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Should You Go to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

Photo by Ankur P via CC BY 2.0 License

The first time I heard about Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, located a couple of hours outside of Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, was when I was in Sri Lanka in 2009. As somebody who loves elephants, I asked around whether or not I should go visit. I mean, you hear the words “elephant orphanage” and it seems like it should be legitimate, right?

I never did make it to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, so everything I’m about to say here is compiled from research I’ve done online. But as Sri Lanka grows as a tourist destination, and as the “insta-famous” photo of a river full of elephants bathing continues to get thousands of likes per account, should you go to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

After reading dozens of reviews and articles about the subject, in a word: NO.

What really piqued my attention was that a huge Instagram account had featured the photo. In it, there are people looking out at the aforementioned riverbed full of elephants. Since then, I have seen multiple people replicating that photo, with many large accounts reposting it. It’s guaranteed to get a ton of likes, which is why all of the comments below the photos seem to say, “I’m so jealous, I need to go here!” or “OMG, this is the best picture!”

I’m going to say here and now that I’m not going to call anyone out individually, because I never want to assume that somebody knew the real and, quite frankly, shady circumstances at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, visited anyway, and then posted the photo on Instagram because it would get tons of likes. I mean, nobody would do that… right?! Surely the “do it for the ‘gram” mentality doesn’t apply when you’re talking about the welfare of animals…?!

Photo by Petr Kosina via CC BY-NC 2.0 License

A quick look at the reviews on Tripadvisor about Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage tells a muddled story. Some reviews say that visiting is a heartwarming experience, the best of the trip to Sri Lanka, and that watching the elephants bathe is an unmissable highlight. Others – a LOT of others – claim that the experience is distressing, that the animals are chained, poked with bullhooks or elephant goads, and forced to pose for tourist photos. The red flag for me is that, of 2,214 star ratings, 883 of them are rated average or below, with 308 rating it terrible. I mean, a dozen or so below average reviews is one thing, but almost a thousand of them?

The comments that go along with those reviews don’t paint a very good picture, either.

“We visited Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage as part of a tour. We first witnessed them being paraded to the river for bathing. They obviously had no choice in this, two of the group were left chained throughout and seemed to show signs of distress, swaying his head from side to side. The others seemed ok but many had chains on.”

“Those poor elephants! I hated this so much! Coming from South Africa and seeing elephants in the wild, this was shocking! Not only were a lot of the elephants chained up and looking miserable, the handlers also often poked the elephants with their hooked sticks and they shouted at them! My heart was so sore during this visit. The bathing was a little better but still some of the bigger elephants were chained up. It was awful, from start to finish. I couldn’t wait to leave.”

And this one, a review from only four days ago:

“The title of ‘orphanage’ makes the place sound like abandoned elephants are looked after. Quite the opposite. The more I think about our visit here the more uncomfortable I am about it. We expected elephants to be freely walking around the big plain that is located here but every single elephant was chained to the ground in a hut when we went (with a few others dotted around the grounds for tourists to look at also on very short chains attached to the floor). They all had very little space to manoeuvre or access to get to water in the blistering heat. Mahouts were asking for money to pose next to the elephants and we even saw them kicking the elephant to try and get into the right position for a photo. There is so much open space for them to be walking around I cannot understand why the chaining to the floor is necessary.

Please go and see elephants in the national parks and do not contribute to this unless they somehow dramatically change the welfare of these animals.”

I actually asked a few Instagrammers about their experiences after they posted photos from Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Only one answered me. At first, she seemed happy to answer my questions and interact politely. When I asked her if elephants were chained up, and I said that I would be uncomfortable visiting, she said this:

She admitted that some of the elephants were chained up, and that elephant rides were promoted. Shortly afterwards she deleted all of her comments as well as all of my comments. Every other Instagrammer that posted the same shot did the same: deleted my comments, refused to answer my direct messages, or blocked me. I was simply asking questions about their experience in order to have every possible angle for this article, but nobody wanted to talk.

