Why we do not support Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is one of Sri Lanka's most popular animal attractions. Although the conditions here are generally better than at some other establishments in the region, the welfare of the animals is a cause for concern for many experts.

We've put this page together to voice opinions on Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, explain how we've dealt with various concerned parties and to raise travellers' awareness of the animal welfare issues.

The issues

We started looking into Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage back in October 2007 when a member of staff at Responsible Travel became aware that the animal welfare standards there may be questionable. We approached our holiday companies in Asia for their opinions and started a discussion in house as well as online.

Many of our members believed that Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, although not an ideal environment for the elephants, provided a safe haven for the animals. For us at Responsible Travel, the concern is that Pinnawala is advertised as an 'orphanage' or 'sanctuary' which implies that the animals are rescued and well cared for, when in reality the elephants are bred and displayed as a tourist attraction.

Pinnawala Elephant orphanage was the subject of a report by the animal welfare charity Born Free. Some of the key points in the report include male elephants chained during 'musth' (an aggressive period associated with reproductive hormones) causing wounds to the elephant's legs; the elephants are trained with the threat of pain from an 'ankus' (a shark hook with a spike, used as a traditional elephant training tool); and the elephants are used as photo props to bring in tourist revenues.
The role of sanctuary or orphanage conflicts with the stated policy of encouraging breeding at Pinnawala. Born Free does not support the keeping of animals in captivity unless it is for their own benefit.
Born Free
The report goes onto explain that the terms 'orphanage' and 'sanctuary' should distinguish a captive animal facility from a zoo when the animals have been rescued from unacceptable captive conditions and are unable to be returned to the wild. The best interests of the animals should be a sanctuary's priority, not profit.
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.
Born Free

Our decision

The debate continued through the winter of 2007 during which time we sought the views of our tour operators and balanced these against Born Free's report:

"We take clients to the orphanage to encourage the orphanage not to deviate from their responsible policies. The more people (clients) we take to the orphanage, more the pressure and visibility on the orphanage on any shortcoming in their responsible policies. I think if tourists did not visit this place, the shortcomings would not have been revealed and the pressure wouldn't be there on the administration of the orphanage to get things right. As responsible individuals I think we must get together through our different roles to fix the problem than deserting the place and ignoring the short-comings by not visiting that place." Concerned tour operator

In spring 2008 however, we came to the decision to remove all trips that included Pinnawala. We asked our tour operators in Asia to change their itineraries and asked them to consider encouraging their travellers to avoid Pinnawala. We suggested that our tour operators visited the Elephant Transit Home instead:
The Born Free Foundation supports the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe, in Southern Sri Lanka. This facility takes in wild baby elephants that have been separated from their mothers, and cares for them until they can be returned to the wild. Although Pinnawala may not be able to return its animals to the wild, it could certainly provide them with a more natural life, as the protocols of ETH demonstrate.
Born Free
The decision to exclude Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage from our site was not an easy one. Whilst we were certain that the animal welfare standards at the orphanage were not acceptable, the question of whether we were imposing our own, Western values overseas remained an issue. However our decision was made based on the Born Free report. The final trip was removed in August 2008.

"We recognise the report from Born Free and although the short term alternatives to Pinnawala are far from ideal, our belief is that this does not make it acceptable to visit and therefore condone their current practices. Born Free have identified an alternative destination for travellers who wish to see elephants in captivity - the Transit Home - which will also benefit from tourism." Justin Francis, co-founder and Managing Director of Responsible Travel

Further reading

Whilst the issues around elephants are complicated, we can only deal with one issue at a time and address each one on a case by case basis. We are aware that there are other elephant sanctuaries in Asia with poor animal welfare standards and there are ethical questions relating to the 'breaking' of elephants used for elephant back rides and safaris. We are continuously working on our animal welfare and wildlife policies, and continue to consult with organisations like Born Free in order to keep you up to date with the serious issues.

We believe it is important to keep our travellers informed regarding responsible tourism issues. For more information about Elephants in Tourism, see our advice to travellers about animals in tourism here.

To read more about our views on animals in tourism, please see our stance on wildlife and our stance on captive animals.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wouter Hagens] [Intro: Alexey Komarov] [The issues: Ankur P] [Our decision: Z thomas]