Elephants Up Close: Sri Lanka’s National Parks

Although Sri Lanka has one of the highest densities of elephants in Asia, these animals are threatened by habitat loss and now live only in quite small areas in the country’s dry zones.

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One of the best places to spot elephants is in the national parks (Minneriya or Kaudulla) close to the small town of Habarana. The elephants migrate between the parks, depending on the season and the food available, and the tour operators in Habarana know where the animals are at the moment. It’s not possible to walk in those national parks, so the only option is to go on a jeep safari. This means that during high season the park’s roads probably look like highways but once you’ve seen how an angry elephant charges after a jeep, you understand why it’s not allowed to leave the vehicle.

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When we were there, the elephants were at Minneriya National Park. It was a great experience, we saw at least 50 elephants; big and small ones, eating, bathing, fighting, and taking care of their young ones. The park is also a paradise for birdwatchers since it has a huge lake, and there are hundreds of different species of birds.

On a half day trip from Arugam Bay we visited another national park, Kumana (or Yala East, as it is also known), on the southeastern tip of Sri Lanka. Supposedly, you’re almost guaranteed to see leopards there. But we were very unlucky; apart from some deer, a few crocodiles, and some birds we didn’t see any wildlife.

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One thing to blame was probably the car; it was old and half falling apart and way too loud, squeaking and squealing all the way through the park. Also, there were lots of pilgrims on their way to a religious site in a town at the western end of the park. They come from all over the country and during about twelve days, they walk through the national park, sleep there, make fires to cook, and greet every car with loud screams. That probably scared away most of the animals. Last but not least, it’s nature. You can’t expect the animals to be there, it’s not a zoo. But it was disappointing nonetheless, I’d have loved to see a leopard! So that’s still on my bucket list now.

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