Again, I don’t want to accuse any one individual, because I have no idea what they know about animal welfare; it’s only quite recently that a lot of truths about animal attractions like Seaworld and elephant rides have been uncovered and blown open online. I admit that, years ago, I rode an elephant on holiday. It is one of my biggest travel regrets – it was part of a three-day tour that had simply said we’d be “interacting” with elephants – and I feel sick when I think about how ignorant I was. I mean, I even have a photo of an elephant with its face painted in my blog’s banner, a photo I took at a parade in India in 2011 (and a banner that’s nearly as old as well), and trust me, I wouldn’t put that photo there today, because I don’t know how that elephant was treated (my redesign is coming soon).

That’s why I don’t want to blame anyone here; I’ve made tons of mistakes, too. This blog post is simply meant to bring to light this particular issue, so that you can be well informed if you’re thinking about going to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. I certainly wish that I had read more blog posts about these subjects all those years ago, so that I could have been better educated on animal tourism.

I have indeed seen a lot of positive reviews of Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage as well (all on Tripadvisor, written by tourists). Apparently some of the larger bulls are chained up to protect people and to keep them under control. This seems fishy to me, though, because there are plenty of other ways to rehabilitate animals that DO NOT include chains, bullhooks, or bars. It also doesn’t make sense to use chains if these animals are going to be released back into the wild, which is apparently what Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage does. In many reviews online, the “orphanage” is actually likened more to a zoo, where animals are kept in captivity. Not only that, other reviews claim that it seems to be more of a tourist trap than anything, with handlers asking for money so that you can get closer to the elephants.

You can read more about what Born Free, an organisation that supports the wellbeing of animals, said about Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. They also produced this video:

As they wrote about the video:

In order to illustrate… concerns the Born Free Sri Lanka team has made a short video using footage and photos taken at [Pinnawala]. These show that even the rules set out by the facility itself – such as keepers not taking tips from tourists – are not reliably enforced. It also highlights issues such as elephants posing for photo opportunities under duress, and mothers with infants being surrounded and touched by visitors. These scenes fuel concerns that practices at this so-called orphanage, where more than 40 elephants have been born in the last 10 years, none of which have been returned to the wild – favour the convenience of the tourists and staff over that of the animals they are supposed to be caring for.

Here is another video from Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, taken only a few months ago. You can see the elephant – that is chained at the leg – swaying back and forth repeatedly. It is clearly in distress (and, just to warn you, watching this is very upsetting):

And another:

And I know that people are told that this is done for people’s safety – that these are powerful bulls in mating season – but I’m not sure why they would have to be around people in the first place if this was truly an orphanage dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. I mean, why not keep these particular animals in a different part of the centre, then, away from tourists? As I mentioned above, any “rehabilitation” that includes chains and bullhooks does not seem very ethical to me. The bloggers Salt in Our Hair recently went to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage themselves and reported back; they left after seeing elephants prodded with sticks and chained into that oh-so-picturesque river.

And OF COURSE animals that have been orphaned, have disabilities, have had violent pasts, or are sick should be taken care of and looked after. It’s just that after doing this research and watching these videos, I’m not sure that Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is 100% committed to that, or if some of what they are doing is exploiting the situation for monetary gain. No matter what, the animals should be top priority. The blog Monkeys and Mountains echoes this statement, and I highly recommend reading her piece as well. It’s also important to note that there are so many other places in Sri Lanka to see elephants, and to see them in the wild: Kaudulla National Park, Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, and so on.

As I’ve said above, I do not want to blame anyone for going or wanting to go to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. I simply believe in being fully informed before making any such decisions. After doing this research, I have decided that I would personally never support or visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage if it continues to promote these unethical practices of chains, bullhooks, elephant rides, and forcing elephants to pose in photos. No amount of Instagram likes could convince me otherwise. I’m fully aware that there are some of you who will want to defend Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, but this is a personal blog, full of my subjective opinions, and I personally cannot support a place where animals are chained up, regardless of the circumstances.

