It’s day six of our Sri Lankan tour with G Adventures and we’re about to meet some baby elephants.
Our guide, Uditha Lokuvithana (G Adventures calls them CEOs, chief experience officers), tells us this isn’t a fake sanctuary where elephants are paraded for cash. It’s not really a sanctuary at all. It’s an elephant rehabilitation centre, one of the most successful in the world.
It was established in 1995 to give shelter to orphaned elephant calves, prepare them for a life in the forest and then return them to the wild. It’s sadly necessary due to elephant deaths from land mines (laid during the civil war) and ongoing attacks on elephants in Sri Lanka’s rural areas.
We’re herded into a small stadium that looks onto a neat paddock backed by a pristine, tree-lined lake (Sri Lanka actually has no natural lakes – all those perfectly azure bodies of water are dams and reservoirs, some made more than 2000 years ago). On the banks of this particular lake, we could see an enclosure with a bobbing group of wrinkly grey scalps, the occasional trunk wave, and the paper-like flutter of 10 or so elephant ears. A baby elephant excitedly waddles up to an industrial milk-dispenser and drinks (calves will consume 40 litres of milk a day). We see teenage elephants with little tusks, adorable babies so wrinkly they look like elephantine Benjamin Buttons.
Because of their strict philosophy of working with and training local guides, G Adventures has intimate knowledge of all the countries they work in. That means it will only take you to legit safaris with guides who know where to look and what to look for. We find out Lokuvithana was previously a national park ranger and conservationist. He tells us about elephant breeding, Sri Lankan conservation efforts and stories from his past.
During the safari he is as fascinated as we are to see elephant herds bathing in mud pools, crowds of bearded grey langur monkeys hurling themselves around the canopy, buffalo families wading into lily-covered pond, baby crocodiles, and even a sighting of a spotted deer (you usually only find them up north with the leopards in Yala National Park). Some of it comes all at once in an action-filled flurry around a lake – pink-faced macaques dart to the water’s edge to drink, a pair of jackal run to and from the bank and a couple of peacocks show their awkward combat skills while the elephants enjoy the cool of the water.
At Unawatuna we see forest-edged beaches with both backpacker bars and egg sanctuaries for the local turtle populations. We see tourists and locals standing transfixed as newly born turtles are released into the sea. At the Shri Bhakta Hanuman Temple and the Temple of the Tooth Relic we see toque macaques play, breed, eat and bathe. On our drive to the safari we see six wild elephants trotting along the national park’s edge.
What is most remarkable to me, though, isn’t that, or the safari or the unexpected wildlife encounters. It’s the trees. My camera is full of photos of them. Trees with trunks that drip down in fragments like porridge being poured out of an irregular sieve. Trees with cannonball seeds and flowers like alien heads with vivid colour schemes. Neck-strainingly tall trees with perfectly straight trunks that don’t sprout a single branch until the very top. More with hurdle-high roots and cavities big enough for a bear. Others with zigzag branches that combine to form a canopy-wide mushroom shape. I would come back to Sri Lanka just for the trees.
Wildlife encounters: what to do and what not to do
Stay silent. The jungle is quiet, and you should be too. Any loud noises, human or phone related, could scare an animal away.
When you’re on safari, wear soft colours. The better you blend in with the bush, the less likely the animals are to flee.
Find ethical companies. G Adventures will never work with dodgy businesses, but if you’re flying solo it can be hard to tell. If an organisation is offering any interactive experience (feeding animals, elephant rides, petting etc), they’re taking advantage of the animal.
Go at dusk or dawn. Sri Lanka is a hot country and during the day most big animals will be resting, likely in a pool of mud to cool down.
If you’re travelling to an area with monkeys (many public gardens are home to monkey families), don’t bring any food. I learned this the hard way. I had a plastic bag containing three mangosteens. I knelt to take a picture of a macaque. Another monkey come up beside me, tore my bag apart and stole one of the mangosteens. Three more monkeys arrived and chased me around the park for 20 minutes.
Never feed a wild animal. Giving a wild animal food teaches them to be unafraid of us, and we’re the most dangerous animals there are. Feeding animals puts both them and humans in danger.
Never get out of the car. It doesn’t matter if it’s a leopard or an elephant outside. All big animals are dangerous – buffalos and elephants alone kill hundreds in Sri Lanka every year.
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This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with G Adventures. Broadsheet travelled to Sri Lanka prior to the Easter 2019 terrorist attacks. While such an unfortunate event undoubtedly leaves a lasting impact, tourism directly helps local communities in their emotional and economic recoveries.