most ethical elephant sanctuary - elephant transit home in sri lanka

Most Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Sri Lanka: Elephant Transit Home

by Juliet Dreamhunter

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Today I’m going to share with you one of the most awe-inspiring places we visited during our trip to Sri Lanka!

It’s called Elephant Transit Home and it’s by far the most ethical elephant sanctuary we were able to find in Sri Lanka.

While I was planning this trip, I’ve heard so many complaints about all kinds of unethical behavior around animals in Asia, including elephants. Riding them, hitting them, breaking their free will, chaining, and hurting in so many ways that you wanna cry just reading about it. And all of this just so they can use these wonderful creatures for tourist amusement!

I made it my goal to avoid supporting such places and did a lot of research to find those rare ones that are truly ethical and care about animals.

Fortunately, there are places like Elephant Transit Home, that put elephants first, which we all should support as responsible travelers. I’m gonna tell you all about it while sharing the pictures we shot during our short visit!

Ready for an overwhelming dose of cuteness? Keep reading!

What is Elephant Transit Home?

Located in the south-eastern part of Sri Lanka close to the entrance of Udawalawe National Park, Elephant Transit Home is an elephant sanctuary that takes care of the numerous orphaned baby elephants. It operates since 1995 and the local name is Ath Athuru Sevana.

Inside the sanctuary, they have close to fifty elephant calves at the time from just a few days to around five years old.

baby elephants in a sanctuary sri lanka

Not only they rescue and rehabilitate the babies, but they also release them back into the wild when they are ready to be on their own! They have many wonderful stories that they share on the official Elephant Transit Home website. Check them out for even more cute photos of baby elephants and learn what had happened to them!

Most of the elephants that end up in Elephant Transit Home were either hurt or lost because of human-elephant conflict that has grown quite extreme in Sri Lanka and other elephant-inhabited countries. Usually, the villagers spot a wounded or suffering calf around and report to the local Department of Wildlife Conservation, that soon comes to the rescue.

Luckily, there are people who care and won’t let baby elephants die!

They heal their wounds, feed them milk, and look after them until the time comes to let them go into the wild.

You can see by yourself how they talk about elephants in this short interview I found with one of the orphanage workers!

They have a special relationship with each of their (not so) little babies and watch them from the distance even after releasing to the park to make sure they are alright. Isn’t it wonderful?

When to visit Elephant Transit Home | Feeding times

Being an ethical elephant sanctuary, this place doesn’t allow you any personal interaction with the animals. But to let you support them and help the orphanage financially, they let visitors watch the feeding process four times a day all year round.

  • 9 am
  • 12 pm (noon)
  • 3 pm
  • 6 pm

Tickets are purchased at the entrance and cost LKR 500 (about 5$ US) for adults and LKR 150 (about 2$ US) for children.

Even though you can’t come close and touch elephants, seeing a few dozens animal calves in one place is so worth it! Where else can you witness this without disturbing the animals?

feeding time in elephant sanctuary transit home sri lanka
elephant family in sri lanka

If you happen to know more places like this around the world that are truly ethical and cruelty-free, please share in the comments! I would love to visit them and support them and share their story so more people can come.

What makes Elephant Transit Home an ethical elephant sanctuary?

These days there are many so-called orphanages or sanctuaries that only care about profit and operate like a zoo instead of being a real sanctuary. A good (and very sad) example of such place is an insta-famous Sri Lankan Pinnawala. Many bloggers already uncovered the truth about Pinnawala orphanage, but lots of people are unaware of all the pain and go there anyway on a hunt for the “perfect” pictures with what actually are distressed chained elephants.

This is why it was such a relief to find a place like Elephant Transit Home that not only calls itself ethical but lives by it!

Let’s look closely into how they operate and why I personally call them ethical after I visited in March.

1. They don’t let tourists anywhere close to the elephants

There is a dedicated observation platform for visitors with a few benches and a fence. The distance between you and elephants is I’d say about 15 meters, and there is also a canal in between that provides an extra layer of separation for animal protection. We even spotted an iguana in that canal!

