Where Is the Best Place in Sri Lanka to See Elephants? I can answer this question in three words. IN THE WILD.
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 really difficult 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.
I say that and I have a Bachelor of Science in primatology and used to work in a zoo. Yet I still find it difficult, especially in a previously war-torn country where elephants are known to 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 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!
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 that I spoke with. 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. GO SEE THEM 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 used as photo props for a ton of visitors, who were all allowed to touch them. Guards hit them with sticks. There was a really 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 the animals being treated like this.
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 in large part to human-elephant conflicts, (be on the lookout for a future post on How to Scare An Elephant Away from Your Crop – I not only provide entertainment, I also provide life-saving tips ;). 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 3 fantastic places:
Kaudulla National Park:
Located ~200km northeast from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s newest national park is 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, topping the large herds 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 largest land mammal (only the African elephant is larger) on earth at a proximity so close that 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, with the best time being in August and September. Kaudulla Reservoir, located in the park attracts the elephants during the dry season, into what is known as The Gathering as they make their pilgrimage to Minneriya, but you can see elephants the entire year.
Where to Stay:
Kaudulla is most easily visited from Habarana, located 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 who I’ve travelled with. I’ve seen first hand that the elephant’s well-being is their first priority, 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!
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, it is especially dangerous around elephants given their size and habituates them to charge vehicles. In addition to what I saw happen with elephants in Kaudulla National park, I also saw it happen 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
Minneriya is located just over 180km northeast from Colombo and 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
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, and the elephants are drawn to the Udawalawe Reservoir, meaning you are virtually guaranteed to see an elephant here. We also include it on our Sri Lanka TourWildlife and Cultural Highlights Tour of Sri Lanka and time our visit our feeding time. 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!
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, with Udawalawe being almost guaranteed according to the Sri Lankan guides that I spoke with. Having said that, I also had a very nice 15-minute encounter with a juvenile male elephant in Yala, who didn’t let our jeep interfere with his breakfast! 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 let it be 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.
Note: My trip to observe elephants in Kaudula was made possible by Cinnamon Nature Trails.