Treasure the wonders of ‘The Gathering’

By Sanath Weerasuriya

Every year from July to October, between 200 and 400 elephants arrive at the Minneriya reservoir, mainly to graze on the grasses growing on the tank bed. This occurs because during the drought, the water level drops, revealing a tank bed that allows the grass to grow.The elephants turn to this much needed fodder at a time when foliage in other areas dries up.

This march of the elephants may have been happening for centuries and generations down the line may have witnessed it but until recently it was not considered as a great wildlife spectacle in the world.
The spectacle came into the limelight a few years ago, when wildlife enthusiasts Gihan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Srilal Miththapala looked to define the Sri Lankan version of the African elephant migration. Five years ago they branded the phenomena ‘The Gathering’.

With more awareness being raised, it has drawn a growing number of visitors ever since. Recently the Lonely Planet guide declared the ‘Elephant Gathering’ in Minneriya as the sixth greatest wildlife spectacle in the world, giving a much needed boost to wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka.

The flip side, however, is that ‘The Gathering’ may be threatened. If a plan to retain the Minneriya waters in the dry season is carried out, the temporary grasslands on the bed of the Minneriya tank would disappear, and the number of elephant visitors would decline. This would affect the area's elephant population that depends on the temporary grassland in the dry season. The baby elephants would especially be threatened.

To sustain and safeguard one of nature’s wonders, the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) organized an educational safari to Minneriya last weekend for industry personnel and the media.

‘Sustaining the Gathering’, a presentation was held at the Chaaya Village Habarana, just a ten minute drive from the Minneriya Park. SLAITO, affiliated to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce coordinated the event. The safari and presentation were led by Anuruddha Bandara, the Managing Director of the Eco Team and Chitral Jayathileke, Head of Eco Tourism Projects of Keells Hotels.

The team was powered by SLAITO President Nilmin Nanayakkara, Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, President, Hoteliers Association of Sri Lanka (THASL) Anura Lokuhetti, and Managing Director, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, Rumy Jaufer.

Nearly 50 to 60 jeep drivers operating from Habarana attended the presentation where issues such as allowing an unlimited number of jeeps into the Park, blocking the pathways of elephants to the lake, were discussed.

'The Gathering' at Minneriya is a wonderful opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts and tourists to observe the social dynamics of elephants. Matriarchs lead their clans to water, the whole group taking care to safeguard the baby elephants that are always flanked by adults. The basic unit of a family society is a mother and calf. Clans of related elephants will coalesce into herds when they converge onto Minneriya in a common quest for food, water, cover and mates.

The popularity of this wildlife event has also created problems. During the months of ‘The Gathering’, Minneriya Park is crowded with safari jeeps, which often block the elephants' pathways to the tank. Some jeep drivers get close to the elephants in their desire to please their clients and thus excite the animals, wildlife experts involved in the presentation pointed out.

‘This happens mainly because some of the jeep drivers do not understand the importance of The Gathering. Our main aim is to educate the drivers and other stake holders. Nobody can impose rules and regulations once they are in the wild; the discipline should come from within. We only can educate them and give them the correct picture. Helping to sustain the Gathering is their duty. Not only them, but all in the industry depend on this type of nature and adventure events to boost the country’s tourism,” Mr. Bandara said.

A common drive: L-R Nilmin Nanayakkara, Nalaka Godahewa, Chitral Jayathileke and Anuruddha Bandara

Dr. Godahewa stated that this billion-dollar opportunity should be protected and the problems facing all stake holders should be addressed properly. The presentation suggested some urgent remedies that need to be taken to sustain The Gathering, if Sri Lanka is keen on creating opportunities to make the most of the tourism boom.

Chitral Jayatilleke emphasized that since The Gathering creates jobs and generates income, providing much needed revenue to the tourism industry, it should be positioned in a more planned manner. ‘It helps position Sri Lanka among the top wildlife tourism destinations, enhances the island’s profile, and brings in better spending nature tourists and photographers to the country, he added.

The proposed suggestions included working as a team, self discipline, holding awareness programmes and annual evaluation programmes such as the one at Chaaya Village Habarana reinforcing pride in the event and enforcing park discipline .

The representatives of the Jeep Drivers Association present at the programme assured that they would look into the problem of discipline while requesting that their problems be addressed too.

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