Wild elephant adventures in Habarana, Sri Lanka
Deep in the north-central jungles of Sri Lanka, at the shores of an ancient reservoir built by King Mahasen more than 1,700 years ago, a centuries-old communal ‘Gathering’ tradition lives on. Each dry season (June to September), hundreds travel here from all across the region for the world’s biggest pool party. The place: Minneriya National Park. The species: herds of elephants. The spectacle: pure magic. Naturally, we are stoked at the prospect.
Jetwing Lake, Dambulla makes a perfect base for our wild elephant adventure in the heart of the cultural triangle. The expansively-designed hotel in the midst of the verdant nature with lake-facing rooms, large window-less ground floor restaurant, and benches hidden under a leafy corner of vast gardens…sets the right tone for the wildlife experience that would be the highpoint of our trip.
Rains drenching the Minneriya-Kaudulla forest reserve means herding would be a no-show. But how could we give up that easy? The nearby (and drier) Habarana-Hurulu Forest Reserve, home to another few hundred elephants, becomes an obvious choice. A rainy breakfast does nothing to rise our optimism levels, but we book the afternoon safari slot anyway…maybe the weather will turn. And it does! Cloudy but drop-free skies by the time we stop outside the ‘Hurulu Eco Park’ signboard, just a few metres away from the Habarana railway station. Do we want to pay an additional $25 dollars for a Park Guide to accompany us in our 4X4? Of course…anything to increase chances of spotting wildlife. He would know which dirt-track to take, he would be able to smell out the elephant trail. Would we see any elephants? Keeping my hopes low. Please, please, give us at least one!
Barely a few minutes into the Park and our convoy of jeeps is winding its way down a tire-tracked sandy path through the dense shrubbery, 10-feet wild-grass and thick tree cover. We stand on the seats of our open-roofed vehicle, clutching the front handrails, all prepped for the best views, ducking low branches that claim the space uninhibited. Parrots chirp, hawk eagles scan the surroundings for dinner, and rare birds play hide-and-seek through leaves. In the distance, rocky terrains loom large. We throw hopeful, questioning glances at the guide. He grins confidently. Camera strap check. Zoom lens check. All senses full alert.
Just over few kilometres in, and we spot a bunch of jeeps parked up ahead. “Elephant”…our guide announces triumphantly. What, already…wow! We near up with speed, maintaining respectable distance. Hush!! Silence, except for noisy engines and clicking cameras. Should have been noiseless jeeps…won’t they run away? Apparently not. Large patches of pigmented brown start moving through the tall wild grass…wait there’re two! Oh, a third and a fourth around the bend. They’re not that tall. Our guide explains that the Sri Lankan elephant is much smaller than the African one. An average male adult is 11 feet in shoulder height and females are much smaller. Two youngsters trot across the path, eyes half closed, and they all disappear into the bushes, oblivious to our presence. Episode one and I already have a satisfied smile pasted on my face. My gut says this is just a start. And it is!
The jerky off-roading continues…as do the multiple episodes with multiple herds, ranging from 5-15 elephants, always led by the oldest female, the matriarch. A playful two-month old calf slides over a mound close where the jeeps wait, and two protective adults quickly huddle it away to safety. No adult males in the herds…they move away as soon as they are 4 years old. Females, on the other hand, reach maturity at 8-10 years, give birth every 4-6 years (with a gestation period of 18-20 months) and have 6-7 offspring in their lifetime. Interestingly, 6 females, including aunts and grandmas, share feeding responsibilities for each calf. Girl gang rules to live by.
200 females and just 20 males in the Eco Park…and that’s a good balance for their species, we are told. We practice recognising the differences between males (with well-rounded tapered backs) and females (straight backs). We spot 2 of the 8-9 male tuskers that live in the area. We play guessing games about their age, using their height and size as clues. The older ones have heavier pinkish pigmentation around the ears, face and trunk, looser skin and wrinkled ears. An average life expectancy of 65-70 years…just like humans. What happens when an elephant dies?? It is abandoned by the herd…but it is gratifying to know that the forest department plans a burial site here in the future.
Further ahead, a lone male rips up a long stemmed bunch of leaves with his trunk, but rejects it even before putting it in his mouth. Decided it was too thick to bite and digest? Then he vigorously shakes the dry mud off a trunk-full grass and chomps it down with full gusto. His trunk has two finger-like protrusions, unlike the African cousin’s, which has one. These gentle giants consume 100-150 kilograms of herbivorous food daily, and wash it down with 100 litres of water. Funny part is that they can digest only half of it, the rest passed through undigested. Such poor metabolism, despite the fact that they sleep only 4 hours and walk 20-25 km a day?
Its a relief that in general, the elephants ignore us and don’t seem bothered by our presence. Then one of the jeep drivers gets too close to comfort. One male loses his temper…maybe his first time alone from the herd or he’s an aggressive sort. He raises his trunk and throws out a loud growl like a bear, approaches the jeep and forces it to retreat. He gathers some loose mud and scatters it on his head and body to cool off. He then celebrates his victory with a powerful roar…or was it a call for backup…in case the vehicle returned?
Over three hours, we cover 5000 hectares of the total 25000 hectares in the Eco Park, seeing as many as 50 elephants in all! When the jeeps approach a high rocky outpost with a sturdy observation hut, we know the safari is concluding. The view of the Habarana-Hurulu Eco Park is panoramic in the soft glow of the early evening sun. As the cool breeze ruffles my hair, I flashback to the 19th century, when over 19,500 wild elephants roamed this stunning tear-drop island. We encroached their space and they were forced to seek solace in ours. Thankfully, the 2,000 that remain are protected under the Sri Lankan law and killing an endangered member of the tribe carries death penalty. About time we understood the importance of visiting wild animals in their natural habitat like guests. From a distance. No fun, no games, no play, no rides, no teasing, no torture. Just respect. One creature to another.