On my drive from Kandy to the airport in Colombo, I decided to make a quick pit stop at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. In 1975, the orphanage was created to house the abandoned and wounded elephants from around Sri Lanka. As one of the indigenous animals to the island, the people see it as a local symbol and care deeply about the elephants.
I was a little leery of stopping here, to be honest. Ever since my family went on a safari vacation in Kenya, I have felt icky about zoos. I just don’t think it’s a way for animals to live, even if it is for education and conservation purposes. There are better ways to do it, especially in places like Madison, WI. Giraffes DO NOT belong in that climate. But lots of people told me it was a great place and is one of the tourist highlights in Sri Lanka.
The number of elephants has increased to more than 65 now; including 23 baby elephants. The compound is built along the banks of a river and forest reserve to allow the elephants a space to roam. The entrance fee is a bit steep (about $25) and it only includes admission, not other perks. The best times to visit are during the feeding or the bathing times, because the animals are active and close for viewing. I arrived during the feeding time, so the elephants were all chomping on leaves and branches, and the babies were being bottle fed milk and nutrients.
While it was exciting to see so many elephants up close and personal, I was quite disappointed with the orphanage. I think it has lost sight of it’s original goal, and is now largely a tourist trap. All the elephants are tied to posts with chains, and although they are in an open air cage, they are only let loose when being walked to the river by the keepers. Furthermore, numerous workers at the orphanage offered me the opportunity to touch or ride the elephants if I gave them a tip. This is NOT what I think conservationist should be encouraging in their facilities because this is the exact type of behavior that encourage humans to mistreat or misuse animals.
Finally, the site itself seems to have lost much of it’s original foliage, and is now just a big dirt heap, and all the food is brought in and fed directly to the elephants. It is a glorified zoo that is exorbitantly expensive by local standards, and does not distribute any information about their non-profit services or long term impact of the orphanage. There didn’t seem to be plans to rehabilitate the animals or release them back in to the wild… Overall, big disappointment. But at least I got a view nice pictures of elephants.