About 90 square kilometers in size, the Minneriya National Park is home to one of the world’s greatest wildlife sights – the Elephant Gathering. The Park features King Mahasen’s Minneriya Reservoir, built about 1,700 years ago to provide for the area during the dry season. It still carries out this function, which has led to the elephants of the region migrating to Minneriya during June to October annually from neighbouring parks such as Wasgamuwa via the elephant corridor (the area, not the hotel). The park is also home to other species like wild buffalo, deer, the purple faced leaf monkey and lovely endemic birdlife. However, the pachyderm parade always steals the spotlight.
The Elephant Gathering has been established as the world’s largest gathering of Asian elephants, with reports going up to 700 a day. We saw above 200 during our visit in early June, which was an absolutely stunning sight. CNN calls it the world’s biggest pool party, and I’m inclined to agree. The park provides ample feeding ground for the elephants, with enough space and shelter for them to carry out all sorts of elephantine activities.
During the dry season, it’s a great time to watch them feed, bathe, socialize and mate in abandoned glee. Watching the elephant clans greet their distant relatives, make new friends, and care for each other is a beautiful experience, for hardcore nature enthusiasts and families with children alike. The elephants will unconcernedly waft around your vehicle, flicking grass and swishing their tails at you. You’ll even see a few tuskers. There are enough elephants and space to make the experience unobtrusive and serene, which sets it apart from your average Yala safari.
Elephants are generally peaceful, ponderous fellows. They’re superbly social, and love water and back rubs. However, you may still want to treat them with wary respect. Apart from being large and in charge, one or two are prone to charging at vehicles, which is no joke. We got charged by an angry 25 year old female ellie, and between trying to reverse away at 40 kmph and quivering in fear with an angry trunk flapping about 2 feet away from our wind shield, it was a harrowing experience.
It brings up questions about the ongoing human-elephant conflict, especially when they have to share living space like in the North Central Province. The burgeoning number of tourists does mean more funds for the upkeep of the park and more attention for conservation, but it also means that human presence could interfere with the elephants’ natural activities.
As long as you’re respectful, careful and appreciate them from a distance, it’s possibly one of the most beautiful natural sights you’ll ever see.
It’s admittedly a bit pricey for foreign non-resident nationals, with individual park entry costing USD 30 or Rs. 3300 per head. You can expect to pay another Rs. 3500 odd for a jeep and driver. For locals and residents the price for jeep entry plus a tracker is a measly Rs. 325 per head. If you have a 4 wheel drive you’re allowed to take it inside the park, as long as you know what you’re doing. The authorities will assign you a tracker at the entrance, who will show you about and take you to the site.
The herds wander about between Minneriya, the neighbouring Kaudulla National Park and Habarana Eco Park. Just ask your hotel chaps or the trackers beforehand and they’ll let you know where to go. The elephants usually head to the tank in the evening, when it’s not too hot. Between 3 PM and 6 PM is the best time to go.