And remember when I asked around in Colombo about Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage? I was told repeatedly by local Sri Lankans that no, I should not go. If that doesn’t raise red flags for you, I don’t know what will.

Photo by Iris Liu via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License

Really want to help out with elephants and interact with them in an ethical way? Check out Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or donate to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. 

What are your thoughts on Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

35 Responses to Should You Go to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage?

  1. Anne April 23, 2017 at 8:02 pm #

    How horrible. I hate it when wild animals chained and treated this way. I can understand the need for rehabilitation or care if they are genuinely orphaned, but as you said in your post this seems to be a strange way to go about it. If they are going to be rehabilitated back into the wild they shouldn’t be that near people anyway. I watched the Born Free video, but didn’t watch the last 2 videos you posted as you said they might be distressing. Thanks for the warning and I’ll take your word for it that they’re bad.

    • Brenna Holeman April 23, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

      I agree, Anne – I totally understand needing to rehabilitate animals and prepare them for living in the wild again. But why the chains and the bullhooks and the tourist photos? And yes, the videos are very upsetting, I cried watching both of them. They’re actually what motivated me to really look into this.

  2. Cate April 23, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

    Ugh this disgusts me. I heard that TripAdvisor had taken down all activities that used animal cruelty or keeps animals in captivity, it seems they didn’t reach all of them. I have never done any of the so called “natural animal encounters”, such as swimming with captive dolphins, riding animals other than horses, or picking up ANY wildlife. I don’t think as a traveler I will ever do any, much less visit this so called sanctuary. We can do better!

    • Brenna Holeman April 24, 2017 at 12:32 am #

      I think they banned the sale of tickets to any attraction with animals, but people can still review these attractions on the forum. I’d rather the reviews stay up so that (hopefully) more and more people can share their negative feedback. And I agree – it disgusts me, too. The videos of the elephants chained up are heartbreaking.

  3. Marlee April 24, 2017 at 11:12 am #

    The tourism industry is one of the worst causes of elephant mistreatment in Asia. Any elephant that is carrying passengers (elephant rides), in the circus, performing tricks on the streets of major cities, “innocently” playing soccer, or even those sweet elephants that seem to enjoy painting – they are all tortured into being “domesticated” so that they perform these tasks for tourists. I’ve recently returned from volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, just north of Chiang Mai city and learned an incredible amount of heartbreaking information about the absolutely devastating way these creatures are treated. It’s so easy now to be informed about animal tourism, so there really shouldn’t be any excuse about visiting these places if people really truly care about animal welfare – education is key and ignorance is not bliss, especially when an animals life is at risk. Thanks for posting this Brenna, as this is a cause still very fresh in my mind and heart.

    • Brenna Holeman April 24, 2017 at 12:25 pm #

      I know, it’s so awful. I can’t believe that I didn’t know about some of these things myself in the past, but am glad that more and more is coming to light so that the entire industry can hopefully be shut down. I think that people are still conned by words like “orphanage” and “sanctuary” but the truth is that these animals are far too often in distress. Thanks for your insight, Marlee.

  4. Chris April 24, 2017 at 4:45 pm #

    After having visited an ‘elephant farm’ in India I think the only way to see these animals without contributing to their suffering is a wildlife park/safari setting. We specifically tried to do research and go somewhere where the elephants would be treated well, but it’s not possible to give them the same life as they would naturally have. Any place they cannot freely walk long distances just isn’t fair on them.

    The place we went (Elefantastic) is #1 of their region on tripadvisor with over 2 thousand positive reviews (almost all 5 star), but if you ask the owner if the elephants spend their morning being ridden by tourists to Amber Fort, you won’t get a straight answer and he’ll get angry. I wonder why. I wish these elephants could talk.

    As long as money can be made, animals will be exploited. It makes me sad that tourists can fool themselves and believe that these elephants are happy.

