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.

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!

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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…

Elephants walking
Elephant restaurant
Elephants arrive to river
Schoolchildren greet elephants

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.

Elephants walking
Elephant restaurant
Elephants arrive to river
Schoolchildren greet elephants

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 1064 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!


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Laura Ann Klein June 28, 2013 at 7:46 am

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 June 28, 2013 at 10:32 am

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

bob November 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm

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 ?

billy April 11, 2014 at 6:14 am

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…

Robert Schrader April 11, 2014 at 7:12 am

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 April 13, 2014 at 9:07 am

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.

Robert Schrader April 15, 2014 at 9:42 pm

Thanks for clearing that up!

jeremy May 7, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Come on mate. In your first picture the elephant has big chains around his neck and even a bullhook in his mouth held by the mahout!! Can’t you see that? The mahout just wants to make sure the animal doesn’t move while your picture is being taken so he gets your tip. That’s clearly a tourist trap (and the reviews online confirm it)! Just reminding that baby elephants are being captured in the wild, their parents killed and they are tortured for days to break their spirit (check phajaan on youtube) so they are ready for tourists. The elephant nature park is a real sanctuary , no hooks or chains or even tips, this one is just a scam! As a travel professionnal please make sure you know all the facts before you post something like this.

Robert Schrader May 9, 2014 at 8:09 am


I didn’t tip anybody, so that strategy didn’t really work well.

Samantha May 19, 2014 at 11:40 pm

“although some trainers might let you snap a picture with one for a tip” That’s from your text Robert.
I’m gonna go with Jeremi on this one. I’ve been there and it might look nice and the elephants probably look like they’re free but they aren’t. The proof is these chains around the neck on your first picture and the bullhook in his mouth. That’s not freedom but just a way for these people to make more money, a tourist trap.

I left after taking the same picture as you did :a close up eye . I then realised these creatures were still scared and under control. Nothing to do with the look they have in the wild . There are some amazing experiences to have in Asia involving elephants but as always when we travel, it’s important to do it in a responsible way and not be fooled by charming offers (I’ve been a few times too).

Every time an elephant is chained or its guide has to use a bullhook (or a nail hidden in his hand) to make him perform tricks , like painting, dancing, swimming at the beach, begging on the street, standing still in front of a camera or carrying people on its back, it’s being controlled and has to go through horrible pain to get to this stage of submission (see phajaan on google). The best experiences you can have with them are when they are free from that: nature trecks and sanctuaries only…THESE are amazing experiences involving elephants!

Elephant Sanctuary Volunteer August 17, 2014 at 12:00 am

You are posing next to an elephant in chains and with a bullhook in its face, and you describe this as a transcendant experience? You must believe in Santa too. Not only are you easily duped, but you are really among those who perpetuate the daily torture of these creatures. How vapid you look, totally oblivious to what is standing right next to you.

Janice November 15, 2014 at 5:14 am

Your article sounds amazing yet I had already read the Born Free report which I’d recommend anyone planning to visit considers for themselves:

Paul December 2, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Hi Robert, I was browsing through your amazing site and was wondering, do you know if is possible to sleep in kegalle for a night?

Robert Schrader December 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Definitely! there are many guest houses there. Thanks for reading my site 🙂

Jill March 1, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Just found this, and was very interested to read all the views.
Having spent some time at Pinnewala/Pinnawala, it was good to see that however these animals get here, or if they leave or stay, seeing them gallop to the river and cavort in the water together proves that at least they have some relatively natural fun every day.
One or two bull elephants were angry and dangerous, and were kept on the hill on the edge of the woods. They are enormous, and could do such damage. However, their Mahout keeps them occupied some of the time and they Are left to themselves, or with other adults at other times. Were they angry about being there? Or were they dangerous in the wild due to their temperament and were saved from being killed?
None of the females and young we’re in chains whilst outside. The young were kept on a chain whilst being bottle fed in the byre, simply to keep them in order until feeding was over. One baby elephant hid the empty bottle from the mahout when he came to get it, several times and made us giggle. Did he train it to do this? I don’t know.
To understand the truth here, a lot more information gathering would need to be done I feel.
Hope this is useful.

Robert Schrader March 2, 2015 at 7:04 am

Thanks for your perspective, Jill! And thanks for not attacking me as some of these people have done lol

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Pinnawala is hell on earth for these elephants wake up please

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Hell on earth for these elephants at Pinnawala!! EDUCATE YOURSELF

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Yes the elephant has a chain around the neck and the sharp end of the bullhook in the MOUTH????? Are your that naïve ???????????????

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:05 pm


Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Pinnawalla is hell on earth for these elephants. And then they are raped and delivery babies to be exploited!!!

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:07 pm

People believe what they want to believe But good grief wake TH F UP FOLKS!!! It is called torture and slavery for the almighty dollar

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Pinnawalla is hell on earth

Kathryn Giallonardo April 5, 2015 at 3:09 pm

DITTO!!! You must be very stupid, naïve or being paid off.

Lenore Kateryna July 10, 2015 at 8:38 am

I am going to Sri Lanka in December (2015) for my best friend’s wedding. We are also visiting this elephant orphanage. I am so excited. The pictures make me want to go there NOW 😛

Robert Schrader July 26, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Hope you have so much fun!

Marty Jones November 20, 2016 at 4:33 am

I went there,, and am planning to go back exclusively to spend days at the orphanage, I loved it there, taking the elephants down to the river, scrubbing the life out of them with coconut shells,, in the water with them, watching gigantic Richards float harmlessly by lol.. prepairing medicine for them and if you are lucky enough,, administering these rugby ball sized made up medicine,, feeding the young ones,, I was in heaven!!!! :)…

Mathew August 9, 2017 at 10:55 pm

It’s actually a great andd helpful piece of info. I am happy that
you just shared this useful info with us. Please keep us informed
like this. Thank you for sharing.

Robert Schrader March 7, 2018 at 11:00 pm

Thanks for your advice!

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