Visit Elephants in Sri Lanka in a National Park, not Pinnawala

Visit Elephants in Sri Lanka in a National Park, not Pinnawala

Visit Elephants in Sri Lanka in a National Park, not Pinnawala

Over 15 national parks in Sri Lanka host wild elephants. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage claims they take care of the orphanages but it actually is one of the main tourist attractions for travelers on organized tours following their Sri Lanka travel route.

Pinnawala has become super popular since beautiful photos were getting shared on social media by huge influencers. We had high expectations of Pinnawala but left with a heartbreaking experience instead.

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This article will inform you about the best places to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka and why to not visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Because why should you visit an elephant ‘orphanage’ while wildlife is just around the corner?

What’s in this guide:

4 x Best National Parks to see Elephants in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, there are many national parks where you can see wild elephants. And even better you don’t have to go into a national park. They simply pass the main road during early morning or late afternoon.

Sri Lanka has incredible wildlife walking around and these are the best ones to see Elephants in Sri Lanka based on personal experience.

1. Kaudulla National Park

Kaudulla is the unknown little brother of Minneriya, it hosts over 250 wild elephants and the chance of seeing more than 5 elephants is really high. It is located near Sigiriya and can be easily combined with a 3-week route through Sri Lanka.

Read: Kaudulla, Best National Park in Sri Lanka

2. Yala National Park

Yala is the most famous park of Sri Lanka and that’s not without a reason. The area covers a big part of the South-East coast. Spot many wild elephants and even leopards here.

Read: Glamping in Yala National Park

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3. Minneriya National Park

Near Kaudulla is Minneriya. A more popular national park and also a huge range of wild animals like elephants.

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4. Udawalawe National Park

A beautiful park with many parrots, deer, buffalos, monkeys and of course, elephants.

Udawalawe is a good next destination from or to Ella.

Read: 7 Awesome Things To Do in Ella, Sri Lanka

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Why Elephants in Sri Lanka Should Not be visited in Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Pinnawala Elephants Orphanage is beautiful in the photos posted on social media, promoted by influencers but the reality is far from beautiful. During sunrise, the locals guide the elephants out of town into the river where most of them get chained to a ring attached to a rock. Normally that’s hidden under the water surface but if you have a low tide, it suddenly becomes a different experience.

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The same locals were washing the elephants just for the show to the visitors. The elephants are scared and that’s not so strange since they’re being hit with sticks and getting a full human’s weight hanging on their ears to get them to kneel into the water.

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Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is not a sanctuary, they have a completely unnecessary breeding program which should be released in the wild but are actually kept to serve as a tourist attraction. Do you really want to support this?

Then they came, in a whole different way than we had expected. Local people walked the elephants out of town, chained, into the river. Attaching them to rings on the rocks in the river. Hidden under the water surface so it won’t really get on photos. But we had a low tide that day.

Please, please, please people. DO NOT support this. More evidence of the situation can be easily found on Instagram, just look closely.

View this post on Instagram

Little one #pinnawalaelephantorphanage

A post shared by Emma Wilcock (@emmaw124) on

Chained, as if it is taking a bath in the river :-) 
And another one..
19/12/2018 https://www.saltinourhair.com/sri-lanka/elephants-sri-lanka/
Blog comments (41)

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  • kelum smarasena

    I have been through all these comments with interest .But what baffles me is the limited focus on much of these comments on the absolute torture of elephants in the wild. Its tourists who push the jeeps to the limits by demanding to get close and virtually ‘circle vagons’ on the wild elephants.There is tremendous pressure put on to give them with the ‘up close and personal experience’in these wild life parks. Dont forget its exactly like in any other ‘business’-its the customer who gets what he needs.Now we are seeing the very same tourist attitude in the seas where whale watching is picking up. Srilanka is home to most of the big whales round the year and current practices are controlled thanks to government limiting the number of boats .But here again the Demand to chase whales for DSLR activity might make things get out of control.Pinnawala had never been a design .It has never been a programme to breed.It has been a herd that happenned due to human elephant problems in the agriculture zones.There is no breeding programme .Elephants mate ..Up to now 50 births have occured in the last 35 years.Of the total number of 90 jumbos more than 50 have been born there.Not one single elephant has been brought here from the wild without a valid reason such as injury.At the moment virtually every injured /abandoned elephant is taken to elephant transit camp in Udawalawe-not to Pinnawala. Theres no way these pinnwala herd could be introduced to the jungle due to their conditioning .Srilanka has no jungle left to do a huge scale experiment of that nature..At the moment Srilanka is home to 6000 elephants -a far cry from the 80s when this number used to be below 3000.I am completely against any circus work like elephant riding by tourists.Chain on the legs in the river is a neccessity under the circumstances.A half grown elephant has the ‘horse power’ of a medium size battle tank.
    ITS BETTER TO VISIT PINNAWALA FOR YOUR SELFIES AND WHAT NOT ,RATHER THAN HOUNDING THE HERD IN THE WILD IN MANY DOZENS OF 4 WHEEL DRIVES.

