All About the Gathering
There are an estimated 6000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka, with the species having been listed as officially endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986. These gentle giants are an integral part of the island’s culture and religion, besides being a key feature of the nation’s identity. Elephants are revered here, but deforestation and the spread of human habitation has led to their falling populations, countered today by sustained efforts at their conservation.
Watching elephants in their natural habitat is a great way to engage with their presence in the country, particularly so that you won’t be contributing to their continued exploitation by humans. They are a protected species on the island, and can be spotted at several national parks throughout the year, including (but not limited to) Udawalawe, National Park, Wilpattu National Park, and Gal Oya National Park.
However, the best way to watch these magnificent creatures is to drive up for the Gathering: a congregation of more than 300 elephants from all over Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, coming together on the lake bed at Minneriya National Park. Here’s everything you need to know to catch a glimpse of the biggest gathering of wild Asian elephants in the world.
About The Park
Located more than 180 kilometres outside of Colombo, Minneriya National Park covers an area of more than 8,500 hectares of land and is part of the elephant corridor that connects the Kaudulla and Wasgamuwa National Parks. In addition to the large number of elephants that can be seen here, the park is home to more than 20 other species of mammals, including the purple-faced langur monkey and the toque macaque monkey, sambar deer, Sri Lankan leopards, and sloth bears. There are also 160 types of birds that can be spotted here, the most visible of which are the flocks of over 2000 cormorants.
Between the months of July and October, when the region experiences its dry season, the elephants of the Northern Province move through Sri Lanka’s national parks in search of water and fresh grass. Minneriya Tank, located inside the park, is a man-made reservoir that was built by the people of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, the first established kingdom of ancient Sri Lanka. With the waters of Minneriya Tank having evaporated enough to recede from the shores of its lake, lush grasslands begin to emerge out of the soil. Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of water for the elephants! Today, as many as 300 elephants are regularly reported to come together at the reservoir during the dry season, feasting on the new grass and using the lake as a watering hole. Some reports even claim to have witnessed up to 700 elephants gathering here at a time!
In addition to the food and water that Minneriya gives them, the elephants rely on the surrounding forests and trees for shelter from the heat of the sun during the day. Once the sun begins to set, they emerge out of the woods in ones and twos, building up their numbers until more than 300 elephants are gathered together to graze, drink, and play with one another.
When to Visit?
The best times to visit Sri Lanka to view the Gathering are between the months of August and September. The elephants tend to avoid the sun during the day, so your best chance of spotting a large herd is if you opt for an afternoon safari that first shows off the rest of the wildlife flitting through the park, before heading to the lake at sunset to watch the elephants come out of hiding. Minneriya is also close to Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, so you’ll be able to work in your share of history and culture while you’re in the area.