Where Is the Best Place in Sri Lanka to See Elephants?

Where Is the Best Place in Sri Lanka to See Elephants?

I can answer this question in three words.  IN THE WILD.
Elephants family at Kaudulla National Park, one of the best places to see elephants in Sri Lanka

When you are researching where to see elephants in Sri Lanka, one of the first things that will pop up is elephant orphanages.  It is often tough to tell online how reputable and conservation-focused these type of animal orphanages are.  They are very good at giving the illusion that they have the elephant’s best interests at heart when often they’re inflicting animal cruelty.

I say that, and I have a Bachelor of Science in primatology and used to work in a zoo.  I still find it difficult, especially in a previously war-torn country where elephants have been injured.

I would never knowingly support any organization that held captive elephants under the facade of rehabilitation or conservation. In reality, some of them are just about making a quick buck to the detriment of elephants by getting tourists to pay for a photo of them feeding an elephant, or even worse, riding an elephant!

Mother and baby elephant near the Kaudulla Reservoir.

So to find out the truth about the elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka, I took to Twitter and asked:  “Are the elephant orphanages focused on conservation or are they for the tourists?”

No one answered me publicly, but I received a DM from someone from an eco-lodge in Sri Lanka who told me to avoid them.

While in Sri Lanka I received the same message from every local in the ecotourism industry.  None of them wanted to be publicly named, which I soon realized is a cultural trait – Sri Lankans don’t want to be seen as saying something bad about someone else, but they all had the same message:

DON’T VISIT THE ELEPHANT ORPHANAGES.  SEE ELEPHANTS IN THE WILD.

CLICK HERE to find out how we can help you do that. 

Freelance travel writer Anna Butterbrod, who is an award-winning journalist, shares her experience on the elephant orphanage:

In Sri Lanka, we had two very different experiences with elephants. One was amazing, breathtaking and absolutely thrilling, the other one was just really, really sad. 

On a road trip through Sri Lanka, we stopped at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (roughly between Negombo and Kandy). In our guide-book, it said that they save orphaned elephants, so this seemed like a great initiative. But once we got there, it didn’t look so great anymore.

The animals seemed not well nourished and unhappy. It felt like a Disneyland with elephants: They were photo props for a ton of visitors, who were all allowed to touch them. Guards hit them with sticks. There was an old elephant everybody took a picture of. He was chained and swinging from one side to the other.

The entrance fee was kind of pricey for Sri Lanka, but we left after 15 minutes anyway. We couldn’t stand to see how poorly treated the animals were.

Safari jeeps observing elephant in the wild in Sri Lanka.

You can still get quite close (but not too close) and elephants in the wild.

Fortunately, this is easier than it sounds. The Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka estimates that there are 5879 elephants in Sri Lanka. The highest in all of Asia!

Despite that, they are still an endangered species. Much of this is due to human-elephant conflicts.

Fortunately, they are relatively safe from poaching since only 7% of Asian elephants have tusks.  In Sri Lanka, it’s even lower with just an estimated 2% of the elephants.

So Where Can You See An Elephant in the Wild in Sri Lanka? Here are three fantastic places:

Kaudulla National Park:

Is there anything cuter than seeing baby elephants? In Sri Lanka.

Is there anything cuter than baby elephants?

Located ~200km northeast from Colombo, Kaudulla is Sri Lanka’s newest national park. It’s home to over 200 elephants and is part of the elephant corridor between Minneriya and Wasgomuwa National Parks.

I was fortunate enough to visit and saw the hugest herds of elephants I’ve ever seen!  Easily 200. Even greater in number the elephants I had seen in Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia!

It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing so many of the second largest land mammal on earth. Only the African elephant is larger. And so close. You could hear the grass-roots ripping from the ground as they pulled it out and wrapped it in their flexible trunks  Pure magic!!!!!

Best Time To Visit Kaudulla:

The population peaks between August and December. But the best time is in August and September. Kaudulla Reservoir, located in the park attracts the elephants during the dry season. This is referred to as The Gathering as they make their pilgrimage to Minneriya. But, you can see elephants the entire year.

