Sri Lanka: the secrets behind Asia's mightiest elephant migration

Every dry season, elephants gather in Minneriya National Park in their hundreds, creating one of the planet’s greatest natural spectacles.

By Adrian Phillips
Published 17 Feb 2020, 06:00 GMT, Updated 8 Dec 2021, 10:58 GMT
Minneriya National Park
From February — as the climate becomes drier and the waters recede elsewhere — animals start coming each evening to the shore of the Minneriya Reservoir. And they keep on coming.
Photograph by Chitral Jayatilake

So, this is how my life will end. I make myself as ball-like as possible, face jammed between bent knees, arms wrapped tight about my head. A human hedgehog.

The gas burners hiss desperately, trying to steer us clear, but there’s no time. It’ll happen any moment now, probably in three, two, one... The impact comes with a violent confusion of creaking, snapping and splitting — the sounds of wood under the utmost strain, like a sailing ship battling a storm. Branches drag sharply across the outside of the basket, and we're drenched in a stinging shower of bark and lichen. All around is the mighty heave and whoosh of displaced boughs whipping back into place. Someone gives a little scream.

And then, as suddenly as we’d entered the maelstrom, we’re free of it and floating away. My life hasn’t ended. Everybody starts to unfold themselves and peer over the edge of the basket, brushing bits from their hair. “Sorry about the timber,” says our pilot cheerfully as we climb away from the field and its slightly dishevelled tree. “Thank god there wasn’t an ants’ nest in there,” he continues, pulling at the cords that open vents to control the flight of the scarlet balloon. “I went through a tree full of red ants recently. Those buggers bite. All the passengers were stripping off their clothes and rolling around the floor.”

Dawn is breaking above central Sri Lanka, the grey light warming to blue. There’s no better way of getting the lay of the land than from a hot air balloon. Our ragged take-off was from a spot near Kandalama Reservoir and now we’re drifting westwards over Dambulla, its Royal Cave Temple hidden somewhere below, and on towards the vast Ibbankatuwa Reservoir. The clench-fisted silhouette of the Knuckles Mountain Range punches the southern horizon, while directly below us is a glorious patchwork of paddy fields.

“What is it about ruddy towers?” mutters Justin as a radio mast looms, and he flares the burners to make a lazy leapfrog over the top. Justin is from Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, but he spends the months between October and May running balloon trips in Sri Lanka. “Flying conditions are tough because it gets gusty. And landing is a lottery,” he adds, disconcertingly. “There always seems to be a bloody tree in the way.”

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants in the world, and, as more land is farmed, the paths of people and elephants cross more frequently.
Photograph by Getty Images

But he’s survived 14 years of coming here, and the views make up for the odd choppy touchdown. “Isn’t it amazing what nature creates?” he muses as we pass a pair of rock formations rising from the yellow-green crops like sugar loaves; so smooth and perfect you’d think they’d been fashioned by design rather than the elements. The sun is higher now, and our balloon casts a heart-shaped shadow on the ground. Farmers at harvest straighten up to shield their eyes and watch us. A dog barks madly at the balloon, tearing along a hedgerow in its determination to bring down this thing in the sky.

We land an hour later — softly, thankfully, at the edge of a rather waterlogged field — and Justin hands round glasses of Champagne, “Because any flight you walk away from is a good flight!” I don’t mention the one thing that would’ve made it better: an elephant. It was special to spot peacocks fanning their tails, of course, and yesterday I was accompanied on my slog up the 1,200 steps of Sigiriya’s ancient fortress by a gang of torque monkeys, swaggering loose-limbed along rocky ledges as if they owned the place.

The wildlife in Sri Lanka is various and extraordinary. But it’s the elephant that, for 2,000 years, has defined this country; ever-present in its art, its architecture, its religious symbolism — but, three days in, I’m yet to see a single specimen in the flesh.

“We watch a pair of babies tussle and chase each other around their mothers. One of them trips over a tussock and tumbles onto its back, legs akimbo, before clambering hastily to its feet and trying to look dignified.”

The gathering 

On the fourth day, that changes in one glorious fell swoop. It’s late afternoon as we drive through dry evergreen forest into the heart of Minneriya National Park. Beside me in our four-wheel-drive vehicle is Prithiviraj Fernando — known simply as ‘The Doctor’ — a man who’s devoted his life to studying elephants. “My father insisted I should be a medical doctor,” he admits, “and so I took all the qualifications and joined a hospital. But I gave it up at the end of my very first day. For me, it had to be elephants.”

The forest thins and we reach a steep bank that drops to a shallow river. Our driver coaxes the vehicle over the bank, the wheels skidding down the slope, before accelerating fiercely through the water and lurching up the side. As we emerge, I’m so preoccupied with checking that my fillings are still in place that it takes a nudge from The Doctor to alert me to the scene ahead.

