Once found on the flag of the Ceylon Government, elephants have co-existed with Sri Lankans for thousands of years and play a key role in much of Sri Lanka’s culture and heritage. Even today no religious or cultural ceremony is complete without at least one elephant dressed in vibrant colours and sparkling decorations! With an estimated 5000 wild Asian elephants still roaming the country’s low lands, Sri Lanka is a great country to experience these incredible mammals in the wild…and there is no place is better than in Minneriya National Park during ‘The Gathering’!
Found in the central province of Sri Lanka, Minneriya was declared a National Park in 1997, though its history stretches way back into the 3rd Century A.D., when King Mahasen ordered the creation of the Minneriya ‘tank’ (that’s a man-made lake to me and you). Wildlife has thrived ever since, with this large water source providing a home for many animals including deer, birds, giant squirrels and of course elephants.
The surrounding ecosystem is majorly influenced by this tank, relying on it to supply a constant source of water, food and irrigation. During the dry season (when ‘The Gathering’ occurs) the tank shrivels in size and dries up, leaving only small pockets of water surrounded by barren lake-beds. This forces the elephants to come out into the open to reach the much needed water, providing an amazing spectacle for visitors.
Incredibly, elephants are drawn to this small source of water from all over the Northern and Central provinces of Sri Lanka, and as many as 300 elephants have been seen to be gathered on the dried up lake in one time. On my visit I lost count at around 100! This amazing phenomenon gives visitors a unique glimpse into the social dynamics of elephants’ lives. You can watch matriarchal elephants lead their herd; watch protective mothers safe-guard their (adorable) babies; and watch the solitary males live the ultimate bachelor lifestyle.
The best time to visit the park is from 3pm onwards as the elephants tend to wait in the shade of the forest until it is cool enough to venture out onto the open expanse of the lake-bed. If you’re lucky you might be able to catch a herd just as they are emerging en masse from the surrounding foliage, making their way down towards the remaining ponds, and follow their route in your jeep. Though the day might be cooling down, the sun remains just as strong so make sure you wear plenty of sun cream…. unfortunately I learnt the hard way!
It is also important to remember that, despite the apparent calmness of these creatures, they are first and foremost wild animals! Whilst some jeep drivers like to get as close as possible to these immense creatures, make sure you are sensible and keep a safe distance: you just don’t know when these animals may charge, so better safe than sorry.
Visitors will be blown away by the exotic beauty of these animals gathering here in Minneriya. It is exceptionally easy to spend hours on end just watching these giants in their natural setting. Indeed in 2011 ‘Lonely Planet’ awarded this natural phenomenon the honour of being the 6th greatest animal spectacle in the world: a true testament to this amazing event.
Talk to us at Experience Travel about incorporating ‘The Gathering’ into your Sri Lanka holiday.