Destinations: Pinnawala

Pinnawala

See baby jumbos wondering around their cramped foster home or bottle fed and bathed by their human foster fathers at Pinnawala, about 90Km from Colombo towards Kandy is the home to some 100 or more elephant orphans. A place you will really enjoy and never forget. Most orphans are accustomed to their curious human visitors are harmless.

Pinnawala is the most popular and accessible place to see large numbers of these lovable animals in a natural habitat. It is the most popular elephant ‘attraction’ with tourists because nowhere else, except at the splendid ‘pereheras’ will you see so many elephants at such close quarters. The government opened it in 1975 since many more baby elephants than usual had become separated from their herds that year. The persistent drought had dried up many village wells into which the young elephants had fallen, while attempting to get a drink. Even today elephants fall into quarry or gem-mining pits, and poachers or angry farmers who shoot the adults for destroying their crops, orphan some youngsters.

The Orphanage is open from 8.30am to 5.45pm and visitors can interact a little with the elephants during the regulated bathing and feeding times. The baby elephants gulp down several huge bottles of milk, fed to them by their mahouts, and then it’s off to the river for a bath. The inherent gentleness of the animals is most obvious during this time. Most of the elephants eventually become ‘working’ elephants, and some older females occasionally add a baby to the herd.

About 2.5kms down the road is yet another elephant sanctuary called ‘Club Concept’. The herd here is smaller and the matriarch Lakshmi and her daughter Puja are the star attractions. There is a small museum on the premises that tells their story, and which also contains an interesting explanation of the habits and lifecycle of the Sri Lankan elephant,

There are a couple of restaurants, and several food and drink stalls outside the orphanage, as well as a bank in case you need to change money. Two spice gardens close by are also worth a visit. You can reach the orphanage by car, bus or train en route from Colombo to Kandy, or simply as a day trip from Kandy.

A Jumbo sized welcome
Most of the newcomers are babies and come from all over the island. After a few days of quarantine, they are released into the herd who welcome them happily. The majority of the lost or abandoned calves that are fortunate enough to be brought to Pinnawala are already almost fully weaned. This makes it easier for humans to rear them, albeit within the huge foster herd. The progress of each elephant is detailed carefully in individual files, which record their history and medical status.

A mother’s touch
The nurturing and loving nature of the older female elephants is evident in the way that they suckle the furry babies even though they are not lactating. They are generally very compassionate and show much kindness towards the little ones who nuzzle against them for comfort. The normal weaning period is about three years and the vast quantities of dairy milk that the babies will consume cannot but cause an occasional dietary problem. If the capable staff at Pinnawala cannot deal with the problem at its infirmary, a vet will be summoned from Colombo.

Feeding time
Visitors are completely enamoured at feeding time when the younger babies are bottle fed with enormous amounts of infant formula, which they guzzle down in a few seconds. You can watch them feeding at 9.15 am, 1.15 and 5.00 pm.

Bath time
A major pachyderm pleasure is bathing and the wide river nearby enables the elephants to bathe twice daily, a regimen essential for an elephant’s hygiene, comfort and happiness. Bath times are from 10 am until 12 noon and from 2 until 4 pm.

Star roles
Some of the more mature orphans at about the age of 15 years, may be gifted to zoos around the world. But is more likely that they are honoured by being presented to Buddhist temples in their homeland for religious duties. Here their major roles will be to take star parts in peraheras or religious processions, when they will be dressed in bright, traditional caparisons and paraded. In either case, none of the gigantic wards may be removed from the orphanage without the President’s approval. She will also have the final say in the selection of the best candidates for donation to temples, a process involving determination of many qualities.

New additions
In rare cases, an older cow will present her own newborn to the herd, which includes a couple of bulls. The human foster parents who care for the animals are well aware of the differences between those born at the orphanage and the new orphans, whose sadness is only too apparent to them. Most of the elephants will live out their lives in the safety and peace of the open plains of the sanctuary. However travel weary you may be, this short detour off the Colombo-Kandy road is very rewarding and you will find the orphans at this home totally endearing.

08.30 hours    Open to visitors
09.15 hours    Bottle feeding
10.00 hours    Herd leaving to the river
12.00 hours    Return from the river
13.15 hours    Bottle feeding
14.00 hours    Herd leaving to the river
16.00 hours    Return from the river
17.00 hours    Bottle feeding
17.30 hours    Ticket counters close
18.00 hours    Close to public

Excursions

Bible Rock
Bible Rock or Battelagala is the book shaped rock which can be seen from the Colombo-Kandy road at Kadugannawa Pass. Although there are no ancient ruins on the top, local folklore says two caves on the north side had sheltered King Walagam Bahu as he fled from invaders. The hog’s back at the top of the rock falls away on both sides in steep precipices, giving it its famous profile.