not a need to enclose them. 

The choice is more about leaving mother nature to take its course (don’t rescue these animals with the possibility that someone would survive) or rescue them and change its course.

Another comment I may add is also that we all should think in a bigger scale.

Elephants are as much of an animal as a horse, a cow or a chicken, with a different dimension of course, but still they are all living organisms.

I really hope that anyone with negative comments on the web about the orphanage does the same, for example, with horse races or working horses. I hope these people would be against the mass production of cows, chicken or fish, which covers most of the world diet, unless vegetarian.

And for this reason I really respect the vegan.

Why?

Because the reality is that even the butter may be, and probably is, made by cow factory farms, that spend the life in few square meters for the daily milk. 

I did not want to mention the chicken and the eggs, but I have to, considering what is happening in these days in Holland and other European countries.

Chickens raised as pets or just free range have a life spam of 7/8 years. The battery hens go down to 1.5-2 years. The broiler chickens are killed after 5-8 weeks.

Whenever we eat an egg, which is not totally free range, we should think to how we contribute to the animal world. Not to speak when we eat a chicken. Basically we should not be hypocritical.

I personally do respect what the Pinnawala orphanage is trying to do for the elephants. They have traditions and own ways to manage elephants which you may not agree with.

Overall I found it an interesting visit. I understand they are also planning a leaflet with more information for the visitors and this would definitely help.

Other orphanage facts

  • What is the Pinnawala elephant orphanage entrance fee : the foreign visitors entrance ticket is LKR2,500, with children at LKR1,250. Much cheaper if Sri Lankan
  • Elephant bathing time :  there are two bathing times at the nearby river, they last around 2 hours, at 10am and 2pm. Interesting to actually see the walk through the town shops
  • Pinnawala feeding time : the milk bottle feeding time for the babies is at 9.15am, 1.15pm and 5pm
  • Orphanage opening times : every day from 8:30am to 5:30pm

Distance to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage 

It is about 100 kilometres northeast of Colombo and it can take two and half or three hours to drive there. The official address is B199, Rambukkana 71100, Sri Lanka.

From Kandy it is only 40km but budget 1.5 hours.

You can see it on a map here.

Distance to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Distance to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

I arrived to Pinnawala by private transportation, which is probably the easiest solution. The alternative is to take a train to the Rambukkana station and a tuk tuk from there on (just few dollars).

More to read on musth and elephants

My visit in Pinnawala was guided by the curator and the elephants doctor.  I did however more homework investigating through the internet and contacting some zoos. Here below some of the most relevant references:

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Stefano Ferro
Photographer
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o