asian elephant calf suckling on its mother

The gathering of giants Dubbed “The Gathering”, this yearly elephant migration has been observed for centuries and is the highest...
by 26th October 2016

Every year, wildlife and photography enthusiasts flock to Sri Lanka’s Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks to witness an extraordinary natural phenomenon: the annual congregation of over 300 wild elephants. Dubbed “The Gathering”, this yearly elephant migration has been observed for centuries and is the highest concentration of wild Asian elephant in the world.

As the monsoon rolls into the forested districts from June through to November, the grand pachyderms disperse in search of a drier climate and migrate to the open pastures on the shores of the ancient Minneriya reservoir. The reservoir, which was built by King Mahasen in the 2nd Century AD, recedes during the dry season allowing lush green grass to grow in its place. The massive herds congregate on this feeding ground and what a luxury it is to observe them frolicking, socialising and playing in the water. Think of it as a grand family reunion by the pool!

The monsoon typically reaches Minneriya in October, at which point the herds continue their trek and move towards the reservoir at Kaudulla National Park where they will remain until the rains intensify. In November, they will retreat back to the forests.

Freelance guide, Riaz Cader, was fortunate enough to witness The Gathering at the Kaudulla reservoir and this is what he experienced.

Clash of the Titans

A Story by Riaz Cader

“There must have been more than 100 elephants split among two groups. The young boisterous calves were engaged in play, trumpeting joyfully and occasionally being an outright nuisance as the females continued to feed. A few large bulls moved from herd to herd, inspecting each female in search of a receptive mate. Much to our surprise, an enormous bull soon mounted a much smaller female and the pair began to mate while the rest of the herd continued to graze, undeterred by the spectacle.

We noticed two other large bulls following each other, facing off and then backing away and repeating the process. One was noticeably darker with a pinkish pigmentation commonly observed in Asian elephants, while his rival was brown, covered in mud and seemingly in better condition. Both giants were in the height of ‘musth’, a breeding condition whereby the elephant secretes testosterone from the side of its face. We could actually smell the unmistakable musky scent from several hundred metres away. Sensing a potential confrontation between these two well-matched adversaries, we headed off in their direction.

The facing off and backing down continued, but was growing in intensity and we sensed that a titanic collision was looming. Fights among bull elephants are extremely rare and really only take place when they are equally matched and in the height of musth. We appeared to have the ideal conditions for the perfect storm of elephant encounters. The pair squared off once more, this time virtually in front of each other, and suddenly four tons of enraged bull elephant unleashed itself against the other.

The two behemoths were banging heads at full force. The lighter coloured male soon outflanked his opponent, who at one point was virtually on his knees and about to be turned on his side (an extremely vulnerable position in which he could easily get trampled and possibly killed). Fortunately he recovered and despite a comeback of sorts, the darker male backed off, conceded defeat and slinked off.

The clash, which seemed to last an eternity, yet despite its ferocity was probably no more than a minute. Tranquillity was soon restored to the Kaudulla plains, as darkness was setting in. It was the ultimate face-off between two battle-hardened warriors and one of those exciting, nail-biting wilderness moments that will be forever entrenched in my mind.”

Images courtesy of Riaz Cader.