The going gets greener in Sri Lanka

The island nation is encouraging travellers to embrace a green wave of eco-consciousness
The Pinnawala Elephant orphanage near Kandy
The Pinnawala Elephant orphanage near Kandy

For a country roughly the size of Tasmania in Australia, Sri Lanka has a surprising number of ecosystems. The island may be synonymous with beaches and temples, but there is a longer list of all that it has to offer. Somewhere down the list are places to see and things to do that steer visitors tenderly towards a lighter footprint. Slowly but surely, a green wave of eco-consciousness is washing over the island, touching travellers and nudging them as gently as the fin of a three-day-old baby turtle that sits on your palm at one of the many rescue centres of the country.

At the Ahungalla Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Centre 40 km from the beach town of Galle, a giant turtle in cement welcomes guests with its mouth wide open, swallowing them as they enter its beak that makes the archway. Enter the dark belly, where aquariums built into the walls showcase baby sharks, electric eels, star fish and more. It’s hard to tell them apart from regular sea creatures, but the volunteer on duty will tell you about their fins or limbs caught and damaged in fishing nets, and how they are rescued and released back in the sea once they heal.

Outside, one finds little pools with green turtles bobbing up and down in them, gracefully gliding towards your outstretched palms with renewed faith in their human counterparts. “The one you see permanently afloat ingested too much plastic and the gases caused make him float. He can never sink, and is an easy target for predators,” explains Suranga, a 40-year-old volunteer here.

The knowledge of this context is a doorway into fantastic conservation work and transforms a visit to see turtles into an opportunity to sign up for volunteer work here. After a morning of giving these beautiful creatures their due, head back to Galle to its fabulously well-preserved, historic Dutch fort for an afternoon of lunch and leisure, but not without a pit stop for a gentle boat ride down the Madu river to explore its exquisite mangroves.

<em>A poster outside a shop; an arrack cocktail</em>
A poster outside a shop; an arrack cocktail

Another place where a visit converges with conservation is the Pinnawala Elephant orphanage near Kandy, where you can observe three generations of elephants together. Most of these were taken under the wing of the centre after being orphaned or abandoned, including unweaned babies (the star attraction being a pair of two-year twins) separated from herds or injured adults left to fend for themselves in the wild.

In their 25-acre home, a new family is formed where doting visitors watch and play with them, feed them at times and observe the gentle giants go about their daily routine including a dip in the Maha Oya river. While the government-run Pinnawala also doubles as a captive breeding centre that may not fully align with the idea of the conservation of ‘wild’ life, it is an effort to increase the population. Back in Kandy, close to the famous Temple of the Tooth, a daily hour-long cultural programme is the perfect wrap up to the day that showcases traditional dance and music of the country in a bid to keep it alive.

<em>A green turtle at the Ahungalla Sea Turtle Conservation; (right) the Madu river</em>
A green turtle at the Ahungalla Sea Turtle Conservation; (right) the Madu river

More and more places where conservation mixes with tourism are cropping up throughout Sri Lanka; the idea of sustainability has even spilled into the country’s food and drink culture. From its top restaurants to highway eateries, Sri Lanka offers wholesome food that is organic, local, and fresh. The Bommu rooftop bar at the Radisson Colombo has a uniquely designed arrack menu that uses the indigenous brew as the pouring drink for its innovative cocktails, a trend that has drawn attention to the often ignored local drink.

Embracing traditional ingredients, preserving cultural practices by bringing them into the mainstream, and opening up avenues to make travellers more inclusive in their conservation efforts, are all different facets of the same country that make Sri Lanka a thousand islands merged into one. In its return to roots, it is really forging a path forward.

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