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  • Elephant Gathering in Sri Lanka

    Published on August 10, 2010

    Elephants have traditionally held an aesthetic, cultural and economic importance in Sri Lanka. They are used for carrying timber and have a special significance at religious events. They especially play a crucial role at the recently concluded Esala Perahera

    Amongst the many facets in Sri Lankan meant to lure the tourist to the island-nation, the Elephant gathering proves to be a much popular choice. This visual phenomenon of this majestic creature reportedly takes place between May and October before the North-East monsoon.

    Tucked away in the island’s north central province, Minneriya provides an ideal venue for herds of elephants during the dry season when waterholes in the forests evaporate into cracked mud patches.

    Minneriya is amongst all the other tourist populated national parks in Sri Lanka. It became a sanctuary in 1938 and declared a national park in August 1997 and it is in the Polonnaruwa district in the North Central Province. It is 182km from Colombo on the main road to Polonnaruwa and 9km from Habarana, well-known for some of its hotels.

    Since it was first opened to visitors in 1998, Minneriya has been most sought after for its elephants, some of whom are known to come from the surrounding national parks of Wasgomuwa, Somawathie, Maduru Oya and the Galoya sanctuary. As many as 400 elephants together have been sighted in Minneriya

    The park’s 8,889 hectares is covered by a mixture of evergreen forest and scrub areas and is also roamed by sambar deer, the rarer sloth bears, leopards and elephants.

    The 2,500-year-old Minneriya tank, which irrigates 8,900 hectares of paddy fields, has become a source of life for both man and animal living in the park and surrounding areas. Built in the 3rd century by King Mahasena, this fixture stands prominent as a central feature in the park.

    During the dry season, the tank and it’s neighboring surrounds is an ideal & conducive place to observe elephants who come to bathe and graze on the grasses as well as the huge flocks of birds (cormorants and painted storks to name but a few) that come to fish in the shallow waters.

    Close to three hundred wild elephants gather each evening during the season along the banks of the Minneriya Tank. They gather for a variety of reasons; some of which include food, water, shelter — and match-making. Asian elephants are renowned as highly social animals and the reservoir or tank meetings demonstrate their complex group dynamics in action.

    The Gathering has now been firmly established in the wildlife calendar in Asia. It is a spectacular opportunity for elephant lovers world over to witness as many as 300 of these pachyderms grazing and frolicking by the Minneriya tank during the mid year drought. The atmosphere gives an ideal setting for this world phenomenon, where a high concentration of Asian elephants can be found at a single location during July to October each year.

    It can be difficult to spot elephants out in the open during the monsoon as they tend to restrict their movements to the forested area where food and water is readily available. Therefore there are limited reasons to venture out.

    With the advent of the North East monsoon between October and March the tank will get flooded with water. The elephants will then start migrating to the nearby Kaudulla tank in the Kaudulla National Park also in the same district and 6km off the Habarana-Trincomalee road.

    These magnificent creatures eventually traverse the once down-trodden Trincomalee Road. They only start migrating back to Minneriya when the monsoon is over. Elephants are great walkers, covering as much as 32km a day. But as they move to and fro between Minneriya and the Kaudulla tank they pass through villages causing conflict between man and elephant and making themselves unwelcome visitors.

    The park is also home to many other exotic species. An inventory taken in 1986 revealed the park is home as much as nine species of amphibians, 24 species of mammals and 160 species of birds. Twenty-five species of fish and 75 species of butterfly – 15 of which are endemic and 6 endangered – are also said to be found here.

    There are known to be 11 species of threatened avifauna in the park, in addition to some endemic forest birds such as the Sri Lanka hanging parrot, jungle fowl and grey hornbill. There are 8 species of reptile both endemic and endangered – among them the red-lipped lizard.

    Sri Lanka has historically had as many as 12,000 elephants in the wild at the turn of the century. However there has been relentless persecution of these extraordinary mammals by western planters in order to clear land and grow cash crops. This has resulted in the eventuality today of dwindling elephant numbers.

    Hotels in Sigiriya, Dumbulla, Habarana and Giritale areas are in close proximity to the Minneriya Park. These hotels collectively could be earn upto a billion rupees collectively in revenue during the Gathering season.

    According to Gehan de Silva Wijeratne from Jetwing Eco Holidays the gathering which runs from July to October and assuming rooms are sold for 14 weeks could earn seasonal revenue of Rs 9,996,000 or close to US $ 100,000.

    The total daily revenue at 100% occupancy is Rs. 102,007 in these hotels and The Gathering could be worth a Billion Rupees of Half Board Room revenue. In addition there will be other revenues from park fees, jeep hire, and guide fees.

    Hotels in the Minneriya area use the “Gathering” – as it is known- to organize safaris to the Minneriya National Park during the season “The Gathering” giving tourists the chance to observe the elephants feasting and frolicking on the water’s edge.

    Sri Lankan authorities spend substantial amounts in rehabilitation programmes which care for orphaned at Udawalewa National Park, where they are released to become part of the wild population.

    Not only is the gathering worth billions of rupees in revenue, it helps in the protection of this gentle animal. There are only a few elephant orphanages in the world. Pinnawela has now become one of the bigger orphanages and is quite well known world wide.

    The Sri Lankan elephant is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of Sri Lanka (FFPO), and killing it, carries the death penalty. Sri Lankan authorities do everything in their power to care for and protect these large fascinating, highly intelligent animals, which otherwise could disappear into extinction. While Elephants provide tourism revenue amounting to billions of rupees, authorities also spend a substantial amount of funds and resources to protect them.