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Elephant Safari

Elephant Safari
Eighty eight square kilometres of wild elephants at Minneriya National Park

Centred on a vast water tank built in the 3rd AD, this dry zone national park is to elephants what Singapore or Heathrow airport might be to humans: a massive gathering place for wild migrating elephants, especially in the dry season.

With herds typically counted in the several hundred, the elephants share the space with over 20 other mammals, 160 bird species, over three dozen reptiles and amphibians and 75 species of butterflies.

The dry season is the best time to visit it when very large numbers of Sri Lankan elephants are attracted to grass fields on the edges of the reservoir. Reports of between 150–700 have been tallied, the largest such gatherings of Asian elephants anywhere on the continent.

This is perhaps unsurprising given that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia.

But as roads, villages, farms, plantations, and towns grow, they come into ever closer contact with humans – always to their extreme disadvantage. Unsurprisingly, the numbers of the Sri Lankan elephant, which goes by the beautiful Latin name of Elephas maximus maximus, are falling fast. 

The WWF put their total at between two and a half to four thousand, and although killing one carries the death penalty, habitat erosion and human-elephant conflict has pushed this largest of beasts into ever smaller areas. The threat the face is increasing existential. In 2023, 470 elephants were killed, a figure almost three times as high as the number of humans killed by elephants in the same year.

Smart, sociable, gregarious, and emotionally intelligent, it is unconscionable how widespread is the cruelty they face – heavily chained and marshalled to be more accessible for visitors. Unwilling parade dolls of the tourist trade, they are also victims of religious devotion. Owning an elephant brings with it immense prestige and the more ambitious temples are as eager as tourist sites to host their own animal.

One such unfortunate beast – Raja – even has his own museum dedicated to him, next to Kandy’s temple of the Tooth. For decades he has the responsibility for carrying the sacred casket at the Kandy Perehera, until his death in 1988, a day which promoted the then government to declare National Morning, and have the luckless beast stuffed and displayed for all time.

More recently, one of the leading elephant of the renowned Kandy Perehera was found to be suffering from such severe malnourishment, that it later died. Veterinarians International, a global charity, has built the country’s first bespoke elephant hospital and, like others, is doing much to reverse the institutionalized abuse they suffer. 

Even so, the scales are tipped heavily away from a happy outcome. Laws – and more importantly – the enforcement of laws protecting elephants remains frontier territory, and the creatures are seen less as living wild animals and more as cute commodities, to be petted, prodded, tamed, photographed, and then forgotten.

But at least in Minneriya the beasts are safe; and dotted about them can also be seen purple-faced langurs and toque macaques; sambar and axis deer; the rare Sri Lankan leopard and Sri Lankan sloth bear and the even rarer grey slender loris; painted stork, herons, and spot-billed and great white pelicans; flocks of cormorants; Sri Lanka junglefowl and hanging parrots, babblers, hornbills, bulbuls, crimson-fronted barbets – plus lizards, crocodiles, pythons, and monitors.

To arrange a visit please contact the Hotel Office.
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