Saturday, November 26, 2016

Minneriya National Park- My initial experiences

Minneriya National Park is the home of the now world famous “gathering” of elephants. Every year hundreds of elephants from around the region congregate on the banks of this massive man made tank built by one of the greatest kings in our history King Mahasen, to feed on the sweet grasses. Nowhere on earth will you see so many elephants in one place at the same time.

Even though I had heard so much about the place, I only managed to visit this park in August 2008 whilst at University. I had finished my semester exams and whilst on my break I joined with Nirmal Sir and the boys from School on our first venture into Minneriya. Sir had received permission to camp on some forest department land adjoining the park. The camp grounds were a beautiful open area adjoining a small lake. (Name of the lake). We were advised to keep the fires going at night as elephants tend to come to the lake to drink.  The sky was overcast when we arrived despite being in the dry season. With so much open group available to us, we made the mistake of selecting a shady spot under a tree to set up our tents thinking that it would protect us from the rain. The soil under the tree was like clay and once it rained that night we were covered in thick mud. I remember going to sleep with mud between my toes, and it wasn’t a very good feeling. The next day, despite being in a quagmire of mud, we carried on with our normal camp work and by evening set off on our first visit to the park.

 On the way we realized that one of our vehicles wheels and body were not aligned and from behind it looked like it was going diagonally. We went ahead and stopped the driver and asked what was wrong, and he was just as surprised as we were because he did not notice this issue. Upon closer inspection we realized that the differential has been damaged severely. With further questioning the driver came out with the truth. During the afternoon he had been off roading in the mud near the campsite, and had got a large log stuck underneath, and instead of stopping and getting this out by hand, he had pressed the gas and tried to push through. The log had damaged everything on the underside of the Land Rover. We hastily sent him off to Habarana for repairs and loaded another ten boys into our already crowded Land Cruiser. Charith Aiya did a head count and we had 25 boys in one vehicle.  We were so tightly packed that I could not move my head to see the outside. That whole park trip I saw hardly anything because I was in such a tight squeeze. I do remember coming across a massive bull elephant in musth that did a few mock charges at us, besides this we came across only a few herds of elephants as the place was still wet and muddy, and the dry season still had not arrived. During this trip I met Sumedha, the head of the jeep drivers in that area who would later become a very good friend of mine.

 I visited the park again in 2009 with Sumedha to search for some tuskers. I was finally at the right season and the park was full of elephant herds. This truly was an amazing gathering. After many hours of searching we saw in a distance a slight glint of white, which had to be ivory. We slowly approached two elephants, which were facing their backs to us. Upon closer inspection, we found a young tusker about 15 years of age, with a pair of beautiful, long, straight tusks quietly feeding. Upon our discovery of this magnificent creature, many jeeps started flocking to the same location to catch a glimpse of the tusker. Elephants with ivory are very rare in Sri Lanka and tuskers account for only 5% of the wild population. The tusker clearly not amused with the attention, made a hasty retreat into the forest.

During June 2010 we visited the park once again. This was during the Poson Poya long weekend, and the drive up to Minneriya took us almost six hours. The delay was due to a long traffic jam all the way from Kurunegala to Habarana. Pilgrims in their thousands were heading on the same day to Anuradhapura, and their vehicles were stopping on every wayside “dansala” or almsgiving they could find, thus causing a massive traffic block. I was extremely frustrated and worried that we would not make it in time for our evening park round, but we somehow managed to make it just in the nick of time, and headed our way into the park with Sumedha. We came a cross a very large herd of around fifty elephants on the far corner of the park. We were surrounded by a few bulls that have joined the herd to find a mate. My friends were getting a little worried but Sumedha assured us that if we remain quiet and still, no harm would come to us. I forgot the camera and simply sat and observed the family life of these magnificent creatures. There was a young calf who decided to enter the water without its mother. It joined a group of slightly older youngsters who were far too boisterous for the little ones liking, and I still recall it squealing and running back to its mother. The family and social structure of these elephants was reminded me very much of humans. There is an old saying that it is very lucky to be born as an elephant as you will be looked after by the herd at all times, even if ones mother is killed or injured. These herds consist strictly of females and young males. Males join these herds only when the females come into season, during which time most males too come into a state called musth which is a heightened state where the elephants are very aggressive.
By 2.30 PM we were starving and so we stopped at a secluded wildlife beat office in the forest bordering the lake for lunch. We were peacefully having our delicious meal when I suddenly spotted a large black figure moving towards us through the forest. It was a massive bull elephant, and we hastily dropped our lunch and retreated to the small beat office for cover. The ranger at the office told us that this elephant had the nasty habit of attacking people on foot and loved to sneak up on these officers through the dense forest. Realizing that we were safe and out of reach, the elephant moved on. During the rest of the day we counted over 200 elephants scattered around the massive Minneriya Tank. This tank built by King Mahasen in (cite the date) is one of the largest man made lakes of our ancient history. The engineering skills and knowledge required to achieve such an amazing feat thousands of years ago is still a mystery to us today. This lake provides water for all the agriculture for the entire region even to this day, and the people of the area still worship King Mahasen for the gift he has given the people. This gift has also become a haven for the elephants that throng to this area every year to feed on the nutrient rich grasses.

During this trip I was determined to find the legendary one tusked bull elephant who many people were talking about. Sumedha described this elephant as being a massive mature bull and I was determined to find him on this trip. We looked everywhere and covered all corners of the park to no avail, and time was running out. Sumedha suggested we give one last try and go across a water channel to the furthermost corned of the tank to see if this guy was hiding there. No vehicles have gone on this route for some time. In fact there were no roads visible and the ride was very rough, so bad to the point that Rohan Uncle who joined us on the trip was thrown out of his seat and onto the floor. Even the front buffer of the jeep came out due to the rough ride. I had given up by now and was very disappointed, when Sumedha suddenly shouted out “there is your tusker!. And there he was indeed in the far corner of the lake, bordering the forest the single tusker or One Tusk John as some call him was feeding peacefully. I started clicking away with my camera, not realizing that he was slowly making his way towards our jeep. I keep zooming back as he was getting closer and closer by the second till he was only a few feet away from our jeep. Suddenly he charged and thanks to Sumedha’s experience he kept the engine running and we managed to avoid him by a few inches and we moved aside. The tusker was in the height of musth which made him very aggressive and we could see the secretion dripping from the side of his face as well as the strong musty smell which reminded me of a cigar smoke.

 One tusk John started moving away from us and started feeding again. We decided to leave him alone as we have had our share of photographs and narrow shaves with him, and also it was getting late and the sun was setting so in a triumphant mood we headed back out. This amazing gathering is a must see experience for anyone who visits the country. This truly is an amazing and wonderful spectacle of Mother Nature. 

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