By organizing it like this, they make sure the tourists don’t disturb the baby elephants during their feeding time and don’t scare them by being too close.

feeding time in elephant transit home

2. There are no interactions between tourists and animals

Well, unless you count curiously observing each other from the distance, but I guess this is harmless! The calves only interact with people who work in this center, who they know and trust.

Contrary to many other “sanctuaries”, Elephant Transit Home is definitely not a place where you’d be offered to feed, bathe, or paint an elephant. They aim to make the elephants’ life and habitat as natural as they can while still raising and feeding them to prepare for the real wild in the future.

3. There is no riding elephants or other unnatural tourist-entertaining experiences

feeding time elephant transit home

Riding an elephant might seem like a cool once-in-a-lifetime experience… until you learn how harmful it is for the elephants. It’s not only about the damage to their back caused by putting six or so people on top, but even more importantly about what needs to be done in order for such experience to be safe for tourists.

There are a lot of hurtful techniques that are often applied to animals to break their will and make them well-behaved around tourists. After all, these are wild animals and like anyone with a free spirit they might not want to be a toy available to every tourist.

Thankfully, Elephant Transit Home doesn’t offer elephant riding (this would be especially awful as all of the orphans are babies!) or anything else that would require breaking the free will of the elephants. In case you didn’t know after such measures animals are no good for returning back to wildlife and most likely wouldn’t survive in the wild on their own. We were happy to see that this place is cruelty-free and perfect for ethical tourism!

4. All the elephants roam freely without chains

In places like the mentioned earlier Pinnawala they chain poor animals in place to restrict they movement so the tourists can come close and make photos with them in specific spots.

Some chains are no longer than one meter and oftentimes they are chained by a front and hind leg at the same time. You don’t need to be well-educated to recognize this as an awful treatment no living creature should ever experience!

Well, this is not the case with Elephant Transit Home! All the elephants there roam freely around the territory, go wherever they wish at the moment and their movements are not restricted in any way.

cute elephant calves in elephant transit home sri lanka
introverted elephant walking around by itself

5. They nurture baby elephants until they are ready and then release them to the wild

As soon as the babies grow to around five years old, they are being taken in batches to be released into the wild. Different national parks around Sri Lanka open their doors to new happy inhabitants every once in a while, with Udawalawe National Park being most often used as the closest to the sanctuary.

Check out this video about Elephant Transit Home I found on Youtube to learn how release process looks!

Even after the release, the sanctuary still keeps track of how the babies fit in into the new wild life!

They want to make sure every one of them finds a herd to become a part of and a new family over time. Later they watch them distantly from the lake using the boats to avoid unnecessary contact after release.

They actually have many cure stories about how little elephants that they rescued grew big and had babies of their own. So inspiring!

6. The calves look happy and seem to have fun

Yeah, I know that I’m not by any means an expert in elephants and can easily be wrong in interpreting their behavior.

But to me, all of them looked good, nurtured, and as if they felt comfortable around the men who were feeding them. Not frightened, disturbed, stressed, or anything like that. Which tells me that it really was an ethical elephant sanctuary, for a change.

They walked around freely, ate, interacted with each other, and trumpeted playful noises. We even noticed some calves who were acting like typical human kids or teenagers! One elephant ran (really, RAN! I don’t know about you, but before this trip, I had no idea that those giants can actually run!) after another and caught him by the tail with his trunk! Just like a pair of mischievous children. It was so much fun to look at it, and we even managed to capture this moment. See by yourself below!

elephants playing in elephant transit home
happy elephants in ethical sanctuary sri lanka

