Robert Schrader in Sri Lanka

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

I’ve always been fascinated by elephants, but the first time I encountered an elephant in a non-zoo environment back in 2009, when I rode one up an ancient fort in Jaipur, India, left me feeling oddly cold, not to mention exploitative. I’d used the beautiful creature as a mode of transport, but never really got the opportunity to appreciate it.

Say “Ayubowan” to my Sri Lanka travel guide
 

When I arrived to Sri Lanka a couple weeks ago, my friend Charm informed me that there was place not far from Colombo where I could get up close and personal with elephants without subjecting them to slavery: An elephant orphanage, which rehabilitates elephants whose parents have been killed, so they can return to the wild.

Today’s photo essay takes you with me to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, a place I already count among my favorites I’ve ever visited. I’m getting teary now just reminiscing about it!

Elephant at a river
Elephant bathing
Elephants playing
 

“A lot of these places,” Charm informed me, as we drove along the windy road to Pinnawala, “are actually zoos, places that exist only to attract tourists.” He assured me that Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was different.

I could tell immediately that he was correct. We arrived to the orphanage to find two large herds of elephants being looked after by no less than a dozen caretakers. Some were being fed, while others were enjoying a romp out on a flat plain. Although the physical condition of each elephant was different – one had lost a foot, apparently due a landmine – they were all unchained and uncaged.

Elephants walking
Elephant restaurant
Elephants arrive to river
Schoolchildren greet elephants
 

We showed up just as the feeding phase was finishing, so Charm suggested we make our way down to the Maha Oya river quickly so as to get a good spot. “They’re coming down here to bathe,” he explained, as we hurried down the road, “and they take up the whole road when they walk, so we have to beat them to it.”

At this point, you’re probably scratching your head. “So you mean to tell me Robert,” you might ask, “that watching elephants eat and bathe is one of your favorite travel experiences ever?”

“Yes,” I would answer. “That’s exactly what I’m saying!” The facial expressions and noises of the elephants alone were enough, not to mention how they seemed to enjoy spraying each other (and rolling in mud after they’d bathed, not unlike some dogs I know!) Plus, there was that whole broken heart that needed to mend…

How many elephants can you count?
Mother and child elephant
Elephant in water
Elephants bathing
 

I might seem like a primadonna of sorts, what with my (relatively) high-flying lifestyle, but the fact is that I’m extremely easy to please,. Watching beautiful creatures live their lives, be they sexy men or majestic elephants, is an easy way to bring a day-long smile to my face, as I hope these photos do for you.

The great thing about the location where the elephants bathe, in addition to the fact that it’s very picturesque, is that it’s flanked by several cafés and restaurants, where you can enjoy affordably-priced, reasonably tasty food and beverages while you watch the elephants bathe.

Elephant at the river
Elephant rolling in mud
Elephant eye
Elephants going home
 

Can I Ride or Touch The Elephants?

Unlike the adjacent (and totally separate) Millennium Elephant Foundation, which is one of the zoos Charm warned me about, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a refuge for wild elephants whom, with the exception of a few very sick individuals, will return to the wild. As a result, it is not possible to ride or touch them, although some trainers might let you snap a picture with one for a tip.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage Facts and Figures

In total, there are 78 elephants living at Pinnawala, which has been in operation since 1975. A team of 40-50 caretakers feed, bathe and assist the elephants, and there is also an on-site breeding program. Although the work done at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is decidedly good, the institution has come under scrutiny for its “donation” of rehabilitated elephants to suspect owners.

How Do I Get To Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is located approximately 90 km from Colombo, along the road to Kandy, close to the village of Kegalle. The easiest way to get there, if you don’t have a private car or the money to hire a taxi, is to take any public bus to Kandy and get off at Kegalle. From there, it’s just a short bus or tuk-tuk ride to Pinnawala.

How Much Does Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage Cost?

As is the case with most attractions in Sri Lanka, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is much more expensive for foreigners than it is for locals – we pay 2,000 LKR (about 15 USD), while they pay just 100 LKR. Unlike some other attractions, however, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is worth every penny!

 

About The Author

is the author of 669 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell.

Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!

  • Laura Ann Klein

    I rode an elephant in Cambodia before I knew better. It makes me a little sick to my stomach thinking about it. Thanks for sharing your pictures and your experiences.

  • Sue Sharpe

    I have heard great things about Pinnawala – Thank you so much for sharing your experience & lovely photos

  • bob

    Lots of sources out there completely disagree Born free foundation for one. pinnewala is also nothing more than a way of using the elephants to remove cash fro tourists, hence the number of gift shops, restaurants along the street down to the river. Did you also bother to ask when the last elephant was actually returned to the wild?
    This place now has more than 40 elephants in an area not that much bigger than an out of town supermarket.
    Ask yourself again Robert, just whose benefit is Pinnewala for ?

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  • billy

    seems all you are misinformed ..most of the elephants housed in pinnawala are domesticated elephants that can’t be relocated to wild ..if you go to udawalawe national park they cater for wild orphaned elephants who are actually all being sent back to wil…giving sri lanka has lots of domesticated elephants both places have their merits..same time it gives the local economies a boost as well in turn funding the operation…

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Hi Billy:

    Thanks for providing your commentary. I was taken to Pinnawala by a Sri Lankan person whom I consider to be pretty knowledgeable about his country, so I would be surprised if he’d lie to me or be misinformed.

  • Tharusha Hettiarachchi

    Hi Robert,

    Just to add to the information here, both billy and your friend are correct. Your friend is correct in saying that this is a special nursery where they look after orphaned baby elephants, it is in a way a non-profitable organization. But billy is correct in saying that most of these elephants, once they are fully grown, will not be returned to the wild. They have received too much human contact and care to have a chance of surviving in the wild. Few disabled or injured elephants will be provided residential care, while many others are donated to the temples in Sri Lanka to be looked after. A handful number of elephants are sold/ donated to private owners, provided they will look after the elephant to the given standard. (Although this practise has come under a lot of scrutiny recently)

    I disagree with ‘bob’ when he says that this program is just a ploy to remove cash from tourists. Pinnawala has been in operation since 1975 and has been quite successful in their work. And I must say it is the tourism aspect of pinnawala elephant orphanage that keeps this place sufficiently funded. Otherwise the budget allocated by the local govt. would not be enough to keep over 80 elephants well fed and looked after, including the maintaining of its staff and the large complex.

    The pinnawala elephant orphanage is a great program and it is a truly wonderful sight to anybody to see these majestic animals up close, whether your a local or a foreign tourist, the memories will live with you forever.

  • http://leaveyourdailyhell.com Robert Schrader

    Thanks for clearing that up!

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