After spending time in Thailand and being educated on the extremely cruel ways of much of the animal related tourism, like the Tiger Temple or elephant trekking companies, I am always very wary of doing anything “animal related” on holiday which is why I was initially unsure as to whether or not an Elephant Photo Safari was a good idea. However our local tour guide arranged an excellent safari through the Cinnamon Lodge Habanara who have a strong ecological ethics statement and I was pleased to see that the company we used had been trained by the Born Free Foundation on responsible tourism.
During the dry season, Minneriya National Park sees one of the worlds largest gatherings of Asian Elephants – known simply as “The Gathering” – as hundreds of elephants make their way to the park in search of food and water.
The park is also home to a huge variety of other wildlife from eagles to monkeys, mongoose, jackals, numerous tropical birds like the gorgeous green bee eater and even leopards! Our guide was excellent, truly “eagle eyed” as he managed to navigate the bumpy park roads and simultaneously spot animals and birds in the undergrowth and we had seen both an alligator and an eagle just minutes after entering the park.
As we made our way into the clearing, we spotted a lone elephant and then as our eyes adjusted to the environment we realised that there were hundreds of elephants all around us, including a tiny baby elephant who as our guide informed us, had been born earlier that very same day (he even drove us to where the remains of the sizeable placenta lay although I was happy to take his word for it!)
It really was a truly magical experience and we spent several hours just watching the elephants interact with each other whilst keeping our eyes peeled for other wildlife activity nearby. All my initail fears were assuaged by our wonderful guide and I was impressed at how he manoeuvred us towards the elephants in order to get a good view whilst not interfering with their interaction or seemingly disturbing them at all.
Whilst Minneriya is several hours drive from Kandy, combined with Sigiriya or Dambullah it makes for an excellent day trip and one I would certainly recommend. I would suggest taking your time to look into tour operators and ensure you use one with a strong ecological commitment such as those operated by Jetwing http://www.jetwingeco.com/park-reserve/minneriya-national-park or Cinnamon Lodge (whom we used) http://www.cinnamonhotels.com/CinnamonLodgeHabarana.htm. This is a far more sustainable and ecologically friendly alternative to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage that seems to be more prominently featured in guide books and about whom the Born Free Foundation have expressed several concerns, noted in detail on their excellent website http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/elephants/campaign-action/sri-lanka-elephants/ along with details on Elephant Photo Safaris in order for you to make an educated and responsible decision when planning your Sri Lankan holiday adventure.
We were surprised to encounter a HUGE elephant with full length tusks (very rare in Sri Lankan elephants) who was trying to make his way across the main road several miles away from where we had entered the park so do drive carefully (if at all!) and be sure to take in all your surroundings so as not to miss such a special sight!