    • Salt in our Hair

      Hi Kelum,

      Thank you for your comment and enlightening us on some new stats and information about Elephants in Sri Lanka. It’s really important that we are all aware of the situation and can moderate the way we see these animals as a result. Even in the Wild, when on a safari, it is crucial that Elephants are never chased by jeeps and that people and cars stay a very long distance away from these beautiful animals. Thank you for all the information you have provided here to help spread awareness!

  • Hello, This is a very nice article. I myself is a Travel agent from Sri Lanka and would love to add something to this, also a little different perspective to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. In addition to the places you’ve mentioned here, Gal Oya national park and Kalawewa National park are two lesser know elephant spot points which I’d say best of the bests if you are interested specially in tuskers. Less touristic, if you get lucky, you’d see a very rare sighting of elephants crossing the lake too.
    Elephant riding is absolutely a ‘must be stopped’ attraction, and we are currently at it. Personally, both DMCs I’ve worked for including the one I am with right now, do not just refrain from promoting elephant back rides, also humbly refuse the requests explaining the damage it does to elephants. I think many travel agencies now do this and there is a significant decrease of suppliers who have been doing this in the past.
    Pinnawala of course is a different scenario, what you see may seem not appealing I agree, but with the personal findings as well as through reference of research articles on this, Pinnawala Orphanage does a fair contribution for conservation. Most of the baby elephants you see here are orphans, who have been among humans due to domestication, they are being kept here until they are grown to a certain age, and then transferred to the Udawalawe Elephant Transit center where they will be trained to survive on their own in their natural habitat. Then they are being released to the jungle which still is an expensive and challenging effort to ensure that they are able to cope up with other herds afterwards. Most of the grown elephants you see in Pinnawala are victims of human- elephant conflict, or injured and they undergo the same process until they are fully recovered. Also there could be a couple of elephants who are unable to transfer back to their natural habitat, due to being domesticated for a very long time that they get refused by the wild elephants. With the limited resources, Pinnawala elephant orphanage is trying their best for the elephants. Unfortunately, due to operational limitations, they are compelled to use chains for a certain period, specially when they are being taken for their daily bath.
    Taking care of 90+ elephants is not an easy task. A full grown elephant may consume 150-200kg food for a day. Most of the funding required is earned through the entrance tickets. Being a very small country, Sri Lanka is doing its best to conserve this magnificent animal.
    Again, this is a very nice article, thank you very much for everything you do to promote Sri Lanka. Everyone who read this blog, Sri Lanka is absolutely beautiful, and a must visit places on earth. Please do visit.
    Thank you.

  • I got completely sucked in by the seemingly gorgeous shots on insta of the elephants ‘bathing’ in the river. Thankfully my travel agent told me not to go there and instead we’ve booked Udawalae. Reading your post confirmed we made the right choice! Thank you!

  • I am so happy I saw this! It absolutey brakes my heart. I’m going to Sri Lanka in February and was going to go see the elephants here and now I refuse to. Thank you for opening my eyes!

  • Great Article, I was also looking forward to going to Pinnawala, 100% NOT going now. Thank you for the write up much appreciated.

  • Heartbreaking! I have had this on my bucket list for ages after seeing photos from influencers on social media, definitely not going there now! thank you for sharing this and for your amazing route guide! It is massively helping me plan my trip and getting me very excited!

  • Thanks so much for making me aware of this. So glad I read it! Your blogs have been extremely helpful whole we are travelling through Asia.

  • Today in Ella I saw a chained elephant being walked down the road a man accompanying it with a fire poker. I almost cried on the spot whilst others were excitedly gasping and taking pictures. How can tourists get off on this??? ?

  • I saw a random girl on Instagram say I love elephants … on a picture of her riding and elephant at Pinnawala. I couldn’t help commenting “I’m sorry but if you love elephants why are you riding one?” And she responded defending the “sanctuary”

  • OMG! So I just started doing research for my trip to Sri Lanka, and I wanted to visit this place too because of that same photo on Do You Travel’s page. Thank GOD I started doing research. This just goes to show, that just because you see something cool on Instagram, you should never just blindly follow people and what they do without researching it yourself. I’m so sad this place is getting so much promotion thanks to that one photo.

    • Hi Ashley,

      So glad to hear you’re doing research before you visit something like this. I know, right? It’s so sad and it gets promotion from every big Instagram account, it’s so weird they’re ignoring these horrible situation.
      Are you going to visit one of the national park now? :)
      Enjoy!!

  • Hey There! Great post, I 100% agree with the elephant rides being disgraceful and they should be stopped. But I have been to two of the national parks Yala and Udawalawe and both times was horrified to be in a jeep driving around chasing elephants. There was so many jeeps at one point two elephants were surrounded just so tourists could get pictures. Standing up against one place but recommending others that are equally as bad is a slight contradiction and if it is true that the elephants are disabled and are in fact being cared for then they are pretty much the same as the national parks you recommend except the animals aren’t chained but are instead cornered by jeeps. Please don’t take this as an attack I do love all of your posts just thought I would make you aware :)

    • That’s made my mind up. How disgusting that those bloggers could stand there promoting such a horrific cause. What’s wrong with them?? Goes to show how fake Instagram is, but I’m glad you named them and showed what it’s really like. I definitely won’t bother going to see the elephants now after reading this and the above comment. It’s bizarre how people will just stand there to get a photo regardless of what is actually going on, right before their own eyes.

