Udawalawe is paradise for the lucky elephants that pass through or call it home, but Sri Lanka is not. This relatively small, crowded island has the highest density of wild elephants on earth, with around 7,500 of them fighting for space with a growing population. Add into the mix urbanisation and the subsequent human expansion into forests and wilderness and it’s no surprise that human-elephant conflict has been described as the most significant clash in Sri Lanka since the civil war.
It was during this 25-year-long period of unrest between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups that elephant herds expanded into abandoned areas of conflict, zones that have since been reallocated to the population for use in agriculture and settlement. The elephants are no longer welcome and coexistence is at an all-time low. According to official figures, 375 people have died and nearly 1,200 elephants have been slaughtered over the past five years. While the Sri Lankan government is working towards its preferred solution of relocating herds into national parks, some experts believe this will backfire and has the potential to threaten the entire native species.
Distracted by the beauty of Udawalawe and its abundance of wildlife, I didn’t even think to dig deeper – a reminder that responsible tourism requires research. If I’d asked the right questions, we’d have visited the Elephant Transit Home perhaps, Udawalawe’s centre for orphaned and abandoned calves. This charity-funded facility includes a hospital and rehabilitation area, as well as access to open-range forest, so that the elephants can roam and learn to thrive as freely as physically possible in their natural habitat. Reintegration into the wild is key here and human contact is kept to an absolute minimum. However, visitors are welcome to observe feeding times throughout the day.
With 103 Elephant Transit Home alumni successfully transitioned into the wild to date and 10 of these now mothers to 16 calves, the system offers hope for some victims of the conflict.
Oblivious to Sri Lanka’s elephant Armageddon, it’s bath time at Udawalawe. A handsome herd of parents and their adorable calves gathers around a waterhole to cool off from the relentless midday sun, joined on the ground by buffalo, painted storks and cormorants, while eagles soar overhead.
They’re not alone. Lurking in the shallows is an expectant crocodile, its armour-plated spine and bulging eyes just visible among the reeds. The close proximity of an apex predator ruffles a few feathers among the occupants of the Jeep, but does little to disrupt the pool party. In an environment where existence is fragile, there’s clearly no room for pretensions or ego; this is a world of live and let live. There’s a lesson in that for us all.
Olivia’s trip to Udawalawe was in partnership with Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts. Shangri-La has two properties in Sri Lanka: the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo and Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa.
Words by Olivia Palamountain and photography by Martin Perry
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