For a moderately sized island Sri Lanka has some big wildlife stories. It is the best place in the world to see the largest animal that has ever lived; the Blue Whale and it has the largest annually recurring gathering of elephants anywhere in the world. It is also one of the easiest places in which to see a leopard. The terrain is highly variable with rugged mountains forming a central core, clothed in cloud forest, falling away to lowland rainforests in the southwest with sandy beaches fringing it all around.
In this article, I will explore one of the wildlife highlights in Sri Lanka, the Asian Elephant. The current taxonomic thinking is that there are three species of elephants in the world: African Savanna Elephant, African Forest Elephant and Asian Elephant. In historical times Asian Elephants occurred from Iran in the West to China in the East. It is now much reduced in its range and found in pockets in 13 countries. In the wild, the easiest place to see it is in Sri Lanka. One is guaranteed to see it on a visit to Uda Walawe National Park which is to the south of the central mountains. This park is also one of the best places in the world to watch the social interaction of elephants as a number of herds can be seen on an evening game drive. The main road (B427) runs alongside one of the park’s boundaries and the park entrance is situated on this road. The border between the park and the main road is marked by an electric fence. Some of the larger bulls wait inside the electric fence. It has become a tradition for passing tourists (mainly domestic tourists) to stop their vehicles and feed the elephants with treats like bananas and sugarcane. Some conservationists are aghast at this. Others point to this as a good example of how if elephants are treated with love and affection, they reciprocate by being gentle. Protected by the electric face the passers-by are very bold and some even attempt to pet the wild elephants. It is all a sham. The elephants are great actors who pretend they are confined by the fence and play along with the silly people who think this electric fence can stop an elephant. At night, some wily elephants have learnt to topple the wooden posts which connect the electrified wires, allowing them to cross the fence. After a night of marauding on a farmer’s crops, satisfying to them and terrifying for the farmer and family, they cross back over the fence. The fence posts are put upright again by the Civil Security Department who undertake the maintenance of most electric fences put up by the Department of Wildlife Conservation It is not clear if the elephants waiting by the fence for treats are the same ones who have learnt to push their way out. I would like to think they are and that they come back for treats from more gullible tourists the next day.
Sri Lanka has a mere 5,000 elephants left, a catastrophic decline from an estimated 12,000 a century ago. The present population is a worryingly small number for the long-term population viability of such a large animal. The problem of genetic exchange is compounded by elephants being pocketed into areas which are either cordoned with electric fences or bounded by roads and railways with vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has a relatively small land area compared to other countries with elephants. This translates to a high density of elephants per square kilometre which means intelligent management for co-existence of elephants and people is even more important. An astonishing 70% of elephants in Sri Lanka live outside protected areas. Some elephants have turned to being road bullies or highwaymen. On my last visit to Sri Lanka, travelling from Arugam Bay on the East coast to Kataragama in the South, we came across one of these well-known elephants that were standing in the middle of a road. Passing vehicles had to roll down their shutter and throw a banana or some other edible item to be allowed through. Drivers and regular cyclists on this road all carried with them the road tax. On an earlier occasion several years ago, I was photographing wildlife near another well-known hold-up point near the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The highwayman arrived from behind me. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a few tonnes of elephant nonchalantly brushed past me and padded away into the scrub.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of elephant watching in Sri Lanka or indeed anywhere in the world is a visit to the Elephant Gathering which takes place between June and September at Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks. The Gathering peaks around August when around three hundred elephants are on the grasslands. It is not unusual to have over a hundred elephants in the field of view. These parks are situated near the great archaeological sites of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Sigiriya which have a wide range of options for accommodation. In this area are also the twin hotels of Cinnamon Lodge and Chaaya Village in Habarana whose grounds are akin to a large arboretum beside a lake, Jetwing Vil Uyana near Sigiriya which pioneered the development of wetlands for wildlife by hotels, and Kandalama Hotel a masterpiece of allowing nature to reclaim the land in such a way that the hotel is almost lost beneath the plants that have colonised it. The roads are good and access to the parks is easy. However, to travel inside the park on the deeply rutted dirt tracks it is best to use one of the local safari vehicles. Perhaps because Sri Lankans are so used to seeing elephants, it took my fresh eyes from living in London to piece together that this was the largest annually recurring concentration of elephants in the world.