    • Hi Sam, thanks for your honest comment.
      Really appreciate that. We understand what you mean. We heard a lot of some kind of Jeep traffic jams in Yala National park. So, yes that’s really crazy. But we still think it is a way better option to go to a national park in Sri Lanka instead of Pinnawala.

      Next to that, we had a good experience with Udawalawe National Park. It was very quiet at that time so we still recommend people to there.

  • Historically in Sri Lanka, the Elephant + Locals relationship was very respectable and people used to treat them as a king of the jungle / very wise animal . In fact locals are under the impression that wild elephants ,specially wild Taskers can understand what people saying to them.
    In the Ancient Sri Lanka , Elephant were been used only by kings and ministers . There were no evidence been found in Elephant hunting in Sri Lankan ancient history till the colonial period in 17th / 18th Centuries. During the British Invasion in Sri Lanka ,Planters like Samuel Baker used to kill thousands of Eelepahants ,just for fun.

    In 1975, Sri Lanka Tourism originated the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage as part of government’s Elephant conservation projects. This was not a tourism project or creating a tourism attraction. This is purely to give a new life to the Elephants who were been injured in the Jungle and take care of baby elephants abandonment by parents. Theses , elephants are purely unable to survive in the Jungle . Since, in Sri Lankan Culture there is respect for these animals (there are the ones who carry holly tooth relic of lord Buddha ), government came up with the idea of protecting these animals under the 100% human protection.
    But, not to forget these are untamed elephants were been treated in a certain controlled environment only. It is not circus.
    Some Elephants were been chain -mainly the male elephants due to the aggressive nature of these elephants and protection of same Elephants, other Elephants and humans who are there to feed them and protect them.
    Nevertheless, yes as a developing country undertaking such animal welfare project within a limited funds , there will be raising issues. But the concept was build with holy intention and to date saving lives of hundreds of abandoned / injured elephants.

  • Samantha Elisabeth

    This came up somewhere on Facebook randomly, and I’m so glad you guys wrote it! Of course the reviews on Google, etc are pretty glowing because most people just don’t get the ethics of animal, especially elephant, tourism. This makes me SO mad that they’re treated this way (especially the riding… that’s an easy NO), and I feel like I’m constantly disappointed by much bigger influencers who don’t seem to do thorough research on these places before promoting them. I don’t even mind if they don’t know and then later learn (I mean how many of us really knew the Bahama pigs situation was not as rosy as it seemed?), but why not throw a little update or sorry I screwed up to let your readers/followers know you’ve learned differently?

    Anyhow thanks for writing this and shedding some more light into the situation!

  • How did you guys get to Udawalawe National Park from Ella? Hired a jeep? Train? Bus?
    And inside the national park? how does it work?
    Any little help would be much appreciated :)

    • Hi! We took a minivan from Ella. The owner of our guesthouse helped us out. Inside the park you need to rent a 4×4 and a driver to get around. I think you should arrange this in advance or at least a few days ahead.

  • Truly breaks my heart. This has gotta stop! I love elephants and always wanted to ride them, but now that I’ve learned how they’re treated and what must be done to make them “ride-able,” I could never do it. They have a park with elephant riding in Koh Samui, Thailand, too and it was really hard to watch these poor animals be treated like a carnival ride, especially considering how wise they are and what a great memory they have. So sad!

  • Oh no! I saw Pinnawala indeed on gypsealust and other travel accounts and I really wanted to visit… not after reading this.

    Thanks for sharing and also for the tips on which places to visit instead.

  • Great post! After a lot of hype around Pinnawala, I’m happy to see someone else reacting to the treatment of the animals there. I thought it was just me for a moment.

    Love your blog ;)

  • We’ve experienced similar places on our travels. We absolutely flat out disagree with any form of elephant rides, or other activities where animals are used as attractions. Animals deserve to be in the wild and seeing elephants in their natural habitat, where you suggested, is a much better experience!

    Great post guys.

  • You have missed the trick that these elephants are partly or disabled elephants. They need special needs and care and they can’t free to wild. Anyone have freedom to make a point. Sri Lanka is a 3rd world developing country and they have limited resources. I agree it need improvements but I think they help these animals as they can. You cannot compare the things just by spending a day there. There are lot of foreign volunteers work for them and I suggest you do that sort of work and see how you feel and how they treat for these disable elephants. Otherwise your reasons are not reasonable.

    • As good as the intentions of Pinnawala are, we cannot condone the riding for tourists. It’s unnecessary. Also, the chains on all their feet, as seen in the Instagram video in the article is too much. We’ve been to several animal conservations but this one was really really bad. Hope you get the chance to see this one day.

  • Why are people so mean!! To be fair I think a lot of the people who ride elephants/bathe elephants who aren’t happy aren’t even mean, they’re just uninformed which is why it’s so important you guys wrote this post – spread the word!!!

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