Elephant Safaris in Sri Lanka
For this teardrop shaped country with a landmass of relatively small size, Sri Lanka boasts diverse flora and fauna over 14 principle national parks and reserves. Of these locations, the following are worthy to view wildlife: Bundala, Gal Oya, Kaudulla, Minneriya, Sinharaja Forest reserve, Uda Walawe, Wasgomuwa, Wilpattu, and finally Yala, probably the best known and most visited safari location in the entire country. Of these remaining nine reserves, only a handful will be accessible due to either the time of year and corresponding climate or the sheer difficulty and time required to reach certain locations.
During our visit from June 19th through August 2nd, 2010, we had the opportunity to visit three of the national parks listed above. Actually, our first elephant viewing came while we were traveling in a local bus from Negombo to Kandy. The elephant was clothed and was being marched down the road, probably to one of the many festivals that are held across the country these time of year. After we arrived in Kandy and walked down to the lake area later that same day, we had our second elephant sighting, elephants and costumed dancers were parading down the streets celebrating Poya, a full moon holiday. In fact, we later learned that elephants were included in all celebrations, most notably at Kataragama where symbolically, God is placed in an altar and as the locals claim, He is led while perched atop the elephant to visit his girlfriend. Even God needs love sometimes, if only once per year as in this case!
At this point, we had no firm plans to go on a safari while in Sri Lanka but while we were in Kandy, we decided to visit probably the most touristy places in all of Sri Lanka, the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. The government run operation is a great place to view about 80 elephants in a setting that has a brilliant backdrop that could be right out of Africa.
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However, we have serious concerns regarding this project that was supposedly created to protect abandoned elephants. The mahouts seemed at times somewhat vicious toward the elephants. These elephants were forced to gather in areas near the tourist viewing points as the mahouts used sharp prodding sticks to ensure that the group remained in a certain radius. Even more restrictive than the aforementioned is how we saw them chained in rows during feeding time. I could not help but question the validity and the status of this “orphanage” and wondered if these creatures would not be far better off if left to live out their lives in one of the many national parks located throughout the country. It was roughly two more weeks before we would see the difference between these orphaned elephants and their free bretheren located in the national park system.