Elephants are beautiful and immensely majestic creatures of the wild. Getting up close and personal with these creatures is a rarity but on our recent visit to Sri Lanka this is exactly what we got to do. Our memorable encounter with elephants happened at the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala. The orphanage, which is believed to house the world's largest herd of captive elephants, could be reached after a two and a half hour drive from the capital city Colombo.
Photo credit: Dasmin Niriella
When we walked into the facility it was time for the elephants to take the short walk to the river nearby for their morning soak and play. They line up tallest to the shortest and follow the mahout (the elephant trainer) obediently. This walk is not through bushes or deserted tracks but through the busy main street of the town, with shops lined up selling everything from paper made from elephant dung to jewellery made of elephant hair. Mind you, the elephant walk is done with a lot of supervision from the staff of the facility, so there is no threat to the onlookers around.
We followed the herd with our cameras busily capturing every movement of the magnificent creature strolling in front of us. Bath time was indeed a happy time for the elephants as well as the onlookers. The elephants frolicking in the water truly is a sight to behold. Seated in the eatery overlooking the river sipping a cold glass of Fanta we watched the entire scene unfolding in front of us. The babies, as mischievous as one would imagine, sprayed dirt all over themselves before getting caught by the matriarch of the herd. Then the babies were gently pushed off for a soak in the river: a heartwarming scene indeed that brought tears to my eyes. The bath time of the herd saw us witnessing great moments of love and life of these majestic, intelligent creatures which were also perfect photo opportunities for the photo enthusiast.
Bath time. Photo credit: Dasmin Niriella
Later on, once the elephants were ready to head back for their feed and a rest, we followed on, stopping at various shops along the way and purchasing little gifts which were in some way or the other connected to these animals and made entirely locally. We even got to witness the entire process of how elephant dung is recycled into writing paper. If you plan your visit well and time it you may even get the chance to feed a baby elephant or even hop on a bigger elephant for a short ride.
Kids will be kids! Photo Credit:Dasmin Niriella
At first when I entered the premises I was skeptical as I was against the thought of these magnificent creatures being held in captivity. A bit of the history recited by one of the staff made me reconsider this view and change my mind. According to the staff that showed us around, the orphanage was first established to care for young elephant calves who were orphaned when their mothers were killed by unscrupulous humans.
The large herd that is housed at the premises today were mostly born in captivity and have no skills to survive in the wild. According to the officials there is no alternative but to look after and care for these elephants in this facility as the plight of the creatures if sent to the wild is unpredictable. Some of these elephants did not have a place to go as human activity had destroyed their habitat, some have lost their parents as babies due to human activity, some have been injured by humans. So I believe it is commendable that humans themselves have come up with a solution to preserve this magnificent species.
Elephants poo paper- a must see. Photo Credit: Dasmin Niriella
There is a fee to enter the facility of around Rs 2500 ($25.00) per person (tourists). The money that is earned from opening the facility up to the public is used to maintain the orphanage to care for and house elephants presently residing here (around 40 adult and baby elephants) and the ones who would be brought to the facility in the future. If you are not keen to pay the fee yet want to see the elephants, take some photos up close. The best bet is to be down the road where the elephant walk takes place for the soak in the river. Be warned though that down the lane of shops there are local street sellers hassling foreign tourists trying to sell various things from books, DVDs to potions. A firm "no" is often sufficient to impress your intention not to purchase anything.
Cooling off. Photo Credit: Dasmin Niriella
Timing is the key if you are visiting the facility. A mid-morning visit would ensure that you witness and participate in some activity from bathing to feeding the elephants. Weekdays are the best for a visit as weekends tend to get rather crowded. Plenty of water is recommended as the whole experience in the heat requires some thirst quenching. Often you would also get a chance to see the odd porcupine that is being displayed by its owner on the side of the road on your way to the facility. One could, if they wish, pose for a photograph with these creatures for a small fee. All in all for us, the whole experience was a unique, memorable one that I wouldn't mind repeating.