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
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
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
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