Elephant Safaris are a major part of Sri Lanka’s eco tourism industry, but are they all as responsible as they claim to be?
Sri Lanka is renowned for having one of the most biodiverse and species rich countries on the planet, with Conservation International even declaring it as one of the worlds biodiversity hotspots. With the endemic Sri Lankan leopard, sambar deer, spotted deer, civets, monkeys and a whole host of bird, amphibian, reptile and insect life within it’s borders, the hotspot moniker is well deserved.
It is hardly surprising then that Sri Lanka is famous for its wildlife tourism, specifically its elephant safaris, with a mixture of stunning national parks and an abundance of these amazing animals in their natural habitat ensuring that travellers will keep coming from far and wide for a chance to see these sometimes elusive yet always majestic creatures up close.
From what I have seen so far, a great deal of the wildlife tourism industry in Sri Lanka is generally very positive, a fact perhaps helped by the predominantly Buddhist beliefs and positive attitudes toward animals throughout the country.
Unfortunately not all of it is perfect, and with some aspects of the tourism industry sliding toward irresponsible practices in the universal quest for the tourist dollar and perhaps a little bit of a lack of education in best practice on the part of tour operators thrown in, Sri Lanka needs to be careful that it does not start to sacrifice animal welfare in the name of profit.
I saw a lot of good in Sri Lanka, but I saw some bad too, and two very different elephant safaris in two separate national parks showcased the extremes of good and bad wildlife tourism in the country, and highlighted the fact that when it comes to conservation and animal welfare, no one can rest on their laurels.
A very early wake up call was to be the start of my first elephant safari in the serenely picturesque, and relatively lesser known Gal Oya National Park. This was a unique experience in more way than one, not least of which was because this safari was by boat. That’s right, this was a river safari, and it quickly rose to be one of the absolute highlights of my time in this amazing country!
Gal Oya national park is an almost 26,000 hectare protected area of natural beauty set around the Senanayake Samudra reservoir, and with over 32 species of mammals living wild in the area, is considered one of Sri Lanka’s major eco tourism venues.
Our small group was regaled with a short talk before we were even allowed on the boat by one of the guides, and were not only given a brief set of rules and guidelines to follow but also a disclosure that there was absolutely no guarantee that we would see any animals at all. Despite the guide seeming almost apologetic at this statement, I loved that. I thought it was perfect as this is the exact type of mentality to have when viewing an animal in the wild. We go by their wants and needs, not ours, and if the wildlife chooses not to be seen, that’s up to them.
After quick question and answer session on the wildlife in the area and the responsible practices and guidelines they uphold, we boarded our boat and set off. The only vessel out on the water at the time as a previous group had just returned from their own safari, it felt like absolute paradise as we were quite literally the only people encroaching on this majestic, almost alien environment.
We slowly chugged along for a long time, the boats engine kept on a low idle so as not to make too much noise and everyone on the boat keeping a careful eye out for any form of wildlife as we passed a whole variety of islands, submerged trees and larger land masses.
For a long time all we saw were birds, and not being an ornithologist I couldn’t honestly tell one species from the other without the childlike classifications of ‘big one’ or ‘little one’, but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of seeing them in any way.
Eventually one of the guides spotted something in the distance and we edged closer, floating slowly as the engine was cut and everyone hunkered down for a better view.
There they were, in the distance. Two elephants. Two completely wild, undisturbed elephants just doing what they do and completely oblivious to us as we slowly drifted past.
To say it was a thrilling experience would not do it justice, and the sheer magic of seeing the elephants in their own habitat without disturbing them, without harming them, without encroaching on their territory or having any negative effect at all is what made it even more special.
That to me is what responsible tourism is.
We began to see glimpses of more and more elephants after that, many of them almost hidden in the tree lines as they went about their daily business.
Eventually the guides steered the boat to shore for what would be the first of two short land excursions. telling us to stay back and keep quiet, he indicated that we follow him a short distance inland. A short walk later we spotted another small family of elephants in the distance, hugging the treeline and staying hidden for much of the sighting.
Being out in the open our guide kept us at a good distance and did not allow us to stay too long, mindful of not disturbing them. Explaining to me that the park didn’t have any specific written policies on how they interact with animals, what they did was try and follow generally accepted international guidelines, which for him simply meant treating the animals and their home with the respect they deserve.
That was such a simple yet perfect sentiment.
Unfortunately these guidelines are just that, guidelines. They are not universally binding yet, and there are no real set in stone international rules or laws that insist wildlife tourism or safaris must be run responsibly. But these guidleines have been written by experts in their field. Academics, scientists, conservationists, charities and groups such as Born Free have given the minimum accepted standards that any wildlife tourism operator should abide by, and it is nice to see a wildlife tourism operator do just that. Not out of obligation, but out of a belief in that is how things should be.
