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Where to see Sri Lankan elephants | Insight Guides Blog

Where to see Sri Lankan elephants

It may be 'touristy', but there's good reason a trip to an elephant reserve or sanctuary is high up the "must-do" list for visitors to Sri Lanka. Read on to find out more about the spiritual significance of Sri Lankan elephants, and the experience of visiting a reserve during feeding and bath times...
See adorable baby elephants at Pinnawela. Photo: Marek Velechovsky/Shutterstock
See adorable baby elephants at Pinnawela. Photo: Marek Velechovsky/Shutterstock

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Maximus maximus

The Sri Lankan elephant, also known as elephas maximus maximus, is more a majestic subspecies of the Asian elephant, the elephas maximus.

Despite the fact that the Sinhalese are named after the lion, it is alongside the elephant that they have become most closely associated over the centuries. Elephants are central to most of the island’s religious festivals, and it is an elephant that is entrusted with carrying the holiest of holies, the Tooth Relic, during the great Esala Perahera festival in Kandy. Time your trip to Sri Lanka right with the help of Insight Guides' experts to experience this impressive event for yourself on our Sri Lanka: Culture and Coast holiday.

Elephants were used by the ancient kings of Anuradhapura to trample down foundations for the city’s massive stupas, edifices they still symbolically support – as demonstrated by the elephant-head carvings that decorate the perimeter wall of the great Ruwanveliseya stupa, and many other such structures around the island. Elephants were used by the Kandyans to execute condemned prisoners, and killing an elephant was itself a capital offence.

In more recent times elephants have been put to work pulling barges by the Dutch and helping to clear land for tea plantations by the British, and trained pachyderms are still widely used in jobs requiring serious muscle-power in many parts of the island – chances are you’ll pass one lumbering along the road at some point during your visit.

Elephants, or elephas maximus maximus, in Sri Lanka. Photo: Marek Velechovsky/ShutterstockElephants, or elephas maximus maximus, in Sri Lanka. Photo: Marek Velechovsky/Shutterstock


The Maligawa Tusker

Elephants come into their own during the great religious processions, or peraheras, which are such a feature of island life, and nowhere more so than during the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy, one of Sri Lanka’s most spectacular sights. As the festival moves towards its dramatic conclusion over successive nights, the number of elephants gradually increases. On the final few nights, more than a hundred elephants take part in the procession, led by the so-called “Maligawa Tusker”, draped from trunk to tail in a brightly coloured, embroidered cloth decorated with tiny electric light bulbs. The Maligawa Tusker is entrusted with carrying the illuminated howdah (elephant “saddle”) which holds the gold, dagoba-shaped reliquary containing a replica of the sacred Tooth Relic.

The most famous Maligawa Tuskers are held in enormous reverence by the island’s Buddhist population. The stuffed remains of the former Maligawa Tusker known as Raja, one of the island’s best-loved pachyderms, are still preserved in state in a dedicated museum within the grounds of the Temple of the Tooth, while his death in 1998 prompted the government to declare a national day of mourning.

Explore the Temple of the Tooth on a guided tour with Insight Guides' Luxury Sri Lanka and the Maldives holiday, which combines beachside bliss with cultural attractions. 

Millennium Elephant Foundation

Millennium Elephant Foundation takes a more hands-off approach to other reserves on the island, with displays and exhibits on various elephant-related topics, and informative guides on hand to answer your questions. Their main attraction is their elephant walk experience, possibly Sri Lanka's most ethical way of seeing and getting close to these beautiful animals. Join an expert guide as you meander the foundation's grounds with the elephants, watching and observing their behaviour. During the three-four hour experience, you'll also have the opportunity to bathe elephants and even shower with them. Those interested in the foundation's additional activities, can tour the Maximum Elephant Dung Paper Factory and opt for a three-course meal on-site. There are six elephants permanently based here, with others staying temporarily for treatment or respite. Meet them up-close on Insight Guides' Sri Lanka: Culture and Coast holiday, which includes an organised trip to the Millennium Elephant Foundation.

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Photo: SurangaSL/Shutterstock

Bath time is popular at elephant reserves and sanctuaries. Photo: SurangaSL/Shutterstock

Sri Lanka's best national parks

Alternatively, if you're looking to see elephants in their natural habitat, you'll want to tour Sri Lanka's range of beautiful, lush and wildlife-rich national parks. Uda Walawe National Park is one of the best places to see elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka. The park has very little forest cover, leaving wide, arid, open spaces for elephants to roam in. Alternatively, Yala National Park is the country's most famous and will also give you the opportunity to spot leopards too. Find out more about Sri Lanka's best national parks and when to visit them here.

This blog was originally published November 13, 2015

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