Opening before us is a grassy plain wrapping around the edge of an enormous lake, and on the plain are 40 — maybe 50 — elephants. There are solitary elephants and elephants in groups, elephants tugging up tufts of grass to eat and elephants cooling themselves in the shallows. They call it ‘The Gathering’. From February — as the climate becomes drier and the waters recede elsewhere — the animals start coming each evening to the shore of the Minneriya Reservoir. And they keep on coming. “By July, there’ll be 150 elephants here, and in September, 300,” says The Doctor. “The whole plain gets covered with them.” This is surely one of the planet’s great wildlife spectacles, but few people seem to have heard of it.

Prithiviraj Fernando — known simply as ‘The Doctor’ — is a man who’s devoted his life to studying elephants.
Photograph by Chitral Jayatilake

We watch a pair of babies tussle and chase each other around their mothers. One of them trips over a tussock and tumbles onto its back, legs akimbo, before clambering hastily to its feet and trying to look dignified. All the while, as we’ve been absorbed by this cameo, an adult female with a hairy lower lip has moved slowly towards us, innocently, never looking exactly in our direction, but sidling, as if the juiciest cuts of grass have happened to pull her our way. Suddenly, she abandons the pretence and runs towards the vehicle, and our driver has to hurry the vehicle into gear and make a speedy retreat.

It’s an incident to suggest all isn’t quite as it seems in this peaceful place. Beneath the calm, currents are swirling, and occasionally they break the surface in a flurry of whitewater. “A few elephants can be a bit aggressive,” The Doctor explains.

“Some have had a bad experience with people.” As if on cue, a young male limps into view, as best he can, keeping weight off one foreleg. “See the puncture wound on his shoulder?” The Doctor says. “He was probably shot.”

He might survive. The Doctor speaks of another elephant that manages well enough on three legs after being hit by a train — but either way he’s a stark, broken reminder of the problem of human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. Last year, 320 elephants were killed. They weren’t the victims of poachers because Asian elephants are usually tuskless. Instead, they fell into cultivation pits, or were hit by vehicles or were shot by terrified villagers protecting their paddy fields. And 70 people were killed too, colliding with elephants while riding their motorbikes at night or trampled as they tried to scare them away from the rice stores that feed their families.

Villagers lead a procession in the hope of enjoying good harvests and good health, and of having crops and lives spared from roaming elephants.
Photograph by Chitral Jayatilake

Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants in the world, and, as more land is farmed, the paths of people and elephants cross more frequently. For 70 years, the authorities have endeavoured to confine elephants to national parks. They’ve corralled them there, over long distances, using vehicles to scare them along. They’ve erected electric fences around the parks — over 2,670 miles of them, so much fencing it could stretch twice around the country. Despite all this, the majority of elephants remain outside these areas.

“Elephants have traditional ranges,” The Doctor explains. “One elephant was translocated 60 miles east but found its way back within a month. Another was so desperate to get home, it lost its bearings and swam three miles out to sea. There was a huge operation to tow it back in.’ 

For all its good intentions, the policy of ring-fencing the elephants hasn’t worked — indeed, it’s exacerbated the problem by making some of them suspicious and grumpy, like the hairy-lipped matriarch on the plain. “The surprising thing isn’t how many people are killed each year but how few,” sighs The Doctor. “My team and I have the solution though,” he continues. “A way to let people and elephants live together — I can show you.” But not now, he apologises, leaving me hanging, for dusk is close and there are spots of rain in the air. We agree to meet later during my trip.

Elephants were engines of war at the time the Mahabodhi Temple Complex — and its stone elephant guardians — were built, representing strength and protection.
Photograph by 4corners

Guardians of the temples 

In the meantime, I want to see some temples. Central Sri Lanka contains the so-called Cultural Triangle, a region rich in UNESCO-listed architecture, and at the triangle’s apex is the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Next day, I’m taken there by Chitral, of local tour operator Nature Trails, to visit some of the country’s earliest and holiest sites, built when Buddhism was in its infancy. 

Holiest of all is the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, which surrounds the Sacred Bo Tree, grown from a sapling of the fig tree beneath which Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment. It’s been here since 288 BC and is believed to be the oldest human-planted tree in the world; its gnarled branches supported by golden props. Over thousands of years the tree has survived storms, sackings of the city and even a vandal’s attempt to chop it down in 1929. The big question, of course, is whether it would survive Justin in his balloon.

What most draws my attention, though, are the chunky, weatherworn stone elephants that stand sentry at the temple gates. Moustachioed attendants might be checking our tickets, but there’s no doubt where the symbolic power lies. “Elephants were engines of war at the time these temples were built,” Chitral explains. “They represent strength and protection.” 

