Tourist report – Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
We received this report on Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, an orphanage and nursery for Asian elephants, from Emma who visited Sri Lanka recently. The reviews for Pinnawala on TripAdvisor are mixed, with some people horrified at the use of the ankus and chains whereas others say there is no evidence for cruelty.
Photos, videos and words – Emma Rathbone
“As you know I was reluctant to go to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in the first place. I asked our tour guide about the elephants there and he insisted they were well looked after and continued to tell us about an elephant that had been rescued after stepping on a land mine. Feeling obliged to go as we pulled up outside, and almost wanting to see it for myself, I went.
When we arrived our guide left us by the river, where most of the elephants were situated (not all the elephants are brought out at the same time). My heart instinctively raced at seeing so many of these beautiful animals, at first glance appearing happy and relatively free in such a large space. I was hoping, and trying to convince my cynical self, that it might not be that bad, but deep down I knew that all the previous negative reports could not have been false.
On closer inspection, we saw that some (but not all) elephants were chained, usually around a back ankle but some around the neck. With the majority of elephants in the water, this wasn’t easy to see initially. Almost all the ones in chains appeared uncomfortable, with a number of elephants drawing attention to the chain with the trunk, or scratching their legs on rocks. The chains were clearly causing pain and had caused scarring (also visible in elephants without chains), with one particular elephant displaying open wounds with its torn skin hanging off. Another elephant with a chain around its neck appeared for a while to be trying to remove it with its trunk.
When the elephants were returning to the orphanage, we noticed that one very large elephant had its back feet chained together so tightly that it couldn’t walk properly. One elephant clearly had mental problems and exhibited repetitive behaviour by continually crossing over the front feet, as if kicking them out like in a dance (see video below); but of course it is unclear whether the elephant had these issues prior to being at P.E.O.
The elephants were clearly scared when the handlers (or ‘mahouts’), many of whom carried long sticks with metal spikes on the end, got near. I didn’t see any prodding or any evidence of abuse, but the elephants avoided them where possible and seemed to panic when they got too close (i.e. when walking back up the relatively small path from the river).
After this group of elephants were taken back, a small group of around 6 elephants came down to the river, led by handlers in white tops rather than yellow ones. The handlers started to bath some of the elephants, looking up and drawing the attention of a number of tourists whilst doing so, who went over to pose for photos and have a go at washing an elephant themselves. These elephants looked a bit happier to me, so it makes me think that it could be the sticks the elephants are scared of rather than the handlers.
I had seen quite enough at the side of the river and decided not to see the rest of the place. The whole experience was extremely upsetting and very difficult to watch. One thing that struck me more than anything is the complete ignorance of the tourists, such as one girl happily posing with a young elephant in the background scratching its chained and wounded leg on a rock (see video below). Not one of the 100 or so tourists around us seemed concerned or upset, which worries me a great deal – how can things change if people don’t see a problem?
In contrast, later on into the holiday we went on a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park; at times home to hundreds of elephants who migrate to the lake in the early evening. Because of recent drought the lake was low on water, so we were told there were not many elephants around at the moment. Nevertheless, we were lucky enough to see a few elephants – two males at first, then two females and a youngster who came out of the bushes to make their way to the lake, and then a group of around 6-7 later on.
Though the engines were turned off when stationary I was slightly concerned with the volume of jeeps, which apparently led to a slightly delay in the two females and youngster from coming out of the bushes. However our guide was particularly great and ensured we stayed well back from the elephants, and they didn’t seem bothered after passing the jeeps.
To witness these incredible creatures in their natural habitat exhibiting their natural behaviours brought tears to my eyes and is a feeling of immense joy and privilege I will never forget; contrasted with the despair I felt at seeing those poor elephants suffering at P.E.O.
During our time in Sri Lanka we also saw elephant rides advertised (our guide suggested we do it, to which we declined), and we also saw an elephant walking along the road in Kandy, one of the major cities in Sri Lanka. Our guide said that elephants are used for heavy lifting as they are cheaper to hire than machinery. We also visited a famous Buddhist temple in Kandy (Temple of the Tooth) which holds a procession every summer known as Esala Perahera, where a number of elephants are dressed up in garments with fairy lights and paraded through the streets.
Though I expected P.E.O. would be upsetting after reading previous reviews, I still felt a responsibility to form my own opinions for myself. I don’t want to be hypocritical and say that holidaymakers should cancel this part of their tour (which also may be difficult if already booked and paid for), but people should be prepared if they do choose to visit. Unfortunately it appeared that many tourists saw no animal welfare issues at all and as the majority of tours in Sri Lanka seem to visit P.E.O., sadly I think it will take more than a few conscientious tourists refusing to visit to make a significant difference; however it does all start with those people and organisations voicing concerns in the first place.”
Thanks to Emma for her brilliant report and photos! If you’ve been to an animal attraction that you have concerns about, please contact us here.
Born Free Foundation’s position on Pinnawala
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