More than half of the world’s population of Asian elephants are found in india. This makes it easy to observe groups of these giant animals in the wild here.
Elephant habitats extend from northern West Bengal and spread east all through the seven sister states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.
A four-hour drive from Guwahati, Kaziranga Tiger Reserve attracts wildlife enthusiasts because it is home to the one-horned rhino. It also has a sizeable population of elephants. Visitors can interact with the gentle giants by taking an hour-long, elephant-back safari around the grasslands, but to spot a wild family, you must go on a jeep safari.
Closed May-October. Best explored by jeep.
This reserve spreads across the south of Arunachal Pradesh. it includes the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Pakhui Tiger Reserve, both of which are easily accessible to tourists for treks.
Open all year round. Best explored on foot.
A national park and elephant reserve, Manas has a population of around 800 elephants. Jeep safaris are the best way to look for groups of wild elephants, and forest guides usually know where and when they can be found.
Closed May-September. Best explored by car.
At Nameri, it is not uncommon for trekkers to be rushed back to their camps after guards spot wild elephants nearby. The Nameri Eco Camp, where most tourists stay, has been raided by curious elephants on several occasions. Locals spend all night sleeping in machans in fields to guard their crops and warn others from the animals. Elephants thrive in this small national park and live in close proximity to the residents.
Closed May-October. Best explored on foot.
A majority of India’s elephants live in south India. Large populations can be found in the hills of the Western Ghats, and in the forests and hills of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Elephants are a big part of the culture of this region and are commonly tamed, especially for temple rituals and processions.
This elephant reserve combines the Bandipur, Nagarhole, Mudumalai and Wayanad National Parks to protect the 3,000 elephants that live here. The area is also rich in other wildlife such as tigers and langurs. Elephant corridors connect these forests and one often encounters a herd taking a stroll from one forest to another, while driving through roads in the area.
Open all year round. Best explored by car or jeep.
Also located in the Western Ghats, Anamalai is a beautiful elephant reserve, filled with teak forests, shrubs, and tropical evergreen forests. There is a forest guesthouse for accommodation and elephants are commonly sighted. For those who do not spot wild elephants, there is also an elephant camp in the reserve where tourists can watch domesticated elephants being bathed.
Sometimes closes in summer, check with hotel before planning a trip. Best explored by safari bus.
Sleeping in one of the hotels near the border of the park usually ensures that you hear some trumpeting at night. Elephants live quite deep inside Periyar and keep a safe distance from tourists walking in the reserve. No jeep rides are allowed in this forest, and looking for elephants on foot may not be the safest option, unless accompanied by an experienced and armed forest guard. The reserve frequently organises overnight camps for elephant sightings.
Open all year round. Best explored on foot.
Small populations of elephants live at the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.
Uttarakhand’s protected area for elephants has a happy population of over one thousand. This region includes the Jim Corbett National Park and Rajaji National Park, where regular safaris make it possible to see elephants and several other animals in the wild.
Main areas of Corbett (Dhikala and Bijrani) closed June-November. Rajaji closed July-September. Best explored by car.
Close to the Nepal border, this wildlife sanctuary has vast grasslands and some wetlands. Accommodation within the forest is possible in the forest guesthouse, always a good choice for early morning safaris. This is part of the Dudhwa National Park, where small elephant populations live.
Closed July-October. Best explored by car.
Interacting with elephants can be a joyful experience, for young and old alike. But the thinking traveller can’t help but wonder if a wild elephant can be domesticated without harming it. Shelters provide homes for elephants that have been retired from the logging trade and cannot be released in to the wild, or animals that have been used for begging that the mahouts can no longer afford to feed. In such cases, tourism actually provides the means for their care. Often however, the shelters can be regressive in the way they treat the animals. Travellers should look out for tell-tale signs of unhappy elephants— open wounds, the use of an ankush (a sharp stick used to hurt them), extremely short chains, and the absence of social interaction between animals—and report it. Boycotting all shelters is not the solution to stop cruelty towards elephants, supporting the right ones is a better choice.
Elephants are friendly, playful, social animals, and spending time with them in a space where they are happy makes for an unforgettable holiday. Here are a few elephant camps that are recommended for their animal care. Practices at most shelters however, vary according to the mahouts who are in charge, so keep an eye out for any distressing signs.
Kartick Satyanarayan rescued Champa from cruel employers in 2009. The only problem was that Champa was a full grown elephant and Kartick was a man with a small house. With some land borrowed from the forest department, funds raised through his NGO, Wildlife SOS, and the help of a gentle mahout and vet, Champa was soon cured of her wounds and began to live happily in her new space. This encouraged Kartick, who already ran a bear rescue shelter in Agra, to take in more elephants. And Elephant Heaven was born.
A “walk with elephants” programme allows visitors to meet the mahout as well as the vet, and interact with the elephants as they walk and bathe (visitors should make a donation as no fee is charged). There are no rides here and elephants are never chained, except in an emergency. There are volunteer opportunities for those who want to stay longer and learn more about these gentle animals (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Daphne Sheldrick is known as the person who perfected a formula to hand-feed African elephants (the secret was coconut milk). Now, she runs a shelter in Nairobi that cares for orphaned calves during the first two years when they are milk-dependent, with the aim of releasing them back to the wild.
The orphanage is open to visitors for an hour daily, from 11 a.m. to noon, when the babies are being fed. Visitors cannot interact with the calves since excess human bonding can damage their chances of integrating with a wild herd—but watching the playful young ones rolling in the mud and suckling on giant milk bottles is enough to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Elephant tourism is a huge industry in Thailand, which unfortunately means that some shelters capture babies from the wild, and use cruel practices like beating and starving to break their spirit. Domestic elephants are considered livestock in Thailand and do not have much legal protection against cruel owners.
Elephant Nature Park is a rehabilitation centre for ill-treated elephants. In an attempt to create awareness and involve visitors in their care and conservation, the guides share endearing stories of the human-like emotions shown by elephants. Visitors can interact with the animals over periods ranging from an hour to four days and learn to bathe, play with, and care for these giants (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org ). The park’s founder, Lek Chailert, has received many awards worldwide for her work with elephants.
A visit to the Udawalawe National Park is a complete elephant package. It starts with a jeep safari to see the hundreds of wild elephants that inhabit this park and ends with a visit to the shelter that cares for orphaned calves. The shelter is a transit home that trains elephants to survive when they return to the wild. The combination of the two experiences really brings home the importance and the difficulties of surviving in the wild. Visitors are required to maintain a fair distance from the calves, but it is still fun to watch the babies as they play and roam, or are fed at mealtimes (9a.m., 12p.m., 3p.m., and 6p.m.).
This small sanctuary has 12 elephants and the strong belief that this generation of elephants should be the last to be domesticated. The elephants here have been rescued from unpleasant working situations and cruel owners. They live in an environment that is as close to the wild as possible, foraging for their own food. There are no chains and no tourist rides. Visitors can observe them from a safe distance (the sanctuary is funded by the money raised through tourism) and interact with elephants when they bathe and feed. They can also spend the whole day with the mahout and learn to take care of elephants. Accommodation is available inside the sanctuary, next to where the elephants sleep (www.elephantvalleyproject.org). Volunteers at the sanctuary also work with locals to help them find sources of income that do not include elephant domestication.
Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “Elephant Spotting”.
is a traveller and writer. Her itchy feet take her around the world, making friends wherever she goes.
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