Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka

In April 2012 we launched a campaign about an injured elephant at Pinnewala called Mihiri – see this report

Our Sri Lanka team has produced a video documenting tourist contact with elephants at Pinnewala – watch it here

Report by David Jay

The Pinnewala Sanctuary is just off the main road from Colombo to Kandy, and is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular animal attractions. Although the conditions of the elephants are in general better than some other establishments in the region, the welfare of the animals is a cause for concern for many experts.

Elephant at Pinnewala (c) BFF
Photo showing ankle wounds from chains - taken in 2006

The site at Pinnewala covers 23 acres, and was founded in 1975 with five young elephants. At the start of 2011 there were around 85 animals, ranging from those born at the facility - they have had over 50 live births, although not all are still resident at Pinnewala - to some estimated at 40 years old or more. The main site itself has a couple of restaurants / refreshment stands, and some management buildings (eg sleeping sheds and veterinary facilities), but little other infrastructure.

The animals spend the night in the main site, and in the mid-morning they are led down to the Maha Oya river, around 500 metres away, for a two hour bathing session. This walk takes them down the main street of town which is lined with gift shops, stalls, restaurants and other tourist facilities. During the bathing sessions tourists can watch the animals playing in the river and being washed by the keepers. More adventurous visitors are encouraged to touch the animals under the supervision of a mahout (elephant trainer), who expects a tip for this service.

At around noon the animals are led back through town to the main site, where they are left to graze for a few hours, supervised by staff, whilst tourists can watch from a distance. In the middle of the afternoon the elephants are led down to the river again for another bathing session, and a few hours later they are led back to the main site for the night.  The baby elephants are bottle fed three times a day at a feeding shed, where tourists can watch and some can buy tickets to take part in the feeding.

Whilst many animal sanctuaries include some tourist access, often as a source of funds, there is always a difficult balance to be struck between making decisions for the benefit of the animals, and making them for the benefit of the tourists. In addition, sanctuaries vary substantially in the care that they provide and the welfare of the animals that they hold. Born Free believes that such facilities should be judged against the best standards of welfare and care, not the worst, if they are to justify their existence as sanctuaries. On this basis, Born Free has several reservations about the facility at Pinnewala.

Elephant at pinewala (c) BFF

The elephants at Pinnewala are not kept permanently chained, but it is often possible to see individual animals chained, often in distressing circumstances. During a visit in March 2004, Born Free witnessed several elephants chained at different places in the river during the morning bathing period. One in particular was chained to a rock and was straining on the chain - visibly distressed by not being able to follow the herd. Back at the main site, several elephants could be seen tied to trees by two or three limbs. This offers very limited opportunities for movement, and in some cases no access to clean water for much of the time spent restrained in this way.

Although Born Free cannot confirm why these animals were tied up, it is known that adult males at Pinnewala are usually tied up during ‘musth’. Musth is a condition experienced by adult male elephants, characterised by high levels of testosterone, which happens about once a year and lasts for a few weeks. During this time the animals experience increased sex drive and may roam longer distances than usual – a combination of behaviours that in the wild can lead to vital genetic dispersal.

In captive elephants, however, the confinement and limitations on sexual activity can lead to aggression and destructive tendencies. For this reason, males are often tied up when in musth, which frustrates and distresses them further, making them even more difficult to manage. Hence the practice often gets to the stage where the animals may be tied by three limbs for weeks on end as the facility does not have any other methods for managing them. This clearly compromises the welfare of the animals.

It is also easy to see the mahouts on site, carrying the ‘ankus’, the traditional elephant training tool. This long stick has sharp metal points at one end, which are used to control the elephant. Whilst these may be used irregularly, it is this threat of pain that makes elephants trainable, and hence makes it possible to herd the animals around the site and down to the river on a daily basis. When asked, mahouts in most places will generally say that although they have an ankus they very rarely use it – unfortunately this is not always the case. The training, threatening and herding of animals in this way, although practised throughout Asia, shows that the animals’ welfare cannot be given the highest priority, as one would hope from a facility calling itself a sanctuary.

The role of ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’ also conflicts with the stated policy of encouraging breeding at Pinnewala. Born Free does not support the keeping of animals in captivity unless it is for their own benefit – for example when they have been rescued from unacceptable captive conditions and are unable to be returned to the wild. To breed more animals for the purpose of being kept in zoos, or sent to private collections or temples, clearly does not satisfy this requirement. There is no need to breed Asian elephants for re-introduction, as there are already many areas where the areas of habitat are straining to hold the wild populations living in them. It is now illegal to capture wild elephants for captivity in Sri Lanka, except in special circumstances, and it seems that this policy is followed in order to provide animals for the captive market, and quite possibly for institutions where the welfare of the animals cannot be guaranteed.

Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and despite the longevity of the animals, no captive populations have ever been self-sustaining – new animals from wild populations have always been needed. In this context, Pinnewala has a very successful record of captive breeding. Nonetheless, two of the babies born at the facility in 2004 did not survive – one was born dead, and the other died when it was dashed on the ground by its mother shortly after the birth.

These are our main concerns about the Pinnewala ‘Orphanage’ – the use of mahouts (with ankuses), the chaining of animals (especially during musth), and the breeding (with possible transfers to other captive institutions). Born Free is also concerned about other aspects of the facility that we do not consider appropriate. The physical contact between tourists and animals may provide a popular ‘photo opportunity’, but we feel that it is demeaning for the animals, and does not promote respect and compassion within the tourists. Similarly, the chaining of babies so that they can be fed in front of the crowds is not ideal.

The Born Free Foundation supports the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe, in Southern Sri Lanka. This facility takes in baby wild elephants that have been separated from their mothers, and cares for them until they can be returned to the wild. Although Pinnewala may not be able to return its animals to the wild, it could certainly provide them with a more ‘natural’ life, as the protocols at the ETH demonstrate.

The young animals spend their days roaming freely in a section of the Udawalawe National Park, being observed at a distance by a few members of the ETH staff. They are fed at three hour intervals in a specially constructed feeding yard, and this is the only time that they can be seen by tourists, who watch from a viewing platform separated from the yard itself. At no point can the tourists have physical contact with the animals. The elephants are herded through the yard by staff who sometimes strike them with thin sticks which do not break the skin (and, judging by how often they are ignored, cause only minimal discomfort). The sight of feeding time is very popular with the locals and any tourists who visit as the animals are enthusiastic, relaxed and full of character.

Pinnewala is certainly much better than many captive elephant facilities in Asia, including for instance Sri Lanka’s Colombo Zoo with its elephant show. However, as a sanctuary we believe that it should be putting the welfare and care of the animals as its highest priority. We do not believe that the current management practices do this. Many decisions seem to have been made for the convenience of the management, or for the benefit of tourists, the local tourist industry and the captive animal industry. We therefore encourage tourists not to visit the facility and support its practices until they are appropriate to its self-proclaimed sanctuary status.



Born Free's position on Pinnawala

69 K


The full Pinnawala report

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Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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