Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Up Close and Personal with Sri Lankan Elephants

Sri Lankan elephant

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, and it’s not hard to see why. Where else can you be so close to so many elephants and watch them feeding and bathing in a scenic tropical environment? The joy is not just in seeing so many elephants in a natural habitat, but knowing that they are well cared for and managed.

There are plenty of photo opportunities here. The orphanage is set against a backdrop of the lush Sri Lankan hill country, on a twenty-five acre coconut grove in the Ma-Oya River valley.

The A$15 ticket Pinnawela entrance price gives you access to elephant feeding, the grazing area, village, shops, and river.  You can visit all areas, or stop and have a drink and meal at one of the local restaurants.

A daily routine of elephant feeding and bathing happens each morning and afternoon. Whatever time you arrive can experience the bathing and feeding, but allow yourself at least three hours there.

I arrived at 9am, in time for the morning bottle feeding of the baby elephants. They drink a powdered milk formula and you can hand feed them yourself. Then the elephants leave the feeding area and move up to an open gazing spot where they wander around and have a dust bath.  You can have a photo taken here. Just tip the mahout a dollar or so.  The role of the mahout is vital in managing human interactions with a group of such large animals. You tend to forget that these elephants are under control, as the mahouts are not at all intrusive. They are just there, keeping watch, prodding and directing the animals when needed. My guide said the elephants know and respond to the mahouts’ words and gestures. There are other elephant orphanages around the world, but with over sixty resident elephants, Pinnawela is reputedly the largest.

Each morning at 10am, the elephants walk leisurely down from the grazing area, through the narrow main street of the village, to have their morning bathe in the rapid waters of the Ma-Oya river.  Most tourists gather at the waters edge or stay higher up at one of the cafes which offer a good vantage point.

The elephant bathing is certainly the highlight of the day for both humans and animals. Elephants love water and these ones were dipping below the water, rubbing their backs against the rocks, squirting one another, lying on their sides and using their trunks as a natural snorkel. The river is shallow in parts with rocky rapids. Despite their huge size they are surprisingly delicate as they step across the rocks and stand with a bent leg on the rock, nicely posing for a photograph. Some of the elephants are real camera junkies and will oblige by coming up close. They are curious animals and their probing trunks will sniff out food you may have. Sliced mango pieces are highly prized. Conveniently, bags of mango food are for sale.

Some of the herd cross over to the river bank on the other side, taking soil there to spray over their backs, before returning back again to the water. It’s essential that elephants don’t over-heat so the river provides the opportunity for a cooling bath and a drink.

Some of these elephants have tusks, but most do not as the group consists mostly of females, with young. With Asian elephants only the males have tusks. These animals will charm you, especially the mothers and babies. Many young were still suckling and the clingy babies like to loop their trunks around the mother’s leg. Like humans the young ones have to learn how to behave, so bringing the orphaned elephants into a herd is important for their social development.

As you would expect these animals produce a fair amount of dung. A brilliant waste disposal solution has been devised: elephant dung paper.  Thankfully, after thorough washing, the dung fibres don’t smell at all. You can tour the dung paper factory and buy the paper at highly inflated prices. I suppose an elephant dung paper calendar could make a quirky souvenir.

You can’t actually ride the elephants at Pinnawela. The emphasis here is on care and conservation, but elephant rides are on offer elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

Pinnawela Elephants, Sri Lanka

This orphanage was established in 1975 as a home for injured and orphaned young elephants. It is now run by the Sri Lankan National Zoological Gardens with an emphasis on conservation. Funds collected from visitors contribute to the upkeep. There is not enough natural vegetation at Pinnawela to provide food for all the elephants, so large quantities of food are brought in daily. The set-up at Pinnawela simulates, as far as possible, conditions in the wild.  The orphanage has a captive breeding program and animals find their way from here to zoos around the world.

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is situated near the town of Kegalla, halfway between Colombo and Kandy. Hotels in Kandy will organise day trips to Pinnawela, including a visit to a local tea factory and spice gardens for around A$60. This is the price for car and driver-guide, so a group could share this cost.

Originally published in The West Australian Travel pages 2009.

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