Water buffalo, elephants, and crocodiles - oh my!

During the last few days, I took a little break from the beach and traveled into the landlocked mountain town of Ella, located somewhat near the center of Sri Lanka. Ella has some absolutely breathtaking sights. I hiked up to the top of Ella Rock, one of the higher peaks in the area, to check out the view of endless rolling green hills, dotted with tea plantations. The pathway to the hike begins on the railroad tracks, and every so often, very slow-moving trains pass by filled with both tourists and locals, who love to wave hello to all the sweaty hikers.

After one full day in Ella, I uprooted myself to yet another inland location - Udawalawe National Park. Udawalawe is famous for its wildlife, especially the large native elephant population. Elephants are all over Sri Lanka, but like most places, their numbers have declined over the past two centuries, dropping from about 14,000 elephants in the early 1800s to only 2,000 in the late 1900s. Luckily, through conservation efforts supported by the Sri Lankan government, the population is back on the rise, with about 5,800 elephants counted in recent years.

Can you guess what kind of animal lives here? Hint: Crikey!

I booked a safari through my homestay, which is owned by a kind Sri Lankan couple that fed me copious amounts of homemade rice and curry and were pleasantly surprised by my ability to handle spicy foods. At 5:30 AM, we set off for the national park, where we got into a big line with about 10 other Indiana Jones-style safari jeeps. Once the gates to the park were opened, we set off on sort of a race, in search of close encounters with wild animals. The national park is absolutely huge, with about 120 square miles of varying landscapes, ranging from lush green jungle to desert plains, and some pretty unfriendly-looking swamps.

Early on in our safari, we spotted peacocks, lizards, and several groups of water buffalo. Water buffalo love to wallow in mud, and it was a somewhat humorous scene to see these large creatures enjoying an early morning splash in the local mud pit, amidst a truly stunning sunrise. The jeep driver was so good at spotting animals, sometimes he would stop and point to chameleons that blended in so well with the trees that it took me a good minute to find them!

The morning fix - a little different than that line out the door at Pannikin, right?

I loved the buffalos and other creatures, but I absolutely love elephants, and started to get worried we wouldn’t see many on our safari, when suddenly we turned a corner and saw a family of elephants, enjoying a morning feed on some leaves. I was amazed at the graceful beauty of these unwieldy animals, as they used their trunks to pull branches down from the tops of trees. Enthralled with their eating techniques, I almost didn’t notice the tiniest baby elephant dancing between the legs of the bigger elephants. According to the safari guide, the little guy was only about two months old! I squealed in delight watching it tromp around, clearly attempting to emulate the behaviors of the bigger elephants.

Follow the leader! Female elephants travel in groups, protecting the babies.

Unfortunately, some baby elephants aren’t so lucky to have a group to stay with, and park rangers sometimes find elephants that are ill or have been abandoned. In this case, they are taken to the Elephant Transit Home , which provides the elephants with care and nurturing until they can be released back into the national park. I visited the orphanage during feeding time, and got to watch groups of young elephants (ranging from tiny to teenaged) run in from the big open field where they spend most of their time, into the feeding area. It was one of the cutest things I have ever seen!

On animal cruelty: This elephant orphanage is one of the only elephant homes in Sri Lanka in which the elephants are given enough room to roam around, don’t wear collars, and are released into the wild after they become healthy. Many of the “orphanages” here are just for-profit tourist attractions, similar to some of the fake elephant sanctuaries in other Asian countries such as Thailand. It is important to do plenty of research on these elephant homes before visiting, because sometimes the websites and social media pages for these places can be super misleading! Elephants are incredibly intelligent, and are capable of feeling emotions similar to humans, so they become very depressed in those negative settings. The good thing is, there are plenty of great organizations out there that really help the animals, rather than enslaving them.