How to Bath an Elephant

This is my fifth entry (E) for the A to Z Challenge

Back in December 2014, my friend and I took off to Sri Lanka for a mini 4 day break. From Dubai it’s only a 3-hour flight, making it a great destination for a weekend away. Full of culture, history, and of course some epic landscapes and wildlife, Sri Lanka has something for everyone. Apparently the beaches are amazing as well, although we concentrated on the central part of the island to try and see some of the more impressive Buddhist temples and monuments this wonderful nation has to offer. Before going any further though … I will say that do not expect to get anywhere in a hurry. Most roads are slightly wider than single lane and it was rare that we actually managed to reach as fast as the speed limit. But that is okay as long as you really don’t need to pee.

As much as I wanted to see temples and monuments, I’m an animal guy at heart, and this trip featured a visit to Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary. At Pinnawala, they have taken in abused and injured elephants and given them a safe place to see out their days. This place does not offer rides on them either. You can walk around the site and hopefully see them playing as they enjoy a shower, or try to – as we did – sneakily grab some branches that were left over and feed some of the smaller elephants. Apparently it wasn’t a bother as no fewer than eight employees saw us doing it but left us alone. We must have been doing things right I guess.

We pulled into a parking lot across the highway from the entrance, and instead of turning right to cross the street, our guide directed us left, to our spot on the river where we would have lunch. I wasn’t interested in lunch when there was a chance to see the elephants – including the three-legged blind one (left this way by a landmine). Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) man really really bugs me with what we deem is necessary. We took our seats out on the deck and ordered lunch, our guide sitting at a table beside us as he didn’t want to disturb us. I must say that he was fantastic. He spoke great if quiet English, was never asking for more money or telling us of more expensive things we could do, and never once did I feel like he was going to kill us with his driving. That last one might be the most important one actually. Having gone on tours led by crazy drivers, it is refreshing to sit in the back of a car and not fear for my life.

Just before the meals arrived, I could hear commotion coming from the dirt path we had walked down to get to the restaurant. Indiscriminate yelling, the shuffling of feet. The shuffling of feet? How big were these feet being dragged across the road? And then an elephant wandered by and into the river. And then another one. And another one. Soon there were over 30 elephants in the river, right below the deck where we were lunching. We had arrived at bath time. I have never been so happy to let my lunch grow cold.

Close Up

Look who came for lunch?

The mahouts (the handlers) do carry hooked sticks and can get a little forceful at times when the elephants wanted to try and escape to the other side of the river, but the overall attitude of the elephants to the mahouts was really good to see. Our guide did explain that some mahouts were fired for maltreatment to the elephants, which was good to hear, but when you see an elephant wander over 40 meters through the river to trunk-cuddle a specific handler, you get the impression that something must be done correctly. On the other side of the river across from where the elephants enter the river lies freedom – but only if they can navigate up the 6 foot tall bank (which they can’t). It doesn’t stop them from trying though. Once they fail to scale the embankment they console themselves with some fresh grass and get back in the water, spraying each other as only elephants can.


So close to freedom

From our elevated view we could look down on all of them, some right beneath us. We sat with them the entire bath time, and wished it could have lasted longer. Because of our tour package, we were allowed onto the beach as the elephants gathered to head back to the orphanage, and while not being able to touch them (which I think is correct), we got so close that you couldn’t take a full elephant selfie as most of the big beast was cut off from the frame. Tourist problems, huh?


This guy was right underneath where we were sitting

My parents used to tell me that they could take me to a zoo as a child and leave me there, come back in 2 weeks, and I’d still be there in the same place they left me. I’ve always had an affinity towards animals. If I hadn’t have been such an idiot at school, I would probably be working with animals now. As it stands, I just go on safari as much as possible and photograph them. Not professionally of course, but it’s still my happy place. So sitting and watching these elephants, the largest land animal (okay, the African elephant is) on Earth, completely had me in awe.


An elephant sprinkler is the best sprinkler

I know they weren’t wild. I know some of them may have been born at the orphanage as well, and I know this routine of going down to the river for bath time each day is drilled into them and not something they do on their own; but I was still beaming. Despite these elephants being in a monitored place, their every whim cared for, once they hit the river, you can see the natural instincts come out. It is rare to get this close to wild elephants (although I have in Africa), and each time is a reward in itself. The joy, the playfulness, the incredible sense of intelligence these gentle giants portray is there for all to see as they splash about and device cunning plans to scale an embankment they know they just can’t scale.


Getting some extra splash

Whether or not you agree with places like Pinnawala is another matter. If they are doing good things and truly helping these elephants then I am for them, even if some of their feeding shows seem a little contrived and strictly for the tourists. But if these tourists are willing to pay to get a chance to feed a banana to an elephant, an elephant that was once used to sweep fields for landmines, then I see this as okay. My biggest complaint about Pinnawala is that we need an orphanage for elephants in the first place. We should not be at the point that we need to drastically think about maintaining the fate of a species so much older than we are. But that is a talk for another day.

Entire River

With all this river at their disposal, they know where the easy food is

30 thoughts on “How to Bath an Elephant

  1. They are beautiful creatures aren’t they, quite graceful really considering they are so large.Lucky you, what a rare treat.

  2. Great post Geraint! I know it would have been an amazing experience. I had witnessed a bath time ritual at an elephant park near Coorg in India, though the number of elephants were much less. I must say that the elephants do love their bath time!

  3. I enjoyed reading your post! Despite being kind of domesticated these elephants appears to have some freedom and that is awesome. I often wonder how we, humans, have called dibs on the whole planet and if you think about it for a neutral POV and with an open mind … Well! We are cruel! 😦
    I wonder what it would have been like in your encounter with Elephants in Africa.
    Wonderful post, Thanks! for sharing 🙂
    Best Wishes!

    • I completely agree that humans on the whole have been cruel, selfish, and downright stupid. There is a post about African elephants coming later this month.
      And thank you again for stopping by.

    • Hi Debbie,
      It was. I know they weren’t wild, but it was good to see so many of their instincts still residing within them.

  4. Not quite the same, but I once saw an elephant getting bathed at the zoo, and the contortions of its body as it moved into position to get brushed by the zookeeper looked like elephant yoga.

    • Elephants are simply amazing. I can watch them all day long. The family dynamic, the care they show each other, all of it. More elephants coming your way at R as well 😉

  5. I enjoyed reading this blog, and your concerns regarding elephant tourism in special. Very similar to my experience at the Surin Project in Thailand (see my blog). Still a lot to improve when it comes to elephant tourism, but projects like these are definitely a step in the right direction.

    • Thank you for stopping by my blog. I’m always a little leery about these places but this one seemed okay. Thankfully.
      And I will definitely check out your blog.

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