Where does an elephant sleep? Sanctuary space is scarce in Sri Lanka
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2001:
PINNEWELA, Sri Lanka–For centuries some of the Buddhist
monks of Sri Lanka and Thailand adopted whatever wildlife orphans
were brought to them–especially elephants, who had value as work
animals and for display.
But that was before the advent of firearms, chainsaws, and
motor vehicles, when the original vegetarian form of Buddh-ism
remained almost unchallenged by outside cultural influence.
Relatively few animals were separated from their habitat, and the
jungle reclaimed farmland almost as fast as it could be cleared for
cultivation. The burden of keeping orphaned animals was not greater
for the monasteries than the value of having them.
As technology and human population growth accelerated the
stress on wildlife habitat, and the economic primacy of the
monasteries declined, the number of orphaned animals
increased–especially in Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian ocean,
where the Tamil Tigers, a guerilla militia seeking political
independence for the mostly Hindu northern districts, helped to fund
an ongoing armed rebellion through elephant poaching.
Buddhist temples and wealthy individuals still wanted
elephants, as a mark of prestige, but only one at a time. And
among the monks and private patrons of elephants were unscrupulous
speculators in ivory, elephant parts, and live specimens for export
to zoos. Gradually the Sri Lankan elephant population declined from
12,000 circa 1900 to as few as 2,500.
The Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife tried for a few years to
keep orphaned baby elephants safe at Wilpattu National Park. Then
the Department of Wildlife tried to make elephant rescue
self-supporting by moving the elephant orphanage to the Bentota
tourism complex. After that, the Dehiwala Zoo took in the
elephants, for a while.
At last, in 1975, the zoo staff and wildlife officials
collaborated to start the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage on a 25-acre
former coconut plantation at Rambukkana, halfway between Colombo,
the modern Sri Lankan capital, and Kandy, site of the ancient royal
Among the first elephant orphanages anywhere, Pinnawela was
expected to support itself by hosting elephant races. A grandstand
was build, but racing never really caught on. There were then just
By 1978 the Pinnawela sanctuary was managed entirely by the
National Zoological Gardens, with 12 elephants, and by 1982 the
older females among the herd were participating in one of the first
successful captive breeding programs for their species.
In hindsight, that was a mistake. Breeding elephants at
Pinnawela proved much easier than exporting them successfully under
the terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species–and exporting any proved difficult with temples and
prominent people clamoring for elephants, ostensibly with
philanthropic intent even though privately owned elephants were
increasingly likely to disappear.
The pace of captive breeding has slowed in recent years, but
there are now 62 elephants of all ages crowded into the orphanage,
which also receives as many as 834,000 human visitors per year to
watch the herd roam the 12 acres of natural habitat and trek a half
kilometre to the river each morning for a two-hour bath.
In 1996 the wildlife department started a second elephant
orphanage at Udawalawe National Park, the purpose of which was to
serve as an “Elephant Transit Zone,” to facilitate return of as many
elephants as possible to the wild. The first five elephants were
freed in 2000, but the Udawalawe captive elephant population is
already up to 30, as the number of orphaned, injured, and
otherwise displaced elephants continues to surge.
Both elephant orphanages are now critically understaffed.
Pinnawela began with one mahout per elephant. It now has 28, almost
one for each two elephants, but only eight are fulltime employees.
Udawalawe has 13 mahouts, plus a resident veterinarian.
Scarce government funding is augmented by admission fees
charged of foreign visitors and an elephant adoption scheme, through
which donors are asked to provide enough powdered milk to feed
“their” baby elephants.
Greater revenue could be generated if visitor centers with
restaurants and souvenir shops could be built, like those at U.S.
zoos. The idea has long been discussed, but without
follow-through–some suspect because well-placed people would rather
sell elephants to the highest bidder. Officially, the Sri Lankan
wild elephant population is back up to 4,000, a figure critics
including Kala Santha, DVM, tend to doubt because it too
conveniently supports the position of those who maintain that
elephants must be sold due to lack of anywhere else to put them.
A baby elephant reputedly fetches $25,000 on the black
market. Raja, a rogue male who had killed two trainers at the
National Zoo in Colombo, was auctioned for $14,836 in February 1998.
Nilaga Dela, the son of a wealthy gem dealer, outlasted several
monasteries in 45 minutes of bidding, promising to reture Raja to
the family estate in Ratnapura, south of Colombo.