The most astounding wildlife adventure in Sri Lanka

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.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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Wild elephant adventures in Habarana, Sri Lanka

65 thoughts on “The most astounding wildlife adventure in Sri Lanka

  1. This place looks so so beautiful.. I am sure it would be an great experience encountering those elephants from so close. I shall definitely consider Srilanka for my next travel

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a friend from Sri Lanka and he said it’s amazing and definitely a place to see. I love wildlife and seeing a herd of elephants is on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my, that is so close. I would love to get there with my camera. Normally I would need a telephoto lens, but here they are so close, that my photo set would be enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sri Lanka will happen soon. I have made an itinerary for a 15 day backpacking trip but I haven’t added this place. Can you share a detailed itinerary for Sri Lanka in some other blog post so that I am make a proper plan. I’ll probably share my plan with you on FB and see if you can add, subtract things from it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this is the right thing to do when it comes to seeing wildlife the “mass tourism” way. That means, taking people to the animal’s dwellings and observing their natural actions in their natural habitat some distance away. That is why I don’t favor zoos—-they take away wildlife from their natural habitats so they could be put on display.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an incredible adventure! I completely understand the one elephant getting a little violent, he may have not wanted his photo taken…I know i have days like that! I had no idea they eat 100-150 kilograms of herbivorous food a day! That’s an insane amount!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fantastic animal adventure. Natural habitat is the only way to experience wildlife. The baby elephant is so cute!
    The hotel looks like a great place. Did you get a chance to view many other animals from the hotel?

    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I really want to see the elephants in Sri Lanka, this seems so much more natural than an elephant ride! What lenses did you use? The pictures look insane and I have definitely got this on my bucket list now!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, safari with elephants that too they are roaming free must be an incredible experience. I loved your elephant photos specially that small elephant with two big ones with their backs. Lovely photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Watching elephants in the wild is a beautiful experience. They are such big animals but they move with so much grace. Reading your post has made me so nostalgic. We visited Sri Lanka last year and loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You are so fortunate to have experienced this, seeing elephants up close, watching and observing their interaction. Such amazing animals. And your photos are super. Years ago I was fortunate enough to spend extended time in Kenya, and was able to spend several days walking along the Rift Valley, where I saw elephants and giraffes up close — albeit on foot and from ground level. I will never forget that.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m jealous! What an unforgettable experience! We didn’t get to see any elephants in Sri Lanka but several of our friends saw wild ones crossing the road just as they were driving from one town to another.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is such an unforgettable experience. Reading your post brought back so many wonderful memories of my trip to Sri Lanka. The Jetwing Lake hotel seems so cosy and a great place to use as a base!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. That would be so amazing to see elephants in the wild what a truely magical experience. If I was an elephant I would happily go along to Minneriya National Park for a pool party 🙂 . Sri Lanka is definitely high on my list of places to go and I hoping to get there next year. Keen to see the elephants so thanks on the tip when to go, it would be a shame to miss them.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What an absolute treat. You were so lucky to see so many elephants (girls and boys) and get such a great selection of photos. I love the little guy, so cute! I had no idea they can’t diget all of their food, no wonder they are ALWAYS eating!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What an experience! I so love elephants! I had no idea they only slept 4 hours a day. Wow! It’s great to hear that the country is really safeguarding these beautiful creatures and have such a stiff penalty for killing one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m smiling the whole time while reading your post. Your excitement and the anticipation of seeing the elephants is really catching. haha. Thank you for that, Punita!.. 🙂 The more I’m seeing these elephants the more I want to see them up close too.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I always loved elephants, and would live to see their pool party in Sri Lanka at Minneriya National Park. And it looks like great accomodations at Jetwing Lake. I agree, a guide is always the best choice, and for just $25. So special to see a 2-month old calf! Great photos! I bookmarked this post for further reference.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I love visiting this area, it is pretty cool seeing elephants in their natural environment. I also love that Jetwing hotel – its modern and organic looking and looks like it fits in perfectly with this type of setting.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Wow! this is so amazing. Elephants! and so many of them and you could get so close to them! It must have been an unforgettable experience watching them go about their daily lives in their natural environment. I guess they have become accustomed to human presence and are not traumatized by it. The little calf looks so cute and lovable.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. It’s good to see that there are some steps towards active preservation of these animals. Your experience at Dambulla is quite exciting. 50 elephants at one go is quite a number to see… It is quite rare

    Liked by 1 person

  22. What a great experience you had girl watching the Tuskers at Minneriya National Park. I learnt so many facts from your post. The baby elephant is really so cute and it actually brought a smile on my face. Great pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. So many elephants and up so close too. 100kg of food daily … no wonder they are all so bulky hahaha. Your photos are awesome . We have plans for Sri Lanka. We will see if can add this to our itinerary.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Brilliant post thank you Punita. I was there as a small child for two years and my earliest memories are of living on the edge of the forest, noisy monkeys and being dragged away from long slithering temptations. Somewhere that I have always said I would like to return to. Unlikely now, but this is the next best thing.. Sally

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Nice post. We live in Sri Lanka and regularly travel in the region too see wildlife and birds. Fell free to visit my blog to read about my trips.

    Liked by 1 person

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