Sri Lanka | How seeing 100 elephants on safari broke my heart
Back in the UK now, I’m loving pouring back over photos and memories of my time in Sri Lanka as I write up post after post about my experiences there. I always enjoy reliving every moment so much when I get home, getting to share everything with you guys is incredible because it means I get to experience the joy all over again. But sometimes, there are some memories of a place that make you shudder to recall them, those moments that hurt your heart when you think back to them. This was one of those days, but I must add, the only day I had like this while travelling in what was a truly amazing country. Read my guide here to everything you need to know before you travel to Sri Lanka. But what is important, as a travel blogger, I pride myself on my honesty and giving you guys information that is authentic and genuine so you can plan your own travels, and part of that is telling you about the bad experiences as well as the good ones. So what happened?A late afternoon safari which promised me the sight of 100 elephants, a dream come true for a gal like me who has always loved these beautiful, gentle creatures, turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. We’d been staying in the Cultural Triangle, deep in the centre of Sri Lanka, in a tiny town called Habarana, where I had been drawn to after reading about the amazing history, culture and natural wildlife. Our wonderful host recommended we go on safari to a nearby national park where we were told you could see over 300 elephants at one time – it was a once in a lifetime opportunity that we couldn’t pass up. During the dry season (July to October) Minneriya Wildlife Sanctuary sees herds of hundreds of elephants gathering for what has been called the 6th greatest wildlife spectacle in the world by Lonely Planet. Arriving in November, we weren’t sure if we would be lucky enough to witness such a spectacle but when we came to Habarana we were encouraged to go on the safari where several people claimed we would see at least 100 elephants. So we went, but we were not prepared for what we would see.
The magic and beauty of nature faded as the engines revved, each jeep vying for the best spot.
Driving around the national park was amazing to begin with, we had a great driver who really cared about the animals and could tell us so much about them and their habitat. Different to other national parks we had visited, this one offered vast open plains leading to huge lakes in the distance. As we drove the winding paths in our jeep, we could already see huge herds of elephants dotted across the plains, and our guide stopped so we could watch them from a safe distance. We spent three hours on safari in the park, watching various groups of elephants before they all came together to form one use herd as they made their way over to the lake. An absolutely majestic sight and one I won’t forget in a hurry, but sadly for all the wrong reasons.Throughout the afternoon, it had not been a calm experience where we could all peacefully enjoy these creatures from a distance benefitting both us and the animals. Instead there had been countless jeeps racing, overtaking each other and generally terrorising the animals as they competed for the best spot. The groups of eager tourists in many of the other vans were noisy and had little respect for the animals as they cheered and shouted in the back of the jeeps. We even saw several cars which had been allowed to drive the muddy tracks despite not having four wheel drive and posing a danger to both the visitors and the animals. I was glad to see that our driver seemed not to be like the others and was keen to hang back and watch the animals from a distance rather than crowding them like the others.
However, one good driver doesn’t make up for the rest.
As everyone was driving over to the lake, the elephants were getting more agitated about protecting one of the babies as they walked through a crowd of jeeps. It wasn’t long before one adult became so stressed that she charged the jeeps who didn’t seem to understand they should move out of the way! The elephants made it over to the lake and all the jeeps started to drive round to the other side, but then one of the 2WD cars got stuck in the mud, panic ensued as the elephants spotted it and became aggressive. You could see they were terrified and started to charge the vehicle to try and protect the herd – also terrifying for the group in the car. Other jeeps rallied round to protect the jeep while others pulled the vehicle out of the mud, but in the process the jeeps revved engines and blared horns to scare off the elephants. It was a downright disturbing experience, terrifying and stressful for the animals. Absolutely horrible for me to watch and to be a part of as an animal lover, and each second that went by it just got worse.Eventually the car was freed and the elephants were scared away, we told our driver we wanted to leave. We’d seen enough. I was dumbstruck by what had happened. As we drove out of the park our guide told us a bit of background to the park, he told us how these 2WD cars were allowed into the park – understandably the locals had to make a living even if they couldn’t afford the right equipment – however this meant that what we had just witnessed was a regular occurrence. Almost on a daily basis these 2WD cars would get stuck and a similar event would happen with the elephants becoming stressed, agitated and frightened by tours. Even worse, our guide told us that within the last few years, one of the jeeps had actually reversed into a baby elephant and killed it which was the reason why the elephants had become so aggressive and nervous around the cars.It was a pretty traumatic experience, and I can’t imagine what those poor elephants go through each day. They live in a national park and should be some of the lucky ones being protected from harm, but if you ask me, a lot more needs to be done to protect these animals. After volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, sanctuary founder Lek Chailert always said we all have the power to make a change by raising awareness so by writing this post, I hope it will inform each and every one of you to make a conscious decision to not support this kind of tourism unless you know the animals are being properly protected. I didn’t know what to expect before I arrived, but by sharing my experiences I can hopefully help make a change by letting my readers know what happened.
Have you experienced a safari like this? How do you feel about the protection of elephants across Sri Lanka, and Asia? Would you be put off another safari?