That same mindset ruled the second onshore excursion too, with the guides showing us to a large crop of boulders and telling us to wait. Waiting wasn’t the most comfortable of things to do as the mid morning sun was still hot enough to turn the rocks into makeshift frying pans, but enduring the discomfort was worth it as eventually two elephants came into view through the trees, walking slowly to the clearing in front of us and simply relaxing in each others company.
I could use a ton of superlatives to describe the experience of seeing genuinely wild elephants just going about their daily business, but to be perfectly honest none of them could do the experience any justice.
Apart from one unfortunate incident where one member of the boat decided that standing up on top of the rocks, making a lot of noise and and taking a selfie of himself with his ridiculous selfie stick was more important than any responsible or ethical concerns – for which he was told in whispered voices and in no uncertain terms to get down – our small group of only six people including the guides remained hidden behind the boulders, managing to take some great photos from hidden vantage points with the elephants being allowed to come to us if they wished, not the other way round.
Once again, we were not allowed to stay too long lest we run the risk of disturbing the elephants, and were slowly and quietly ushered back to the boat, where again we saw plenty of birds and more elephants in the distance as we quietly passed a variety of stunning islands.
Gal Oya National Park is a truly world class area of outstanding natural beauty, and the fact that it is a protected conservation area with a variety of species living both wild and free within its lands makes this one of the real jewels in Sri Lanka’s crown.
It is really heartwarming to see genuinely responsible practices being put to good use in the wildlife tourism of this stunning national park, and it is good to know that the money gained from tourism is not only being put to good use to fund the conservation efforts in the area, but more importantly is not being allowed to become an overriding factor to responsible practices.
Unfortunately not all elephant tourism in Sri Lanka was as positive as my visit to Gal Oya National Park, and my next safari was a beacon of irresponsible tourism and bad management.
A trip to Minneriya National Park was to be the source of my second elephant safari in Sri Lanka. A park that was every inch as beautiful and spectacular as Gal Oya, but unlike the previous national park, this was destined to be far more packed with tourists, and far less responsible.
Easily accessible from Pollannaruwa and renowned for large elephant herds that congregate at the Minneriya tank, a vast man made lake, to graze on the long grass and cool down in the refreshing water alongside a whole host of birds, reptiles, leopards and other wildlife, Minneriya is one of Sri Lanka’s premier wildlife tourism attractions.
Minneriya National Park is actually one of two neighbouring parks, with the adjoining Kaudulla making up a good portion of the parks vast size, and is perfect for allowing its wildlife population a large area to roam free and protected.
It’s just a shame the practices of the tour groups and operators aren’t as helpful to the wildlife as the site itself.
We arrived relatively early for the afternoon safari at Minneriya, and were shown straight to the vehicle that would show us around the small route that they had planned for us.
The initial ride into the park itself was honestly a lot of fun, the bumpiness of the roads made the ride feel more akin to being thrown around in a snatch land rover careening through a mine field in Iraq or Afghanistan, but everyone was in good spirits despite the mild concussions and crushed ribs. The excitement of seeing various forms of wildlife first hand was just too palpable even as everyone kept ducking from the low branches that whipped against the jeeps frame.
As we got further into the national park, the inescapable feeling of seeing elephants up close once again started to wash over me, after all this is part of the reason that so many people want experiences like this. The emotional connection that these wondrous animals have with human beings is as tangible as it is undeniable.
Unfortunately, alongside this sense of wonder a certain unease began to creep in. The driver was getting closer and closer to the small number of elephants who were trying to mind their own business. Far too close. As more and more jeeps from a whole smorgasboard of tour operators and safari companies began to mill around us, their engines making a cacophony of harsh roars that ensured any wildlife apart from the elephants that the drivers were following that could have been seen wouldn’t be.
Soon enough our driver got word that a herd of elephants were further up the road, and set off like a man on a mission. My heart sank at what I saw next.
The ‘gathering’ is a spectacular natural phenomenon that happens in the dry season, where entire herds of elephants gather to drink and bathe in the parks remaining water.
I had heard about this beforehand and my heart was in my mouth at actually seeing it.
Just as expected, the elephants were all congregating around the lake and using it as a giant waterhole. They were swimming, bathing, grazing in the long grass and generally just doing whatever it is elephants like to do.
This sounds like an idyllic once in a lifetime experience, and it was. Except for one thing. Tourists. Right next to them more than twenty jeeps had parked as close as they could get to the elephants, and more and more jeeps just kept coming and adding to the irresponsible pile up. In just a matter of minutes of our own jeep sitting there, the number grew closer to forty.
The tourists in the maelstrom of jeeps were hardly being subtle about their presence either. Most were talking and chatting whilst posing for their all important selfies, and none were making any effort to silence the abundance of children on board the vehicles either. Not that it mattered of course, the engines of so many jeeps were already disturbing the elephants.
Elephant safaris can be run in a responsible way that benefits the envioronment and the wildlife populations. But they need to be carefully managed to do so.
