If you’re looking for places to see elephants while travelling around Sri Lanka, you won’t be short of choice. The island in the Bay of Bengal is home to thousands of the beautiful creatures and while there are some orphanages and conservation sites ‘looking after’ them, the best place to see elephants in Sri Lanka is in the wild.
WHERE TO SEE WILD ELEPHANTS IN SRI LANKA
Is there anything more breathtaking than seeing elephants, grazing and bathing in their natural habitat? How about seeing a herd of 200 of them? Here’s where to find elephants in Sri Lanka.
YALA NATIONAL PARK
On the south east coast of Sri Lanka, not far from the beautiful surf spot of Arugam Bay, is Yala National Park. While you’re not likely to see massive herds of around 100 elephants here like you would do in other parts of Sri Lanka, a trip to Yala National Park feels a lot more like a ‘real’ safari. It’s always possible to spot one of these gentle giants in the bushes as you drive through the park so keep your eyes peeled at all times, however for the highest chance of a sighting of both elephants and leopards – Yala is home to the biggest population of wild leopards in the world – the best time to go is just before sunrise.
UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK
About a third of the size of Yala and typically less crowded, Udawalawe is another great spot to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka. And, despite its smaller size, has a greater density of animal to size ratio, particularly elephants. The best way to see the elephants here, like in any other National Park, is on a safari-style jeep tour during which you’ll explore the landscape with a knowledgeable guide who will not only spot animals for you, but also teach you about the creatures you find along the way. In Udawalawe you’re also likely to spot deer, water buffalo and heaps of different birds including eagles and peacocks.
MINNERIYA (AND KAUDUALLA) NATIONAL PARK
The open land situated close to Sigiriya and Dambulla is divided up into a handful of National Parks where wild elephants are free to roam across all. This means that the same herd you might see in Minneriya, could also be seen later on in Kaudulla. These parks are the place to be for elephant spotting during this part of Asia‘s dry season. From May until November, hundreds of elephants migrate to the shores of water sources in both parks, after walking through forests, muddy rivers and marshes and spend their mornings and early afternoons sunbathing, drinking and playing in the water.
ONE PLACE YOU SHOULDN’T VISIT TO SEE ELEPHANTS IN SRI LANKA
While elephant orphanages often sell themselves as conservation sites that have these animals’ best interests at heart, unfortunately this is more often than not, not the case. And one place that this is apparent for – and one place you should definitely avoid when looking to see elephants in Sri Lanka – is Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Situated northwest of the town of Kegalle, halfway between the Colombo and the hills of central Sri Lanka, this elephant orphanage has gained itself quite a bad rep.
On the surface – suggesting it positively contributes towards elephant welfare – it sounds fantastic, but once you’re in (and you’ve paid the hefty entrance fee) you’ll be shocked to see many elephants cruelly chained, some in the water and some even forced into solitary confinement.
Unfortunately instead of just looking after injured elephants, or those rejected from herds, some orphanages use their animals as money-making tools. Don’t be surprised if you visit and have handlers encouraging you to pose alongside these poor creatures – for an extra craft side payment of course.