Where to Stay:

You can easily visit Kaudulla from Habarana. It’s just 22km away.  I stayed at the Chaaya Village Habarana and loved my stay there! You can read my full review here.

Recommended Wildlife Safari Tour:

At the disbelief of seeing how dangerously close to the elephants some tour operators get (I saw two jeeps that were charged by angry males), I’ve teamed up with a local Sri Lankan company.

I’ve seen first hand that the elephant’s well-being is their priority. This is unlike many other tour operators in the country. You can check out our Wildlife and Cultural Highlights of Sri Lanka Tour here.

It’s also possible to arrange jeep safaris from Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya or Dambulla. Don’t believe me when I say magical? Check out Paul from Global Help Swap’s take on Kaudulla National Park.  Hint:  His first word in the blog post is mesmerized!

Seeing elephants up close you can see each one has unique pigmentation.

Wildlife tip: As mentioned above some jeep drivers in Sri Lanka have a habit of getting too close to wildlife.  Not only is this disturbing to wildlife, but it’s also especially dangerous around elephants. They’re huge, and you don’t want them charging your vehicle.

In addition to what I saw happen with elephants in Kaudulla National park, the same thing occurred in Yala National Park with leopards.  Ask your driver to keep a respectable distance from the animal. Insist on it if they are getting too close.

Your safety and the animal’s welfare are far more important than getting too close for a better photo!

Minneriya National Park

Sri Lanka is a great place to see elephant families.

Family of elephants who had just finished drinking from the reservoir.

Minneriya is located just over 180km northeast from Colombo. It’s most famous for an event referred to as The Gathering, in which hundreds of elephants make the trip during the dry season (July to early November) to an ancient reservoir.

This migration has happened for centuries and sounds spectacular!  Check out CNN’s report on The Gathering for further info.

Udawalawe National Park

You can see elephants drinking from water holes in Kaudulla National Park in Sri Lanka.

Herd of elephants at a water hole in Kaudulla National Park while tourists on a jeep safari look on.

In the opposite direction from Kaudulla and Minneriya is Udawalawe, ~180km south-east from Colombo.  I was supposed to visit this park for a day, and had already booked a guest house, but changed my plans instead for an extra day at Yala National Park.

I loved my time at Yala, so I can’t say that I regret my decision, but I’m sorry I missed my chance to visit Udawalawe.  This park isn’t known for its beauty, but in my opinion the ~250 resident elephants more than compensate.

The park is quite small, and much of the landscape is open. The elephants are drawn to the Udawalawe Reservoir. You’re virtually guaranteed to see an elephant here.

We also include it on our Sri Lanka Tour Wildlife and Cultural Highlights Tour. In addition, we time your visit around feeding time so that can see elephants up close. There’s nothing that will get you saying awwww faster than watching hungry elephant calves gobble up their lunch.

Anna, who had the awful experience of visiting the elephant orphanage on her first trip to Sri Lanka, had a much different experience at Udawalawe:

On another trip to Sri Lanka we visited Udawalawe National Park. It was one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve ever had!

We drove through the park with a jeep and saw so many healthy elephants – many families with baby animals, which was really cute. Our driver made sure to keep a healthy distance tot hem and not disturb them.

We watched elephants feeding on trees, bathing in a river, sleeping… It was such a great experience to see them living in their real habitat. I’d love to go back to Udawalawe!

Diana from d travels ’round, who volunteered full-time for two years at Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand was also impressed.  Check out what she thought of Udawalawe.

Seeing baby elephants in Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka was one of the highlights

Seriously, how cute is this little guy?

These are certainly not the only places you can see an elephant in Sri Lanka, but they are your best chances of seeing the largest herds. At Udawalawe you’re almost guaranteed to see elephants.

Having said that, I also had a very nice 15-minute encounter with a juvenile male elephant in Yala.  We stayed a respectable distance away and he carried on eating his breakfast while we snapped photos.

It was truly an incredible way to start the day!  If you have any other elephant spotting recommendations, please leave them in the comments below.

Want to know more about the Sri Lankan Elephant?  Check out this BBC documentary, Sri Lanka, Elephant Island!  Note:  May is not available from all viewing locations.