Some amazing statistics on Elephant Transit Home achievements

  • Since the first female elephant orphan called Komali was found and brought for rehabilitation, the Elephant Transit Home took care of more than 250 elephants, which are all being released into national parks when they turn five.
  • All the elephants are being fed milk every 3 hours 365 days per year, which requires quite a lot of work and dedication from workers. One little elephant requires about 40 liters of milk per day! Sometimes babies have digestive issues or milk intolerance and are provided with special diets.
  • The elephants are being released in batches of at least 4 animals. During the rehabilitation period, human interaction is very limited and personal connections between elephants are encouraged. People of Elephant Transit Home do their best to release grown-up babies in groups that they may have formed by themselves so they have a higher chance of surviving in the wild together.
  • At least 16 babies have been born to former female residents of the sanctuary after they were released to the wild and integrated with existing herds.
  • There is a Foster Parent Program that allows you to foster one of the orphans! Each elephant can have only one foster “parent” and you’ll sign an official contract to support your orphan with monthly payments up until it’s released to the wild. Quite an unusual way to practice charity, but an honorable one! Not everyone could say ‘I foster an elephant’ and live with a purpose like that. Still, participating in this program doesn’t mean personal interaction with an elephant as it still should be able to live independently after release and thus shouldn’t get used to human’s love.

Tips for visiting Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka

  • As you’ll be watching the calves from quite a far distance, consider taking a pair of compact binoculars with you to see everything in detail. They’ll also come in handy (even more so) if you decide to go on a safari in Udawalawe National Park afterward.
  • If you are into photography, you’ll need a good zoom lens! We only had our Fuji Kit 18-55mm lens at the time and it wasn’t nearly enough! You can see that our photos from this adventure are not that impressive as they could have been if we had packed a long zoom lens. Wildlife in its natural habitat is often far from you (unless you are participating in something unethical!) and regular lenses simply don’t cover that distance to deliver those amazing crisp closely captured magazine-worthy photos. We learned the lesson!
elephant eating leaves sri lanka
elephant bathing in ethical sanctuary
Why not have a bath after lunch?
  • The feeding process takes about half an hour at the specified time points I mentioned above. I recommend coming a little bit before that time so you can buy a ticket and find a good spot for yourself on the observation platform.
  • Avoid visiting this ethical elephant sanctuary on weekends and holidays as there are often big groups of local children brought together to watch elephants and it gets really crowded. And don’t forget that they have a national holiday every month in Sri Lanka!
  • You can get to the Elephant Transit Home by yourself by car or scooter, but considering how crazy traffic in Sri Lanka is (which you’ll notice from the first minute of stepping onto the island), it’s best to get a driver. If your plan is to go on a safari after visiting the sanctuary, the driver should be able to take you both places. Your local homestay is usually able to organize all kinds of elephant activities per your request, including the transfer.
  • I wouldn’t recommend spending more than one night of your responsible vacations in Udawalawe unless you are also up for a full-day safari. Village jungles are cool, but jungles near the beaches on the south coast of Sri Lanka are even better!

Where to stay in Udawalawe

It’s typical for travelers to just spend the night in Udawalawe before going on a morning, half-day, or full-day safari. Your driver will most likely pick you up at around 4 am, which makes it really hard and exhausting to come for a one-day trip without spending the night.

If you are only interested in Elephant Transit Home, you can try to do a one-day trip from other Sri Lankan provinces, but it sounds like a bit of a headache to organize it as you need to come just in time for the elephant feeding process. Better stay a little bit longer so you can avoid the rush, enjoy more time in the park watching wildlife, and then rest at your chosen accommodation while indulging in local Sri Lankan cuisine.

I’d recommend coming for a 12 pm feeding window so you can go on an afternoon safari to Udawalawe national park right after. You can negotiate this scheme with your driver or guide, so they pick you up at the right time and take to both places. This way you’ll only need to spend one night in Udawalawe before incorporating two elephant activities in one day.

Should you prefer a full-day safari or a morning one, it’s probably best to stay two days in Udawalawe.

Here are some good budget-friendly options where you can stay before and after visiting elephants:

Read Also: Where To Stay In Sri Lanka: Our Favorite Budget Accommodations

Final thoughts on the most ethical elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka

Well, now you know what is the most ethical elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka!

elephants leaving feeding place
Cute butts of elephants leaving after feeding is finished

You can probably tell how amazed I was by seeing all those babies in one place drinking milk and playing with each other. This was truly an experience of a lifetime and I’d love to recommend it to everyone and promote ethical vacations and responsible travel activities to the world!

