To See an Elephant In the Wild

`THIS way,'' the flash of the hare's white tail in the headlights seemed to call out to us as we drove along in the predawn darkness. ``This way to Yala!'' Our van bumped and sped along the dirt road. The hare might easily have turned out of our path, but perhaps it wanted the exercise. Or perhaps it enjoyed being in the spotlight and guiding us with its white flashes to our destination.

Ruhuna National Park in the southeast corner of Sri Lanka is best seen in the early morning or late afternoon hours when the animals are up and about. Popularly known as Yala Park, it is home to deer, crocodiles, leopards, wild boar, cobras, langur monkeys, and many other species of wildlife. I wanted to see all these, but mostly I had come for the elephants. Elephants in the wild.

Work elephants I had seen. They are a fairly common sight in Sri Lanka, lifting and lugging fallen trees, ambling along the roadside, or bathing in the rivers. The Esala Perahera in Kandy, an annual parade to pay homage to Buddha, is dominated by colorfully caparisoned elephants marching three by three. They are magnificent to see, but always they wear their chains. I went to Yala to see them in their own domain.

WE arrived at the entrance to the park at sunrise. My window seat in the rear was the best in the van. I could stretch far out the window, let the breeze race through my hair, and tune out the chatter of the others in the van. The scent of the air made me sit up and breathe deeply. Fresh and keen, it was far better than any perfume.

We saw dazzling peacocks, their necks a deep rich shade of turquoise. One did a mating dance in full fan. Some jackals trotting nearby seemed supremely uninterested in the colorful birds, which surprised me. But for that matter, they didn't pay much attention to us humans in the van, either.

We drove on through dry scrub jungle. In an expanse of plains and scattered trees against a backdrop of distant rock formations and sky, we spotted an elephant. He was there in the distance, grazing among several water buffalo near a wide, shallow river. He moved with a slow, heavy grace, his trunk swinging back and forth, his ears flapping.

Through binoculars, he was a sight to behold: free, wild, fully alive. The elephant walked into the river and across the water to the other side. From horizon to horizon he could roam at will. It was all his. At that moment I wanted to be out of the van and away from my own species and our noise. I wanted to sit alone, smell the air, and drink in the experience. But park rules prohibited it and the van took me away.

One hundred years ago I might have gone to Sri Lanka, seen far greater numbers of wild elephants and been able to sit and observe them properly. I envy those who did. Surely to those naturalists in the 1890s, an unimaginable tragedy would have been that within a century elephants and other wild animals would be so rare that to see them in their natural state one would have to travel in rigidly controlled groups of tourists to a remote and small area - and then be lucky to catch a glimpse!

It is horrible to wonder if a future naturalist would some day come across these words and envy me merely for my having seen from the back of a crowded van that long-gone wonder, a wild elephant.

I wonder if man's rapacious appetite for absolutely everything, for all that lives and exists, can be curbed. I am fortunate to have seen many wonders of the world, but few can compare with an elephant in the wild. The majesty, the freedom are exhilarating. To preserve these, man must step back, slow down, and - like those casual jackals - let some things be, because ``having it all'' will end up leaving us nothing.

At the entrance to Yala Park a large sign tells visitors:

``Through these gates you enter a protected area. The animals, birds, trees, the water, the breeze on your face and every grain of sand, are gifts that nature has passed on to you through your ancestors so that you may survive. These gifts are sacred and should be respected. Whisper a silent prayer as you pass through for the protection of wilderness around you and insure that what you see and feel is passed on to the unborn generations to come.''

I hope those prayers are answered, and I hope someday that the hare leads you to Yala, too.

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