    • Brenna Holeman April 24, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

      I know, I agree with you, Chris. I really avoid all zoos or places where animals are in captivity… especially when there are more and more reserves and parks where they can roam freely. That’s so sad to hear about Elefantastic… I can’t imagine what these elephants would tell us if they could. 🙁

  5. Sarah Edwards April 24, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

    This is awful, we visited Pinnewala on our trip to Sri Lanka several years ago and have no recollection of any of this. Planning to look back through our pictures when we get a chance and work out if they were chained etc. If so, we’ll leave our thoughts and feedback on TripAdvisor.

    • Brenna Holeman April 24, 2017 at 5:36 pm #

      Thanks, Sarah, I think every review helps. I don’t think that all are chained, but the fact that it appears SOME are is reason enough for me to avoid this place.

  6. Kelsey April 24, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

    I’ve made some mistakes in the past, riding an elephant in India, visiting a park in Thailand that I thought was legit but wasn’t. I feel so guilty looking back because I know now how terrible it must have been for the elephants. I wish I had had this information before. Every article like this helps spread the word a little more, so hopefully someone out there won’t make the same mistakes. Thanks for posting!

    • Brenna Holeman April 24, 2017 at 11:00 pm #

      I agree, I’ve made some major mistakes. Hopefully more and more articles will be published that highlight how horrible most animal tourism really is.

  7. Kristen Sarah ✈ (@HTGlobe) April 24, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

    Thanks for writing this, Brenna. Travelers have to be aware of the importance of doing research on topics like this before participating is any excursions or activities that involve animals. Great post!

    • Brenna Holeman April 24, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

      Thanks, Kristen. I have been seeing more and more photos of it on Instagram and just needed to say something.

  8. Helen April 25, 2017 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks for the article. I am planning a trip to Sri Lanka and had already decided not to go to Pinnewala for all the above reasons. I actually went to a similar place in Chitwan, Nepal in 2009 and it disgusted me. I have definitely learnt from my mistake.

    • Brenna Holeman April 25, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

      I also went to Chitwan – and I agree that the elephant “sanctuary” they have there is awful. 🙁

  9. Christy April 25, 2017 at 4:34 pm #

    Glad to see you posting about this! Such a shame so many weren’t interested in talking to you on Instagram.

    I nearly booked a stay at Elephant Hills in Khao Sok national park in Thailand. It sounded great to start with but I found it odd there was more information about the accommodation etc on the website than anything about the actual elephants themselves. After a bit of research I found some worrying reviews and similar things about bullhooks and chains on Trip Advisor, and decided against booking the trip. We’re adding a visit to Chiang Mai for elephant nature park to our itinerary instead!

    • Brenna Holeman April 25, 2017 at 5:07 pm #

      That is so awesome – and great that you did some research! It really isn’t that difficult to suss out whether or not a place is ethical. I always think, if it feels wrong, it probably is. Have fun in Chiang Mai, I’d love to go to the nature park one day! I’ve heard amazing things…

  10. Katie April 27, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    It always makes me sad to read things like this… what humans will do to turn a profit. And it’s not just aproblem in Asian countries (not that you implied that it was). I remember my parents taking me to a circus when I was little and I rode an elephant there. Even if circus animals are treated with great care, (and I’m not sure I can imagine they are), what kind of life is that? In fact so many of the issues in this post — the treatment of animals, the defensive way bloggers react when you ask a simple question (because they’re waiting for what they imagine will be an inevitable internet attack), etc. could be resolved if everyone decided to go about their days practicing kindness.

    • Brenna Holeman May 13, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

      I know, I rode an elephant as a little girl in Canada. At the ZOO. And I totally agree with you… this world can be so cruel sometimes. I was also shocked at how many other bloggers/instagrammers were so quick to be defensive of their actions… by completely blocking me. Yikes!

