Minneriya: After the Gathering

Monday October 26- I left around 11.30 in the afternoon from Colombo, pausing for lunch at Ambepussa and drove straight to Minneriya National Park. Dissanayake was the tracker allocated to us and proved to be knowledgeable. On the whole I have noticed that the trackers at Minneriya are interested and knowledgeable. I am not quite sure how the process of recruitment or training at Minneriya differs from elsewhere. But the trackers are generally of a higher standard than in the other national parks.

Arriving at the edge of the lake, we noticed a large concentration of waterbirds. I made an approximate count of the large number of Painted Storks which were gathered together. There were more than 250. I was glad that I had attempted the count as I had not expected there to be that many. There were around 85 Spoonbills. There were also 8 Lesser Adjutants. This was an unusually high concentration of an endangered bird.

We had a few sightings of Grey-headed Fish-eagles. A pair of Eurasian Thick-knees were close to the jeep track but moved away whilst I set up the long lens on the tripod. I was frustrated that I had missed a good photographic opportunity. But I did take a few images which showed how their cryptic camouflage worked to render them invisible in the dead grass. Other waders present included Common and Marsh Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover, etc. In the distance a pair of bull elephants strode across the plains.

The annual Gathering Elephants was breaking up. We later heard that over 100 elephants were now at Kaudulla National Park, as they begin to disperse to their core ranges. Last year, the rains delayed until November. My last visit to Minneriya was on November 6 last year and we had over a hundred elephants in the field of view. Just over a year later, the Gathering had begun to break up in October, as it normally does.

A tusker, with a single tusk was seen striding purposefully, parallel to the forest's edge. Later we parked at some distance from a herd of 17 elephants. It was surprisingly difficult to count them and took at least half an hour before they stretched out enough for us to be certain of the number present.

The single tusker we had seen earlier joined them. It must have walked about 2-3 km since we had first seen it. As I had expected it walked up to the adult females and smelt them, one by one. It was testing for a receptive female. The herd had 2-3 babies and a few juveniles. The largest female was distinctly bigger than the other elephants. But they all looked small in relation to the bull.

At one point when the bull moved away, the entire herd began to walk behind it and quickly bridged the gap. They seemed to be seeking protection from it. I am not quite sure as to what the social dynamics were.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays. These are lightly edited journal notes.

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