The Elephant Orphanage of Pinnawala: Don’t Be Fooled
We initially decided to go to Pinnawala – if I’m honest – because we had a one day gap in our Sri Lanka itinerary. We had finished with our coastal part of the trip, and were now in the midst of mountains and lush greenery right smack in the middle of the island. We’d heard about Pinnawala a couple of times prior to heading in-land, but in all honesty didn’t know much about the place. The small village itself is about a 2 hour train journey north west of the city of Kandy, and was host to the somewhat famous Elephant Orphanage that many of you may, or may not of of heard about.
Elephant Orphanages are quite common across Asia, with the most widely known organisations being in northern Thailand and Cambodia. They attract tourists and volunteers all year round, offering individuals the chance to even bathe and feed the elephants under the watchful eye of the orphanage keepers, also known as mahouts.
Many of these kind of organisations, although not an ideal environment for the elephant, are considered a safe haven for the animal – and are looked at in a much different light than your standard ‘zoo’. Zoos have a bad name, and they’ve earned it all by themselves. Essentially, they are just a collection of mostly pretty looking animals, taken out of their natural environments for us humans to gawp at and indecently blind them with our camera flash. Zoos essentially teach people that it is acceptable to interfere with animals and keep them locked up in captivity, where they are bored, cramped, lonely, deprived of all control over their lives, and far from their natural homes. But hey – hopefully none of this is news to you guys.
Many of you will remember earlier this year, Thailand’s Tiger Temple was popping up all over social media, filling our newsfeeds with horrifying photographs and videos of mistreated, sick, injured and even deceased Tigers, all whilst under the care of the Kanchanaburi Tiger Temple. The ‘temple’ itself claimed to be a sanctuary in which the tigers can live freely, and ultimately be released back into the wild – (utterly ridiculous, by anyone’s standards.)
On the morning of May 30th 2016, more than 500 officers, wildlife officials, vets and police were waiting patiently outside, ready to pass the gates and seize nearly 150 tigers – including over 60 cubs which had been found both frozen, and chemically preserved. Years worth of both public and private investigations by various NGO’s had finally become all but too much for the Thai department of wildlife, and at long last the thai tourism gold mine was being shut down.
It’s stories like this which really make you look at the way you travel, and force you to evaluate how responsible you are and what kind of mark you’re leaving. We thought this to ourselves as we discussed our trip to Pinnawala – agreeing we simply must do our research before we make any substantial plans.
We scoured the internet looking for reasons to back our argument, but seemed to find that most opinions and evaluations spoke very highly of the organisation in Sri Lanka. There were websites and forums dedicated to the appraisal of the orphanage by wildlife enthusiasts and apparent conservationists, detailing how remarkably the elephants are looked after and cared for. The majority of online speculation seemed to rate this Pinnawala establishment quite highly – with only a few negative comments wedged in between, detailing their loathing for the place.
We decided that we wanted to see for ourselves.
So, we packed our bags and hopped on the clammy, cramped train from Kandy – agreeing to forego any expectations we may have about the place.
When we arrived in Pinnawala (a short tuktuk journey from the train station) we were quite struck by how ‘local’ the place felt, considering it’s a well known tourist destination for both Sri Lankans and foreigners.
After we had checked into our hotel and freshened up from our dusty train ride, we set upon heading out to find ourselves some lunch. It was around midday, and the sun was really putting in a good effort. Coming out of our hotel, the street was lined with little souvenir shops – something that we hadn’t really seen much of in Sri Lanka. As tourism is only just picking up on the island, souvenir and trinket shops aren’t really something you see in the scale that you would in places such as Bangkok and Phuket. Throughout our whole trip in Sri Lanka, I think we’d only seen a handful of these kind of stores. We browsed through some of the shops, adoring some of the colourful sari’s and tiny wooden elephants for sale. As we carried on down the street, we were stopped by a police man (and his friend) who told us to show our tickets. As we’d literally just emerged from our guesthouse, we stopped and gave him the most puzzled look. We asked what the ticket was for, to which he replied
‘To see the Elephants’.
We smiled, and said not to worry, we aren’t visiting the elephants – we’re simply perusing the local handicrafts before heading out to grab some lunch. The police officer looked terribly perplexed, and commenced to get his friend to sell us tickets before we proceeded down the street.
At this stage we presumed it was nothing more than our daily language barrier issue – and continued to explain that we’re literally walking down the street, not intending at this stage to visit the orphanage. This, however, was irrelevant. The police officer was in fact telling us that we required a ticket – to walk down the street.
Let me just explain – this is literally the street outside our hotel – about 5m from our front door.
