Created in 1975 by the government to protect injured or orphaned elephants, Pinnawala is home to these superb pachyderms, who are allowed to roam free under supervision... and with interest.
Initially located in Wilpattu National Park, the orphanage is now based in the village of Pinnawala, around fifty kilometres from Kandy.
After paying an entrance fee of 2,500 rupees, we can approach these majestic animals on the edge of the 10-hectare park where they live in semi-liberty. Or watch them bathe and frolic in the nearby Maha Oya river. A very touristy spot, with its temple merchants, but well worth the diversions.
The price is quite high for the country (around 16?) and, as in most places in Sri Lanka, there is a price for locals and a price for tourists. What's more, the mahouts insist on tipping you to have your photo taken near the elephants. It's like being in a specialised zoo where tourists are treated like cows to be milked.
But the show is still on, whether in the park, when the baby elephants are bottle-fed, or at the twice-daily bath, which is accessed via a street lined with souvenir stalls.
Elephants are particularly fond of bathing: bathing in water, mud and dust.
When we visited, two adult elephants were shackled with heavy chains and tied to poles: this is the only way the vets can treat the sometimes serious injuries they suffer. Trapped by farmers whose crops they ravage (the authorities estimate that around 200 elephants are killed each year, mainly by farmers), poached for their ivory and meat, or to steal their babies, wild elephants pay a heavy price. All the more so since the new craze of some rich Sri Lankans is to own a baby elephant as a pet and a status animal! However, poachers cannot kidnap the baby without confronting the mother, which usually ends in her death because she defends her calf to the bitter end. Although in Sri Lanka the elephant is revered by the predominantly Buddhist population, and killing an elephant is punishable by death, strangely there are very few prosecutions?
Until recently, elephants from the Pinnawala orphanage were given to Buddhist temples for parades during religious ceremonies. But this principle has been called into question by NGOs, who are calling for elephant calves to no longer be separated from their families. More and more tourists and associations are becoming indignant about the mistreatment of elephants, who travel several kilometres heavily laden during these festivals and are sometimes injured by mahouts who show little respect for their well-being.
Fortunately, some improvements are being made to protect these animals. Electric fences have been installed around certain areas to protect the rice fields. To cap it all, it is more effective to lock up the villagers than to park the herds of elephants! And since the end of 2016, elephant owners are no longer allowed to use elephants under the age of ten for work. And elephants under the age of five may no longer be used in parades.
Where they used to find their natural food and migration routes, they are now finding fields and villages as a result of population growth and deforestation. It?s not a simple equation! Especially as every year, around fifty people are killed by elephants in Sri Lanka.
As a result of deforestation, there are around 6,000 wild elephants left on the island today, compared with 12,000 a century ago.
At Pinnawala, the baby elephants, many of which were born in captivity, and those that have been injured will never be released back into the wild. One of the guides explained to us that an elephant that has been trapped or injured remembers, even years later, the person who harmed it, and will kill that person if it crosses his path. An elephant?s memory?
Text and photos: Brigitte Postel