It's late afternoon, the open plains of the giant Minneriya reservoir gradually cool as the sun glides slowly down to the horizon and the waters of the reservoir shimmer in the receding sunlight. Slowly, from the surrounding scrub jungle, a large dark shadow appears. The first matriarch slowly ambles on to the open plains, followed by her family group. They slowly disperse around and start grazing on the lush grass shoots growing on the damp earth, exposed by the receding water of the reservoir. As if on cue, more dark shadows emerge, as matriarchs lead their herds out, and in a short while there are over a hundred elephants, large and small, strewn all over the plains, eating, playing, jostling , drinking , bathing...... The Gathering has begun.
July - October
takes place every year usually from about mid July until October, coinciding with the dry season in Sri Lanka's North Central & Eastern provinces. With the drought, the available water resources in the area dry up, limiting the available water for the large number of wild elephants who live here. A fully grown elephant usually would require about 100 litres of water per day so accessibility to a good source of water is vital to the elephant's survival.
Huge & ancient man made reservoir
The Minneriya Reservoir (also known as the Minneriya Tank) is a huge, ancient, man made reservoir covering 8,900 Hectares, constructed by King Mahasen in the 3rd century AD. The reservoir fills up during the monsoon, but as the rains cease and the dry season begins, the drought takes it toll, and the water in the reservoir starts to dry up. Although the reservoir shrinks dramatically, it never runs dry, and as the water has recedes, it leaves behind fertile, moist soil, where lush grass quickly sprouts.
Several herds emerge from the forest at the same time - Photos courtesy of Srilal Miththapala
The entire reservoir is surrounded by scrub jungle, which opens out into the vast plains of the Minneriya Tank. This provides an ideal and unique refuge for elephants during the dry season, where there is an abundant source of water; nutritious grasslands and readymade jungle cover to retreat to when the noonday sun becomes too hot.
This is what really causes the now famous ‘Gathering' of elephants at Minneriya. It is not a migration, but a ‘coming together' of a number of different herds of wild elephants from the surrounding areas of the North Central Province. It is thought that elephants from the Wasgomuwa Park and from far off areas such as Kantale make this annual visit. This is indeed a unique phenomenon, not seen anywhere else in the world, where such a high concentration of wild Asian elephants is found in such a small area.
The single tusker is a well know elephant. Photo credit Srilal Miththapala.
Interestingly, there are large numbers of juveniles in these herds, while a smaller number of mature male elephants can also be sighted, the most famous of which is the adolescent young tusker, and two mature tuskers, one with a single tusk, frequently seen among the congregating herds.
The gathering of elephants at Minneriya is a wonderful opportunity for the wild life enthusiast and casual traveller to watch and observe the social dynamics of elephants at leisure. Sri Lanka Tourism has realized the potential of this uniqueness event and has now embarked on a campaign to popularize and publicize this event, branded as ‘The Gathering'. Already thousands of visitors are rushing to view this wonderful spectacle, and if properly managed and publicized, this could eventually become as popular and well-known the world over as the Masai Mara Wildebeest migration.
Fast growing numbers of tourists
The Gathering is becoming very popular, and overseas visitor numbers to the park up to June 2009 showed a 43% increase over 2008 according to the Sri Lankan Department of Wild Life Conservation. The temporary closure of Yala and Uda Walawe National Parks for a short period may have had an effect, but there is no doubt that ‘The Gathering' is now fast gathering momentum!
Killing the golden goose - Unregulated tourism
However, the downside is that the Minneriya Park administration is not geared to manage this large influx of visitors. On weekends, it is a common sight to see 25-30 jeeps entering the park, many without trackers due to the shortage of staff. The open plains of the Minneriya have no clear demarcated routes, and jeep drivers, prompted by their foreign visitors, often drive all over the grass lands to get a better and closer view of the elephants for their hirers. This disrupts the elephants' feeding, as well as their movements towards the water, and also damages the rich grasslands.
Training for trackers and drivers
The Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) along with many of the leading hotels in the area are planning a training session for the trackers, as well as the jeep drivers, who are also stakeholders of this event, to educate them of the importance of protecting the wild life and not disturbing it. It is important that they understand that we humans are the trespassers, invading the elephants' territory.
Some concerted and urgent effort is therefore necessary - otherwise the disruption and stress caused to the elephants would soon result in them seeking greener pastures and we would have killed the ‘goose that lays the golden egg' - and The Gathering will be no more.