Elephants of Sri Lanka

Elephants, elephants and more elephants. If you have a passion for pachyderms you can get your fix in Pinnawala, Sri Lanka, home of the Elephant Orphanage. When I was planning my relatively short trip to the island nation, it was right at the top of my list. The orphanage takes in (usually) young elephants that are orphaned or injured or abused. Right now there are 95 elephants housed there, ranging in size from about 2-3 feet to giants several feet from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads. Every day from 10am-noon and from 2-4pm they are herded down to the river by the Mahouts (handlers) for their twice a day bath or frolic in the cooling water. As a result hotels have sprung up along the river bank and shops line the route from the orphanage to the river… all targeted at the elephant tourists. The shops are open from 8am to 4 o’clock, when the last tourist has left the area the shutters come down. They sell everything from T-shirts to wooden elephants to paper made from elephant dung. I chose the Elephant Bay Hotel based on Trip Advisor reviews and was glad I did. The elephants walk down the road just a few doors down and once in the water, wander over for a hello or a free snack. I checked in (impressed with the hotel and my large room with a balcony overlooking the river) and headed down to the restaurant for a quick lunch before the elephants arrived for their afternoon bath. It had been raining, a torrential downpour, as my car and driver made our way from Colombo, but when I arrived the rain stopped. There were still a few sporadic showers through the afternoon but certainly not as hard. As the elephants sauntered down to the river everyone in the restaurant rushed down for a look, and when one of the smaller elephants wandered near us I headed down for a close-up look. A guy was there holding a bag of bananas and a Mahout was there so I knew I wouldn’t become lunch (I know, elephants are vegetarian but they can be pretty intimidating simply based on their size). I took the bag of bananas and began feeding the relatively small elephant. I got up close, stroking his rough and hairy forehead and trunk. He was very polite, gently taking the bananas from my hand. Of course I had to pay the price, after the feeding and photo op they demanded 1000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $10) and the banana guy 500SLR (about $5). I know I got scammed but didn’t mind… it was worth it. The experience was awesome. After they packed their trunks (sorry I couldn’t resist) and headed back to the orphanage, struggling up the wet and muddy hill, I went shopping. First stop was the shop selling elephant dung paper… someone actually figured out a way to take the dung and turn it into cards, books, greeting cards and stationary. I couldn’t resist buying a few sheets of ‘poo paper’.
On my second day I had planned to catch the morning bath and then head out for some other sightseeing (spice garden, elephant ride etc) but when the star attractions arrived I was mesmerized… again. The weather was absolutely beautiful, sunny and hot (and humid), and after being in Sri Lanka for almost a week, this was the first day that it didn’t pour rain. I sat there shooting dozens of photos and videos. At one point one of the elephants mounted another… how many times does someone get a chance to see elephants copulating up close. At first I thought another elephant had his trunk in between the two mating beasts… but turns out it wasn’t a trunk, even though it sure looked and acted like one. The female must have been in heat because they kept at it, no fewer than 4 times in less than an hour. (A warning the video is very graphic… viewer discretion advised!)


