Did you know that a group of elephants is called a herd or, less commonly, a memory? That could get a little confusing when I tell you I found that fact when I was reflecting upon my own memories of getting up close to a memory of elephants in Sri Lanka. I’m not becoming Doctor Seuss, though it may appear that way; let me explain.
Sri Lanka is a country blessed by nature and is bountiful in animal life. You can see leopards in Yala National Park, loris’ in the jungle areas, or go whale watching off the coast near Marissa. But there’s one animal that’s a little easier to spot.
In the middle of Sri Lanka is an area known locally as the ‘elephant corridor’, the space linking Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks, and a dedicated Wildlife Sanctuary. This is where hundreds of elephants gather seasonally. That day, I was visiting Kaudulla National Park.
Boarding the Jeeps at the park entrance, not even the threat of rain could stop the excitement that was coursing through me and the group I was travelling with.
As the road turned from asphalt to mud, the scenery changed from overgrown forest to lush but bumpy plains. There, in the distance, were wild elephants. I could hear shrieks of joy coming from the jeeps behind me, muffled under the roar of the engines.
My natural instinct would have been to observe from afar, but the jeep driver had other plans as he inched forward, closer and closer, trying to get the best view so we could take photos. This was a photographic safari after all.
Part of me was a little nervous – my mind consumed with the thought that these animals weighed more than the open-topped jeep I was in and considering just how fast they could move in comparison to our bogged tires – but it’s the kind look in many of their eyes that draw you in and the playfulness of the young stomping across the grasses that will leave you with a smile.
Their weathered skin, flapping ears and nimble trunks picking and thrashing the grasses before eating it. The smaller elephants were shadowed by their parents, protected from us lest we wanted to be reminded whose baby these were though some of the more curious babes approached us cautiously.
Unlike the African elephant, whose numbers are in the hundreds of thousands in the wild, the smaller Asian elephants numbers are dwindling, with between 35,000 – 40,000 remaining in the wild today. It’s believed that there are nearly 6,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka; the highest population in Asia.
The numbers are dwindling for a number of reasons. The growth of cities and the lands the elephants inhabit being one. Poaching does not happen but is not the biggest problem in Sri Lanka as the Asian Elephant only grow small tusks, if they grow them at all.
Elephants are also important cultural and religious symbols in Sri Lanka, with many elephants kept as pets or for tourism – though strict laws now control and often prevent this from happening now. While many elephants are well looked after by their owners, many are not.
Learning just a little about the plight of the Asian elephant has made me more closely consider my travel choices and my role in responsible tourism. Cinnamon Nature Trails, the company my tour was booked through, is one of Sri Lanka’s leading eco-travel companies.
Having the opportunity to see a memory of elephants in the wild like this had me saying “wow” over and over again. In front of us, baby elephants ran around their families feet while behind us two males grappled with each other in a show of domination. I didn’t know where to look next, or if I should sit down in the jeep, as each muddy hill and puddle seemed like a new challenge for the driver. I did wonder for a minute if he was seeking the bumpiest ride just to watch us fall over in the back of the jeep for his amusement.
As I was travelling as part of a big group, having six or so noisy, roaring jeeps trying to navigate the muddy paths (and a few of the group almost getting bogged!) around the elephants meant it wasn’t quite the tranquil experience I was expecting – I thought it’d be slightly more stealthy on the approach, like what I experienced when on safari at MalaMala Game Reserve – but I’m sure if you are staying nearby for longer you would have the option of going at a less busy time when you aren’t being jostled for the best views against half a dozen other jeeps.
Having the opportunity to see these animals in the wild should be treasured, but in the pursuit of giving the visitors a truly up-close experience, some drivers get a little bit too close for comfort – both elephant and human. This became apparent when a male elephant trumpeted and charged at a nearby jeep.
Neither elephant nor jeep inhabitants were injured, but the message came across loud and clear that perhaps we were overstaying our welcome.
With sunset approaching the memory of elephants began to head off along the corridor. As the adrenaline of seeing these giant animals wore off and the jet-lag began to kick in we slowly made our way out of the park and back to our home for the night.
Of all the experiences in Sri Lanka this had to be one of the most memorable; The memory of getting up close to a memory of Asian elephants.
Now it’s over to you
What wildlife encounter would you like to experience?
Cinnamon Nature Trails: Elephant Safari
Elephant safaris run for around three hours. Transportation to the park and a local English-speaking guide is included.
Elephants can be seen year round in Kaudulla National Park, with the highest numbers seen between July – November.
I chose to stay in Habarana, just a few kilometres from Kaudulla National Park and within Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, at the comfortable and stylish Chayaa Village Habarana. Rooms were chalet style with large rooms and spacious bathrooms. For those seeking to escape the heat, there’s a fabulous pool not far from the chalets.
For those wanting a five-star option, Cinnamon Lodge is a stunning colonial-style property with a focus on organic produce at their restaurants is right next door.
I flew to Sri Lanka with SriLankan Airlines. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, it is advisable to arrange your visa to Sri Lanka. The ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) system used by Sri Lanka is issued with 2 entries, valid for 6 months. Each entry, travellers are allowed to stay in the country for 30 days.
Travelers should obtain the ETA prior to the trip. If you want to stay longer than 30 days, you can prolong the ETA from Sri Lanka Immigration in Colombo after your arrival to Sri Lanka. The other alternative is to apply for a tourist visa from the local Sri Lanka Embassy prior to the trip. For more information, go to srilankavisa.org
Plan your trip to Sri Lanka with these posts:
A Guide to North Central Sri Lanka
– the perfect place for first-time visitors to Sri Lanka –