Sri Lanka is the cynosure among all of the island countries and rightly called the Pearl of Indian Ocean. Travellers from across the globe fly into this teardrop-shaped emerald paradise by the hundred thousand. Tropical evergreen forests and white sandy beaches, cultural richness and diversity – tangible and experiential, surprisingly multifarious wildlife, be it the elephants, sloth bears, monkeys, leopards or the fishing cats of Colombo on land, with dolphins and whales off-land, act like magnets pulling an ever-larger number of travellers.
But this romanticism comes with a pinch of salt, especially when wildlife is concerned. Sri Lanka has not had the best track record with elephants being subject to cruelty and chained in poor conditions. Large groups zipping past in safari vehicles is not necessarily a peaceful situation for the beasts of serene jungles.
For the discerning traveller who is more and more conscious of the impact of travel and tourism on the lives of animals and ecology in general, the pain point always is to minimize or if possible, reverse these effects as a consequence of travel. We have a few suggestions on how to indulge in experiences with the least damage.
In rare company at Bundala National Park
Away from the crowds of the bigger national parks, is a beautiful potpourri of islands, lagoons, dunes and wetland area of international significance at the petit Bundala National Park. Thanks to Yala National Park, the towering neighbour, Bundala is a hidden gem many travellers don’t seek.
Herds of elephants, varying in strength from 10 to 60, depending on the season of the year make their presence felt unhindered by hordes of safari jeeps and vans. The Langur monkeys and crocodiles also have made Bundala their homes. Of particular seasonal interest are the four species of marine turtle (olive ridley, green, leatherback and loggerhead) that lay eggs on the coast between October and January. The wetlands provide safe haven to the avians making it a birder’s paradise with hardly any perturbations.
Uda Walawe National Park
Undisputedly the best national park with landscapes of low forest and grassland making it easy to spot animals, Uda Walawe National Park has a bounty for everyone who visits with great sightings. A headcount of 600 elephants within the park boundaries and herd sizes of upto 50 makes Uda Walawe great grounds for elephant sighting. Choose motorized safari over the Elephant ride and be mindful to not offer or feed the animals any fruits or food. This creates an unhealthy dependence on humans. A healthy distance with a great pair of binoculars is a better way to observe these majestic beasts in their natural habitat.
Navigating Minneriya & Kaudulla National Parks
Flatlands of north-central Sri Lanka makes for a giant corridor for elephants to move relatively freely across a large area. The national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla parks are the arenas for the annual ‘Gathering’, from August to October, with receding lakes giving rise to vast grasslands for elephants to feast on.
The undesired consequence of this is the gargantuan crowds of humans, outnumbering the elephants by leaps and bounds vying for the perfect photograph with jeeps chasing and corralling the herds.
Again the way to go about is to have high-quality telescopic lenses to capture elephants and their unhindered interactions from a distance. Always advise the safari drivers to keep a good distance from the herds so that your proximity does not become a detriment to the very experience you travelled across the oceans for.
Whale watching at Mirissa:
Mirissa, a quaint little town along the Southern coast, made popular by backpackers partying on the beautiful beaches is in actuality a whale watcher’s paradise. Blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales along with various species of dolphins populate these waters. Many eco-sensitive, ethical operators catering to smaller groups, approaching pods slowly without vying for photo-ops are the ideal choice for heading out into the sea with. The abundance of cetaceans implies that everyone will have their run-ins with these gentle giants.
Calmer Cetacean waters of Uppuveli:
A more rustic and to an extent unpolished alternative to Mirissa is the northern beach village of Uppuveli, near Trincomalee. But it is fast growing in popularity as a whale and dolphin-watching destination. Tourism is a rather new concept here, responsible practices are not yet adopted to the full extent, as the guides in their overzealousness to provide the best sighting had close encounters with marine mammals, sometimes to the detriment of the latter. The duty of a responsible traveller is to promote good practice by insisting that boat operators keep a responsible distance from wild cetaceans. Views of these mega mammals going about their life, from a distance are as rewarding as close encounters.
Rendezvous with the Pachyderms:
‘Elephant orphanages’, many of them although started with good intentions, soon have turned into nothing more than a commercial zoo, breeding the pachyderms in captivity for greater economic benefits and profits. Bucking this trend, some ethical operators continue to remain true to their founding principles. One such is the Elephant Transit Home, near Uda Walawe, a centre for young elephants whose parents have been poached or captured. The rehabilitated elephants are released back into the wild. The work here is supported by the Born Free Foundation. The viewing platforms keep a safe distance between humans and elephants while providing a vantage point for an up-close look at juvenile elephants without distressing to these traumatised animals.