Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
We've written a few times about our disappointment with the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook, and today highlighted why you should always follow your instinct as opposed to just blindly following a guidebook. Particularly when it comes to travelling. I love love love elephants, and couldn't wait to visit the Elephant Transit Home in Uda Walawe National Park. We couldn't go unfortunately, so I was a bit desperate to get my baby elephant fix. This really led us to go Pinnewala, and it was against our better judgement. The section about Pinnewala in the Lonely Planet is measured and leads you to draw your own conclusions, whilst highlighting the concerns Born Free have made previously.
I basically ignored these, and and got carried away with the excitement of stealing a baby elephant for a pet (it could happen, elephants love West London). Almost as soon as we got into the park, we were confronted with around 80 elephants freely eating leaves and roaming happily with a few mahouts about to keep them in check. I won't lie, it was pretty spectacular to be that close to an elephant and whilst I've done it before (in Thailand), this felt a lot different. There really wasn't anything separating the hoards of tourists from the herd, and the mahouts were more focused on getting tips for photo opportunities.
More upsetting was the baby feeding time, which essentially took place in a circus ring. 4 babies (all had one leg chained up) waited whilst a tourist bottle fed them milk, all the while posing like loons. Not all of the babies were fed at the same time, and two of them seemed really distressed; one repeatedly ran to try and break free from the chains which was really upsetting to watch.
We also saw another larger elephant tied up to a tree by himself away from the herd - he was swaying and trying to pace, clearly unhappy. In the Born Free report on Pinnewala, it suggests that the elephants may be tied up due to musth (essentially when males are on heat) - chaining them makes them more manageable.
Lastly, we went down to the river where the elephants were being bathed - they are led down at 10am and bathe for a couple of hours. We headed down first, and stood by the lake (it was roped off) - a siren heralded their arrival (which seemed bonkers) and they trooped down to the river obediently. We were on a ledge next to a little shop, and unfortunately a ridiculous human being thought it would be a good idea to feed one of the 2 ton males a minute banana. The mahouts shouted at her, and luckily there was no drama - but if anything had kicked off, we would have been stuck inside a tiny shop with no escape.
It should obviously be noted that these elephants have mostly been rescued from horrendous situations inc. aggressive mahouts and are according to Born Free 'largely well looked after'. Lonely Planet highlighted how polarised their readers opinions on Pinnewala were, and a quick look on Trip Advisor reviews show a clear difference in experiences.
Hopefully this hasn't come across as too worthy, but I really wanted to post our experiences of Pinnewala and why it's not an appropriate way to see elephants. See them in the wild, there are a ridiculous amount of opportunities to do so in Sri Lanka!