The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is in a word - magical - and a must see for any visitor to Sri Lanka.
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was established 1975 by the Sri Lanka Wildlife department. The reserve is situated Northwest of the town of Kegalla, 77 kilometres from Colombo halfway between the present capitol Colombo and the ancient royal city of Kandy in the hills of central Sri Lanka. The reserve is on a 24 acre coconut property on the Maha Oya river at Rambukkana and was established to feed, nurse and house young elephants found abandoned by their mothers.
Often these very young elephants fall into pits and ravines in their quest for water during drought periods, or are badly injured or displaced from their natural environs by development projects. Initially the orphanage was at the Wilpattu National Park, then shifted to the tourist complex at Bentota and then to the Dehiwala Zoo.
From the Zoo it was shifted to Pinnawela in 1975. At the time it was shifted the orphanage had five baby elephants which formed its nucleus. In 1978 the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was taken over by the National Zoological Gardens from the Department of Wildlife and a captive breeding program launched in 1982. Pinnawela attempts to simulate - but in a limited way - natural conditions in the wild, with the elephants allowed to roam freely during the day with a herd structure allowed to form.
The orphanage is also a breeding centre for elephants, with over twenty elephants born there since 1986. The herd now numbers approximately 75 elephants and is reputedly the largest herd of elephants in captivity in the world.
The difference between the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala and the Uda Walawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH) at is that elephants at the Uda Walawe transit home are not touched nor visited by humans and basically kept in the wild, and once injured or orphaned elephants have recovered they are released back into the wild.
As the elephants at Pinnawela actively interact with humans, they must stay in captivity for life as they cannot be released back into the wild - having lost the ability to fend for themselves in a wild habitat. The best time to visit the orphanage is during feeding times, when you have the opportunity of seeing the baby elephants being bottle-fed then follow the elephants down along the road to the river where they bathe for an hour or so. close-by and see the elephants having their daily bath.
Best time to visit is at 9-15 am when the baby elephants are fed with milk with large (jumbo size!) milk bottles with large teats. Then at 10 am (and 2pm in the afternoon) the adult elephants are walked 400 metres to the nearby Maha Oya river for their two-hour bath - which is a wonderful and colourful sight, especially for photographers as fantastic views can be had from the overlooking restaurants and terraces. Between 16.30 and 1800 in the evening the animals are taken to their stalls and tethered for the night.
They are then given their evening feed which is milk for the babies and vegetation and leaves for the older elephants. Their food is mainly coconut leaves (Cocos nucifera) and leaves and branches from the Jackfruit tree, (Artocarpus integra), and leaves, branches and logs from the Kitul palm tree (Caryoty urens). Large quantities of food are brought in daily for the elephants with each animal eating approximately 75 kg of green matter a day, plus in addition approximately 2kg of a special food mixture daily which contains maize, rice bran, powdered ginger seed and minerals.
Information provided by Jayantha Jayewardene, Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, 615/32 Rajagiriya Gardens, Nawala Road, Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka, and Dr. Fred Kurt, Institute of Wildbiology at Vienna Veterinary University .