A thumping makes the banana-flower curry shiver in the bowl. The cutlery rattles, and there is an excited rush of diners to the second-floor windows of the restaurant. Bellows and borborygmus* rise from below. The air is pungent with a dusty, thunderous aroma.

Sri Lanka’s Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage takes in refugees orphaned or injured by human encroachment and integrates them into the established herd.

Earthquake? Apocalypse? English soccer fans?

No. Just bath time for the elephant orphans of Pinnawela.

As they trot past beneath us, en route to the Maha Oya River, the alley is entirely filled with a torrent of nobly domed heads, bristly gray backs and wildly flapping ears.

The Sri Lankan hawkers who line the alley are used to the charge. It happens twice a day, 730 times per year, monsoon or shine. Their wares are screened from the dust kicked up by the huge platelike feet, and temptingly grabbable items have been moved out of reach of questing trunks.

Elephants! What the Elizabethan metaphysical poet John Donne called “Nature’s great master-peece.” Truly, to see them is to love them!

And if you want to see them, then there’s no place better (from the perspective of ethics, entertainment and convenience) than Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, which lies just off the main Colombo-to-Kandy road.

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was established in 1975 by the Department of Wildlife on a 10-hectare coconut orchard. It has since grown to become one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attractions. Over half a million Sri Lankans alone visit Pinnawela each year.

The Tamil insurgency in the north has put some national parks off limits. Accordingly, no one can say precisely how many wild elephants remain in Sri Lanka. In the early 1900s, there were some 12,000. An increase in human population, deforestation, plus overhunting have hit numbers hard; perhaps 3,500 survive now. Given that Sri Lanka is only the size of Ireland or Tasmania, this figure is still impressive.

There are well over 50 elephants currently here. Most are orphans. Some are older animals rescued after being blinded by shotguns or sustaining other injuries.

Elephants are orphaned in many ways. Sometimes there’s conflict between land-raiding farmers and crop-raiding herds. An elephant can consume 100 kg of food in one night: bad news for a sugarcane grower. A sugar cane grower can consume large areas of land: bad news for an elephant.

While farmers generally use fireworks to repel pachyderm incursions, some resort to muskets or shotguns. These weapons are rarely immediately fatal but can cause wounds that suppurate or incapacitate and lead to the animal’s slow death.

The war also contributes victims. One Pinnawela elephant is missing a foot after treading on a land mine.

Ivory poaching, though not rampant, is on the rise, according to Sri Lankan scientists. The increase follows Japan’s controversial decision to resume ivory imports on an experimental basis.

Then there are the gem pits. Sri Lanka is famous for its gems (and for its pestiferously persistent street gem-sellers). Illegal prospectors often sink pits in the jungle, which they then disguise to avoid discovery by the authorities or by rival prospectors. These hidden diggings inadvertently act as lethal elephant traps.

The chances of an orphaned baby elephant surviving in the wild are slim to nil. Such animals are brought to Pinnawela and integrated with the herd. The elephants here are free-roaming by day, well-fed and healthy. Breeding Asian elephants in captivity is not normally possible. Virtually all the working Asian elephants a tourist encounters — be it in Nepal, India, Myanmar, Thailand or wherever — have been captured from the wild.

At Pinnawela, however, 14 calves have been born since 1984, and there has even been one second-generation birth. For the survival of any species, in this increasingly wildlife-unfriendly world, successful captive breeding programs are a form of valuable insurance.

In the past, there were representatives of the order Proboscidea living on every continent, save Australia and Antarctica (there were even elephants living in the Tokyo area as recently as 12,000 years ago). But only two species out of more than 350 have survived mankind’s spread and the changes in our planet’s climate: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

While superficially similar, the two species are, in fact, rather different. The African elephant is larger, weighing 7 tons to the Asian’s maximum of 6 tons. The tip of the African elephant’s trunk has two “fingers,” and its front foot has five toes. The Asian elephant’s trunk has one finger, its foot four toes.

Asian elephants are frequently tuskless, a trait that some scientists speculate evolved as a result of the ivory trade.

The African elephant’s ears are larger and fold back. The Asian elephant’s ears fold forwards and are shaped, appropriately, like a map of India.

Despite their differences, though, both species have one thing in common: a love of water. A highlight of any Pinnawela visit is watching the herd at play in the Maha Oya River.

Go there for lunch. Abandon your banana-flower curry, chuck far too much currency at the waiter and race from the premises before you miss a minute of it. Everyone else does. The spectacle gives an entirely new meaning to the word “watersports”!

And you’ll never be tempted to buy an ivory hanko again.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.