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The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is home to over 60 elephants.

Watch video footage of elephants at the orphanage.
 >>Real Video   56k   200k
Photo & Video: Chris Johnson

April 14, 2003
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The elephant is the largest living animal found on land, its size is only exceeded by some large whale species. Before heading back out to sea in search of sperm whales, the crew travelled up into the mountains in the hope of seeing Sri Lankan elephants.

There are two species of elephants in the world today, the African elephant and the Indian elephant. The Indian Elephant occurs in thirteen Asian countries - the total population within these countries is presently estimated to be between 35,000 and 55,000. The Asian elephant is further divided into five sub species, two of which are found in Sri Lanka. The Indian elephant is smaller in stature than the African elephant. It has smaller, more triangular ears, a rounder back and one lip rather than two on the tip of its trunk. In Sri Lanka, most females and many males are tuskless.

The association between elephants and Sri Lankans is a long and rich one. These tractable, gentle animals are easily tamed and have been used as workhorses for centuries. The Asian elephant holds a special place in Buddhist and Hindu religions and Sri Lankan culture. In ancient times, elephants were the property of the Singhalese kingdom and killing one was a dreadful offence.

Elephants once roamed the entire island of Sri Lanka. Soon after the Singhalese Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the new government encouraged the killing of elephants for sport. The hunters were paid a bounty for each animal killed and the fact that they were declared agricultural pests only served to give moral justification to the indiscriminate slaughter.

This old male is blind. He was found wandering in the jungle over 25 years ago.
Photo: Chris Johnson

It is estimated that there were over 19,500 elephants at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were only about 2,000 left. Most were killed, exported or captured for use as working animals. In 1951, the population was estimated at only 1,500 animals. With an ever-increasing human population, elephant numbers began to diminish; the survivors were driven further and further from their original habitat, increasing pressure among the animals for food and water.

In most Asian countries, development of lowlands for human settlement has pushed elephants into the mountains. However, in Sri Lanka the development of the hill country for cultivation of cinchona, coffee and tea banished all but a fragmented population from the hills, confining them to National Parks and dry lowland forests where their presence can result in conflict with humans.

The future for Elephas maximus appears bleak, even desperate. The high mortality rate prompted conservationists, scientists and those concerned about the future of the species, to encourage the government to adopt steps that would lead to the preservation of the species and Sri Lanka's natural heritage.

Legislation for the preservation of wildlife became a reality in 1938 under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance. The Act was strengthened in 1964 when the protection status of the elephant was significantly improved. Migration corridors were created and the rights of hunters and farmers to kill or capture animals were curtailed. By 1970 it was necessary to register all domestic elephants, tuskers and the possession of ivory to the Department of Wildlife.

Humans are not the only casualties of the civil unrest in Sri Lanka over the past 20 years. This elephant stepped on a landmine and lost his front right foot. He was rescued and rehabilitated at the orphanage.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Increased areas of jungle have since come under legal protection and today the country boasts 11 National Parks and 48 Sanctuaries making up 12% of the total land area of the country. However, the future for Sri Lanka's elephant's remains precarious, it is difficult to enforce laws even in protected areas. It is hard to obtain accurate population data, thereby precluding the management of the species on numbers, locations and seasonal distribution. There is increasing pressure to clear land for development and elephants are viewed as a nuisance and killed in rural areas where they may destroy crops.

Today, there is a place the general public can see a large group of elephants at close range - the elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, southwest of the mountain city of Kandy. The orphanage was started in 1975 by the Department of Wildlife, its primary function being to afford protection and care to baby elephants that have been found abandoned, or have lost their mothers to hunters. Others are victims of the country's civil unrest; one animal had lost his front leg when he stood on a landmine. Pinnewala is known as one of the largest orphanages of its kind in the world. Initially, it began with five elephants, over time more babies were added and today there are over sixty animals.

An attempt is made to simulate wild conditions as much as possible. The animals are taken to bathe in the nearby river twice a day for two hours, they are free to roam the grounds of the sanctuary and have been allowed to form a herd structure. There are several small babies at the orphanage, the youngest is only three months old and was recently found wandering alone in the jungle. The babies are fed seven litres of milk, three times a day and the crew was thrilled when offered the chance to hand feed them. Each of the larger animals is given approximately 75 kilograms of plant matter as well as being free to forage throughout the day. An average adult elephant will consume 200 - 250 kilograms of food a day.

Baby elephants are brought to the orphanage after they have been abandoned or their mothers have been killed. Chris feeds milk to this recently rescued 3 month old baby.
Photo: Peter Madsen

The elephant orphanage at Pinnawela is helping to save this threatened species and with seven babies being born in the sanctuary, it is proving to be a captive breeding success story. Captive breeding can assist in saving a species either by keeping it in captivity or reintroducing it into the wild. The elephants at Pinnawela are controlled and later trained as work animals by their 'mahouts' ( keepers ) with whom they usually have a strong bond.

However, the only way to ensure the long-term survival of any species is to preserve its habitat and enforce conservation management that includes the education of the public about the value of elephants. It is imperative to have the commitment and co-operation of all who are affected by the problems related to elephant conservation, so an effective and sustainable solution can be found.


  • What did the crew of the Odyssey report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Three years ago in the Galapagos Islands? -> Real Video: 28K - 56k - T1/Cable

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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