But wherever you decide to see an elephant in Sri Lanka, I implore you to see elephants in the wild, not at an elephant orphanage!

All of my photos from this post were taken in Kaudulla.  Check to see if you are you a responsible tourist. I was surprised when I asked myself these questions to find that I haven’t always been. Are you accidentally harming animals during your travels? Click here to find out.

Note: My trip to observe elephants in Kaudulla was made possible by Cinnamon Nature Trails. 

the best places to see elephants in Sri Lanka

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.
The best places to see elephants in Sri Lanka.
2017-09-24T20:38:34+00:00

46 Comments

  1. Jade January 18, 2015 at 6:50 am - Reply

    Your photos are breath taking! This is definitely good advice! It is easy to get sucked into phony conservation programs cause we think that spending money there will help the elephants – when it is likely the opposite.

    • Laurel January 18, 2015 at 5:35 pm - Reply

      @Jade – Thanks so much! And exactly, I was actually considering visiting, what turned out to be the worst orphanage in all of Sri Lanka. It’s really hard to tell sometimes.

  2. De'Jav January 18, 2015 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    Great post and pics. The wild is going to make it more realistic and the elephants being in their habitat. Unfortunately the orphanages is ran like a business. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka but glad someone has put this to reality.

    • Laurel January 18, 2015 at 5:34 pm - Reply

      @De’Jav Thank you and unfortunately, you’re right about many animal orphanages. I’ve heard the one at Udawalawe is acceptable, but still not ideal, while I’ve heard horrid things about the other one in Sri Lanka.

  3. Fabio January 19, 2015 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    Hi Laurel, just found this through Twitter and it’s a wonderful post! You’ve highlighted a great point that you should always ask questions when it comes to these places that sell themselves as “responsible” or “ethical” etc. Some businesses just prey on animal lovers and only care about their own profits.

    Thanks for the Sri Lanka tips, hoping to head there soon!

    • Laurel February 2, 2015 at 7:37 pm - Reply

      @Fabio – Thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed it. It makes me so angry to see people mistreating animals for their own financial gain.

  4. Lisa | LLworldtour January 21, 2015 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Very informative post..thank you. It continues to break my heart to see mistreatment of so many wild and farmed animals all over the world. But I am encouraged that thanks to internet and social media, there’s more info out there than ever to raise awareness so we make changes faster.

    • Laurel February 2, 2015 at 7:35 pm - Reply

      @Lisa – Agreed, I’m also grateful that it’s now easier to find the truth and to raise awareness as in the past it was not so easy, but hopefully social media will play a role in putting places out of business that mistreat animals.

  5. Sarah January 24, 2015 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    Wow – what an experience! Some lovely photos too, Laurel.

    • Laurel February 2, 2015 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      @Sarah – Thank you! I loved it!

  6. Joseph @ Green Global Travel February 19, 2015 at 4:02 am - Reply

    Thank you for these tips and stunning photographs! Definitely do not want to contribute to the abuse of these fine animals!

  7. Andy Smith-Dane May 6, 2015 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    We’re set to go to Sri Lanka next Saturday (16th May) and were planning on going to Pinnawala, but you just changed my mind!

    Do you know which of the national parks listed are easiest to get to by train?

    Thanks,

    Andy

    • Laurel May 18, 2015 at 8:16 am - Reply

      @Andy – So glad to hear that you won’t be going to Pinnawala. You can get near Kaudulla and Minneriya National Parks by train, just got off at Minneriya for both. Enjoy!

      • Golden Traingle Tour Packages November 24, 2015 at 6:12 am - Reply

        Hello Laurel,

        I would like some advice on how is best to see Elephants whilst holidaying in Sri Lanka. I know there are a few orphanages dotted around but how close can you get to them and is there a way you can see them in the wild. I’d also like the chance to do a 1 day Elephant ride/safari if not too commercialised.

        Any advice would be cool 🙂

        • Laurel November 25, 2015 at 3:37 pm - Reply

          @Golden Triange Tour Packages – I highly recommend seeing them in the wild as indicated in the post and not doing the elephant ride. Ayu in the Wild is a local tour operator who promises responsible travel and can help you out.

