Updated: Nov 23
Read about that time when we were surrounded by too many elephants to count!
The Gathering is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, and I bet you’ve never heard of it.
It is the largest congregation of Asian elephants on Earth, and the main reason we’d timed our month in Sri Lanka to coincide with the dry season. I’d obsessed over pictures of the migration for months. Elephants come from all over the country to drink from the man-made Minneriya reservoir tank, the only reliable water source during the drought, and feed on the lush grasses exposed as the water line recedes.
Already excited by the ride in the dusty old jeep that came to collect us from our homestay, I couldn’t believe my eyes when we came across a huge bull and several cows with calves literally only metres into Minneriya National Park. I would have happily stopped there, but after an hour or so our guide urged us to keep going, and it didn’t take long to see why. As we rounded a bend the scrub opened up and we could see right across the wetland. It was like a movie, Lion King levels of incredulity, there were elephants everywhere. And the more you looked the more you saw. Herds emerging from the bush at every angle, young bulls testing each other’s strengths at the water’s edge, tiny calves huddled between the legs of their families, elephants drinking and grazing as far as the eye could see – which was a long, long way.
It was breath taking and took several minutes to fully accept it was real. For a blissful hour or so we were the only people there. But, like so many other countries the population in Sri Lanka is booming, and so is the wildlife tourism industry. We saw cars crowding calves, agitating bulls, and speeding towards vantage points. On closer inspection most jeeps had dents in the doors and cracked windows, our guide saw us looking and confirmed these were from run ins with elephants when they’d got too close.
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. As tourist numbers continue to grow on this small island, I hope it isn’t at the expense of the very wildlife and culture tourists flock to visit.
I’d recommend travelling to Sri Lanka just to see The Gathering, never mind that the rest of the country is full of almost as mesmerising encounters wherever you look! But as these experiences become more and more accessible, tourists need to become more and more aware. You don’t need to be a wildlife expert to know that an animal doesn’t want a car shoved in its face or be surrounded by flashing cameras, be assertive and explain you want to minimise disturbance to the wildlife you’ve come to see. You’ll be surprised, and dismayed, at how often your guide will then relax and tell you how many passengers ask for the opposite. We promise sitting still and letting the wildlife come to you will provide just as many, if not more! close encounters than forcing your way to the front!