THE GATHERING – A BILLON RUPEES OF ELEPHANTS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). The Gathering – a billon Rupees of elephants. Hi Magazine. December 2008. Series 6, Volume 5. Pages 202-204. ISSN 1800-0711
The first week of November was not the prime time for observing The Gathering. I reminded this to Shyamalee Tudawe the Editor of Hi Magazine as we rumbled along the A6 in a safari jeep to Minneriya National Park. The Gathering is a seasonal event in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka which ranks amongst the top wildlife events in the world. It starts in July and runs through until the rains of the North-east Monsoon arrive at the start of October. At its peak in August and September there could be 300 wild Asian Elephants in a one kilometer quadrat and as many as 450 elephants on the drying lake bed of Minneriya. This year the monsoons were late and the elephants had lingered on. From a media perspective this had worked well for me. In July I had begun a series of visits to get a handle on numbers on The Gathering as there had been a view that efforts by the government to keep water levels high in other lakes may reduce the concentration in Minneriya. Myself, Chitral Jayatilake and Srilal Miththapala who were exchanging notes did not see any perceptible reduction. On 4th September, I took Mel Gunasekera and photographer Ishara Kodikkara of AFP for The Gathering. Their story ran world-wide and a former colleague Sanjiva Gautamadasa even sent me a copy of the Bali Times which had run the AFP story. Several weeks later, on the 29th October, I was back again with local television production house Vanguard. Charitha Fernando and cameraman Erandha Gunawardena. We could seen just under 200 elephants in the field of view from one place. This was staggering for so late in the window for observing The Gathering.
But this press visit was on the 6th of November, the latest ever that I had taken anyone from the press for The Gathering. I was banking on the information given to me by Chandra Jayawardana the naturalist of Vil Uyana that conditions on the ground were still dry as the North-east Monsoons had not yet begun to lash the dry plains. We entered the park standing up in the jeep and soaked in the clean, fresh air and the greenery. The air was pregnant with expectation. The farmers were praying for the rain which was promised in the moist, cool air. Shyamalee was hoping for a spectacle of elephants which I did not think I could deliver, so late in The Gathering.
Minneriya is an understated park. The drive to the bed of the tank is beautiful. First its cuts through monsoon forest with gaunt, large old trees and a sparse undergrowth as the forest giants have plundered all the sunlight. It then runs past some low hills interspersed with forest and glades. Mel, Charitha and Shymalee all had in their faces a glow of reinvigoration on the game drive. When driving into Minneriya it is hard to believe that it was only a few hours away from the hustle and bustle of Colombo.
I could not be so sure of The Gathering having good numbers so late, even with the rains not having come. But I was sure of elephants. Minneriya National Park as with many other national parks having elephants have elephants throughout their year. In 1996 and 1997 I undertook a few visits to Sri Lanka from the UK when I was researching A Birdwatchers Guide to Sri Lanka which was published by the Oriental Bird Club in 1997. I heard about safari jeeps operators taking visitors to see elephants to Kaudulla and Minneriya when the ground was dry enough to travel without the vehicles being mired in mud. The prevailing belief was that elephants were there pretty much throughout the year, but access was only possible when conditions were dry.
In December 1999 I was repatriated (screaming and protesting) to Sri Lanka by my wife. I began to visit Minneriya National Park in search of elephants. Since the age of 13, I had retained a habit of making notes and more importantly of taking reasonably accurate counts of what I saw. By 2001 I had concluded that there were indeed elephants in Minneriya throughout the year. But I had also realised that during the dry season there was a marked influx. More importantly I realised that the peak in numbers during August and September gave rise to a wildlife event which was internationally significant. I also realised it had all the necessary ingredients to be branded and marketed as an international tourism event on par with the Mara Migration in Kenya and Tanzania. Being savvy with the media, I put together a fact sheet which gave a credible explanation of why it occurred and so predictably. This was not too difficult to discern. I could see that as the drought fastened a death-like grip on the dry lowlands, the shrinking lake unveiled a fertile bed which blossomed into a lush grassland. The elephants had all they needed, food, water, shade and the opportunity to socialize.
