My visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage made me feel very uncomfortable throughout.
Before going to Sri Lanka and arriving at Kandy, where the majority of tourists are staying when they visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, we had decided against going. We both worried that it was cruel.
While we were away, however, my other half’s Sri Lankan friend encouraged us to visit and after reading this, I decided to go and check it out for myself.
We should have considered how different an experience it is visiting Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage as tourists, rather than a local or a journalist invited by the tourist board.
On arrival a “guide” began walking us to the ticket office and telling us about the place. It was 2,250 (£10/$15) to simply see the elephants, 5,000 (£24/$33) to ride and feed them and another 1,500 (£7/$10) for the guide. The guide said without him we wouldn’t be able to find the elephants, looking back I am sure we could have made our way there.
It felt like a hustle immediately and it only got worse. He took us to the river nearby where the elephants were bathing – except they weren’t.
The elephants stood close together doing nothing, because they don’t know how to spray water on themselves and have fun like wild elephants. They are chained, which is necessary to stop them running away.
Our ‘guide’ was talking a million-miles-a-minute, giving us elephant facts and information about Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
I completely understand that an orphaned elephant will most likely die in the wild and so here they can at least live. I also understand that it is almost impossible to return them to the wild because they don’t survive outside of herds – but they make new herds here so I don’t understand why they can’t be moved to a national park.
Some are unwell or disabled, but I did not see them. The elephants I saw were perfectly healthy.
Our ‘guide’ mentioned at one point that the elephants might be brought there if they were disrupting people and farmers which is not an acceptable reason to remove them from the wild, but because he doesn’t actually work there I cannot say if this is true.
It was unsettling to see the elephants stood there doing nothing, so we asked if we could see them roaming around when they left the water but we were told no, because we only paid to look.
Our ‘guide’ then took us to a jewellers, a paper shop and then herbal garden nearby. Here he told us of all the ways different herbs and spices were used for beauty and health ailments, in a form of medicine called Ayurveda. We then tried to sell us products on behalf of the garden for two or three times more than they cost elsewhere, again putting a lot of pressure on us.
When we walked back to our car, after the guide told us our driver would take us to a tea factory on the way home “free of charge” even thought we were paying him for the entire day, the elephants were walking from the water back to the orphanage, and this was a beautiful sight.
If you want to see elephants than please go to a national park. If orphanages lose money they will be forced to address tourist concerns.