Sprawling across the lowlands due south of the towering cliff faces of Horton Plains, Uda Walawe has developed into one of Sri Lanka’s most popular national parks mainly thanks to its large and easily spotted population of elephants – it’s the best place in the island to see pachyderms in the wild, although in other respects it doesn’t have the range of fauna and habitats of Yala or Bundala. The park is beautifully situated just south of the hill country, whose grand escarpment provides a memorable backdrop, while at its centre lies the Uda Walawe Reservoir, whose catchment area it was originally established to protect. Most of Uda Walawe lies within the dry zone, and its terrain is flat and denuded, with extensive areas of grassland and low scrub (the result of earlier slash-and-burn farming) dotted with the skeletal outlines of expired trees, scratched to death by the resident elephants. The actual landscape of the park is rather monotonous during dry periods, although the lack of forest cover makes it easier to spot wildlife than in any other Sri Lankan park and the whole place transforms magically after rain, when temporary lagoons form around the reservoir, drowning trees and turning the floodplains an intense, fecund green.
The principal attraction is, of course, elephants, of which there are usually around six hundred in the park; animals are free to migrate along an elephant corridor between here and Lunugamvehera National Park, though most stay here. There are also hundreds of buffaloes, plus macaque and langur monkeys, spotted and sambhur deer and crocodiles, while other rarely sighted residents include leopards, giant flying squirrels, jungle cats, sloth bears and porcupines. Uda Walawe is also good for birds, including a number of endemics and some birds of prey, while the reservoir also attracts a wide range of aquatic birds including the unmistakable Lesser Adjutant, Sri Lanka’s largest – and ugliest – bird, standing at well over a metre tall.
About 5km west of the park entrance on the main road is the engaging Elephant Transit Home – usually referred to as the “Elephant Orphanage”. Founded in 1995, the orphanage is home to around 25 baby elephants rescued from the wild after the loss of their parents. As at the better-known orphanage at Pinnewala, elephants here are bottle-fed milk until the age of 3½, after which they’re given a diet of grass. At the age of 5, most are released into the national park (around thirty so far); a few have been donated to important temples. You can’t get quite as close to the elephants as at Pinnewala; outside feeding times the elephants are allowed to wander, so there’s usually nothing to see.