The Elephant Gathering in Sri Lanka had been top of my ‘must see’ list for so long.

We had just passed the halfway point of our trip around Sri Lanka and the big day was just around the corner! Part of the reason we’d planned our month-long visit in September was for this amazing event… I’d read about it, obsessed over photographs and videos and now the day had finally arrived, I could barely believe I was about to witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles in person.

A little bit of context…

As a conservationist I’ve been lucky enough to witness some truly special moments but there were a few things about this monumental annual event that made it stand out in my mind. Not least because it’s the largest congregation of Asian elephants on Earth, but the very nature of the gathering where hundreds of elephants migrate across the country to drink from the man-made Minneriya tank (the only reliable water source in the drought season) and eat the lush grasses exposed as the water line recedes is really one of a kind.

I was up and ready way before my alarm – to my dismay we’d been told a midday-to-sunset safari was best and so spent the morning climbing nearby Sigiriya Rock. FINALLY, departure time arrived along with our jeep and driver. After half-an-hour we pulled into Minneriya National Park which was much lusher and greener than many other parks we’d visited, testament to just how fertile the land was thanks to the reservoir and justifying the elephants long journey.

After only a few minutes we found our first herd; a huge bull and several cows many with calves – I was in absolute heaven. We’d told our guide we wanted to keep a significant distance between the jeep and the elephants to minimise disturbance and watch them doing their natural thing, he was relieved and said many guests asked for the opposite, something I was disappointed but not surprised to hear – but who wants to endure a hair-raising ride across a tranquil park to try and get as close as possible to the wildlife only to scare it off into the bushes as you screech into their personal space… unfortunately, a number of people it seemed…

A few hundred metres from where we sat, we could see several cars gathering particularly close to one group of elephants who kept trying to move away. The cars edged closer and closer and it soon became apparent why – a tiny calf was just visible in-between the legs of its mother. Suddenly four adult elephants charged the row of cars. They’d clearly had enough and felt threatened by the huge noisy metal beasts full of rowdy tourists. Stopping just short of the closest vehicle, ears and trunks waving in the air they made their position clear. The cars pulled away as quickly as they could – I just hope they got something out of it that made the entire ordeal worth it. I’m sure the tourists didn’t think twice about the impact on the intelligent creatures they were watching which is perhaps the saddest part.

Rounding a corner, the landscape opened up and I was rendered absolutely speechless and almost brought to tears with my inability to express my wonder and awe at the sight in front of us. Elephants. Everywhere. Hundreds of them – adolescents splashing on the water’s edge under the watchful eyes of their mothers; family groups gathered around their younger calves; bulls fighting in the distance. It was magical.

Time passed much too quickly and as the sun set, we headed home. Although I was sad to leave, I felt so privileged to have been there at all.

Like so many other countries the population in Sri Lanka is booming, and so is the wildlife tourism industry; for safari-hungry tourists looking for a different experience to overcrowded East African safari’s Sri Lanka is an ideal location offering an incredible variety of biodiversity throughout the island! For me, the rough and ready nature of the Sri Lankan wildlife experience is part of the charm but as tourist numbers continue to grow on this small island, I find myself hoping this isn’t at the expense of the wildlife and people tourists flock to visit.

I chose this memory because unlike many of nature’s great events this is one that anyone can experience without having to endure hours of trekking through inhospitable terrain. Inspiring people to care for the world around them is the first step to growing the movement to save it and with sufficient guidelines and enforcement it can be a mutually beneficial experience for both people and wildlife alike. Terra Incognita has our full support as it endeavours to make that dream a reality.

About the Entry

Jess Wise

I’m a Conservation Biologist, Welfarist and Behaviourist. I’ve lived and worked in the UK and abroad and absolutely love sharing the tips and tricks I’ve come across that allow people to prioritise the environment in their everyday decisions, whether its at home or whilst travelling. I’m probably happiest in some remote jungle in search of elusive wildlife, but if not there I love engaging and sharing that passion with as many people as possible.

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  • Entry TitleHanging with the Herd; one dream day but what’s the lasting legacy?
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