Elephants in Sri Lanka are considered endangered species because of the severe loss of natural habitat. Luckily, there are big national parks like Yala and Udawalawe where these giants can roam freely and live their best life!

I’m so happy to know that there are truly ethical sanctuaries in Sri Lanka!

Supporting wonderful places like Elephant Transit Home that care about nature and its creatures is the best thing you could possibly do for those baby elephants!

Pin this to your bucket list board and spread the message!

ethical elephant sanctuary sri lanka
ethical elephant transit home sri lanka

Explore other elephant activities in the area

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Leave a Comment


Emma June 19, 2020 - 3:06 pm

What a lovely experience! I would love to do something I like this one day and would not want to visit anywhere unethical, so I will definitely keep your tips in mind!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 19, 2020 - 3:35 pm

Thanks Emma! This is an incredible experience and there aren’t many places in the world to see elephant babies, so you should 🙂

Stephanie June 19, 2020 - 5:17 pm

I love hearing about places like this that have the best interest of the animal in mind. This would be an amazing place to visit!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 19, 2020 - 5:50 pm

Yes, it would! Up until recently I had no idea that there are so many unethical places out there… That’s why each rare ethical sanctuary like this is great to find and support!

Angela June 20, 2020 - 1:59 pm

What a fantastic post. So good to know there are ethical places like this springing up over the world and the bareback riding of elephants is now frowned upon and travellers are becoming more aware that we should look but not touch. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka yet but if I ever get there I will definitely remember this place to visit.

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:18 pm

Thanks Angela! The problem is really that a lot of people are still unaware that what is sold to the tourists as ‘cool activity’ may be hurtful for animals. In the childhood visiting zoo is normal, but they should be teaching us ethical travel in school so children understand how it works ‘behind the scenes’ from the early years. And you are right, it’s a great thing that the places like this orphanage exist and we have a choice these days to be responsible travelers!

Simply Madeleine June 20, 2020 - 2:53 pm

Such a great place! There aren´t many places that are truly ethical sanctuaries. Thanks for sharing this! Will save this article for my Sri Lanka visit next year,

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:20 pm

Yes, I’m happy that I learned about this place, and didn’t go to that insta-famous unethical one! Glad to share!

Cecilie June 20, 2020 - 7:17 pm

I’m happy you took your time to research an ethical place 🙂 I was in the same situation when I wanted to visit the elephants in Chiang Mai. Too many tourist have good intentions about visiting sanctuaries but they don’t know if they support a bad one or not…
Those babies were just super cute! I love how playful elephants are. Great post!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:25 pm

Thank you so much Cecilie! I had no idea about all this ‘ethical/unethical’ situation before I started planning this trip to Sri Lanka and stumbled upon someone’s review of Pinnawala. After that my research shifted a bit to looking into places being ethical and thinking about animals first.

There are so many good reviews about bad places, that it’s hard to find out if they are actually good or bad. Fortunately, as we spread the message, more people start doing the right choices!

Melinda June 20, 2020 - 7:23 pm

What a wonderful topic to write about! So glad you are making people aware of ethical animal treatment. Thank you

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:29 pm

I wasn’t aware about it myself until recently, now I’m glad I haven’t got a chance to unknowingly participate in something awfully unethical like riding elephants. Sadly, many people do, and leave great reviews without understanding how bad it is for the elephants. I’m glad to share what I know with everyone, as places like Elephant Transit Home appear to be a rare find!

Nancy Hann June 20, 2020 - 8:00 pm

What a fun stop this would be! Thank you for sharing about this ethical sanctuary. It’s good to know that they’re doing it right. Elephants are such amazing creatures!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:31 pm

Yes, they are wonderful indeed! We don’t have to be too close to be able to acknowledge it. That’s why I’m recommending having binoculars or a zoom lens 🙂

LAUREN MONITZ June 20, 2020 - 8:17 pm

Love this! As someone who has made the unknowingly poor choice to visit other sanctuaries in my younger days, I’m glad they don’t allow riding.

