This may be the hardest blog post for me to write. My initial reaction to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was sadness yet for many of my cruise mates it was an exciting highlight. I had a strong emotional reaction to bull elephants dragging chains and being prodded along by men with pointed elephant hooks. I understand that in South Asia elephants are working animals but it still bothered me. It upset me more when I learned that the Elephant Orphanage no longer rescues baby elephants.
When the orphanage started did rescue baby elephants that had either lost their mothers or were stuck in mud and were abandoned by the herd. Those elephants were bottle fed, and grew to be adults. As a result humans are imprinted on them. If they were freed elephant herds would reject them so they would wander inhabited areas looking for food. They would become nuisance elephants. So the animals, while saved, had to remain in the orphanage. In the orphanage they bred. Now there are almost 40 elephants, the children and grandchildren of rescued elephants. There are several pregnant elephants that will add to this captive herd. There are only three actual rescued orphan baby elephants at the orphanage.
There are still elephant orphans that need rescue but now they’re taken to a national park where they have little contact with humans, only bottle feeding that’s done without humans getting too close to the babies. The hope is that these elephants can be introduced back into the wild to create new herds.
On the positive side, at the Pinnawala orphanage female elephants and their calves do form herds and bond with each other. Daughters stay with mothers throughout their lifespans. Bull elephants stay with the herd for about 7 years and then go off on their own and live mostly solitary lives except for breeding. They all meet at the water hole.
And the can be a problem. They’re harder to control, so they have chains. Chains slow them down and make them manageable. They’re driven by men with elephant hooks. Vendors sell “elephant food”, mostly fruit that we can feed the elephants. This reminds me too much of the zoos and circuses when I was a kid where you would buy a bag of peanuts to feed the elephants. Zoos and circuses always made me sad. I felt those sad memories here.
Most visitors saw it differently and had a wonderful time. The elephants are well fed, get free healthcare and have a lot of room to roam. The daily bath is a ritual they seem to love. When we first got to Pinnawala the elephants were splashing around, the juvenile elephants were playing, pushing each other and butting heads. One bull was lying face down in the water, his trunk acting like a snorkel.
The finale of the bath is a shower. A keeper turns on a hose with a spray. This is the cue for the elephants to bunch together and get soaked. They seemed to love it. Some had their mouths open to let the water shoot in. Others splashed around. After their shower the bulls were led away first, then “the ladies” with their calves, all to get lunch.
We had our lunch and after watched one of the three actual baby elephant orphans, which stands taller than the person feeding him, devour a bottle of formula; 750 ml was gone in a flash. He gets several bottles a day.
While the orphanage no longer accepts orphans it has a long future as a tourist attraction because the residents keep breeding and they have long lives. An Asian elephant in the wild lives 60 years, at the orphanage it can live a decade longer. Elephants in the wild die because they lose their teeth and can no longer eat. They go to a watering hole where they can at least drink water until they die. There are watering holes in Sri Lanka known as elephant grave yards.
So while I couldn’t shake the sadness I could still marvel at these big creatures with golden s highlights on their trunks and ears.