Oh, you have to see the elephants,” said almost everyone before a trip to Sri Lanka. But not necessarily the wild elephants roaming Sri Lanka’s national parks and elephant corridors. They were talking about Pinnawala.
“Come, or you’ll miss the bottle-feeding,” says a handler at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage near Kandy. In a small arena, staff and visitors are feeding the undeniably adorable baby elephants. Sure enough, a crowd of tourists has gathered. There are chains on the floor. “We have to chain them sometimes,” the handler explains, following my gaze. Later, I see some of the larger animals display wounds around their ankles.
It’s soon time for the morning bathing session where the elephants are led by handlers or mahouts to the river. I’m no judge of elephant happiness levels, but they freely wander across the river and onto the opposite banks; others are washed by mahouts or paying tourists who fund much of the sanctuary’s work. Some elephants still wear their chains and rub their wounds against the rocks.
“When they’re on musth, we have to chain them,” says another mahout. Musth, an annual physiological condition, can cause male elephants to become aggressive.
Back at the hotel, I look up the orphanage on the Born Free website. Like many well-meaning sanctuaries, it falls somewhere between having good intentions but falling short of several. No-one wants to sit on the fence, but some things just aren’t black and white.
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