“See the electric fence?” Our guide Ruwan pointed to the serious barrier stretching around the park perimeter. “This is to stop elephants going out from the park. Before, they went into the farms and villages and even broke some houses. They especially like sugar cane—they squeeze the stalk with their trunks and drink the juice. But now, even with the fence, they still go out. They go to the farms and eat the sugar, then in the morning they are back.”
We were in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka’s sixth-largest national park. Established in 1972, it consists of 30,871 hectares of grassy, bushy, pondy place where elephants roam wild. In all there are about 2,000-3,000 wild elephants on Sri Lanka (compared to 20,000 at the beginning of the nineteenth century) and a lot of them can be found here. Of course, no elephant is an island though; the park includes lots of other wildlife, including crocodiles, lizards, water buffalo, leopards and myriad birds.
We’d decided to see the park as a day trip from Hikkaduwa, a three-hour drive away. The drive to Udawalawe was interesting in itself, presenting vistas of green South Asian countryside with vibrant rice paddies full of egrets, king coconut palms, misty forests and wide brown rivers. Every now and then we passed through a village, where people were busy going on with their lives. I gazed with interest at the variety of bodies and faces. Women with long skirts and sun umbrellas sashayed to market, old men wrapped in sarongs sat wearily outside their houses, young men and women in jeans and shirts waited at bus stops looking at their smart phones, grandmothers carried grandchildren, men worked on cars or on building houses. Cows wandered freely, dragging the ropes tied around their necks and followed by one or two egrets, determined to catch any frog or lizard flushed by the cow’s hooves. There were plenty of stray dogs, too, the sharp-eared, short-haired local variety. Painfully, a lot of them seemed to be suffering from mange.
Our driver, Mr. Alvo, told us that the whole country had suffered after the Easter bombings, where suicide bombers had carried out coordinated bombings targeted at Christians and Westerners, killing 259 people and injuring at least 500.
“Not only did they kill so many people, but they also destroyed the economy, they hurt the country. And for what? For religion. After the bombings, for seven, eight months, no tourists came. Tourism is important to Sri Lanka. So people who work in tourism, they were suffering. Some people were starving! I had problems too: for this vehicle I could no longer make the payments. I had to extend to the loan, and the bank charged so much interest. Now I will not be able to pay it all for more years. Now, the tourists are coming back. At Udawalawe, the safari companies took the wheels off their jeeps and put them on blocks, so that the banks wouldn’t tow them away. And the bombers—they were millionaires! They had so much money. Why didn’t they enjoy it? If they wanted to blow themselves up, very good—but why hurt the whole country?” He shook his head. “Now, it’s better. The tourists are coming again.”
At Udawalawe, on the edge of the park, we met Ruwan at the company HQ. He was a young, soft-spoken guy who clearly liked his job. He helped us climb into the jeep and handed us a pair of binoculars.
The road to the park was lined with safari-themed hotels and vendors selling plastic bags of cut-fruit or hats or bottles of water. We sailed past them, blinking in the wind of the jeep’s motion and eager for our first wildlife encounter. To our left was a big lake and we could see little mangrove islands and big white herons. In the far distance was a wall of jungly hills that formed a romantic hazy horizon.
At the official entrance to the park, the jeep slowed down and we turned onto a bumpy dirt road that led past a small Buddhist shrine decorated with elephant heads. The jeep crawled along this road until it reached a little office, were the driver had to get out and sign a log book. A sign opposite the office announced a government program to rid the park of the invasive species lampada camara, which looked familiar to me from many suburban gardens.
And so the safari really began. It was a beautiful day—sunny but not too hot and the park lay spread out before us, grassy and bushy with the occasional tall tree. The air was fragrant with a flowery scent and filled with the sounds of birds and insects.
Almost immediately, we saw unmistakable signs of elephantine activity. Ruwan pointed out some pits of soft clay. The elephants, he said, were in the habit of churning the earth up with their feet and then eating the loosened clay, which contained minerals and nutrients that kept them healthy. Close to this quarry were large deposits of dung, which had created little side-businesses of their own: a white mushroom particularly liked feeding on elephant poo, as did various insects, which in turn attracted bee eaters and lizards.
Ruwan tapped the window of the jeep and the driver stopped beside a pair of lapwings, which were standing their ground and pretending not to look at us.
“We call them the “Didjadooit” bird because their cry sounds like “Did you do it? Did you do it?” They lay their eggs on islands in the lake with an ability to know when the rains will come. For this reason, farmers watch them closely. They are an important bird.”
He tapped on the window as a signal to the driver and we moved on, stopping shortly afterwards behind two other jeeps. Soon, we saw why: there was a Sri Lankan elephant—elephas maximus maximus— grazing right beside the road.
“A herd of elephants,” Ruwan said. We looked again and soon saw that he was right—there were about four others nearby, though we hadn’t seen them at first because they were partially hidden by shrubs and long grass.
“These are females. The herds are matriarchal—the oldest female is the leader. And there–” he pointed to the other side of the road, “Is a male.”
I looked where he was pointed and saw a very large elephant quite close and looking at us intently.