They then told us that this was the street where the elephants walk down, and that it will cost us 2,500 rupees each (15 euros) to be down the same street. Holding back a snigger, I politely asked them how we were supposed to enter our hotel, if the street was strictly for ticket holders? The police man and his companion looked at each other fairly speechless, as if no one had ever asked them a question of this nature before. A couple of seconds later, they told us that it’s free to explore the street, cafe’s and souvenir shops after 4pm.
Just to be clear, it was exactly at this point that we made up our mind about visiting the Orphanage.
We told them that we weren’t willing to pay 15 euros to walk down a street, and subsequently had to leave. If truth be told, this left quite a sour taste in my mouth.
As we rerouted ourselves on our quest for lunch, we ended up walking past the tourist information center, and thought it best to pop in and ask whether we were the butt of some kind of joke, or whether it’s in fact true that some roads are ‘chargeable’ in Pinnawala. The tourist information guide agreed, and confirmed to us that there is a fee for us to pay if we want to see elephants. A little bit pissed off about the situation, we told him that we didn’t want to see any elephants at all, and just wanted to have some lunch. He responded with a lukewarm smile, repeating the price list to see the elephants.
So by this point I’m stage two hangry, and even more unwilling to pay like an obtuse tourist just to ‘be’ in this town.
We laughed it off as ‘one of those days’, and finally managed to get ourselves a table at a restaurant at the end of the street, right next to the river. Naturally, the food was quite disgusting and the waiter was quite ill-disposed – but we’d already comprehended that this was the kind of place to expect that.
Sri Lanka as a country, is full to the brim of bright, smiley, loving people – it’s something that stands Sri Lanka apart from the rest. But unfortunately we were starting to see a pattern, and realised that this wasn’t the kind of place to meet friendly locals.
We heard some sirens going off, and noticed people beginning to get up from their seats and head to the balcony of the restaurant. I’m not going to lie – it was quite an amazing view as we looked upon what seemed like hundreds of ginormous elephants parading down the street heading for the river. Some of them were mounted by mahouts, some were chained, and some were walking freely. One by one they submerged themselves in the lake, with about a quarter of the elephants being attached to a chain to keep them in that one particular spot (we presume it was so that tourists could feed & bathe them).
We finished our lunch with a feeling of mixed emotions about our day thus far and what we’d seen. Sure, the elephants looked rather content splashing around in the lake, throwing water over each other and scrubbing down the babies, but we still felt undeniably skeptical, even suspicious, about the whole event.
Thibault approached one of the mahouts, as he stood guard with one of the metal probing sticks called an ‘ankus’ (usually a sign of oppression or abuse in this kind of environment) and began a conversation to try establish a better understanding of the Elephant situation in Pinnawala. He told Thibault that he’d worked at the orphanage for the past 10 years, and confirmed that the reason some were chained up was for the safety of the public. Some of the elephants were deemed dangerous, with one mahout even telling us that one elephant in particular was accountable for three deaths since being at the orphanage.
We gave each other ‘the look’ (come on, you know the look!) and hurriedly retreated back to our guesthouse. It all just didn’t feel right.
As glad as we are that we went to Pinnawala to judge for ourselves, we’re even more glad that we decided not to visit the orphanage. The town had a strange unnerving feel to it, and we ended up pretty much waiting in our hotel rooms, anxious to leave first thing in the morning.
It’s funny how slapping the word ‘Orphanage’ at the end of the sentence connotes the feeling of care, wellbeing and safety. In all truth, it seems like an deceitful way for, what is essentially a glorified zoo, to trick people into thinking their money is being used for the greater good; for the plight of the elephant.
Since leaving Pinnawala, I’ve done more exhaustive research to try and get my head around the whole thing. From what I can see, the Elephant Orphanage used to be backed by the Born Free foundation a few years ago, until they carried out multiple investigations into the organisation, and deemed that the role of ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’ conflicts with the stated policy of encouraging breeding at Pinnawala. Essentially, this means that the animals kept here at Pinnawala are being bred, not for the benefit of the foundation nor animal itself, but for tourism.
To breed more animals for the purpose of being kept in zoos, or sent to private collections or temples, is a concept that is rather unfathomable for many of us. It is illegal to capture wild elephants for captivity in Sri Lanka, except in special circumstances, so one might even assume that Pinnawala’s Orphanage is solely in business in order to provide animals for the captive market.
So from me, it’s a sad ending to this article. What I hoped to be a positive, happy environment for these beautiful creatures, seemed nothing more than your average asian money-making scheme. I can only hope that I’m wrong.
If you’ve been to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and would like to share your experience, we’d love to hear from you!