The Gathering of Elephants in Minneriya

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). The Gathering of Elephants in Minneriya. Serendipity. November 2003. Page 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne exposes one of the greatest events in the international wildlife calendar
“Would you mind turning off the engine and staying calm” I enquired with a touch of frostiness to the driver who was clearly alarmed at the threat behaviour by a sub adult elephant towards another vehicle which had just got too close to a family group. Having our engine running near them was not helping very much. “You are not scared are you?” I asked, we are at safe distance. “Me scared” retorted the driver and immediately shut off the engine. The other vehicle backed off to a safe distance. With both of our vehicles at a safe distance, the family of elephants settled down.
I had come to Minneriya National Park on an annual pilgrimage to witness one of the most spectacular events in the natural world. Around September of each year, the waters of the gigantic, man-made, Minneriya Lake dries out. The receding waters expose square kilometer upon square kilometer of lake bed, which turns into a lush grassland, with a residual lake in the middle. Literally hundreds of elephants from the surrounding jungles are attracted to the food and water and the security of the scrub jungles bordering the lake.
I have dubbed this seasonal movement or local migration the “Gathering”, for the want of a better word. This annual gathering also illustrates the importance of ensuring that the remaining scrub jungle does not become isolated into fragments, but remain interconnected with viable pathways for movements for animals.
My most recent visit to the park was in September with Shantha, the naturalist of the Habarana Lodge, where I was staying. Shantha, a good all round naturalist, kept a watch on the birds, whilst I concentrated on photographing the behaviour of Elephants. My photography had been elevated to a new level of inspiration after a recently concluded International Symposium on Elephants, which had been organised in Colombo by the Elephant & Biodiversity Conservation Trust, and the International Elephant Foundation. My team from Jetwing Eco Holidays and the naturalists from Jetwing Hotels had listened with fascination as current studies on elephant behaviour, and sadly, the human-elephant conflict was explained by various distinguished speakers.
The family we were observing had about 35 animals in the group. It is what zoologists call a clan, an assemblage of families. A family unit usually comprises of a matriarch, her adult daughters and the young of the mature adults. Young bulls on reaching sexual maturity, leave the groups, and live as loners. At times like this, family units coalesce into clans and clans merge into large herds on the grasslands of Minneriya. We watched as the new babies of the season were shepherded carefully by one or more of the adult females. The youngest of the babies sought the shade under the mother’s belly, occasionally drinking milk or just lying down.
We heard news of a large herd on the plains and moved on. But first, we were distracted by a beautiful tusker who was keeping company with another bull. Driving on, we joined a group of vehicles which had gathered around a herd of around seventy to eighty elephants in the water. A young bull came galloping along, in a comical fashion, and splashed through the water to join the herd. Asian Elephants are shade loving animals who need plenty of scrub jungle to tide over the heat of the day. In the evenings, they will emerge onto the open plains. Minneriya Lake offers good opportunities to observe large wild herds enjoying the water.
After a while, the elephants emerged like a disciplined platoon, out of the water. They crossed the plains onto the far side and melted away into the jungle. I can only pray that this scene will be enacted, each year, forever.
The writer is the CEO of a Wildlife & Adventure Travel Company. To receive his free, monthly wildlife e-Newsletter, e-mail him at with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.