In Search of Elephants

Day 477 – 20 June, 2016

A few years ago, on a vacation in Nepal, I rode an elephant.  It seemed like an exotic fun thing to do.  We were assured that the elephants were treated well, that our insignificant weight was no big deal for the elephant to carry, yada, yada.  It wasn’t until after I perched on the top of this magnificent creature crammed together with five of my closest friends (strangers) in a little wooden box where we couldn’t move and I witnessed the elephants’ agitation and depression that I was convinced this was a terrible thing.  I felt sleazy watching our mahout repeatedly kick our elephant with sharp spurs behind its ears.  The guilt weighed on me afterward and I vowed never to do anything like this again.  

Riding an elephant in Nepal

After six months in Southeast Asia, I had been avoiding the elephant riding attractions like the plague that they are, but I really wanted to see healthy happy elephants in a good environment. Some orphanages or sanctuaries exist and some of these are good, but sadly, the good ones are far and few between. I had missed these ethical places for whatever reason and Sri Lanka was my last chance to be among the giants.

Yala National Park is a reserve set aside in southeastern Sri Lanka that stretches for 375 sq miles. While I had read that this was the best time of year to visit, the park was void of any visitors. An extremely high concentration of leopards reside here, among elephants, crocodiles, wild boar, and peacocks, to name a few. Even though I have a somewhat geekish interest in large felines, I didn’t want to set my expectations too high as leopards are extremely difficult to spot. Their camouflage is perfectly suited to the forest. Instead, I set my sights on elephants. I had been told there are loads of these gentle goliaths in Yala so it seemed meeting my expectations would be easy.

Assigned to my own jeep for lack of other travelers to share the cost or the space, we set off before dawn into the depths of the park. Before we had even driven through the park gate, I saw several peacocks strutting in the middle of the dusty road, two wild boars that approached the side of our jeep with tails wagging as if they knew the jeep might be a food source, and a small brown weasel boldly watching the vehicle pass by. I felt confident that I would soon be able to add elephants to my wildlife-spotted catalog.

For better or worse, when someone has traveled as much as I have, they start to compare experiences that may have some similarities, but in reality, are not similar situations at all. I traveled to Tanzania in 2012 and did the mother of all safaris through Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, among other lesser known game parks. I saw elephants in plentitude everywhere I looked, so many that after a week we didn’t even ask our driver to stop anymore. This was not that. The terrain was completely different, whereas the Serengeti is characterized by open plains, Yala is composed of scrub brush and forest. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but compare in my head.

Contrary to my hope that we were driving through an elephant-infested forest, we really had to search for them. Checking every watering hole, there were countless buffalo and deer. We did see a few elephants, but apart from a few lucky glimpses, most of them were high tailing it back into the forest and away from us. In some ways, I found it more exciting to spot one when they were seemingly so scarce.

Asian elephants are listed as endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Primarily threatened by deforestation and loss of habitat, they are increasingly poached for their ivory tusks due to high demand, especially in China, for ivory trinkets and status symbols. Some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, they are known to have a highly complex social network within their families, displaying characteristics of grief when a family member dies and exhibiting high-level behaviors like tool-making, altruism, self-awareness, and advanced memory. Even though Yala did not fulfill my expectations, I was lucky and satisfied that I finally saw happy healthy Asian elephants in the wild.