Hello, My name is Tim, I'm one of the founders of the EFP. When I came to Sri Lanka in 2012 I was briefly working as a coordinator for volunteers at an elephant riding place in Kegalle (there are various on the Pinnawala road near the EFP). The elephants have no freedom at all, none. When the tourists ride them they follow a strict route, are not allowed to choose their own way and are forced to obey. I've seen the ankus (bullhook) being used on them ALL THE TIME and always shouting.
And when there are no tourists they are chained up. This on a very short chain and unfortunately most were standing in the sun. In the afternoon the mahouts (elephant keepers) were starting to get drunk and the abuse was getting worse. I, of course, talked to the owner of the place and the mahouts but the whole operation is impossible to change. Money first, elephant last. They just didn't want to see it.
So we wanted to start an alternative to these places.
At the EFP the elephants are our first priority, not the tourists.
At the EFP we offer a shelter for our elephants. We rent them from their private owners and try to take care of our elephants the best we can. The elephants always come first. Our elephants have been working at tourist places and can never go back to the wild.
Unlike most other places we never hit them and the ankus has never been used at our place (it's a security measure since we use the public roads). Also unlike most other places our mahouts (elephant keepers) are well behaved and have a great bond with the elephants.
At the EFP we don't ride our elephants.
We see more and more places offering walks with elephants. While it's good that elephant walks are becoming more popular, most other places still offer elephant riding. They figured since not all tourists like to ride elephants, to offer a walk instead. But their elephants still have to endure the rides when you are not there! Their walks are sadly just a gimmick.
Elephant rides bring in a lot of money in a short time frame (15 USD for a 15 min ride per person - 2 or 3 persons per elephant - in the high season 80+ persons riding on the same elephant per day!). The money is so good, there is no incentitive to ever stop elephant rides.
Of course we also make money, especially in the times before COVID 19. That said, at our project we have a strict limit on the amount of visitors. This alone greatly reduces our income (which is fine since the elephants are the most important). Also, the last 3 years we hardly have had visitors at all (COVID 19 and Sri Lanka's unrest) but we still decided to keep the elephants instead of returning them to their owners. This cost us a big amount of money but that's alright.
Our elephants are always together.
At other places the walk is with 1 elephant only. At the EFP we do not separate our elephants. Elephants are most happy with other elephants. To separate them is cruelty.
At the EFP we take our time, the activity is nice and slow.
We offer a morning and an afternoon activity only, according to the elephants schedule. This means long walks and long bathing times. Everything goes very slow and very relaxed. We really take our time.
At other places they offer short walks and symbolic washing times, all rushed. This is not in the best interest of the elephants.
At these places everytime a tourist visits, the elephants have to go in the river, get a 5 minute wash, give an elephant shower (spray water on the tourists) and so on. In and out, in and out of the river.
Our elephants take a long bath once a day and we certainly don't offer tricks like these elephant showers.
The interaction is on initiative of our elephants.
We provide a lot of elephant time but as unobtrusive for the elephants as possible. At our project it's elephant first and human second - but of course while still giving the best treatment to our visitors!
We do not force our elephants. They are just going through their normal day and the visitors can follow them. In the morning and afternoon they go on a long walk (eating all they can find during this) and we provide our visitors with fruit to give to them. We do not let our visitors pose with the elephants (think about trunk up/unnatural behavior) but if they are busy eating fruit, people can always (safely) stand next to them and our guides are very happy to take pictures!
They do have to bathe every day but this is for sanitary reasons only, not on behalf of the tourists. The elephant keepers (mahouts) are cleaning them from parasites and our visitors are very welcome to help.
Thankfully our elephants love their daily baths and massages!
During the whole activity our guides will explain all in perfect English.
Our elephants are happy
We can't offer a 100% ethical experience but we try the best we can. In the end our elephants are still captives. Some people say that elephants shouldn't be in captivity. I totally agree! Realistically though I don't think this will change, there will always be elephants in captivity unfortunately. There are just too many powerful people and interests involved in keeping them captive.
Truly ethical is to leave all elephants alone- no human interaction, do not visit the National Parks etc. Just leaving them be is the best we as humans can do. (COVID 19 was great for the wild elephants in the National Parks, no hordes of tourists, no loud Jeeps. It must have been wonderful for them!).
Because renting elephants costs a lot of money, we need income. Our solution is to have a limited number of visitors every day. Since everyone get a basket of fruit to give to the elephants during the walk, the elephants love to be with our visitors!
We know our elephants and can see from their body language that they are very happy at our place.
Our visitors have noticed this too, you can read hundreds of their reviews on TripAdvisor.