 The orphanage has a pretty good success rate for breeding in captivity with several babies born each year. And let me tell you, the tiny babies are the cutest things you’ve ever seen… sticking close to mom… so close that they often hang out under mom’s stomach… running for cover if another elephant gets too close or they get scared of something. After they left I went back to my room to get cleaned up and watched a bit of the Royal Wedding… pretty bizarre to see something like that from such a remote part of the world. Before I knew it, it was time for lunch followed by another bath time for the elephants. This time there weren’t as many tourists around so a few of the Mahouts came over and sat with me, chatting about the elephants and what it was like for them to care for these giant beasts. One of them suggested I get in the water with one of the elephants and give it a bath. I was a little nervous, I kept remembering stories about elephants suddenly freaking out and turning on their handlers… I could just see the headlines. But I did it anyway. I rolled up my pants and handed my camera over to one of the mahouts and waded in. There were 3 Mahouts there to help out, but I got right in the big elephant’s face, scrubbing with a rock and then a coconut husk. It was an amazing experience. When I was finished the elephant and I posed for a few photos… me holding onto his chains and a Mahout stick. Again they wanted money (who doesn’t) and I didn’t hesitate to hand over 3000SLR (about $30) and yes I know I got ripped off, but again it was worth the experience. After changing out of my wet pants and getting cleaned up again, I headed out one more time, because the weather was so beautiful all day, I knew there would be a nice sunset and I wasn’t wrong. When I headed down to the river there was a group of young men doing their laundry, bathing and then playing around in the water. I got some great photos, and they didn’t hesitate to pose for the pictures. They swam over and we chatted for a while, turns out they work at a nearby hotel and come down regularly for their daily bath.
But it was on Day 3 that I was really able to get up close and personal with the elephants. The morning started as usual with the elephants coming down to the river just as I was finishing breakfast.
I sat down on the steps and shot a bunch of photos… young elephants play fighting, baby elephants play fighting, big elephants bathing and Mahout’s taking it easy while the elephants bathed. I have become friends with several of the Mahouts, they all say I’m a great guy and I found out it’s because the day before when the banana guy was getting no interest from the dozens of tourists taking photos, I told him I would buy a bag of bananas and give it to one of the elephants to try to encourage some of the other people to do the same. Word spread and now I’m a friend of the Mahouts. One of the guys invited me to a nearby place where I could have an elephant ride. I jumped at the idea… even though it was 3000SNL (about $30) for 30 minutes. I followed him down there and hopped on and the Mahout led us down the path to the river. We ambled along for several minutes, uphill and down, dodging tree branches from scratching my eyes out, and then started heading back. I said ‘wait a minute this is supposed to be 30 minutes and it has barely been 10’. He responds, ‘you give 1000SNR tip.’ I said ‘when the ride is over’. So we wandered down to the river again and he told me I could bathe the elephant but I would have to take off my pants and shirt so they don’t get soaked, sounds like there could be a punchline here, but I did as I was told and waded into the water. Again I was handed a coconut husk and proceeded to scrub and wash the giant elephant. He seemed to be enjoying himself and I was actually having a ball… despite the fact that I was only wearing my Calvin Klein’s. I was told to get on his back and he rose up as I held on… kind of like elephant rodeo. We ambled back to the place where I got on, and there was another couple there waiting for their ride… taking photos of me, almost naked on the back of a giant elephant. I handed over more tips (everyone has their hand out here) and then decided to head over to the nearby elephant orphanage. Just as I arrived the elephants started coming back from the river, parading through the orphanage grounds to their open field for some R&R. I took a few photos and then met up with one of the mahouts I had talked to earlier. He introduced me to Sama, a 20 year old elephant that had part of her front right leg blown off by a landmine, and I shot some video of her as she kept up with the others… pretty remarkable to see.

He then led me over to what looked like a shrine and a statue of a giant elephant with long tusks… turned out it was alive, and it was 75 year old Raja, blinded by a spear gun in the jungle about 20 years earlier. He’s massive, and very calm and just stood there as tourists came up, gave him a scratch and took his photo. Next stop was the maternity and baby stable and I was lucky enough to see a giant female and her newborn baby (just one day old) as they stood around their stall area, mama chained to the floor and baby wandering back and forth under mother’s belly. When I bought a ticket to feed one of the babies I was hoping it would be one of the tiny ones, but it turned out there were two of them and they were 2-3 years old but had been orphaned. They were led up to their audience, chained to the floor and then it was feeding time. I was first up, and the mahout came over with a baby bottle filled with milk, I took over and started feeding it to the ‘toddler’ and in about 10 seconds he had it drained and my time was up. Apparently he goes through dozens of bottles at each feeding. There are other areas that are off limits to tourists, like the remote area of the park that is for the 10 elephants deemed dangerous. As we walked to the exit area there was a Mahout leading a 4 month old baby around the trail. I couldn’t pass up the chance to get up close to him… a miniature elephant, only about 2 ½ feet tall so that I towered over him. He was covered in wiry hair which I scratched for him and he nuzzled up close to me. Later I headed over to the spice garden with Kumari, the guy who brought me over to the elephant ride. It wasn’t the same kind of spice garden I had been to before in Goa and Tanzania. This one had more of an emphasis on Ayurvedic herbal remedies. It was very informative and interesting, and at the end of it I was offered an upper body massage with some of the lotions made from some of the same ingredients I had seen. It was an awesome end to the day.
For my last full day Kumari took me to a couple of Buddhist Temples in the community. The first was a hike up a big hill followed by hundreds of steps. We were led up there by a young Buddhist monk (who I didn’t have to tip!). The temple features a large, brightly coloured reclining Buddha, but the view from up there was spectacular. We checked out a larger temple nearby that featured beautifully painted sculptures and reliefs along the inside perimeter, telling the story of Buddha’s birth and his life. It helped to have a guide with me to explain it all.
I was sad to leave the elephants, but the clouds opened up near the end of the morning bath, and when they all headed toward the opposite river bank to get out of the rain, I hit the road to head back to Colombo, with memories to last a lifetime.

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  1. The First 6 Months: Dec 01.10 – May 01.10 | RTW Travels.com - May 5

    […] rode a camel in the Great Thar Desert in India; I snorkelled in the Andaman Sea in India and I fed, bathed and rode elephants in Sri Lanka. I have visited ancient temples, historic forts, and magnificent palaces.  I have witnessed […]

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