Even by the pearl-studded standards of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a jewel. Visitors flock here for the rich and diverse culture, beautiful sand-sprinkled beaches and astoundingly varied wildlife. Elephants, monkeys, leopards and sloth bears are the stars of the show on land, while whales and dolphins vie for attention off-shore.
Leopards stalk the jungles of Sri Lanka's national parks © Jamie Lamb - elusive-images.co.uk / Getty Images
However, Sri Lanka’s record on animal welfare is not so rosy, especially when it comes to elephants, which are often subjected to cruelty or kept in poor conditions, frequently in chains. Even in some national parks, the crowds of wildlife spotters can be visibly distressing to wild animals.
So how do you enjoy the island's incredible wildlife in an ethical manner? Here are a few suggestions for responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka:
Elephants drinking their fill at Uda Walawe National Park © Joshua Paul Shefman / Getty Images
Uda Walawe National Park
Often cited as Sri Lanka’s best national park, Uda Walawe rarely disappoints. Thanks mainly to the landscape of low forest and grassland, animals are easy to spot, especially elephants, with a total of around 600 animals inside the park boundaries, often seen in herds up to 50.
Park tours are by motor vehicle, rather than on elephant-back, but crowding these wild animals can alter their natural behaviour. Tell your driver to keep a healthy distance, and avoid the road-side stalls on the approach to the park selling fruit to feed to the elephants. This erodes their fear of humans, as you’ll see from the elephants waiting by the park fence, effectively begging for food.
Langur monkey relaxing in Bundala National Park © Stefan Huwiler / Getty Images
Escape the crowds at Bundala National Park
If you want to avoid the crowds hemming in the wildlife in larger national parks, compact little Bundala is a mesmerising mix of islands, lagoons and dunes, and a wetland area of international significance. Often overshadowed by Yala National Park, its famous neighbour, Bundala is less frequently visited, so animals are relatively undisturbed by human presence.
Commonly seen residents include elephants (between 10 and 60 depending on season), langur monkeys and crocodiles, while four species of marine turtle (olive ridley, green, leatherback and loggerhead) lay their eggs on the coast between October and January. The wetlands mean superb bird-watching too, and there are fewer visitors to scare them away.
A lone elephant in Minneriya National Park © Tunart / Getty Images
Navigating Minneriya & Kaudulla National Parks
In the flatlands of north-central Sri Lanka, the national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla form a giant corridor for elephants to move relatively freely across a large area. The parks are most famous for the annual ‘Gathering’, from August to October: this is when elephants congregate in vast herds as lake water recedes, giving way to fresh grass.
However, thanks to the parks’ popularity, sometimes people outnumber elephants, and there have been reports of animals being chased and corralled in by jeeps so passengers can get good photos.
When we visited, drivers kept a healthy distance and the elephants seemed undisturbed by our vehicles; we saw two young bulls stroll casually between parked jeeps as if they were nothing more than a clump trees. To give the herds breathing space, bring a long camera lens and encourage your driver not to participate in the scrum to get close to elephants for photos.
Blue whales are one of the most impressive visitors to Sri Lanka's waters © Patrick Meier / Getty Images
Whale-watching at Mirissa
The southern coastal town of Mirissa is famous for two reasons: its beautiful beach is a favourite backpacker party destination, and it’s an excellent place to see whales. Top of the bill are blue whales, as well as fin whales, sperm whales and various species of dolphin. Boat tours are easy to arrange and, best of all, Mirissa has reputable operators who respect welfare guidelines about cetaceans.
Ethical operators take small groups on small boats, approaching pods slowly and avoiding practices such as ‘leap-frogging’, where boats race ahead of whales so that animals will pass close by for photos. Cetaceans are so abundant here that there is no need for operators to crowd the whales, and better operators will move on in search of other whales if a pod is already being observed by several boats.
Abbey Road with elephants © Olivier Schram / Getty Images
Ethical elephant encounters
‘Elephant orphanages’ are popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, but many are little more than commercial zoos, breeding elephants in captivity for public display. The good news is that there are some ethical operators. Near Uda Walawe, the Elephant Transit Home is a centre for young elephants whose parents have been poached or captured, and rehabilitated elephants are released back into the wild.
The work here is supported by the Born Free Foundation, and viewing platforms keep a safe distance between humans and jumbos, while providing a vantage point for an up-close look at the youngsters in an environment that is not distressing to these traumatised animals.
Dolphin acrobatics off Sri Lanka's east coast © Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka / Getty Images
Cetacean encounters in Uppuveli
As an alternative to well-developed Mirissa, the northern beach village of Uppuveli, near Trincomalee, is staking its claim as a whale and dolphin-watching destination. Boat-trips leave the beach every morning, but tourism is a fledgling industry here, and responsible wildlife-viewing remains a new concept.
Understandably, the local boatmen are eager to please their clients, but there have been reports of boats getting too close to the animals (with a risk of propellers causing injury). Tourists can play a part in promoting good practice by insisting that boat operators keep a responsible distance from wild cetaceans. Seeing whales or dolphins from further away will still be a highlight of your trip.
Elephants and plenty of jeeps © HildaWeges / Getty Images
Responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka – making the right choice
In some places, operators are already aware of the best ways to approach wildlife without disturbing these wild animals, but tourists can do a lot to encourage responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka. Here are some tips:
- Go wild The best way to see any wild animal is, er, in the wild. In Sri Lanka this usually means in the country’s national parks (or the waters off-shore).
- Be wary of orphanages You should think carefully before visiting any place billed as an elephant ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’. Some are genuine, others are only marginally better than the zoos, circuses and logging camps they claim to be rescuing elephants from. Investigate any sanctuary before visiting so you are very clear on their actions and motives.
- Don’t ride elephants Although Sri Lanka has a long history of elephant riding, there is growing awareness of the harm that this can cause. Animal welfare bodies cite mistreatment from handlers, cruelty in the way elephants are trained to accept riders, and spinal injuries caused by wooden howdahs (saddles) used to carry passengers. If a place offers elephant rides, do the ethical thing and walk away.
- Safari solo When visiting national parks, it’s usual to hire an open-top ‘safari jeep’ and driver, and if you hire your own jeep, you can tell the driver to avoid getting too close to elephants or other animals. Sharing the ride with others may reduce costs, but other passengers may not share your concerns.
- Watch whales responsibly When arranging whale and dolphin-watching trips, make it clear when booking, and before you pay, that you don’t want to have a negative impact on the animals. Seek reputable operators, and avoid rogues who promise ‘very close shots’ or ‘swimming with dolphins’, as both activities can distress or injure the animals.
- Speak out Wherever possible, let local operators know that you won’t pay for tours where animals are harmed, and explain your concerns to boatmen, drivers, guides and trackers to raise awareness. Many operators are used to visitors who want nothing more than a selfie next to a whale or elephant, and responsible wildlife-watching is a relatively new idea in Sri Lanka. Only by education will opinions be altered.
- Put your money where your mouth is Financial leverage is just as important. If enough travellers boycott bad operators, and only pay for trips that follow ethical standards, operators will shift their practices accordingly. As a traveller, you can play a vital part in encouraging change, and improving the future for Sri Lanka’s animal populations.
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