Animal magic in Sri Lanka

PUBLISHED: 14:36 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:14 20 February 2013

Elephants from Pinnawela enjoying their daily bathe

Elephants from Pinnawela enjoying their daily bathe

If you're looking for wildlife, Sri Lanka offers creatures great and small as Karen Bowerman discovers

If youre looking for wildlife, Sri Lanka offers creatures great and small as Karen Bowerman discovers

The owner of the gem shop closes his shutters, the man with the trinket stall moves his tinkling wind-chimes to one side, the tuktuks draw to a halt - the elephants are coming through.

Casually, and in their own time, the beasts of Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage lumber across the main road and into the small side street which slopes towards the Ma Oya river near Kegalle in central Sri Lanka.

They pass within a few feet of me: dusty eyes blink, skin hangs in folds beneath scaly bellies, mothers coax babies closer, youngsters jostle for space. Seventy odd elephants shamble towards the water, heading for a bathe.

At the river they put on an entertaining display a couple link up, trunk to tail and wade in; an elderly matriarch, her skin patchy pink and pockmarked, showers herself; a newborn delights in his own flatulent bubble bath.

But my favourite is the elephant that balances on a massive rock in the shallows, swirling the current dreamily with his trunk. His ears flap, open and close, like massive, leathery butterfly wings.

Pinnawela, set in a sprawling coconut plantation, boasts the largest collection of captive elephants in the world, making it easy for visitors to spend hours among them.

Stroll around the plantation and youll spot families sunning themselves beneath towering palms, or loping across grassland against a backdrop of hazy hills. Attend feeding sessions where newborns guzzle milk from giant bottles and adults chomp their way through truck loads of palm leaves. And of course, dont miss bath time!

If youd rather see elephants in the wild, then the island has 14 national parks to choose from. The best sightings tend to be in Uda Walawe in the south and Minneriya further north (on the so-called Cultural Triangle touring route) between Sigiriya and Polunnaruwa.

Visit in the dry season (August and September) and spotting an elephant will be even easier, as up to 300 converge on Minneriyas main watering hole. Its one of the largest meetings of elephants in the world, and is referred to locally as The Gathering. Despite Sri Lankas close association with elephants (they were once used to build palaces and are still a reliable work force today) the islands biggest draw is leopards.

Take an early morning or twilight drive through Yala National Park in the southeast of the country, scan the rocky outcrops and a sighting is much more common than a few years ago.

Whereas previously wildlife tour operators talked of a 90% chance of a sighting after five game drives, now theyre confident of one after three. Sloth bears, however, remain as elusive as ever!

But wildlife in Sri Lanka isnt all about bears, big cats and elephants. Birds feature strongly too.

The islands varied habitats coastal wetlands, rainforest and cloud forest support a huge variety of species including the endemic multicoloured blue magpie and the dusky-blue fly catcher. In August to April numbers are swelled further by up to 200 species of migratory birds.

Its also the place to see some of the largest bird waves in the world (thats a flock of at least 50 birds, with 12 different species within it, which for twitchers is apparently quite something!) The Sinharaja rain forest designated a world heritage site by Unesco is the place to head if youre interested.

Specialists can also take a boat from Kalpitya on the west coast, to spot pelagic seabirds birds which spend their lives off shore, even sleeping on the waves.

Stay in an eco lodge

Whatever youre most interested in, theres no need to rough it to be assured of a wildlife encounter. You can stay in luxury tents in one of the islands national parks, at an exclusive hotel just outside, or in an eco lodge. Some, like Vil Uyana near Sigiriya, even have their own nature reserves.

The owners of Vil Uyana feel as strongly about birds, insects and trees as those at Pinnawela do about elephants. Seven years ago they bought an abandoned agricultural site and contacted the RSPB and the London Wetland Centre (a nature reserve for birds and small animals) for advice. After considerable planning they created a variety of habitats reed beds, paddy fields, marsh and forest. When they were established they added accommodation, to give guests their own private nature reserve.

Wander through the grounds and youll find ebony and palu trees (their berries a favourite with sloth bears), ranawara flowers (used in herbal tea) and the wara plant, an antidote for snake bites. There are ponds dotted with blue water lilies and brilliant pink lotus flowers, lizards, butterflies and even a resident naturalist to show you round.

My room was a thatched chalet set on stilts in the middle of rice fields. It came with its own secluded plunge pool and a terrace where I could relax surrounded by nature. At night I listened to the nightjars and spotted the odd flying fox.

For a couple of days I didnt even have to leave the hotels infinity pool to see wildlife: a heron perched on one of the wooden walkways; parakeets squawked overhead; coots and moorhens picked their way through lakeside reeds; even a freshwater crocodile slithered by, before lounging in the mud a few feet away.

Assured it was harmless I stayed in the pool, swam another lazy length then floated on my back in the shallows. But for the first time during my stay, I felt the tables turn. After days on the trail of wildlife, now I was the one being watched!


Getting there: Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct to Colombo from London Heathrow approx 500 return

Many eco tour operators offer specialist wildlife holidays / wildlife and general sightseeing holidays. One of the leading operators is

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, Rambukkana Road, Kegalle, Sri Lanka

Vil Uyana, Rangirigama, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka.

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