THE GIANTS OF MINNERIYA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). The Giants of Minneriya. Serendipity. October 2002. Page 8 .
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne describes an awe inspiring, annual gathering of giants
The scrub jungle flowed past us on two sides, as the pick up cruised through at a steady speed along a jeep track. I scanned the jungle streaming past me in the vain hope I may spot a small mammal or interesting bird. This proved to be futile, as with my many previous efforts at Minneriya National Park. The smaller mammals are thin in numbers, perhaps a consequence of hunting before the area received protection as a national park.
Our real target on this visit was not a single species. But a phenomenon. A vast gathering of numbers. A gathering of giants. Giants who could be intelligent and gentle, but also terrifying and deadly, when injured or denied access to the jungle which is their home. We were hoping to witness the annual migration of elephants on the receded shores of the Minneriya Tank, a marvel of ancient hydraulic skill and a giant of its own kind. The gathering of elephants at Minneriya is one of those awesome spectacles which should rank along better known wildlife spectacles such as the migration of wildebeest in Africa. But the elephant migration is charged with more excitement and awe and an opportunity to position Sri Lanka as an Asian mecca for eco-tourism.
In September and October, as the north central province goes dry and trees hang wilted and shorn of their leaves, elephants migrate from the Flood Plains National Park across jungle through to Kaudulla and thence to Minneriya National Park. Conservationists have feared that the migration may be doomed with more and more chenas springing up in the way of the elephants. Those fears have been addressed with the creation of the Kaudulla National Park which was gazetted in April 2002 and opened formally to the public on Saturday 21st September 2002. An elephant corridor was also legislated allowing elephants the freedom to roam between the parks. Some doubt the benefit of elephant corridors as radio collaring on a few individuals have suggested that elephants may not travel far. Few who are familiar with the elephants of Minneriya – Kaudulla and Flood Plains National Park or Yala and Bundala will doubt that elephants do move to different area in their home ranges. They also do not doubt the necessity of jungle corridors to permit this movement.
Our tracker, had been busy for two weeks at Kaudulla preparing for the birth of a new national park and was not sure whether the herds had arrived at Minneriya. At the wheel was Lal Anthonis, probably the best known wildlife photographer in Sri Lanka and a conservationist who together with a few other key people has laboured for many years to lobby for national parks such as Kaudulla and Minneriya. The tracker spotted a lone elephant. Our hearts sank. Had the herds not moved in yet. Where were they? We motored along the vast grassy plain created by the receding lake. “Look at that exclaimed” Lal. Ahead of us, like small dark dots studded on a green canvas, we could make out a vast herd. As we approached a convoy of jeeps with excited tourists also arrived and kept a respectful distance from the elephants at the instruction of their trackers.
Ahead of us was a herd of eighty plus elephants. It was actually a coalescence of smaller herds or family groups. Some of the smaller herds were close knit. Our attention was drawn to one herd that was so close knit they were rubbing against each other. They were feeding in a concentric circle and seemed to be anxious to guard something from prying eyes. A gap opened in the family group and the secret was revealed. A baby elephant, so young that its skin was still pink. It wobbled unsteadily on shaky young feet. The herd slowly moved towards the waters edge. We scanned the other family groups which were feeding contentedly on the lush grass.
“Watch out for some interaction” whispered Lal drawing my attention a large Bull which emerged, silently and purposefully towards a family group. Its trunk tenderly grasped that of another in greeting, rather fleetingly. It moved to another family group and another, sometimes only holding out its trunk aloft, to smell any familiar faces. We suspected it was looking for a female to mate with as it wandered around inspecting the family groups.
We decided to drive around, but not for long before we encountered another family herd of sixty plus elephants. This group too held a few young bulls with a hint of tusks. All in all, around 250 elephants were present that evening. An awesome number, undoubtedly the largest concentration of wild elephants one would see in Asia in any single place.
We returned to the first concentration of elephants. A few babies ambled under the watchful eyes of their mothers and elder sisters. The tight knit family was moving away to the lake’s edge. Carefully shepherding the pink baby, who stumbled and shuffled. We watched them go, filled with hope that the baby and its family will return, bolder and more confident with each passing year, in their annual migration along the new jungle corridor connecting three national parks. On their feet, they will carry the hopes of a new economic paradigm, high value eco-tourism with benefits to the local communities.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.