        • isuru August 25, 2017 at 9:06 am - Reply

          Depends on the other things you like to do while in Sri Lanka.

          If you like to visit places such as Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa then Habarana/ Minneriya, Kawdulla would be the ideal places.

          If you are a beach lover consider visiting yala coz you will be able to visit lot of places around southern coastal areas+ you can see variety of animals in Yala apart from elephants

  8. Hollis February 2, 2016 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    Don’t forget about Wasgamuwa National Park in the Matale District of Sri Lanka! It’s very remote and not easy to get to, but it’s so worth it if you have the time and are adventure-minded. I spent a month as a field volunteer with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) in 2015 and had the great privilege of seeing hundreds of wild elephants. Check out the SLWCS Volunteer Program: http://www.slwcs.org/#!get-involved/cgbm.

    SLWCS is in the process of creating the “New Life Elephant Sanctuary”–Sri Lanka’s first sanctuary for captive elephants who have spent their lives shackled in chains, working in the tourist industry. Check out this project: http://www.slwcs.org/#!elephant-sanctuary/c1rgw

    • Laurel February 2, 2016 at 4:01 pm - Reply

      @Hollis – Thanks for sharing! Will have to check it out on my next trip to Sri Lanka.

  9. Chris May 16, 2016 at 4:04 am - Reply

    Well done – completely agree with your views re “orphanages”. Extended also to Zoos that feature elephant rides and performances!!

    • Laurel May 19, 2016 at 10:41 am - Reply

      @Chris – Thank you! Completely agree with you as well about avoiding zoos that have elephant rides/performances – such unnecessary cruelty!

  10. BigThree July 4, 2016 at 2:10 am - Reply

    Nicely done Laurel.. Good knowledge.. Keep up the great work..! You just got a new fan..!

  11. [email protected] Lanka August 7, 2016 at 1:06 am - Reply

    Hi Lauren,

    WOW what a perfect elephant watching guide to Sri Lanka.
    I’m sure elephants enthusiasts who are planning to visit Sri Lanka will find this useful.
    Very informative and love your photos 🙂

    • Laurel August 14, 2016 at 6:45 pm - Reply

      @Sheli – Thanks so much, appreciate your kind words.

  12. Vanessa August 16, 2016 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    Thank you for highlighting the cruelty and exploiting these amazing beautiful animals in these so called orphanages, I was going to visit an orphanage in September, will certainly NOT be going now!!

    • Laurel August 18, 2016 at 11:59 am - Reply

      @Vanessa – So glad to hear that you changed your mind. If you go to one of the parks mentioned in the post, you’ll still get the opportunity to get close to these magical creatures. Enjoy your trip!

  13. Gill August 22, 2016 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    I am planning to go in January to Sri Lanka and would like some advice on where to stay as a single person (safe) my passion is elephants and I would like to see them in the wild if you can assist that would be great, Gill

    • Laurel August 24, 2016 at 4:39 pm - Reply

      @Gill, I would suggest staying near the parks mentioned in this post so that you’re close to the elephants. I felt very safe in Sri Lanka. Enjoy your trip!

  14. Helen Jackson August 27, 2016 at 10:49 pm - Reply

    While I agree re the elephant orphanage, the elephant sanctuary near Udawalawe is completely different. Here, young elephants are reared until they are ready to be released into the park. There is minimal human intervention and the visitors are not allowed too close nor to touch the young elephants.
    It is a valuable conservation programme that hopefully one day will not be needed as land mines are cleared etc..

    • Laurel August 29, 2016 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      @Helen, thank you for sharing your perspective. I’ve also hear good things about the one near Udawalawe and I know that Udawalawe is itself a great place to observe elephants.

  15. Camilla strande January 2, 2017 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Hi there. So glad to have found your page.
    We are going to Sri Lanka in 14 days. Our daughter aged 5 has only one wish for the tour:
    To ride an elephant!
    Now I’m not sure anymore
    Is there any way she can do that, without hurting the animal?
    Thank you so much in advance!
    Yours sincerely Camilla

    • Laurel January 5, 2017 at 11:49 am - Reply

      @Camilla – I highly recommend not riding an elephant as the only way it’s possible to do so is to break the elephant – i.e. hitting them. However, you will get really close to elephants in the wild at Udawalawe National Park which will be a great experience for you and for the elephants. Thanks for your concern for the elephants and I wish you a wonderful trip.

