Skip to main content

The Gathering: Sri Lanka's great elephant migration

By Kip Patrick, for CNN
April 1, 2013 -- Updated 0129 GMT (0929 HKT)
Each year, as they have for centuries, hundreds of elephants descend on the shores of an ancient reservoir in Sri Lanka's north-central Minneriya National Park.<!-- -->
</br><!-- -->
</br>The migration is called "The Gathering." Here, an adolescent elephant and its mother search for food after a muddy visit to what may be the world's largest pool party. Each year, as they have for centuries, hundreds of elephants descend on the shores of an ancient reservoir in Sri Lanka's north-central Minneriya National Park.

The migration is called "The Gathering." Here, an adolescent elephant and its mother search for food after a muddy visit to what may be the world's largest pool party.
HIDE CAPTION
The Gathering -- Sri Lanka's elephant migration
Visitor impact
Staying cool
Unique views
Keeping close
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Each year, hundreds of elephants travel to an ancient reservoir
  • Wildlife conservationists worry about impact of tourism
  • In 2012, Sri Lanka tourist arrivals grew 17.5 percent

(CNN) -- Poachers have decimated elephant populations across Africa and parts of Asia, killing thousands of animals for their revered ivory.

Yet in Sri Lanka, home to some 7,000 wild Asian elephants, a different, more hopeful story is playing out.

It's a story that's attracting truckloads of tourists from around the world to witness a stunning wildlife spectacle, simultaneously raising concerns among conservationists about how increasing numbers of visitors may be impacting the large mammals.

In north-central Sri Lanka's Minneriya National Park, hundreds of elephants travel each year to the shores of an ancient reservoir built by a king more than 1,700 years ago. They've made the trip for centuries, coming from across the region to bathe, mate, socialize and, most importantly, to feed as part of an annual event known as "The Gathering."

During the dry season (July through early November), the water in the reservoir recedes. In its place, lush green grasses grow, providing a veritable feast for the hungry pachyderms.

Between meals, the elephants head into the reservoir, spraying themselves with the shallow, muddy waters to create one of the world's biggest pool parties.

"Where else you can get so close to so many wild elephants at once?" asks James Thomas, a lawyer visiting The Gathering from Melbourne.

"Watching massive herds of elephants bathe as the sun sets over the nearby mountains is an experience I'll never forget."

Would you pay US$50 for a cup of elephant dung coffee?

Conservation concerns

If you haven't heard of The Gathering or ever seriously considered visiting Sri Lanka, you're not alone.

The island nation's prolonged civil war, which ended in May 2009, kept the country off most people's itineraries.

Since then, however, word of Sri Lanka's diverse wildlife, spectacular beaches and myriad cultural activities has spread: in 2012, tourist arrivals grew 17.5 percent over 2011, hitting 1,055,605, according to government officials.

While the growth has boosted tourism-related revenue, the volume of visitors to Minneriya -- and the 4WDs required to transport them through the park -- has caught the attention of wildlife conservationists.

They worry added traffic is negatively impacting not only the fragile reserve, but also the health and behavior of the animals the visitors are traveling to see.

"The increasing number of vehicles in the park and the unruly behavior of most are cause for much concern," says Ravi Corea, president of the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS).

"Vehicles approach elephants too closely and disrupt them from feeding, mating, nursing and socializing. In addition, they are habituating elephants to charge vehicles, which they will continue to do once they leave the national park with the beginning of the rains."

On a safari I joined earlier this year, I experienced these issues firsthand.

During our trip, the tour driver inadvertently parked in the path of a mother and baby elephant, obstructing their way to a watering hole. When a nearby bull elephant took notice, he quickly moved in to protect them, charging our vehicle in the process.

Our driver reacted quickly and moved us to safety.

Corea and others fear it's only a matter of time before someone's luck runs out and an elephant or tourists are seriously injured.

Conservationists are pushing government and park officials to ensure animals, humans and the local environment are better protected.

Recommendations include implementing stringent policies to govern how visitors and guides behave in the park, as well as providing training for rangers and drivers on how to conduct themselves while in the presence of wild elephants. Drivers would need certification to take visitors to the park, and they could face fines if caught violating park regulations.

Tracking the elephants

Additional proposals include documenting the movement of the elephants beyond Minneriya's unfenced borders. Environmental organizations also hope to map the entire ecological cycle of the animals as part of efforts to ensure the slaughters occurring in places like Africa and Vietnam don't happen in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority is pinning its hopes on the continued success of The Gathering, even building specific marketing activities around the annual event in an effort to attract more visitors to Minneriya.

In 2011, officials christened September "Wildlife Month," distributing full-color brochures that proclaimed The Gathering "one of the most unforgettable and fantastic events in the international wildlife calendar."

As word about Minneriya's main attraction spreads, the hope is that massive herds of elephants will continue migrating to the park each dry season, as they have for hundreds of years.

As long as they do, it's a safe bet that more and more tourists will travel to Sri Lanka to experience what truly is one of the world's greatest wildlife events.

Minneriya National Park is about 180 kilometers from Colombo International Airport, a four-hour drive. The best time to see The Gathering is during the dry season, from June to September.

A number of local operators offer day trips to the area, which can be arranged from your hotel.

Accommodation options include resorts and bungalows just a few kilometers outside the national park. At the high end of the price stick is luxury tented camp Mahoora.

For those who would rather have the whole trip arranged for them, tour companies like Asialuxe offer multi-day packages including airfare. Residents of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom are required to apply for a tourist visa before arrival in Sri Lanka. Applications can be made online.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
A foreign language can be the best aphrodisiac, so we traveled the world in search of the hottest accents.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0735 GMT (1535 HKT)
Hidden from the rest of the world for decades, Myanmar's Lethwei boxing is experiencing a revival globally.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
This aging cargo work whale makes more than 60 flights each week, carrying parts for all of the Airbus programs.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
Vikings, vicious politics and vindaloo curries -- Scotland isn't all tartan and bagpipes.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 0026 GMT (0826 HKT)
Former brothels, public toilets and war bunkers now provide eccentric watering holes for those willing to drink deep.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0304 GMT (1104 HKT)
Ushaka Marine World, Durban, South Africa
Joburg is trendy, Cape Town is glamorous, but Durban has style -- and a restaurant inside a shark tank.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0756 GMT (1556 HKT)
Tirana's nightlife
Former Tirana stronghold of a totalitarian leader now home to a pulsing clubs and bar scene.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0338 GMT (1138 HKT)
Whether filled with electric blue sulfur flames or hissing lava, these mega mountains offer incredible vistas.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
This once-a-year luxury cruise visits untouched islands and never-snorkeled reefs.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
Peter J. Goutiere was just shy of 30 years old when he piloted a Douglas C-47 from Miami to Kolkata, India.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Breathtaking scenery, championship design -- many of the courses dropped into the Canadian Rockies are among the most memorable in the world.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1306 GMT (2106 HKT)
A floating hippo in the Thames river designed by artist Florentijn Hofman
Why Florentijn Hofman is sending a giant beast into London's River Thames.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
September 6, 2014 -- Updated 0042 GMT (0842 HKT)
A squabble over a device that limits how far a seat can recline has brought inflight etiquette into the spotlight again.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Thirst for victory competes with thirst for booze in event where competitors raise their glasses long before they cross the finish line.
ADVERTISEMENT