Management and Behavior of Elephants at Pinnawala orphanage

Bathing at Ma Oya river

The Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala is a unique resource in Sri Lanka, attracting large number of visitors daily. This post gives you some of the unknown facts on elephants living in orphanage: elephant biology, ecology, conservation, breeding and training.


The Elephant Orphanage was established in 1975 in a 10.75 ha coconut land by the Government of Sri Lanka to care for at least some of the elephant calves that are orphaned when they are abandoned by the native herds. The Orphanage is situated about 88 km away from Colombo in the Kegalle District. In the orphanage, in 2006, there are 75 elephants of all ages including 14 adult males and 28 adult females.

Loners and herd of Elephants

Although the orphans are brought to the orphanage from all elephant-dwelling regions of Sri Lanka, these individuals form a cohesive unit led by an adult female (matriarch). The adult males are separated when they are about 8-10 years old and live solitary lives afterwards, but they also maintain a hierarchy, often according to the age. The males are trained for work, although the females are not. In fact, elephants in the main herd of Elephant Orphanage are not fully tamed or trained. They cannot be ridden; nor can they be made to work, but, keepers can lead them to the river for bathing, to the grassland for feeding, or chain them at their special places in the evening.

Mating behavior
Reproductive activities mainly take place at the free grazing area of the coconut land or at the river. Real mating will last only 1-2 min. It is not possible to determine whether a particular male would select a particular female in heat, or vice versa, because mahouts determine which male should be led to a female in heat. But, almost always more than one male is brought to mate with the female to ensure mating success. Always unrelated males and females are mated to reduce inbreeding.

Stereoscopic behavior

It appears that the stereoscopic behaviour is resorted to when the animal is in apparent distress or boredom. If the routine activities of the orphanage are proceeding without any disturbance, very little stereoscopic behavior was observed. The intensity of the stereoscopic behavior seems to depend on age, sex, availability of food or water, and severity of the cause of stress.

Sleep behaviour

The main period of sleep of elephants at the orphanage is from 1200-0500 h. The number of hours of sleep reduces with age. Elephants sleep either standing or in recumbent position. The ratio between the period of standing sleep and recumbent sleep increases with increase in age.

Captive Breeding

The elephant orphanage plays a major role in ex-situ conservation of the elephants by providing opportunities for breeding elephants. The orphanage has a good captive breeding programme, and, so far (01 January 2006), 34 calves were born over 30 years, 31 of them living. Seventeen male calves and 17 female calves were born at the orphanage. Thus, the sex ratio at birth appears to be 1 : 1.

In 22 years, 15 females have given birth to 34 calves. The birth rate so far is 1.55 calves per year. The average length of the oestrus cycle is 3-3 lh months. The period in which the female is in heat is 1-3 days. The average pregnancy period is about 22 months. The average age at first calving in EOP is 14.5 years and the average inter-calving interval is 4.8 years.

Several parasitic and bacterial diseases have been identified and treated at orphanage. Round worm (nematode) infestations are common at the orphanage. The blood fluke Bivitellobilharzia nairi has been identified in the elephants at the orphanage. Any part of the colon of an elephant may get impacted with the fibrous food materials. Sometimes, elephants inadvertently swallow polythene bags along with food materials and obstruction of colon may result. Pododermetitis is very rare in orphanage. Sometimes corneal opacity develops in one or both eyes. In severe conditions, eyesight becomes poor or absent.

Animal Composition
The population consisted of 42.86% adult females, 17.46% adult male (3.17% tuskers), 22.22% sub adults, 12.7% juveniles and 4.76% calves. The sex ratio of adult males to adult females was 1:2.5, biased in favour of the females.

Cost and Eco-tourism potential
The orphanage spends about Rs.15,118,300 (=US $ 101,577) annually on food and milk for elephants in 2001. It earns about Rs.20, 659,000 (=US $ 275,453) annually from visitors, especially foreigners. The orphanage has a high ecotourism potential, as it provides, directly or indirectly, employment and income to a substantial number of people in the vicinity, and as it attracts a large number of tourists. In 2005, 433,994 visitors (124,850 foreign and 558,844 local) visited orphanage.

This post is based on following research papers:
Rajapaksa, R. C. (2006) Elephnat Orphanage at Pinnawala, Sri Lanka: Its Management and Aspects of Biology, Ecology and Behaviour of Its Elephnats. University of Peradeniya Thesis.

T.M.N.K. TILAKARATHNE AND C. SANTIAPILLAI (2001) Management of Elephants at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka. Proceedings & abstracts of the Annual Research Sessions 2001,University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka,pp.124. University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

Leave a Reply