  11. Gracie April 28, 2017 at 6:43 am #

    Thanks for writing this! This is the second time in the last couple of days I’ve come across an article that is critical of the way elephants are treated in Asia, something I, unfortunately, hadn’t given much thought to before when seeing all those Instagram pictures. It’s sad to think about the animals being treated like that and I definitely won’t be supporting Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage or other groups that treat elephants this way. I agree, the Instagram likes aren’t worth it! Also, it’s too bad that people were so reluctant to talk to you about their experiences with this. I could understand why they might get defensive or whatever, no one likes to admit to doing something potentially problematic, but that also makes it harder to have open conversations about ethical tourism, which I think is important.

    • Brenna Holeman May 13, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

      I agree, Gracie – people getting defensive doesn’t help the cause at all. I would understand if they truly didn’t realise what was going on – I was very ignorant about this only a few years ago – but I would hope that they’d like to listen and learn. Thanks for your input!

  12. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad May 1, 2017 at 7:20 pm #

    Thanks for such an informative post! A friend of mine went here a couple of years ago and I was keen to know whether it’s a legitimate place. I was very disheartened when he posted photos of them with chains, and rode one round the block (presumably from the place across the road). It goes to show that so much more awareness is needed – considering how much I’ve promoted the negatives of elephant riding, and yet friends of mine still do it! My week at Elephant Nature Park is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, I’d recommend that over riding any day!

    • Brenna Holeman May 13, 2017 at 12:15 pm #

      I would so love to visit Elephant Nature Park one day! I think you definitely made the right decision 🙂

  13. Caroline May 2, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

    I’ve now visited two elephant habitats in Thailand. The first wasn’t one I would recommend, before I knew better. The second was Elephant Nature Park. I volunteered for a week in hopes of righting the wrong from my previous visit. Thanks for writing this post. If people delete your comments, they know what they’re doing is wrong and don’t want to be called out.

    • Brenna Holeman May 13, 2017 at 12:14 pm #

      Yep, totally agree with you. People only delete comments like that if they know they’re wrong. I would love to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, I’ve heard it’s incredible! Thanks, Caroline 🙂

  14. Jill at Reading the Book May 2, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

    It’s so important that places like this are called out online. There are some fabulous elephant orphanages – I have been to the David Sheldrick orphanage in Nairobi, and what shone through was the love and respect the keepers have for the animals. The Pinnawala orphanage looks a million miles away from that. I would never want to support somewhere like this, but unless we are educated, how do we know? Thanks for stepping up and highlighting this.

    • Brenna Holeman May 13, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

      I am going to that one in Nairobi next month! I can’t wait. And yes, I didn’t know about a lot of this stuff a few years ago, so I’d like to try to educate myself as much as possible to always try to be an ethical traveller. Thanks, Jill!

  15. Zalie Holeman May 15, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

    Thank you for writing this post! Travellers need to do their research and make educated decisions before visiting animal orphanages. I am glad that you are shedding some light on this much needed topic!

    • Brenna Holeman August 12, 2017 at 7:04 pm #

      Thank you so much, Zalie!!

  16. Cristina July 3, 2017 at 3:28 pm #

    Thank you for such an informative post! 🙂 While I was in Jaipur this past May, I asked the travel agency if I could see the elephants. They recommended I steer far away because the treatment of those poor animals would not be a welcome sight. So I stayed away. Elephants are such majestic animals and I can’t imagine why anyone would think that seeing animals in chains is a good idea?

    • Brenna Holeman August 12, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

      I can’t imagine it, either. I’m glad that you stayed away from those companies!

  17. L OHARA August 12, 2017 at 7:26 am #

    Asia and elephants are not a good mix. In this case you followed your gut instinct and you were spot on. Thank you for spreading the word about these abused and tortured gentle giants.

    • Brenna Holeman August 12, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

      I’m glad that you enjoyed the post!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand - June 26, 2017

    […] commented on the unethical behaviour towards the elephants at the orphanage (read this post from This Battered Suitcase), including chaining the elephants up in the river and forcing them to pose for photos. Once I read […]

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