Into The Wild with Sri Lanka’s Elephants

Their big peaceful amble, excitable trunks and deep eyes full of wisdom are all reasons why I love elephants! Of course having travelled to Thailand, Laos and India you so often see these gentle beasts being mistreated, over-used for tourist pleasure or chained up in temples. So, on arriving in Sri Lanka and reading that this country has the highest density of wild elephants in Asia – between 2,500-4,000 – I was pretty excited!

There are at least five protected regions in Sri Lanka in which wild elephants live including Udawalawe, Minneriya and Yala National Parks. Whilst these regions are always under threat due to an ever expanding population, deforestation and human-elephant conflicts the Wildlife Conservation here aims to conserve habitats and protect elephants both within and outside of these protected areas.

We had seen many pictures of the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage near Kandy and had planned to visit here but with just a small amount of research we found that there had seemingly been some cases of abuse within the sanctuary and selling of elephants for use at temples – where they are generally chained and domesticated through abuse with even a few reports of death.

Not wanting to witness or contribute to this we decided to visit Kaudulla National Park instead. Kaudulla is situated close to Polonnoruwa where we would be visiting as part of our trip around the Cultural Triangle. Kaudulla is one of the lesser known National Parks and forms part of the elephant corridor which connects more popular Minneriya and Wasgomuwa National Parks. We chose here as it was the least well known and thus would allow us to witness the elephants in their natural habitat with as few other people around as possible!

Being typically sceptical Brits, on boarding our hired jeep we asked our guide if we would actually see any elephants – we were doubtful! He replied saying “If you don’t see any elephants I will give you you’re money back and cut off my ear!” Now, as much as we would have liked to hold him to that declaration we also hoped he was right! And, as we turned the first corner into the parks open expanse we caught our first glimpse of a group of wild elephants! It was amazing! And despite thinking that would be all of them, we were so totally wrong! Every corner we turned we were greeted by the sight of more and more elephants! We decided to do a rough count and by the end we estimate we had seen around 150-200 elephants!

The experience was incredible! As we rolled along in the jeep everyone was silent and captivated by the view of these beautiful creatures in groups of anything from five or six to tens and twenties! The jeep would drive to a safe distance so we could pop our heads up and stand and gaze at these majestic creatures going about their daily lives! We saw what we’re clearly the matriarchs right down to some newly born furry little babies hurrying along and hiding under the legs of the bigger elephants! We were told that sometimes the older males part from the group to largely roam alone – some of which we spotted in the distance!

It was so amazing to see these gentle animals roaming freely in their own environment; eating, playing and moving around within their family groups! We felt so privileged to have seen them so up close and personal whilst knowing that they were still wild and living naturally in their own environment.

Although they are undoubtedly a tourist attraction, whilst on our “safari” we saw maybe 15 other jeeps in the area, it was clear that the guides respected the animals and never drove too close to them and backed away if the herd started to move closer towards us. The elephants were respected and it was nice to see them being used for tourism but in a respectable and educative way which will hopefully contribute to them being blue to survive in their natural habitats for longer!

Elephants are still domesticated in Sri Lanka to be used within temples or for religious ceremonies but with the laws and regulations about capturing and taming elephants getting stricter and more enforced hopefully this endangered species will not decline any further than it already has.

Seeing elephants in the wild was one of the highlights of our trip to Sri Lanka and something I will never forget. It has also really opened my eyes to the treatment of elephants you see used for tourism which I think is also a positive! Hopefully you too will enjoy your experience and also take something positive away!

The Facts;

Our tour; organised by our fantastic homestay in Polonnoruwa – Nature Park Guesthouse
What it included; Pick up in open top jeep, a guide, water, safari around the park and return drop
Duration; 1pm-6pm
Price; 4000 SLR per person

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