Imagine a place where elephants gather in their hundreds. From mature matriarchs to young calves and massive bulls, elephants of all ages congregate in the open around the ancient man-made reservoirs of Minneriya and Kaudulla between the months of June through to November, which play host to a massive gathering of elephants during the dry season every year.
Both Minneriya and Kaudulla reservoirs were built by the great King Mahasen in the 3rd century AD with the intention of providing water for the cultivations of the entire region. The elephants have unintentionally become one of the main beneficiaries. During the dry season, the receding waters give way to lush green meadows of grass. It is this grass which attracts these herds of elephants in their hundreds. The elephants come from all parts of the region, and gather around the receding banks to feed and bathe in the cool waters of the tank. When the water levels rise upon the return of the north-east monsoon, these tanks overflow flooding the national parks, forcing the elephants to retreat to the Hurullu Forest Reserve and the surrounding jungles.
The Gathering plays host to lone bulls in musth (a heightened form of aggression with elevated testosterone which the bulls succumb to during the mating season) who come in search of potential mates. Among these bulls are the rare tuskers who might be seen mingling with the herds. These elusive and fast disappearing relics of a bygone era are a sight to behold, striding along the plains like a colossus, testing the air for receptive females.
The parks are also home to a myriad of birds ranging from the majestic birds of prey such as the White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fishing Eagle and if one is lucky a glimpse of the majestic and rare Black Eagle. Also present are the many water birds such as the Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans, Asian Openbill, which can occasionally gather in large flocks.
Elephants are found throughout the year in either Minneriya, Kaudulla or the Hurullu Forest Reserve. Upon the onset of the north-east monsoon, the herds move from Minneriya to Kaudulla from around late September to November. By December, once the reservoirs are filled to the brim, the elephants being to disperse and moves towards the Hurullu Forest Reserve. The herds stay within these jungles until the onset of the dry season and water levels being to recede and then start their move to Minneriya around June where they gather in large numbers and reside until September. The safari guides are regularly updated on where the elephants are found in abundance and will choose the place suitable for the safari based on the number of elephants in either one of the three parks.
The Asian Elephant is a globally endangered species and is a symbol of Sri Lanka’s cultural and natural heritage. ‘The Gathering enable visitors to get up close and personal with these giant animals and get a good view out in the open. At times the jeeps will be literally surrounded by elephants who will continue their social interactions and behavior. It is a treat to see these intelligent giants and their social behaviors, which at times remind us of ourselves. The playful antics of the young calves are a joy to watch, as well as the loving care of their mothers. The Gathering of Elephants is today regarded as one of the world’s top wildlife spectacles and is not to be missed for anyone visiting the cultural triangle.
Despite the annual occurrence one of the main issues the elephants face is the ever increasing popularity by tourists. In recent years it has come to point that vehicles in their hundreds visit the park and in most cases venture too close into the herds causing anxiety and panic among the elephants. Despite getting a short term “thrill” for the clients the effect on behavior towards these very social animals are great. Hence an effective mechanism is required to not only control the number of vehicles during the peak season but further more stringent enforcement of rules to ensure the safety and welfare of the elephants are paramount.
Rajiv Welikala Rajiv was formerly a professional in the apparel industry. His true passion is photographing Sri Lanka’s unique wildlife. Rajiv is currently working in inbound travel and tourism at Classic Sri Lanka. He is an acclaimed wildlife photographer having held two successful solo exhibitions in 2013 and 2015 along with the launch of a coffee table publication titled ‘Children of Eden’.