“You can tell he is not happy because his ears are not moving. Maybe he wants to come to the other side of the road but the jeeps are stopping him. Which jeep will he charge, that is the question!” Ruwan chuckled. Personally, I thought this joke was in bad taste. I had seen a Youtube video in which a bull elephant had overturned a safari jeep and it looked like the sort of experience I wouldn’t enjoy.
Luckily, the male’s ears started flapping again (a cooling system and a fly-deterrent) and he transferred his attention to lunch. First he wrapped his truck around a bouquet of grass and tore it up out of the ground. I noticed he seemed like a picky eater because he kept playing with his food—waving the grass like a cheerleader’s pom-pom, then whacking it on the ground, touching it with his stubby tongue and then shaking it again.
“They do this, the shaking to remove things like stones and hard dirt, which can wear down the teeth. An elephant eats 20 hours out of 24, and they can live for 80 years, so that is a lot of chewing. They need to take care of their teeth.”
We looked back at the females. I remarked how skinny the biggest one looked.
“Yes, the females lose a lot of weight when they are nursing. They have to eat so much anyway, but when the baby is born they need more because they lose a lot of calories with the milk.”
Seen close-up, the anatomy of the Indian elephant seemed even weirder than I’d anticipated. I suppose I’m more familiar with African elephants and cartoon versions. It had a high bony forehead with deep hollows for the eye sockets and bulging cheeks—probably because of the strong chewing muscles—that made it look like they were smiling. The lower lip was remarkably loose, pendulous and whiskery. And then there is the trunk, which has about 40,000 muscles in it (compare 600 muscles for the whole human body) and is so sensitive it can select a single blade of grass. When the ears flapped forward, you could see the pinkish, speckled skin underneath.
“The elephants’ real color is different. They look like they do because they use mud to cover themselves and to cool off, and they also rub against teak trees, which gives them that reddish color. Actually, they also eat the teak, which is why you don’t see so many big teak trees here.”
As he spoke, a younger female was stubbornly working away at uprooting a small tree. Finally, she succeeded, with a triumphant little tail-whisk.
Moving on, we saw a large male standing with his head against a big tree.
“This is how elephants sleep. Either this way, or with their trunk resting on the ground.”
The sound of the jeeps must have woken him up, because he drew away from the tree and looked in our direction, with a confused air. Then he curled up his trunk and put it in his mouth, which made him look like a little kid sucking its thumb.
“He is shy,” Ruwan smiled.
Moving on, we saw a large lake, at the edge of which stood water buffalos and another herd of elephants. They were rather far away so I couldn’t get a very good look, but suddenly we were surprised by a flock of fast little birds, about the size of sparrows but with black heads and flashes of white and red–the black-headed munia. They are one of the most commonly found birds in the park, along with spotted doves, crested hawk eagles, brahiminy kites and, my favorite, bee-eaters. In the watery areas there were kingfishers, herons, cormorants and we even saw a painted stork getting splashed by an irritable baby elephant.
It was particularly nice to see a couple of adults and their babies having a mud bath together. The four of them got so close it was like a group hug. They would shower themselves with mud—the trunk directing the spray with admirable precision–and then get close to each other to rub together, which presumable formed the function of scratching, exfoliating, ridding biting insects and strengthening the social bond. I could only see three of them but Ruwan said there was a baby in the mix, standing between their legs. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes we saw it emerge, nicely slathered in mud. When the adults flapped their wet ears, John said it sounded like someone flapping a big leather carpet.
Insects also made the park their home–here and there we’d see a large termite mound. Ruhan’s eyes were so sharp that he also spotted the nests of weaver ants. They select a couple of large leaves, stitch them together and plot insurgencies in this aerial bower. You could see their silhouettes behind the sunlit leaves. In areas where weeding had taken place, the ground was marked by distressingly large spiderwebs. I don’t know what made them and I’m not sure I want to.
Nor was there any shortage of reptilian life. The first lizard Ruwan pointed out turned out to be a mating pair. Then there was a spiny-backed thing that looked vaguely like an iguana eyeballing us from a tree trunk, and a monitor lizard crossing the road in front of us. In the watering hole, we even saw a crocodile intermittently snapping at what I suppose was a fish. My favorite, though, was this cute guy who was sunning himself on a stick when we interrupted him.
After a couple of hours of environmental enthrallment, we started to get tired and made our way back to the entrance, where there was an extremely long queue of jeeps waiting to get in. After we met Mr. Alvo again, he told us that just three months ago, there had been no jeeps at all. He also mentioned the havoc the elephants used to make before the electric fences were up.
“But what can you do? This is their territory,” he shrugged. “They need a very wide area to get food, they walk a long way. No one can hurt the elephants here. If you do, you are in a lot of trouble.”
There are about 4,000 Sri Lankan elephants left, and they are listed as an endangered species. The main risk to the elephant population is human, particularly when their interest in tasty crops causes poor families economic ruin. In the last decade this interspecies war has claimed the lives of more than a thousand elephants and more than 500 people. The Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) has recently committed to changes such as providing elephants with greater territory and building transit corridors, and they’re working on providing humans with economic incentives to protect the animals (eg by planting non-tasty fruit like orange trees or by capitalizing from elephant-related tourism), so things seem to be improving.