      • Lalith Dedigama January 9, 2017 at 9:35 am - Reply

        Dear Camilla,
        Just to add an idea.
        Riding an elephant is truly a painful exercise for elephant and especially most of elephants die in early stage due to spinal disease.

        Thanks
        Lalith

    • Chamintha January 21, 2017 at 6:03 am - Reply

      @Camilla – I truly hope you are enjoying your time here in Sri Lanka but please, please do not book an elephant back safari as these animals have to go through agony to be tamed! You can instead visit Kaudulla Eco Park or Udawalawe National Park at this time of the time and see some lovely herds roaming free in the wild. They are taken from their herds when young, tortured till they are submissive and spend hours giving rides to tourists on their back in the hot sun and sometimes even on the tarred road at mid day. The pads on the soles of their feet are very sensitive and so is their skin. Sri Lankan (Asian) Elephants mainly prefer to be in the shade at midday…And thats where they should be…in the wild…in their own territory. http://www.ayuinthewild.com/blog/what-to-do-in-sri-lanka/please-say-no-to-elephant-back-safari-rides-in-sri-lanka/ Many in Sri Lanka are advocating for responsible wildlife tourism and I do hope you will be a part of their voice for wild animals. Thank you!

  16. Rose January 22, 2017 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    What is the best place to see elephants in the wild in the month of February?

    • Laurel January 24, 2017 at 8:35 pm - Reply

      @Rose – One of the best place is Udawalawe National Park. You’ll be able to see elephants there anytime of the year. Ennjoy!

  17. susan iverson February 7, 2017 at 3:16 am - Reply

    we will be in colombo for a day on a cruise in 2018. we were thinking about an orphanage but after seeing this i am having second thoughts. are any of the locations where they are in the wild accessible if we only have a day. thank you

    • Laurel February 7, 2017 at 9:48 am - Reply

      @Susan – I’d highly recommend Uda Walawe National Park where you’ll find ~ 500 elephants in the park and are sure to see them. Enjoy!

  18. Anirudh February 8, 2017 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Hey Lauren!
    Thanks for this article, it really helps to put the truth out there. I’m going to Sri Lanka next week, and the very first thing that popped up in my search results was pinnawala.
    Thought about it, read a couple more experiences and completely decided against it, after finding out more. Just wanted to say thanks for your effort to save wildlife.
    Great job, keep going!

    • Laurel February 9, 2017 at 10:57 am - Reply

      @Anirudh Glad you found it useful and so glad that you decided against visiting Pinnawala. I think it’s an excellent decision. Glad you found the article useful.

  19. M. Piyumali February 16, 2017 at 8:10 am - Reply

    Dear Laurel, I am a Sri Lankan and I read your article and I would like to appreciate your effort. As a environment lover I am willing to gather with world to protect elephants.Let’s do something for this gift of nature.

    Best regard
    M. Piyumali

    • Laurel February 16, 2017 at 12:08 pm - Reply

      Dear M. Piyumali Thank you for your kind message and for helping to protect the elephants and nature.

  20. jeremy jones June 11, 2017 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    you’ve changed my mind set thanks … going in July see these wonderful beasts …. please can you confirm where is the nest place to see them in the wild? …

    • Laurel June 12, 2017 at 9:56 am - Reply

      Hi Jeremy, Glad to hear it. You’ll find suggestions of where to see them in the wild in the post.

  21. AMRITHA DHATT July 7, 2017 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    Hi there, we are going to Sri Lanka for 5 days/4 nights at the end of November this year. Our top of the list is to experience elephants in a natural way like you have written about. We fly into Colombo, how would you recommend us getting around or should we book through a tour. We would love to make the most of our time there. Thanks for the great article and knowledge. Such amazing photos!

    • Laurel July 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      I’d highly recommend a tour or hiring a private driver as it makes it much easier to get around.

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