As kids we always wanted to catch a glimpse of the animals we learnt about in school. We would get so excited about a zoo visit as opposed to looking at pictures on a book. But now that we’ve grown up, we understand the sorrowful plight of these animals. Having heard and read about the cruelty, I choose to witness them in their own habitat, although I have made many trips to such places in the past.
In 2017 April, I had to travel to the cultural triangle for a familiarization tour (for those who are not from the travel industry, it means before we offer hotels or experiences to our clients we do a thorough check ourselves) covering sites and hotels in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.
On the second day after lunch in Habarana, we hustled to Minneriya,where two pre-booked jeeps awaited us. Excitement was building as we longed to witness hundreds of elephants that had traversed from across the country to the shores of this ancient reservoir to socialize, mate and have some fun 😁. This annual occurrence known as THE GATHERING is one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles and has been taking place for centuries.
If you are wondering why this is so special, let me explain. These gentle giants are majestic and it would be nothing short of a treat to see them freely roaming around. To me what makes it even more special is this. The world elephant population is said to have declined by 60% in the last decade and it just keeps decreasing until one day (soon) we would only have pictures and stories to pass on to our future generations.
Poaching thousands of these animals for their ivory has mainly contributed to this. However, the tiny island of Sri Lanka is still home to 7000+ of them. Isn’t that amazing? Better yet,hopeful?!
Your safari will commence at the entrance of somewhat a dirt road, contrasted by the verdant bamboo stalks arching towards the road as if though to welcome you. The first 40 mins or so will be through the forest, where it might be difficult to really spot any wildlife but then the landscape changes in a favorable manner.
I must say don’t let your search for the elephants deter you away from witnessing other wildlife such as crocodiles,endemic monkeys : purple faced langur and torque macaque, sambar and axis deer, the grey slender loris and the plethora of birds(endemic and migrant) like little Cormorant, painted storks, etc.
Minneriya is not only about the gathering. It was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1938 and was subsequently designated a national park in 1997. The Minneriya reservoir is of significant historical importance as it was built by King Mahasen( it literally wasn’t built by him… more like under his ruling) to improve the irrigation system in the east. The capacity of the river is said to be 20 billion gallons of water!
Take time to breath in the freshness of the surrounding and the charisma of the glorious skies.
My first sighting was a mother elephant with its little one, hiding behind the bushes. I wondered how they must be feeling about so many safari vehicles coming in and out from what they call their home( Minneriya NP). I mean, I am not a hardcore animal right activist but even I would not be happy about having (uninvited)visitors over at my place, every single day. Would you? In fact I was reading about this elephant that is quite aggressive towards vehicles that get too close, simply because her baby was run down by one in the past.
So I urge you, even if your driver or guide suggest you get a very closer look, explain to them why you would not want to disturb or provoke the animals by doing so…
As a tourist destination, we use USPs such as these events to attract tourists to the country, and yes some may say there is nothing wrong, because many destinations do. But I think if we are to leave something for our future generations to admire, we must explore the wilderness responsibly. In other words, instead of tracking that one leopard or elephant, soak up the wilderness as a whole. Don’t always slot in your itineraries a visit to Yala, or Minneriya or Wilpattu during the peak times.
For instance The Gathering takes place from September and surely you will witness hundreds of the gentle giants, but we visited Minneriya in April and still managed to get a decent sighting.
We didn’t see just one or two or ten but about thirty-forty of them scattered across the fields, plodding so gracefully as they always do… Seeing the baby elephants walk by the side of their parents is everything! It gives your heart all kinds of melts.
If you are particularly after the birds the best time of visit would be morning hours but if you are here for the elephants, schedule your safari in the afternoon.
One thing I personally believe in is a message can be either taken in or rejected based on how we convey it. The tone we set is very important. Instead of trying to fight those who do not understand responsible travel, let’s share our experiences. Even a simple act of not contributing to the overcrowding of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries by visiting them during high traffic periods, can make a huge difference.