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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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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!
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!
- 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:
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!
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!