One of the 37 ports-of-call we experienced on our millennium circumnavigation, where I was aboard ship as guest artist and lecturer, was Colombo on the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).
We humans are not the only species that has orphans. We thought, as part of this “Encounters with Wildlife” series, to post our experience during a visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which has the largest herd of captive animals in the world.
This marked my fourth visit to this island of tea, textiles and rice with a long and rich, documented history going back over 3,000 years. Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity density in Asia. Before docking in Colombo, we’d heard there was now an Elephant Orphanage, established to feed, nurse and house young elephants found abandoned by their mothers, or who had fallen into pits and ravines in their quest for water during drought period. Other orphans have been displaced from their wild habitat by development projects or have been found abandoned before weaning, diseased or wounded.
To get there, we took a scenic train ride through this beautiful island. Vans drove us to the site, located northwest of Kegalla and halfway between Colombo and the ancient royal residence of Kandy. Established in 1975, the property is large and covers 24 acres. Elephants from a few weeks to five years and now the Orphanage includes a breeding section.
Mahout giving a bath to his elephant
There are 48 mahouts who take care of the elephants. The female and young elephants in Pinnawala range freely as a herd during the day in an area of a few acres. They are herded about .5 km twice a day to drink and be bathed in the river. At night, the females are individually chained in stalls. Adult males are do some light work such as transporting feed. They are chained and managed individually.
The majority of calves born in Pinnawala are not bottle fed, but a few are bottle fed as a tourist attraction. The elephants eat mostly cut-up coconut cane, banana, bamboo and palm tree leaves. Visitors can feed the baby elephants but from behind a fence. All others – the ‘elder’ ones, wander about under guidance of their mamout and bathe in the Maha Oya River where a viewing area was constructed. The very young ones are taken to the river to bathe as well, under close supervision. The Sri Lankan elephants are smaller than their African cousins.
Elephants from Orphanage bathing in the Maha Oya River
We wandered amongst them and also observed a large group of working elephants bathing in the river. “Most of the elephants at Pinnawala are healthy and once attaining adulthood, will be sold or donated or retained for breeding.
A few disabled elephants are given residential care. One tusker, Raja is blind, and one female, named Sama, lost her front right leg to a land mine”. Recently the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage has come under some scrutiny by the Born Free Foundation and apparently quality of care of elephants who are donated or sold away from Pinnawala has been a big public issue. In 2012 The Sri Lanka Environment Trust spoke out against authorities who continue to 'donate' tamed elephants to people who had 'poor' past records of taking care of animals.”
Henri van Bentum