Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End Jul 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Friday, January 23, 2009

  We made a stop off at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage on route to Colombo and were able to get amazingly up close and personal with over 80 ele's of various shapes and sizes, all from different walks of life. Some had got caught up in the civil war and lost their mothers, whilst others had been abandoned or born into the orphanage. Once big(ger) and healthy, they become working animals but are never returned to the wild as an ele without a herd doesn't stand a chance out in the jungle on their own. They need direction, female direction. Full power to the matriarchs.

As you can imagine, Sri Lanka is not at home to health and safety so Tom spent most of his time in amongst the enormous beasts - not all of which were tame - whilst I nursed my nerves from a safer distance. Occasionally he was reprimanded by one of the more belligerent staff members but that didn't stop him from securing a bond with couple of these beauties. One huge ele was fascinated with Tom's bead bracelet, convinced that it was something yummy and spent the best part of ten minutes wrestling with him. Another called Homily had stepped on a land mine a few years ago out in the wild which destroyed half her front left leg. She was found and taken to the Orphanage and since then has adapted to walking/hopping on three limbs. As a result her spine and working front leg are bent, but nevertheless it was remarkable to see such a huge animal cope with such a seemingly restrictive disability. Understandably, Homily had a bit of a temper and was clearly frustrated with her circumstances but still managed to follow the herd down to the river to bathe twice a day, whilst trumpeting in defiance at the irritating staff who were always hurrying her along.

It was fantastic watching the elephants bathe although many of them seemed more interested in making a beeline for the red sand banks on the other side, perhaps in a bid for freedom - they didn't get very far though as they're not exactly inconspicuous. Others lay down in the shallow waters and enjoyed a wash from the staff and their buckets. I was expecting some of them to stereotypically jet spray vast amounts of water out of their trunks but it didn't materialize. Perhaps that just happens in films. A handful of small (in elephant terms) babies shuffled close to their mothers in a very cute and timid way whilst the adolescents rubbed their big itchy bottoms against the rocks.

When bathing time was over, visitors were asked to withdraw to a safe distance as the herd came plodding out of the river, pushing and shoving into the narrow pathway, kicking up dust and creating a tremendous grey traffic jam. When I say a safe distance, we were only a few steps away from the animals so if one had decided to lose his cool and charge, it would have been curtains. I was nervous. Tom was in his element.

Back in the field we were introduced to a gigantic blind elephant whose name I forget and at 60 years, was the oldest beast in the Orphanage. He was splendid, with beautiful long tusks and a docile manner. There were a dozen or so huge male ele's chained up to trees that were dotted around the perimeter as they were considered too dangerous to roam free among the crowds. gulp. It was absorbing to watch them methodically tear up thick strips of wood with their great strong trunks and carefully transport it into their innocuous little mouths.

Many of the staff invited us over to stroke and have our photo taken with the animals in the hope of receiving a tip which was tiresome but understandable as they were clearly underpaid. Looking after these gentle giants day in, day out is a risky business and not an occupation I would ever choose to undertake but it was fun to be a fly on the wall for a few hours, despite being charged an outrageous amount to enter. Oh well, it's all for a good cause. I just hope the people in charge spend our foreign notes on the upkeep of the elephants and not on fattening their wallets. Am I being too cynical..?
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