Last year I did a Sri Lanka safari at Hurule Elephant Park and after searching for an hour and not finding any elephants, all of a sudden we saw them all! They came incredibly close and I finally got my elephant selfie (long overdue for a blog with that name!). It was an unbelievable experience and I knew I wanted more coming back to Sri Lanka this year.
While there are many choices to see elephants not all are good choices. I wanted to go on a proper elephant safari in Sri Lanka and wait for them for an hour if necessary. I was excited to partner up with Ayu in the Wild who not only organizes bespoke tours throughout the country, but is also passionate about banning elephant back safaris in Sri Lanka. Together we would travel to Udawalawe National Park, the Udawalawe Elephant Orphanage and to Yala because I also wanted to finally make my Big Five complete and see a leopard.
Seeing Sri Lankan elephants is magnificent but for me it was really important to do it the right way and to do it with a company like Ayu in the Wild who shares my concerns. There has been a lot of controversies lately amongst travel bloggers about places like Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (you may have seen a very iconic IG image by a somewhat famous couple overlooking a river with elephants in it). My friend Janet from Journalist on a Run recently went during a press trip and wrote what I find to be a very smart and objective post about it. However, to me, it still felt wrong.
As I mentioned in this post about my Indian elephant experience, I do understand that there is no black and white but a lot of grey matter when it comes to the treatment of elephants. What do you do with elephants that are already in captivity, can you reintroduce them back into the wild and if not, how do you make keeping elephants financially viable?
Needless to say, any place that allows elephant rides in Sri Lanka was out. But I personally I also don't want to support any options that are less than ideal for the elephant and compromising its well-being in any way. Sometimes that stance is hard. Because do I want to bathe an elephant in the river and have a baby sit on me? Of course, I do!! What kind of person even are you if you don't?! But I have also come to realize that the less interaction any elephant has with humans the better. They are still wild animals and I ain't Mowgli.
Sri Lanka Safari with Ayu in the Wild -
Where to See Elephants roaming free
Yala National Park
I arrived at Yala Jetwing just in time for a quick lunch and a chat with the manager who showed me a security camera tape of an elephant in his hotel lobby. Needless to say, I was more than a little tempted to camp out in the lobby after this.
My guide Danushka picked me up in a rugged safari vehicle and we were off to the park which is only a short drive from Jetwing.
To be quite honest the experience was a bit of a mixed bag. While Yala is an absolutely beautiful park reminding me of an African safari park but with a coastline, it was also incredibly crowded. 450 vehicles that day alone!
How I managed to spot a leopard for 2 seconds amongst those crowds I don't even know. If I were a leopard I would have taken a nap in a tree far away instead. But luckily we also so plenty of wild elephants, buffalos, and various bird species.
Some blocks of the park are closed now from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15 because of a bad draught and also for leopard breeding season. Personally, I wonder if that is enough and if a tighter restriction on vehicle numbers wouldn't be better.
Should you still go if you come to Sri Lanka? If you have never seen a leopard and aren't likely to go to Africa soon, I'd say go for it. According to Danushka February is the best time to go as landscape and animals will be in better conditions (he promised shiny fur!). If you don't see a leopard it is still fun to tell other safari vehicles that 'there it is! look, look, a leopard right there!' and drive on quickly. I may or may not have done that...
The Jetwing Yala is the perfect home base for a safari at Yala. I loved the hotel so much and wish I could have stayed longer - definitely make it at least a two-night stay! There are fun monkeys to play with (or at least to look at), a huge pool, the ocean and they also have really good food.
Udawalawe National Park
The next morning Danushka picked me up and took me to my new home: Kula Kula. This little campsite is perfect for outdoor fans and girls like me who want a proper toilet. While it doesn't quite deserve the title glamping yet, it is definitely not your average campsite either. And for those who can't do without (yes, that would be me!) - there is wifi and cold beer available.
Best of all, from Kula Kula it is not far to get to Udawalawe National Park and their elephant orphanage called Elephant Transit Home.
Udawalawe is the perfect place for an elephant safari in Sri Lanka - upon entering Danushka promised me that we would see an elephant in less than two minutes. It took all but thirty seconds and we saw two mothers and their babies and it was only ten minutes later when we came across a family bathing in the lake. How tempted was I to join them? I wasn't even deterred by the crocs...
For me, Udawalawe was the place to see elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka. There are so many and there is no question that these elephants are just happy roaming free. We even came across one bull in heat and there was no question who would give way: us. We were on his turf after all.
I was fortunate to have an extremely knowledgeable guide with me because I learned so many new things about Sri Lankan elephants. Did you know for example that elephant mothers feed their babies with poop because they cannot digest grass before? Yuk, but also really interesting! Also, elephants do need their ears so they don't overheat. Just by flapping them they can cool their bodies down by 5 degrees.
Right next to the entrance of Udawalawe you will find the Elephant Transit Home. Usually, I get suspicious when I hear the word orphanage but this one is a good one. The sad reality is that there are quite a few orphaned elephant babies and they need human help. Here they are fed and taken care of until they are old enough to return to the wild and hopefully find a new family there.
You can learn quite a bit about elephants there but the highlight happens at noon: feeding time. And while the idea of bottle feeding a tiny elephant (tiny by elephant standards) melts my heart, fortunately/unfortunately, you can only watch from a distance. At the Elephant Transit Home, any contact with humans is minimized for the benefit of the elephant. Still - best day ever!
Udawalawe & Yala - Getting there with Ayu in the Wild
Getting around in Sri Lanka is not the easiest as I have mentioned already. You can fly from Colombo to Dickwella or Tissa and then take a taxi for an hour to get to Udawalawe or Yala respectively. However, flights are quite pricey.
I really enjoyed my customized tour with Ayu in the Wild. Not only is it so much more convenient and comfortable to have a driver in Sri Lanka, I loved having a guide who didn't just give me the regular spiel that everybody gets but really told me about the things that I wanted to know. More elephant less bird talk for me!
Have you seen elephants in the wild? Where?