Unlike in the African Savanna Elephant, in the Asian Elephant, only the males develop tusks. In Sri Lanka less than seven percent of the males carry tusks. This may be due to the males with tusks being removed from the wild population by hunting for ivory, sport or captivity and reducing the gene pool of tusk-bearing males. The best place in Sri Lanka for seeing tuskers is Kala Wewa National Park. This is between the famous rock temple of Dambulla and the city of Anuradhapura. A visit to the rock temple or one of the other major archaeological sites in the morning can be combined with a game drive in the evening.
Since it was branded as the ‘The Elephant Gathering’, this annual phenomenon has become the subject of many documentary films. Visitors are bowled over by how close they can get to large numbers of elephants in Sri Lanka. However, all is not well on the island of elephants. Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) is intensifying and in 2019 over 400 elephants died. Elephants outside protected areas are killed by shooting, explosive devices secreted in food, poisoning, electrocution and falling into irrigation wells and ditches. Some starve to death after being driven into protected areas and confined behind effective electric fences. Death is slow, cruel and often unnecessary and can be alleviated by more thoughtful management to allow people and elephants to coexist. Fortunately for elephants, they have champions like Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando from the Centre for Conservation and Research who has been campaigning for management measures that reduce death and injury to elephants and will transform Human Elephant Conflict into Human Elephant Coexistence. One of the simplest measures is rather than fencing in elephants into an area which is not large enough to sustain them, leading to their inevitable slow death, to promote an alternative plan to have electric fences around villages and plantations to protect them. Such fences can also be easily maintained by communities. If successful, elephants will be free to roam across the land as they have been doing since time immemorial, in an approach which brings a landscape scale approach to conservation. Dr. Fernando also points out irrational practices that need to be changed. In some forests, an electric fence may run through them confining the elephants to a smaller area because part of the forest is under the Department of Wildlife Conservation that is responsible for managing elephants and the rest of the forest is managed by the Forest Department. Unlike the bulls at Uda Walawe, most elephants and especially groups of females with young, have not worked out how to get across fences and they, over a period of years lose condition and die because they are fenced off from suitable foraging grounds. This is tragic because they are intelligent animals. Many wildlife enthusiasts even get to know some of the animals as individual personalities. Each tusker in Sri Lanka is individually known and has a band of fans. Even non-tuskers become loved personalities. Jetwing Yala have a policy of not having an entry gate so that ‘Shorty’ can wander around the hotel grounds. He is also a YouTube star with his occasional walks past startled tourists in the restaurant. Yala also has the only known free ranging ‘white elephant’ who is called ‘Sudu-aliya’.
Sri Lanka also has the only confirmed dwarf elephant in the world. The dwarf elephant's 'normal' (non-musth) range is in the proposed Mattala Managed Elephant Range (MER), the first area which was to be recognised and to be managed as an area where elephants and people coexist. It was to be the first of many such areas. However, after almost 10 years it still has not been gazetted. When he is in musth, ‘Gimly’ comes into the Udawalawe National Park around June-July.
Elephants are almost absent in the wet lowlands of the wet zone. However, pockets of elephants are still found on the eastern side of the Sinharaja Rainforest which is popular with birders in search of endemic birds. Small numbers are also seen in the Peak Wilderness and the Knuckles Wilderness both of which have many endemics confined to their cloud forests. On my last visit to the Knuckles I was out looking for the nocturnal Slender Loris and I stayed close to the car as there were ill-tempered elephants in the vicinity. Elephants in Yala National Park are habituated to people. The elephants in Wasgomuwa National Park are wilder. Wasgamuwa is less visited and is a good park although it is not good for leopards in the same way as Yala and Wilpattu National Park. On the east coast, Lahugala National Park and Yala East or Kumana National Park also have elephants. If you want extended hours of observing large numbers of elephants interacting, then Uda Walawe, Kaudulla and Minneriya should be your focus. The last two parks need to be visited between June and early October before the North-east Monsoon arrives.
More people die every year from snake bites in Sri Lanka than from conflict with elephants. Unfortunately, death by an elephant is more scary and emotive. Human deaths from elephants can be greatly reduced if sensible management practices which work for both elephants and people are implemented as proposed by conservationists like Dr. Fernando. There is simply no other country in the world to better observe the Asian Elephant; an intelligent, highly social and mostly gentle giant. Elephants are an integral part of the culture and landscape of Sri Lanka and it is hard to imagine this island without free-roaming wild elephants.