Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka
Raising its trunk and letting out a howl, the elephant begins to charge towards one of the jeeps.
It moves faster than you might expect for an animal of this size, its bulk and its speed designed to intimidate. The rest of the herd seems docile but something has this elephant agitated.
I watch from my vehicle a safe distance away as it pulls up right next to another group and howls again. The jeep starts its engine and drives away.
The animal runs across the dirt track and rejoins a group on the other side.
It takes control, this enormous beast, and seems to order the adults in the group. They huddle around in a circle and in the middle are the young elephant babies.
Ah, I see. It had been separated by the jeep from the vulnerable young members of the herd and that’s what had caused such a fearsome act of aggression.
(To read about being in the jeep that was charged, you can check out this story from Leif Harum of The Runaway Guide.)
Here in Kaudulla National Park in the centre of Sri Lanka, the elephants are used to seeing humans in their noisy little metal cars. That doesn’t make them any less wild, though.
Nobody has tried to contain them or control them. The plains in this protected reserve are their land and they go where they want and when they want.
Today they have gathered together in the afternoon, as they often do, around a large lake.
They tolerate the safari expeditions that come through because they usually pose no harm but that doesn’t mean they’re afraid to remind the humans who the real visitors on this land are.
There are about 6000 Sri Lankan elephants – one of the three subspecies of the Asian elephant – in the country. They are protected from poaching or capture and, in fact, the punishment for intentionally killing one is the death penalty!
The safaris are regulated and keep a respectful distance from the animals. The tourists in the vehicles stay inside the whole time, observing and capturing the moments.
To be one of those tourists and see the animals up close is a thrill – and the sheer number of them is even more spectacular.
This only happens at a certain time of the year and is called ‘The Gathering’. It’s considered to be one of the most special wildlife experiences in the world, partly because of the large number of babies.
During the dry season from July to early November, several hundred elephants gather first in the Minneriya National Park and then move here to Kaudulla National Park.
The large tracts of water provide the perfect environment for feeding, breeding and even socialising.
I’m lucky to be seeing it so late in November – normally the rains come a bit earlier and the herd disperses into smaller groups and moves on.
One elephant standing by itself uses its trunk to rip up a collection of grass and then thrashes it from side to side. So close, I can see the droplets of water spraying in every direction.
Nearby, a mother and her baby are more docile, just eating the grass without the need for any overt thrashing movements.
When I turn around and look behind me, I see two large elephants butting their heads together playfully but with a strength that reminds me how dangerous these animals can be.
And that’s something that’s important not to forget. Although the elephants are protected here in Sri Lanka, more than a dozen are still killed by humans every month – and elephants are also the cause of about 50 human deaths every year.
This is because the elephant habitats are gradually being reduced as they’re turned into farmland and the animals are forced to look for food in places that bring them into direct conflict with man.
The deaths on both side – elephant and human – are not premeditated or caused by individual greed. It’s a simple clash between two species over food and land.
Large wire fences have been erected around communities in this part of the country to keep the wild elephants out of crops, but some still get through and it can become a matter of self defence.
The World Wildlife Fund lists the Sri Lankan elephant as ‘endangered’ and estimates about six per cent of the wild population is killed each year.
For Sri Lankans, though, it is an important animal that holds religious and cultural significance and efforts are being made to protect it.
There are two elephant orphanages in the country which work to look after vulnerable young animals and, although there are some questions about the ethics of the operations, it shows an overall concern about their welfare.
It will be crucial in the years ahead, as tourism increases and the economy grows, to address some conservation issues around the Sri Lankan elephants.
Looking at ways to keep the animals away from farmland will be part of that but so will the management of jeep tours like the one I’m on. Although it is done respectfully and with regard for the animals, it could start to impact on The Gathering as the number of tourists grows.
The Gathering in Sri Lanka is special. To see so many animals up close is quite a unique experience. But an elephant charging at a jeep has the potential for serious danger.
There’s enough of this kind of conflict happening in the surrounding areas – let’s at least keep the national parks free of it.
You can see some of the elephant tour options here:
There are lots of affordable and comfortable homestays in the area. Have a look at Sigiriya Amenity Home Stay, for example.
A wonderful but affordable four-star option that I would recommend is the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana.
And for an absolutely stunning hotel, you can't go past Jetwing Vil Uyana with special bungalows.