What was needed was to break the story and to brand the event. I began somewhat clumsily, for example in the October 2002 edition of the Sri Lanka Wildlife eNewsletter by referring to the elephant migration in Minneriya. It was not really a migration in the sense understood by biologists. I later sharpened my act and by Novmber 2003 for example writing in the now defunct Serendipity ( a tourism magazine) I had begun to refer to it as The Gathering of Elephants. This was followed by a press blast to brand it as The Gathering. Michael Elias, who is presently the Managing Director of Walkers Tours, always with a sharp eye for a business opportunity told me he was copying and circulating my articles to his tour operators overseas. Lately in 2007 and 2008 in particular his Nature Odyssey team with Chitral Jayatilake have played a key role in publicizing The Gathering. Elephant enthusiast Srilal Miththapala who is also CEO of Serendib Leisure was one of those to see the business opportunity presented by The Gathering. However, mystifyingly, Sri Lankan tourism has been slow to reap the benefits of this. The mood is beginning to turn, with the efforts of John Keells, Serendib Leisure and Jetwing being noticed and the new team at the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau seeing its potential.
Quantifying its potential also helps the case for conservation. In September of this year I had a question from Manori Gunwardana who is researching elephants at Kaudulla and Minneriya. She was interested in knowing how many hotels took people to view the elephants. Like many modern conservationists she was trying to place an economic value of the elephants. With The Gathering, I suspect every tourism property within driving distance of the elephants would on request take people on an elephant safari. But as I mentioned before the marketing for The gathering by the industry is still somewhat subdued. One of my team plugged in the half board room rates and the number of rooms into a spreadsheet which I expanded into modeling a number of scenarios. One scenario assumes peace which would allow room rates to strengthen by say 40% (a conservative assumption, it could easily double) and strong marketing which would generate an additional 50% occupancy. For the existing 11 major hotels, we found that The Gathering over 14 weeks can generate over a billion rupees in Half Board Room revenues. This does not take into account other revenues which will be generated alongside.
As Jagath nursed the safari jeep onto the lake bed, I wondered whether I should have told Shyamalee and her companion the story of the billion rupees a year elephants. I reiterated my warning that it was late in the season for The Gathering and we may only see one or two clans numbering at perhaps twenty elephants. Chandra Jayawardana nodded in agreement. The jeep took a sharp dip down into a trench and we emerged over a small hillock to have a sweeping view of the lake bed which was now square kilometers of lush grassland. We also took our breaths in sharply and broke out into spontaneous smiles at the sight ahead of us. Two clusters of elephants were ahead of us totaling nearly a hundred. The cluster closest to us had close aound sixty elephants and as if choreographed for a shoot for Hi magazine they began to head left and strung themselves out like a long necklace with beads of elephants. It was an extraordinary sight, but not one which lends itself to photography as each elephant comes out tiny when you photograph a string of sixty.
The cluster began to break into clans made up of related females and juveniles. We parked and waited and one family of a dozen or so elephants ambled towards us munching as they came along. I have always had this view that if you let the animals come to you, they will not be stressed. One of the adults females had an alternate theory that when a big elephants starts to chew grass close to a jeep it should back off. A mock charge followed and we backed off in great haste and with much fright inscribed on Grace’s face. The elephants within a seconds joined together and went through a ritual of reassuring each other with much touching and feeling. Within minutes a calf began to suckle milk from her mother signifying all was back to normal and that we could stay and watch.
Every time I have taken media, they are enthralled by The Gathering. This is especially so of the foreign media who have told me that it has been one of the highlights of their media careers. Why then are we Sri Lankan so slow to realise how special it is and how we can generate so much money and livelihoods from it? I have some theories but that’s another story. Maybe, before I exit Sri Lankan tourism it may gain the recognition it deserves, but I won’t hold my breath.
When should I visit?
The Gathering begins around July and peaks during the months of August and
September. It begins to tail off in October with the onset of the North-east Monsoon. 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.
Why do they Gather?
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 elephants gather in search of food, water, shade and mates.