Whilst in many respects this national park is an amazing habitat for the elephants and other species which I did not get to see, the practices of the safari tour operators from what I saw are far from responsible and are in fact contrary to every best practice guidelines available.
The ABTA Global Welfare Guidance For Animals In Tourism guidelines for example state quite clearly that viewing groups on safaris – or any kind of viewing activity for that matter – should be kept small and appropriate to the activity and the species being viewed in order to minimise disturbance, with a strong guideline for no more than 4 or 5 boats or vehicles remaining stationary to view the animals at any given time, and that they should remain a respectful distance away so the animals are not disturbed by the vehicles presence.
Quite clearly the safari drivers were paying no attention to these guidelines at all.
Soon enough our driver got word – presumably from another driver – that there was another herd of elephants a short distance up the road. So as more and more jeeps added themselves to the unnatural herd of vehicles every minute, our own sped off once again to find them.
This time there were only a handful of jeeps parked up, but they were already far too close to the herd. The jeeps had literally sped right up in front of the elephants, their occupants gleefully taking photo after photo of the majestic and harangued animals. This wasn’t to last though, as a trail of jeeps followed in our dusty wake and piled in behind us, some of them getting even closer to the elephants and creating a second pile up of tourists trying to get their shots.
This was a clear case of the tour operators acting in the interest of the tourists – and their profit margins – rather than the wildlife.
I was getting really annoyed at this point, and if I’d have known beforehand this is what it was like, I never would have come on the safari in the first place.
The low point of the whole safari wasn’t in the jeeps themselves though, it was just as we were about to leave and the driver stopped at what I can only assume to be a ‘viewing point’. I climbed the ladder to the platform and was greeted with a stunning vista over the park, but then saw something that really disgusted me.
One of the primary guidelines for ethical and responsible safaris is that the tour operators are never under any circumstance chase an animal that is attempting to get away. And yet that is exactly what was happening right in front of my eyes with more than half a dozen jeeps chasing after and corralling an elephant that was clearly trying to get away like a horde of fevered papparazzi chasing down a drunken C list celeb.
It was time to leave after that, and I can honestly say I left with a horrible taste in my mouth from seeing the irresponsible practices of the safari groups. This taste was compounded with the fact that as we were leaving we passed dozens of jeeps still heading into the already crowded park.
So what I saw was really only the tip of the iceberg.
At the end of the day, national parks such as Minneriya are absolutely essential in conserving a variety of species, not just elephants, and in this regard the park cannot be faulted. It is a truly beautiful park, the fact that it exists as a habitat for all these species is amazing in and of itself, and should always be protected, conserved and supported in that respect. It is also true that it really is an absolutely spectacular natural sight to see entire wild herds congregate at the tank, or the lake, during dry season, which is perhaps why so many tourists love their time their after being ‘guaranteed’ an elephant sighting regardless of any ethical concerns.
Parks like this – put very bluntly – are unequivocally needed to protect all of these species from poaching, habitat loss and so much more.
The big problem as I see it is that the local authorities at Minneriya need to take a strong grip of the tour operators who are running these safaris and not only provide the much needed education so that they can protect the envioronment, habitat and the animals that they rely on for their livelihoods, but also impose a strict set of rules and guidelines that they will have to follow if they want to operate.
- Limits on how many jeeps can be in situ together at any one time.
- Time limits on how long individual jeeps can stop to view wildlife before moving on.
- A minimum recommended distance that must be kept between the animals and the jeeps.
- Speed limits.
- A ban on herding or corralling the wildlife so tourists get a better view.
- An absolute ban on chasing after wildlife that wants to move away.
These are just a fraction of the rules that can and should be imposed, and they are not difficult either. In fact they seem like simple common sense for anyone with a modicum of respect for wildlife.
National parks like this can – and should – be absolute beacons for wildlife conservation, and Minneriya National Park certainly has a lot of potential for being just that. Minneriya could very easily be a conservation paradise, not just for the elephants but every other species that live there too.
But none of this will happen as long as irresponsible tourism practices are deemed acceptable and hordes of tourists continue to flock to what is one of the most popular attractions in Sri Lanka and reinforce the irresponsible behaviour with money, and unfortunately just as much education and awareness is needed on their part as well.
It is unacceptable that when strong and robust guidelines for sustainable, responsible safaris and other forms of wildlife tourism exist, authorities allow a status quo where individual operators are seemingly allowed to pick and choose if they stick to them or not.
I visited both of these essentially similar wildlife tourism attractions during my time in Sri Lanka, and both show how extremely different one attraction can be from the next. The river safaris at Gal Oya National Park show that maintaining a responsible and sustainable ethos whilst profiting from tourism can and should be done, whilst Minneriya unfortunately shows that it is far too easy to discard responsible practices in the face of the tourist dollar.
It isn’t good enough, and everyone involved – the tour operators and the tourists – need to do better.
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This article was written in partnership with the Sri Lankan Tourism Board. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.