Published in Al Nawras, in-flight magazine for Air Arabia, February 2016 issue.
The forest is eerily still at times, especially at noon. Breaking the silence every now and then, though, is an earth-shaking thud in the far distance. There’s a nervous rustling of trees and a deep rumble that gets louder, as those thunderous footsteps get closer. Smaller animals scurry past us, clearing the pathway in anticipation.
The jungle knows; Rani’s herd is on its way to the watering hole.
Deep inside Hurulu Eco Park in Sri Lanka’s Habarana province, our small jeep safari waits patiently for the 62-year-old matriarch, Rani, to lead the way. Hands trembling from excitement and, in part, from the heart-stopping footsteps of more than 16 mammoths moving together, we wait with bated breath.
After a long interval under a canopy of leaves, we see the herd saunter towards the water, about six metres away.
Two little calves in the herd tug at their mothers’ tails and an adolescent male tries to match step with his grandmother.
The elephant family unit is tightly knit and protective grandmothers often babysit little ones while the parents are away. Here, Rani was taking charge of the young ones, gently nudging them into the water.
She surveys us from a distance. Unimpressed, she continues to perform her duties.
Ten thousand hectares of teak plantations and waterways are home to Rani and more than 12 other herds of elephants at the Eco Park, part of the Hurulu forest reserve. A 22-kilometre safari across the reserve takes us over narrow mud trails and windy hillocks that o er spectacular vistas of the forest, interrupted only by breath-taking encounters with the Lankan giants along the way.
Standing tall at 3.5 metres, Sri Lankan pachyderms are the largest of the Asian species, and tend to intimidate at rst sight. However, their interaction with other members of the herd, and even other animal species that share their home, reveals their inherent gentle nature and complex emotional range. In fact, it is believed elephants can recognise each other even after a separation of 20 years, and ‘catch up’ through touching each other’s scars.
Close by, is the Kaudulla National Park, located o the Habarana-Trincomalee road within what is known as Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. A 6,656-hectare ‘elephant corridor’ runs across this park, where most of the country’s elephant population pass through – a natural migratory pattern of the Sri Lankan elephants, at certain times of year when water dries up in areas.
The corridor also runs across Minneriya National Park, nestled inside an evergreen forest, o Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road. At the heart of the park lies the ancient Minneriya tank, built in the 3rd century AD by King Mahasena, where huge ocks of painted stork and spot-billed pelicans accompany the elephants on their
grazing trips. It is not uncommon to see a gathering of more than 100 elephants at a time, cooling o and grazing together in the meadows.
For a closer and cruelty-free encounter, one can visit the Elephant Transit Home, about ve kilometres west of Udawalawe National Park. As an orphanage for abandoned, injured and rescued elephants, the home helps rehabilitate elephants and release them into the wild. Visitors can observe the elephants at feeding time but physical interaction with the animals is not permitted.
The home is also supported by international animal rights NGO Born Free Foundation, which has endorsed the orphanage for best practices of animal care.
The best way to wrap up the elephant trail is by stopping at a watering hole to watch elephants cool off. As Rani’s herd emerges from the water, we watch the jungle prepare yet again, for the regal departure.
WHERE TO GO
As opposed to orphanages and private elephant farms, national parks can be a better way to see elephants as they are in their natural habitat. Below are some of the places where the animals are treated well and visitors can observe elephants at close proximity without being intrusive.
HURULU ECO PARK
Habarana-Trincomalee Road, Habarana, Sri Lanka
KAUDULLA NATIONAL PARK
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK
Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road, Habarana, Sri Lanka
ELEPHANT TRANSIT HOME
Ratnapura, 70190, Sri Lanka
UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK
7th Mile Post, Sevanagala, Monaragala, Uva Province, Sri Lanka