Suitcase and World: I Love Elephants! Pinnewala.

Monday, July 30, 2012

I Love Elephants! Pinnewala.

A trip to see the elephants at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage was always in the plans but it wasn't suppose to happen until another day or so.
Our final destination for today was Kandy and we arrived in to the outskirts of town well ahead of schedule.  There was plenty of time to go to Pinnewala - we would be there to see the afternoon feeding and bathing activities. I was so excited to hear that bit of news from Chandana!  I love elephants and I've never seen one up close - at least not any close than a zoo enclosure would allow me to get. Plus, I've never more than a few elephants at a time. At Pinnewala, they have almost 90 of them!

We arrived into Pinnewala shortly after lunch. Chandana got us our tickets - not cheap but I didn't care.

We followed him inside the compound and the first thing that caught my eye was an elephant being hand fed by a group of tourists. I wanted to do that but I think it required a separate ticket that we didn't have. Oh well.

Chandana led us towards a large covered enclosure. Two elephants were being fed and bathed. This large elephant, who was missing its right front foot, caught my attention and tugged at my heart strings. I watched this gentle giant being bathed - the keeper was just using a hose to shower water over the animal. The elephant seemed to enjoy the water - can't blame it as I too would have loved to have had a shower to cool off in this hot, humid climate.

Between being doused with water, the elephant was also picking up tree branches with its trunk, stripping off the leaves and then eating them. It's amazing how agile their trunk is.

We spent a few minutes watching the two elephants and then headed over to an open area where there was a larger group of elephants, both adults and babies, milling about.

There was no enclosure separating people from animals.

At first, I was a bit hesitant to get too close. After all, these are still wild animals. But I quickly realized that the elephants were not at all bothered by the presence of humans wandering around. In fact, if they thought you had something for them to eat, they were not shy about approaching you!

Each one looked so different - slightly different facial expressions, slightly different build and posture.  Males, females, babies.  They all mingled together and it was all very peaceful.  Only once or twice did I hear any of them make a sound.

Soon enough, my brother discovered a pile of tree branches for the taking so he grabbed a few and started feeding any elephant that would approach him. This little one came by and in a matter of seconds, grabbed the tree branch, stripped off the leaves and devoured them. Of course, it then wanted more and when there was no more, walked away. Next tourist?!

Unfortunately, everyone is out to make a buck - even at the expense of orphaned elephants so the moment a mahout thought you were interested in taking a picture of an elephant, they would rush up to you. Next thing you know, you're standing next to the elephant to pet it. Then a snap of the camera shutter......and then the expected tip. 100 rupees is enough but still. After the first time, I had to make sure I was nowhere near a mahout so I could take photos in peace.

There was a large tusker who was chained up but it was hard to feel sorry for the creature because it was standing amidst a huge pile of tree limbs. Basically, it was standing in the middle of its meal and all it had to do to dine was dip down its trunk! For some reason, the elephant had its butt resting against a pole. I have no idea why (itchy butt??) but looking at it brought a smile to my face. Looked so cute!

I couldn't help but take a picture of the tusker's large padded feet.  You have to wonder why they need nails!

There are quite a few baby elephants here. Some were born here and others arrived as orphans. Regardless, they can feed from any of the female elephants. Apparently, elephant social structure is such that babies are automatically adopted by a elder female and so they are always protected and fed by an elephant. Of course, they are also tended to by the caretakers.

We went back to the feeding area and watched two baby elephants getting their milk and leaves. They seem to really enjoy the milk and could pretty much down a bottle (about a half gallon's worth?) in seconds.

Between gulping down milk, they munched on leaves.....a LOT of leaves!

The Hotel Pinnalanda - not where we were :-)
We had found spots to sit on and watch the babies eat.  I was just getting comfortable when Chandana rustled us to our feet.  It was time to make our way to the river where the elephants would head down to to bathe.  He wanted to beat the rush of people that would soon be making there way over.  No complaints from me about beating the rush.

We headed out of the entrance, crossed the main road and walked down a narrow street that was flanked on both sides by small commercial establishments and a hotel or two.  It was a pretty short street - may be about a US city block long.  It was the first time on the trip that I had seen anything that resembled a souvenir.  Reminded me that I should pick up some items for friends and family but that would have to be later.  For now, all I want to do is get to the river, find a perch to sit on and wait for the elephants to arrive.

It wasn't long before we saw the river ahead of us. Near the river's edge were a couple of hotels with balconies overlooking the river. It wasn't hard to figure out where we were heading - I just didn't know which hotel.

We ended up at the Hotel Elephant Park which has a dining room that opens out on to a covered balcony and a lower terrace as well. At first, we got a table inside the dining room with a view to the river. Nice but I wanted a better view. Before we settled down and ordered any food, I headed downstairs to the lower terrace and there was no one seated at any of the tables. So, I went back upstairs and told Chandana we were moving.

Our hotel where we were.

Once we had the table secured, I told the guys I was heading back up to the street level to wait for the elephants to pass by on their way to the river.

I didn't have to wait long. A small group of elephants passed by almost immediately but I knew there had to more.  The babies kept pace with the adults.  The l'il ones were so darn cute!

In all the images I had seen of the elephants bathing, it was large group - definitely more than a handful! I stood wondering whether the rest of the lot would come by - if not, it would have been a really disappointing visit to Pinnewala!

