Atop an open-roofed jeep, we bounced across the muddy floodplains like a group of explorers out on a mission. Indeed, we were on a mission: to find Asian elephants in the wild. I had seen wild elephants many times but never in Asia — and being a wildlife buff, it was about time to set things straight.
As our vehicle emerged from the thick foliage, a herd of massive animals appeared before us. Standing just inches away from us, they paused, flapping their ears nonchalantly, as though they couldn’t be bothered with our presence. There they were — all huge bulky bodies, wrinkly dark skin, gentle eyes and beige ears towering over our six-men jeep.
“Don’t worry, they won’t do us any harm,” said said Rajesh, our elephant safari guide.
Along with other jeep-loads of tourists, we watched in awe as the the adult elephants moved slowly to form a circle around the small baby elephants. They were protecting their youth against us. It was so moving to see the natural instincts that animals have – just like us humans.
Tracking Wild Elephants in Kaudulla
The Elephant Kingdom
That morning, we were tracking wild elephants in Kaudulla National Park, one of the best places in the country to see Asian elephants roaming freely. Located just 197km away from Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo, it’s easy to reach and definitely a must-visit for travelers to Sri Lanka.
Historically, Kaudulla was one of the 16 irrigation tanks built by King Mahasen for agricultural purposes. Following a period of abandonment it was reconstructed in 1959 and converted into a national park in 2002. The Kaudulla-Minneriya jungle corridor linking Kaudulla to Minneriya National Park was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 2004.
“Sadly, the elephant population in Asia is dwindling, and their number one threat are people,” explained Rajesh with a serious tone of voice. Poaching and loss of natural habitat have been the main reasons for their death.
“Sadly, the elephant population in Asia is dwindling, and their number one threat are people.”
Human vs Elephant
Despite the escalating human-elephant conflict, Rajesh explained that the number of elephants in the area has increased in recent years and 211 individuals have been counted in Kaudulla as recently as 2008. It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia.
The best time to visit is between August and December, when up to two hundred congregate at the tank for the annual “gathering” as they all move to the Kaudulla tank in search of water and food.
We were extremely lucky to be there in November, just in time to witness the gathering at its full glory. It was as though all the elephant families in the area had come together just for this yearly festival. They seemed to be basking in so much happiness.
Best Place for Wildlife Watching in Asia
Continuing our safari along the wet grasslands, we watched as more and more animals came out and play. Yellow-billed storks stood on the marshlands, scouting out for small fish that slither in the water beneath them. Water monitor lizards crawled by us, hissing their tongues along the way.
Animals were all around us – it almost felt like we were intruders, taking a peek into their world.
“Besides elephants, there are many other wild animals in the park – including Sri Lankan sambar deer, chevrotain, wild boar, Sri Lankan leopard, and sloth bear.”
I asked Rajesh if he’s seen a leopard here before, he said yes. Rarely do they appear, but yes they live amidst the thick jungle.
In a world where wild animals are few and far between, I was glad to see places like Kaudulla exist and even better, continue to thrive.
About the Elephant Safari:
You can easily arrange this three-hour elephant safari with Chaaya Village Habanara, a comfortable nature lodge located just a few kilometers from Kaudulla National Park. Transportation and local guide are included. Habanara is a popular base for most travelers interested in visiting Kaudulla NP.