The Gathering of Elephants
By Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
During August and September each year in Sri Lanka, one of the most awesome wildlife spectacles in the world, gathers pace. Over three hundred wild Asian Elephants converge for 'the gathering'.
Sri Lankan wildlife defies conventional wisdom. Small islands are not supposed to have large animals. Someone forgot to tell this to the elephants, the largest terrestrial mammal. Not only is it found in Sri Lanka, the largest concentration of Asian Elephants, a seasonal gathering, takes place on this island.
Every year, 'the gathering' takes place on the receding shores of Minneriya Lake, in the north central province of Sri Lanka. As the dry season fastens its grip on the dry lowlands, leaves wither and fall in the dry deciduous forests, waterholes evaporate into cakes of cracked and parched mud. The elephants must move on in search of food and water.
The elephants, sometimes numbering over an awe inspiring three hundred, converge onto the receding shores of Minneriya Tank. Nowhere else in the world will one find such a high concentration of wild Asian Elephants concentrated into a few square kilometers. A fact confirmed by Jayantha Jayawardana author of The Elephant in Sri Lanka and a member of the IUCN/Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
The gathering at Minneriya is a wonderful opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts and casual travellers to observe the social dynamics of elephants. Matriarchs lead their clans to water, the whole group taking care to safeguard the baby elephants that are always flanked by adults. Thebasic unit of family society is a mother and calf. Clans of related elephants will coalesce into herds when they converge onto Minneriya in search of a common quest for food, water, cover and mates. The smaller herds group into even larger herds, sometimes numbering over a hundred elephants. Adult bulls mix freely, using their trunks to test the air for adult females who are receptive. When a bull elephant attains maturity, he is expelled from the herd and wanders as a bachelor. At the gathering elephants that have not seen each other for a year, renew acquaintances. Bulls tussle for dominance and calves play with each other.
The Minneriya Tank or reservoir is an ancient man made lake constructed by King Mahasen in the 3rd century AD. Many centuries ago, these lowlands were farmed for agriculture by an ancient civilization whose mastery of hydraulics was remarkably sophisticated. Today, the ancient reservoir fills during the north-east monsoon and gradually shrinks as the dry season fasten the lowlands in a torpid grip. As the waters recede, lush grassland sprouts attracting elephants in search of food from far away as the jungles of Wasgomuwa and Trincomalee. The lake always retains some water and is surrounded by scrub jungle, which provides shade during the heat of the day. The Asian Elephant is a shade-loving animal. It is not endowed with as good an air conditioning system as its African cousin who has large ears.
As evening falls, the elephants emerge from the scrub, in small herds of tens, coalescing into larger herds, sometimes numbering over a hundred. The gathering is one of the most unforgettable and fantastic events in the international wildlife calendar.
When should I visit?
The gathering peaks during the months of August and September. The locals will know whether the herds are gathered at Minneriya National Park or whether the nearby Kaudulla National Park offers better viewing at a particular time. Be guided by local advice and be flexible as to which of the parks you visit.
Why is it called 'The Gathering'?
Because that is what it is. It is a seasonal movement of elephants and not quite a migration in the sense of what biologists mean by a migration.
How should I visit?
Choose a reputable tour operator who can make your arrangements for accommodation, park entry fees, safari jeep hire, etc. Hotels in the neighbourhood can also make arrangements for jeep safaris.
What else can I do?
Minneriya, which is the focus of the 'gathering', is at the center of one of the richest areas for culture and archaeology. The magnificent ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the rock fortress palace of Kasyappa at Sigiriya, the Golden Rock Temple of Dambulla, are all within a half day's excursion. Wildlife enthusiasts may like to go further to Wilpattu National Park or go primate watching or birdwatching in the many forests patches in the area. Many of the country's finest hotels are also in the area.