I continued to wait. Patience paid off. I heard the sharp sound of a foghorn going off followed by the shout of a mahout in the distance. A few seconds later, the first sighting of the elephants. At that point, I was still able to walk into the middle of the street and with my zoom lens, I was able to capture photos of the elephants as they marched towards me, my back to the river.


Of course, I eventually had to get out of the road but I still managed to take photos until just before the last of the group made it past me. At that point, I ran back inside and headed back downstairs to tell the guys the elephants were coming!

Of course, Chandana has seen the elephants countless times but for my brother and I it was a new experience watching these creatures slowly making their way into the water and then spreading out to give themselves room. It was obvious that some elephants really enjoyed being in the water - sucking up water with their trunks and dispensing it over their heads. For others though, they just stood around.....looking a bit lost.  Tourists had also started to gather around.

The elephants seemed to have been clustered into two different groups. Directly below us was a group of darker colored elephants. They were the smaller group of larger elephants that arrived into the river first.

The second, larger group of elephants was clustered in another section of the river - they were in closer view by the people who had gone to the Hotel Pinnalanda.

We were just captivated watching the creatures. Never in my life have I ever seen so many elephants out in the open. It was an amazing sight!

The larger elephants that were just below seemed to get special treatment in that they *personal* attention from the mahouts - including being scrubbed down.

Although there were a few larger elephants standing close to shore - they didn't seem interested in having a bath - the others were happy to be submersed in the water.  I imagine it was cooling experience for them.

Out of the blue, Chandana asked us if we wanted to bathe with the elephants. I hadn't noticed any other tourists doing this so I was a bit skeptical for a split second. But by now, I realized that a lot is possible in Sri Lanka - you just have to know who to ask and as an experienced guide, Chandana knew exactly who to ask.

We followed him down to the river's edge where he had a side conversation with one of the mahouts. Next thing you know, my brother is in the water, up to his thighs, splashing water on a large elephant that had laid down in the water. I had taken my brother's camera to video his experience when one of the mahouts offered to take it from me so I could join my brother. No way I was going to turn down that offer so I gladly handed the camera over, while it was still recording, and headed into the water to join my brother. We only spent a few minutes splashing water over the elephant who seemed awfully relaxed being partially submerged.


Seconds after I headed back to shore, I heard the mahout shout a command. Turning back, I could see the elephant rising out of the water to stand on its feet. Next thing I know, I'm standing right under it's large mouth. I reached up to touch the gentle giant. It was only a split second experience but it was an unbelievable one. I still remember the water dripping off its chin onto my head.

After I reached shore, the elephant went and laid back down in the water. I couldn't blame it - I would have done exactly the same thing!

Chandana then asked me if I wanted to ride the elephant and I replied, "No, thank you" as again, I didn't see anyone else doing this. In hindsight, I should have said, "Yes". Opportunity lost :-(

We headed back to our table where our food arrived shortly after that but I was so captivated by what the elephants were doing in the water that I paid little attention to the food.

At some point, there was an elephant swap. The large elephants, that had been bathing below our terrace, made a move towards the part of the river where the larger group had been bathing. The large elephants patiently waited on shore while the other elephants relocated to the spot below our terrace. The large elephants then entered into the water.

Now, we had a lot more elephants to look at! One group of relatively young elephants obviously had their favorite spot in the river - it seemed to be deeper waters and they literally just plunged themselves into it! At times, all you could see of an elephant was its trunk - the rest of the body was completely submerged. This group was having so much fun - like kids playing in a pool. There was even some playful shoving going on.

One elephant even grabbed a tire ring and started playing with it while another led a small group of followers to the other side of the river where they grazed on the vegetation growing on the river's edge.  A single command from the mahout and the wanderers came back to join the rest of the group.  Of course, a few minutes later and another (or maybe the same) group of wanderers had strayed away and again, a single command from the mahout brought them back.  These elephants are really well trained!

Before we knew it, it was time for the elephants to go *home*.  Time sure does fly by when you're having this case, fun watching elephants bathe!  We headed back out to the street to watch them parade by.

They took their time making out of the water.  The lead elephants waited for the stragglers.  The elephants lined up behind the mahout.  The policeman sounded the fog horn once to alert pedestrians that elephants would soon be on the streets.  Then he sound the horn a second time.  The elephants still stood in line and only on the command of the mahout did they begin walking.  It was sad to see them walk by because I knew that my time with them had come to an end.

Naturally, we shot videos of our time with the elephants and here's a compilation of the best ones.

We followed the elephants back up the street.  Of course, they were far ahead of us.  Along the way we spotted a shop keeper sweeping up broken glass from the street.  Apparently, one of the elephants had accidentally smashed into it.  Price of having a store on the elephant route!

The last store we passed was one that advertised making paper from elephant dung.  We got arm twisted into going inside and seeing the process.  Pretty simple really.  Elephants are vegetarians so a high percentage of what they poop out is fiber.  Dry the dung so it no longer stinks, wash off the dried poop.  Grind up the fiber and follow standard process to make paper.  5 minute demo.  Then it was off to the adjacent store where you could buy all sorts of papers made from the dung.  Not interested so I did an obligatory walk around the store and then headed out where my brother and Chandana were waiting for me.

A short walk later and we were back in the parking lot where Chami was waiting for us with the van.

I had really been looking forward to this experience and the elephants did not disappoint me one bit!  My only regret is that I couldn't stay longer.  Maybe I have to come back some day :-)

Next destination.  Kandy!!

Good bye Elephants!