On Safari in Sri Lanka
Story & photos by Michael Buckley

After emerging from decades of civil war, Sri Lanka welcomes a growing number of tourists back to its eco-adventure wildlife refuges in the south, with the usual mix of grand successes and ugly growing pains.

Sri Lanka travel

In the 3rd century BC, what is thought to be the world's first wildlife sanctuary was created in northern Sri Lanka by King Devanampiya Tissa. As the legend goes, King Tissa was hunting deer when accosted by a visionary monk (identity unknown)and given a stern lecture on the rights of animals and how they value life and freedom. The lecture likely embraced the Buddhist philosophy of compassion for all sentient beings: live and let live. The king abandoned hunting as a sport--and instead set up the sanctuary of Mihintale to protect wildlife.

Some 2300 years later, that has proved to be a very wise decision: the small sanctuary of Mihintale still exists (located near Aranadpura), and wildlife sanctuaries are among the top draws for tourism in Sri Lanka. Twelve percent of Sri Lanka's land area is dedicated to wilderness—with 12 national parks and 52 sanctuaries. In 2012, Sri Lanka welcomed over a million tourists, bouncing back into the limelight after decades of civil warfare. The island-nation is now perceived as a very safe destination for travelers, though many questions linger about its dismal human rights record.

The top national parks are located in the southeast corner of this tear-shaped island. I decided to make my way to three of them: Udawalawe, Bundala and Yala.


Transition Time for Elephant Orphans
It's feeding time and the ravenous orphans are losing patience, surging forward to get their milk formula. But staff threaten them with sticks, making sure they maintain an orderly line-up. Some sneaky orphans attempt to snag a second helping, but are firmly rebuffed by vigilant workers.

Feeding takes place seven times a day, with public viewing four times a day. Dr Vijitha Perera, the vet and head of this place, the Elephant Transit Home, tells me that there are currently 33 orphaned baby elephants resident here, aged 3 months to 5 years old. All have somehow been separated from their mothers, most often through elephant-human conflict (elephants raid crops, farmers scare them away, calf gets lost in the melee). Statistics in this ongoing battle in Sri Lanka average 50 people killed by wild elephants each year, and 100 wild elephants killed by farmers each year. Solution: surround crop-growing areas with a line of chilies (elephants hate chilies).

And limping along with the rest of the orphaned elephants is one who is there because it was caught in a snare, which severely damaged its foot. The foot was amputated and the leg was fitted with a leather prosthetic foot, giving the calf a second chance at normal life. During decades of vicious civil war in Sri Lanka, wildlife suffered greatly: the wildlife sanctuaries were grounds for infiltration from north to south, and skirmishes took place in the parks, resulting in horrific animal casualties on top of the human toll.

At five years of age, an orphaned elephant at the Elephant Transit Home is released into one of the national parks, with a radio collar around its neck to monitor progress in the wild. The collar stays on for a few years and then either drops off or is removed. The success rate is good—over 90 elephants have been released since 1998, with eight of those recorded to have had their own babies.

Sri Lanka elephant orphan

Elephant Sightings Guaranteed
Riding a bumpy jeep in adjacent Udawalawe National Park, we encounter much bigger elephants. Covering an area of 310 square kilometers, the park is home to an estimated 500 elephants, so spotting one is never a problem. Unlike Africa, the elephants here do not pose any danger to the jeeps, as Asian elephants are smaller and have a more tolerate disposition (read: will not charge your jeep). However, you need to keep an eye out for trouble. Our safari jeep passes close to a tusker that has knocked down a tree and is happily stripping bark from the trunk.

Sri Lanka travel

Later, we sight one of Dr Perera's former charges, wearing a radio collar. The young elephant has bonded with a small herd, led by a large female. Lots of open ground with thorn scrub and grassland at Udawalawe makes it easy to spot wildlife, with wild boars and deer often sighted--as well as many bird species.

At mid-day, we take a break from bouncing over rough dirt roads to indulge in a picnic lunch. In fact, most wildlife seems to take a siesta at this time to dodge the sweltering heat. Elephants head off into the shade of trees, or to bathe in deep pools. And wallowing in muddy ponds are dozens of buffalo--some wild with large horns, but others of the domestic variety. Odd that they have gained entry to a national park. A question to the tracker reveals that the domestic buffalo have been ushered in by their owners in search of pasture. That is certainly not a sound environmental practice.

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