Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

Sri Lanka’s gentle giants.

Elephants have been an integral part of Sri Lanka throughout history. The elephant is a symbol of strength. It was used as a means of transport and conveyance by the ancient Kings of this island. Kings have lead their armies while on elephant back, giving them a vantage view over the battle fields. There is much conflict between man and this pachyderm, as man develops and clears the jungle habitats of this majestic species. Man has had to protect himself from the marauding herds who are enticed by the sugar cane plantations.

Today there are intensive elephant conservations programmes and the villagers are being educated into living in harmony with the elephant by learning not only to protect themselves against the animal, but growing crops that are not so acceptable to the tastes of the elephant, i.e. crops that have a pinus base etc..


It began in 1975 by the Department of Wildlife on a twenty five acre coconut property on the Maha Oya river at Rambukkana. The orphanage was primarily designed to provide care, feed, nurse and protect the many baby elephants found abandoned in the jungle without their mothers. Often the young ones fall into pits and ravines in their quest for water during the period of drought. Other inmates at the orphanage are those displaced from their natural environs by development projects or those found diseased or wounded.

Initially this 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. 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. At Pinnawela an attempt was made to simulate, in a limited way, the conditions in the wild. Animals are allowed to roam freely during the day and a herd structure allowed to form.

The elephant orphanage is about 13 Km. from Kegalle town, on the Kegalle- Rambukkana Road. Kegalle is 77 Km. from Colombo on the Colombo- Kandy road and the turn off to the orphanage is at the Karandupona Junction. Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage Tel: 035-65804

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is home to about 70 elephants, out of which many are baby elephants found, abandoned or orphaned in the wild. They are being cared, fed and trained by the wild life authorities. It has become the largest captive group of elephants in the world. Orphaned young elephants whose parents have been the victims of poachers or accidents are tamed, reared & trained herein to eventually become working beasts.


The elephants, which roam freely in the parkland, are ‘herded’ by their mahouts (keepers) just before being taken to feeding sheds. The best time to visit is during feeding times, when one has the opportunity of seeing the baby elephants being bottle-fed. Also you could accompany the elephants to the river close-by and watch the elephants having their daily bath, while the babies frolic in the water.

feeding elephant

Luckily that is a tiny baby elephant. Still more, you will be caressing them and feeding them milk in elephant baby bottles. They guzzle enormous quantity of milk. Adults gulp down a diet mainly of palm leaves of 250kg a day. Two special farms run by the National Zoological Gardens help meet the requirement.

The orphanage is open all day but it is best to try and coincide your visit with the twice daily feeding and bathing. At 9.15am and 4.15pm, the baby elephants are taken into the stalls where they are tethered and then bottle fed with milk. This might be a crowd pleaser but it’s not the highlight; what really steals the show is the bathing.


The animals that were brought during the initial years are now capable of breeding and have in fact bred. The first birth at Pinnawela was in 1984, a female, to Vijaya and Kumar who were aged 21 and 20 years respectively at the time of the birth.

Initially the breeding animals consisted of males Vijaya and Neela and females Kumari, Anusha, Mathalie and Komali. The father of the first three calves born at Pinnawela was Vijaya. It was not possible to determine the father of the new calves since many males used to mate with the females anoestrus. Now through DNA fingerprinting the fathers of three have definitely been identified. Vijaya and Kumari have produced three calves at intervals of five and four years.

In 1993 Vijaya and Kumari were 30 and 29years respectively. Upto the middle of 1998 there have been fourteen births, eight males and six females at Pinnawela.

Please release me, but not yet!

Elephants who are habituated to humans & domesticated elephants, cannot be easily released to the wild. The elephants here range in age from newborns, tiny (elephant tiny that is), hefty adolescents, young adults to elderly matriarchs. Among the herd are famous residents such as the three-legged elephant named Sama, who stood on a land mine, and a blind elephant called Raja. The orphanage population is constantly augmented by new arrival Born Free in captivity: about one elephant is born here every year. The successful captive breeding project had so far produced 22 second generation births.


Twice a day the elephants are seen sedately waking after their meals across the road to the May Oya river for a leisurely bath. You have the opportunity of watching their antics from the river bank or from the terraces of the Pinnalanda Restaurant or Hotel Elephant Park uphill of the river. The adult elephants work in the orphanage itself, earning their keep by helping with various chores, such as collecting food.

Pachyderm paper

Pachyderm paper is one of the most novel wildlife initiatives in Sri Lanka in recent years. Among many other remarkable abilities, the elephants are also a kind of mobile paper factory on four mighty legs. During meals, the elephants ingest a huge amount of fibre which is then pulped in their stomachs and delivered in hot (no, not steaming hot) fresh dollops of dung, ready-prepared for the manufacture of paper.

The dung is dried in the sun and boiled. The resultant pulp is used to make high-quality novelty stationery with an artistically textured finish. The texture & colour varies according to the elephant’s diet, while other ingredients including tea, paddy husks & onion peel are also added according to the required finish. More than just a novelty stationery item, pachyderm paper could prove an important source of income to the villagers and significant in conservation measures.