“The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.”
― Nancy Wynne Newhall
How many muscles does an elephant’s trunk comprise of? Are you aware of the painstaking process that elephants take to dust soil and pebbles off clumps of grass before eating? How many physical differences between African elephants and Sri Lankan Elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) can you name? To find the answers to such pertinent questions, why not pay a visit to Uda Walawe National Park – located approximately an hour’s drive west of Kulu’s Yala camp.
Uda Walawe is probably the best National Park on the island for year-round elephant viewing. The general consensus is that around 250 elephants are resident in and around the park. Uda Walawe’s elephants, although wild, are relatively accustomed to vehicles and afford visitors reasonable proximity to observe the intricacies of their fascinating behaviour.
We could wax poetic about elephant statistics, from their size (while smaller than African elephants, Asian Elephants weigh 2,000 – 5,000kg and are 2-3m in height), to their diet – eating over over 100kg of food a day. But there is so much more to these beautiful giants (and our knowledgeable guides are happy to enlighten you) – the complexity of their mannerisms, how individual personalities differ, how nimble and quiet they can be (especially given their size!), and what allows such a large animal to move so silently. Spending a lazy afternoon with a herd of elephants is one of our favourite recommendations for guests to take a break from a hectic travel schedule and reconnect with the allure of the wild.
Young elephants are especially entertaining. They are clumsy, mischievous and have a cheeky disdain for authority (until an older cousin or aunt reprimands them with a carefully measured smack with her trunk!). Occasionally, a playful calf would decide he wants to give his audience a mock-charge, only to go scampering back to the safety of his aunts, peeking out from a mass of wrinkled grey skin to see the effect he had on the invaders! However, if Mum feels you’re in her space, it might be best to back off a bit – a charging matriarch, while thrilling, can also be quite dangerous. Elephants in Uda Walawe rarely attack vehicles, but do watch out for a bull elephant in musth that feels like asserting his dominance.
While Yala’s leopards draw many visitors, we host clients who pay regular homage to Uda Walawe for a different reason – the park’s excellent birdlife. Uda Walawe offers great viewing for migrant birds during winter months. Frequent visitors include the Indian Pitta, Black-Capped Kingfisher, and White Wagtail who join their endemic friends, the Grey Hornbill, Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl, and Brown Capped Babbler, (amongst others) from November through March. One of our highlight bird sightings in the park was a Shaheen Falcon, our local relative of the Peregrine Falcon. Although rare, they exist in lowlands around the island, and a sighting of one would be a feather in any birder’s cap.
If you have a love for raptors as we do, this park is a great place to observe the aerial dexterity of the White Bellied Sea Eagle. The Walawe reservoir that borders the park provides a rich hunting ground for these flying anglers. We take our guests to some excellent vantage points overlooking the reservoir, where one can set up a tripod for some photography or just observe eagles through a pair of binoculars.
A great alternative to the ‘typical evening’ in Uda Walawe (which would entail driving around while looking for game) would be to park by the reservoir and watch these eagles swoop down on fish, while a herd of elephants amble into the water on a nearby bank for an evening drink and a bath, to cool off from a typically hot, Sri Lankan day in the jungle. Painted Stork, Pelicans, Ibis and Teal join in to add some colour and cacophony to the orderly proceedings. Oh, and did someone say, “sun downers”!
While sightings of leopard and sloth bear have been recorded in Uda Walawe, they are few and far between. To us, the park is the playground of gentle giants and the eagles that rule the air above them. This little gem of a wilderness is definitely worth a visit.
Total Land Area: 30,821 Ha (119 sq. mi)
Species of individual Mammals recorded: 43
Species of individual Birds recorded: 183
Ave. Annual Rainfall: ~1520mm
Climate: Dry, semi-arid
Ecological Diversity: Mostly grassland/plaints, some scrub forest
Key Attractions: Sri Lanka Elephant, Leopard (rare), Mouse Deer, Barking Deer, Spotted Deer, Sambhur Deer, Diverse Birdlife including raptors, migrants, waders, shorebirds