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:34 pm

Thanks Lauren! I’m glad that you understand now that it was wrong, many people are still in the dark.

Ophelie June 20, 2020 - 8:47 pm

It was so interesting to read your article! I especially like the fact that they release them in the wild once they are able to live by themselves! Thank you for this insightful blogpost!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:36 pm

Yes, that’s what their main intent is. To help babies recover and get back to natural life with other wild animals 🙂 Thanks for coming by!

EvBeing June 20, 2020 - 10:46 pm

Very useful and informative post! We should all say no to elephant rides. Bravo you! Not just your approach but for writing a relevant topic!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:37 pm

Thank you for taking time to read this! I’m glad it was useful 🙂

Arielle Kurtze June 21, 2020 - 9:19 am

what a beautiful post about such a worthy cause! I would love to visit and this is definitely on my bucket list. Great photos and thank you for sharing!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:40 pm

Thank you Arielle! I’m glad to share, this place is really worth visiting and doesn’t take a lot of your time.

Iulia June 21, 2020 - 11:04 am

Wow! I had no idea about the different kind of elephant sanctuaries. I have never visited one and I am against any kind of animal cruelty, and try to avoid it and contribute to it. That’ way I never even look for suck places! But it makes my heart happy knowing there are such kind-hearted people taking care of these beautiful animals. So thank you for sharing!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:43 pm

Thanks Iulia! I think going to the right places and supporting them is better than not going at all. But figuring out which one is truly ethical is a hard task sometimes 🙁 Also, the elephant babies are so cute to look at, there aren’t many other opportunities like this in the world!

Lyne June 21, 2020 - 2:25 pm

This sounds like an amazing experience. I had no idea such places existed, ethical tourism can be tricky when it comes to animals and especially elephants. This was a very interesting read, thanks for sharing your experience.

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:46 pm

Thank you, Lyne! I hadn’t visited anything like this before too, so I’m happy to spread the message and let more people support such venues. Those babies need a lot of milk every day!

Paula Martinelli June 21, 2020 - 3:35 pm

Great article, and thanks for introducing this lovely place. I am always in a search for ethical and responsible places to visit, and I have added this to my list when I finally get to visit Sri Lanka.

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 3:47 pm

I hope you get there safely! Thank you Paula!

Lucy June 21, 2020 - 3:52 pm

wow thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve avoided all Elephant sanctuaries just out of fear that I may be contributing to one that might be inhumane. This guide clearly lays out all the good things these guys do and I would love to visit

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 4:10 pm

Thanks Lucy! From what I saw, they are doing a great job to keep it ethical and don’t even let you close to the elephants 🙂 Better go and support them when you have a chance!

Jamie June 21, 2020 - 4:43 pm

Thanks for sharing the information on this ethical elephant sanctuary; I’ve always wanted to visit one but have been hesitant due to the treatment of animals. Appreciate all the research you did before visiting this one! Loved learning about this sanctuary.

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 7:43 pm

Thanks for coming by Jamie! An ethical elephant sanctuary is a rare find and I’m happy to share!

Nina Out and About June 21, 2020 - 9:10 pm

I love that you took the time to ensure that your elephant visit was ethical. And it looks so worth it!

Juliet Dreamhunter June 21, 2020 - 9:50 pm

Thank you Nina! This was definitely worth it, even though the whole visit took less than an hour. I’ll never forget those calves!

Kelsey June 22, 2020 - 7:12 am

I love this so much! I love elephants and have always wanted to see them, but never felt right going to any elephant experiences. This one sounds like they do such a great job keeping the elephants happy 🙂

Juliet Dreamhunter June 22, 2020 - 11:37 am

Yes, it looked to me that they do their best to protect the calves. If you happen to be in Sri Lanka, don’t miss this place! Also, if you wanna see elephants in the real wild habitat, you can always go on safaris to the national parks. Specifically in Sri Lanka Udawalawe national park was my favorite 🙂