There are many reasons to go to Sri Lanka. It is the Emerald Isle of the Indian Ocean, with a gorgeous coastline, turquoise waters, and wonderful food. There is no-fuss visa-on-arrival and the currency is one of the few that requires Indians to perform division sums, instead of the more painful multiplication ones. Civil war over, two of my best friends living there, and the reason I go there? Animals.
To give readers context: This is the same person who wanted to become a vet or zookeeper as a child, and skips splendid beaches in Bali just for a tete-a-tete with lion cubs.
So visiting this stunning country for the first time, I decide to focus my three-and-a-half days there around elephants. The idea was to appreciate the elephant in all the three schools of elephant tourism: 1) as a crass tourist, stuffing shopping bags full of elephant souvenirs; 2) seeing elephants in captivity to strike a balance between being a tourist and being an animal lover (incompatible concepts as I was to find out later); and 3) for the real elephant lovers, elephants in the wild.
Anyone with Sri Lankan friends would have heard of—and been given presents from—Odel (if you haven’t, you might want to question your friendship). Since I still have a day to go before I get to legs 2 and 3 of my elephantasia, and I do want to replenish my stock of elephant T-shirts, I decide to make a day of Odel.
Midday meal: A playful bunch of calves at the Udawalawe Transit Camp. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
Look at the website if you don’t believe me, but Odel really has the most incredible variety of elephants, in all shapes and sizes, on clothes, crockery, and cutlery, and more. Unfortunately, as I get to know only after I have donated a substantial part of my savings to their cause, their efforts are restricted to marketing, and they haven’t done much for the animal. Crass commercialism, I think, holding on to my bag of ele-goodies, as I prepare for the more “real” leg of elephantasticness.
Elephants in captivity
Most Sri Lankans are immensely proud of their wildlife and will never encourage any activity that hurts animals. All my pleas to go to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage are ruthlessly trampled upon by Jayanthi, my women’s activist-adventure-sportsperson friend. “That’s not how we want you to see the eles,” she says.
The Pinnawala elephant orphanage was set up in 1975, a time when the elephant population on the island was close to extinction. Today, the orphanage has about 3,000 orphans which, according to the official website, is the “biggest herd of captive elephants in the world”.
When I see the website I realize why Jayanthi objected to it. It lists an orphan who lost a leg in a mine, and another one that is totally blind as its key selling points. “For a few Sri Lankan rupees” tourists are allowed to touch the animals, or take a picture of the babies feeding. The animals are all chained, spoilt rotten by the attention (it’s common to see people feed them bananas) and only marginally better off than circus animals.
Two baby elephants being fed their lunch at the camp. Shreya Ray/Mint
And so we drop Pinnawala in favour of an elephant transit camp, since I was insistent on seeing baby elephants up close. The transit camp, built into the Udawalawe National Park, is where orphaned or lost baby elephants are fed, before they can be rehabilitated into the wild. A board at the entrance reads: “Do not request to interact with the animals. Any human contact makes it difficult for them to be reintegrated back into the jungle.” I want to fold up and die. This is aimed at me: the despicable tourist who encouraged animal-whorism, and not the animal lover I thought myself to be.
But the sight of the babies (albeit from a distance) is therapeutic. They stand queued-up, and tumble out one-by-one towards the feeding area to gulp down their jug of milk (one of their four daily meals). Most wait patiently, but there are tantrums off and on. One of the calves, tired of waiting, rushes in before he’s called and sends a smaller calf by the feeding area toppling like a beach ball. The audience collectively sighs “Aneyyy!” (untranslatable Sinhala word that means “please”, “poor thing”, or “oh no!”, depending on the context). A few babies later, a much-reformed me leaves the transit camp.
Also See Trip Planner/Sri Lanka (PDF)
Elephants in the wild
For an authentic taste of the wild, my friends ensure that we stay at an elephant-themed eco lodge in Udawalawe, ensconced in the jungle itself. The bedroom would have been a balcony in a regular house, open to the forest on three sides; the bathroom doesn’t have a ceiling. At 6am, three of us leave for the safari. The rules are simple: Don’t leave the jeep. These are not the babies you find at Pinnawala. Wild elephants, usually gentle giants, can also go completely berserk.
The park is a sanctuary for all sorts of animals, and the first ones to appear are water buffaloes, bathing in a huge lake. The peacocks arrive next, and perform item numbers in front of our jeeps. About 20 minutes into the safari, we first see a fluttering grey ear. Then, suddenly, more grey, more ears, whole bodies, of all sizes. It’s an entire herd.
They stand there grazing: mummy, papa, grandma, grandpa, cousins, uncles, aunts, and hidden between all of them stands the Child, all of a few weeks old. The babies in the herd are always hidden, says our guide, because the family members protect them by surrounding them on all sides. After half an hour of grazing, playing and giving us the best photo-ops, the herd decides to push off.
My curiosity finally satiated, I head back to the lodge, eager for some curry. There’s just one problem. I’m seeing elephants everywhere. In the bedroom curios, on the bathroom tiles, and even though my friend tells me this is the décor and not my imagination, I can’t quite believe her. I see elephants in random objects, furniture, even tree trunks. I suspect this is what Elephantastic Country does to everyone.
Colombo has lots for children, but unless they’re fond of animal- spotting, there’s not much for them to do at Udawalawe.
The drive to Udawalawe is smooth, and there’s plenty of scope for older people to relax, but they might not be able to participate in the local hikes and treks.
Colombo is more accepting and has a large and active LGBT scene but smaller towns are conservative.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint