The Sacred Elephant of Asia

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka
This facility is recognized as hosting the world’s largest collection of captive elephants. Several years ago Pinnawala changed from being a true orphanage to being a place where tourism, elephant breeding, and grooming elephants for sale and gifting became the operating goal. The international sale of elephants is against the dictates of CITES and after a multi-year hiatus, the facility is considering a robust return to the trade in elephants.

Our goals include:
Facilitating habitat enrichment for the 91 elephants held at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
Engagement with Minister of Wildlife, vis-a-vis collaborations at Pinnawala

In January 2017, we were invited by government officials to discuss improvements at Pinnawala. As a result of that discussion, we were invited to submit recommendations to (then) Minister Perera.  The next month, Perera flew to Thailand to visit our friend Lek Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park. Lek understood that his intent was to further his understanding about modern-day operations at comparable elephant sanctuaries.  At that point we were optimistic that change at Pinnawala would proceed, however, Perera has since “backslided.” In late April 2017, Perera made an announcement that he will begin selling elephants to private individuals at $60.000 each, while gifting them to temples at no cost. Then in mid 2017, Perera made many elephants available for parading in Kandy's Perahera event. He has since been removed as Wildlife Minister, while his horrendous policies remain in place. The new Minister has yet to make major policy decisions.

Attempting to regain our momentum, in mid 2017, SavingGanesh flooded social media with stories and information about Pinnawala and pressured Minister Perera back to the table. Consequently, the minister approved our veterinary EleCare program (Winter 2018) and thus the government facilitated our work at both Pinnawala and the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe, where 40 orphaned elephants are currently being maintained until being released back to the wild.

EleCare Vet Tour - Winter 2018:
Participants included Dr. Trish London and Dr. Shannon Finley, both from Oregon, local translator/logistics coordinator Madawa Gamage, and SavingGanesh Executive Director and Conservation Geologist Philip Price.

The team met with government officials at Pinnawala and ETH and monitored/observed elephant/tourist and elephant/mahout interactions, with an eye toward habitat enrichment. We are also looking at proposing the expansion of Pinnawala by annexing land located across the river or adjacent to the park.

Our Recommendations are as follows.:

Name of the Facility
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is not truly an ‘orphanage.’ Criticism of this name is rampant in the tourism and conservation worlds. Western tourists and many locals are not ignorant of the differences between a zoo and an orphanage. This misleading name prompts many negative comments in social media - a zoo is a zoo and an orphanage is an orphanage. Out of respect for the visitors and world tourist, the name needs to be changed from orphanage to elephant center/home/facility/zoo.

Breeding Program
Especially when this facility is called an ‘orphanage,’ it is inappropriate to conduct breeding. There are already too many elephants here, and additional intakes should be stopped.

Confiscated Elephants
Other facilities should be used for confiscated elephants, as the need for increased security measures dictate this requirement anyway.

There must be improved education for people on issues facing wild elephants in Sri Lanka and why those elephants are at Pinnawala. This location is the perfect venue to educate the public. People come here to see, enjoy and learn about elephants. It is very surprising that no such accommodation is made.

It is an embarrassment that the mahouts chain the elephants in the middle of the river. In the West, we call this “pulling the wool over our eyes.” People are led to believe the elephants are enjoying their time in the water, but most of them are not. The illusion is not lost on many visitors, who are frustrated when witnessing this.

If the two big herds are kept in separate and very large enclosures, then they will be safe, as will the public. There will then be less need for control, via hitting and poking.

Sterotypical Behaviors
When habitat enrichment is provided, allowing for more natural behaviors, then stereotypical behaviors will be lessoned.

Wounds on legs
Rubber hose should be placed around chains to prevent wounds to legs.

Concrete Pads
Standing on concrete at least 12 hours a day is very harmful to elephants feet. Switching to dirt sand floors is recommended. (Trish can provide pictures of night time enclosures for government elephants in Nepal with dirt floor and pictures of chain free corrals.

Enrichment Yard and Viewing Platforms
Tourists should have little or no direct interaction with the elephants, and elevated viewing platforms should be provided. (Trish can also provide pictures of enrichment yards and facility with elevated platforms.)

Elephant Exercise
Elephants are not getting enough exercise, especially the bulls. Consider building chain free enclosures for bulls and other difficult elephants to at least spend some time within it every week. Consider enrichment yards to allow bulls free time off chains, enrichment includes food hidden in structures, tires, ropes.

Expand the Facility
Explore possible areas around Pinnawala to allow the elephants to walk and naturally forage. This would require an improved relationship between the mahout and elephant and ability to control the elephants.

Remove Milking Facilities
The elephants are older now, and with no active breeding program, the need for milking stations is unnecessary. Also, true orphans are brought to the Transit Home, not to Pinnawala.

River Bathing
The new lake within the primary grounds will decrease the need to bring bulls down to the river. Only the ones that enjoy the activity should be brought. The vast majority of elephants don’t play and engage with the water - because they are under the strict control of the mahouts, are oppressed, are in chains and have little true freedom. Also, it is very dangerous to the public to bring that many elephants down to the river twice a day. It is an accident waiting to happen.

Land Use
Expand land available to elephants vs people on Pinnawala grounds. Eliminate all the concrete towards the front of Pinnawala. Instead build platforms above and beside enclosures for the public to observe. This will eliminate the need to have mahouts standing around yelling and with sharp poles to control the elephants.

It is fantastic that you have such a large multigenerational herd. The plan would be to keep them together as much as possible and potentially have them in a large enclosure and chain free 24/7.

Taken individually, each of these recommendations will not significantly improve the plight of Pinnawala’s elephants, but in the whole - it will. “Death by a thousand cuts” is an old saying that’s been translated to many languages. Pinnawala had honorable intentions when it began, but is dying by a thousand unfortunate decisions made over several years for the benefit of tourism and not the elephants.