Nowhere is more strongly protected than the nearby Ruwanwelisaya. Sealed inside its vast dome — once the tallest building in Asia — is the largest collection of Buddha’s relics anywhere, and that merited a supersized quota of elephants. They emerge, shoulder  to shoulder, from the perimeter wall, 338 in total — one for every foot of the stupa’s height. It’s an impressive, imposing show of force.

“Villagers seek protection from elephants in this temple protected by elephants, while somewhere out there are the former protectors, now themselves in need of protection. How complicated the relationship has become.”

Just as we pass between them, drums strike up, softened by the snake-charming drawl of a reedy trumpet, and a crocodile procession of people starts filing towards and around the stupa. A bowl of burning incense is borne aloft at the front, its smoke unfurling above the procession. I’m reminded of a slow-moving steam train. 

“We’re lucky — this only happens once a month, on the full moon,” Chitral tells me, crouching to take a photo. There are probably around 200 people involved, young and old, each of them dressed entirely in white and holding a seemingly endless strip of orange cloth. Once the circuit is complete, monks in orange robes take over and pin the cloth around the whitewashed stupa, like a ribbon on a decorated egg. 

“These villagers will have saved up for the right to perform this ceremony. It’s expensive. They’ll only do it once,” Chitral says. He explains they do it in the hope of receiving good favour, of enjoying good harvests and good health, of having crops and lives spared from roaming elephants. They seek protection from elephants in this temple protected by elephants, while somewhere out there are the former protectors, now themselves in need of protection. How complicated the relationship has become. Where are the guardians now? 

I look for them the following morning on sacred Ritigala Mountain, among the ruins of ancient temples swallowed by jungle creepers and in lonely caves where monks withdrew from the world. And in the nearby village of Rambewa, where a charismatic master called Ritigala Sumedha keeps alive an ancient martial art under the spreading branches of a banyan tree. His disciples wear colourful sarongs while they leap and kick, punch and lunge, and spin bamboo staffs above their heads until the air sings. The purpose is to develop the soul rather than to kick butt, I’m told, and afterwards the master leads a prayer of thanks to the earth and everything in it. When a leaf falls from the banyan, it’s removed before it can be trodden on. “We won’t disrespect something that’s sheltered us for centuries,” the master says solemnly. 

The wildlife in Sri Lanka is various and extraordinary. But it’s the elephant that, for 2,000 years, has defined this country.
Photograph by Chitral Jayatilake

The Doctor’s cure 

Spiritual guardians remind those who’ll listen of our place in the order of things, but what of the practical guardians, those with a contemporary solution to a contemporary problem? Next morning I take a potholed track westwards for my follow-up appointment with The Doctor. He’s asked me to meet him in the region of Galgamuwa, which has witnessed some of Sri Lanka’s worst human-elephant conflict, and when I arrive there’s a welcoming party of locals eager to tell me their story. 

Bulugolla is a village of just 17 families; simple farmers who tend their paddy fields and live in houses with iron roofs. For four generations they existed happily enough, but 20 years ago elephants started to come. “They took our coconuts and pulled down the walls of our houses to get to the bags of rice,” says one. “A few people were killed,” adds another. Nobody slept. On starless nights, they’d lie listening for the rattle of the tin cans strung around their gardens, a crude early-warning system to alert the villagers to approaching elephants. Out in the fields, the men kept watch on wooden platforms, shouting and setting off firecrackers when a herd arrived in a desperate bid to save their crops. “Everyone was scared. Some families moved away.” 

Then The Doctor visited, and he brought a new idea. “For decades, we’d been trying to put fences around elephants,” he explains. “I decided to try putting fences around people.” Under The Doctor’s supervision, they set about building an electric fence around Bulugolla. Wires were strung between posts, and the posts themselves were electrified (thus avoiding the situation in national parks, where elephants had learned they could push posts over without getting a shock). “Elephants are clever,” says The Doctor. “They’ve also learned to flatten fences by laying logs on them. This fence is flexible so it bounces back up if something knocks it down.” There are temporary fences too, powered by portable solar panels, to protect paddy fields during the growing season. 

Giant seated Buddha at Mihintale Mountain, a sacred site and monastery near Anuradhapura.
Photograph by Alamy

But has it worked? “In five years, no one has been killed and no house has been damaged,” explains Mr K G Wijeratna, who’s president of the Bulugolla Fence Committee, and proudly writes his name and title on a piece of paper for me. “There were 35 elephants outside the village last night, but no problem!” another villager chips in. “We can sleep, our palms have coconuts and our children are safe.” “And after my son touched the fence, he knows not to do that again,” Wijeratna adds. 

In this country of masters and monks, sacred trees and holy mounts, it’s a ‘doctor’ who’s answered the prayers of the Bulugolla villagers. For them, the conflict is over; people and elephants can coexist. The next step is to convince the government to roll out the solution nationwide. 

Before I leave Sri Lanka, I meet a monk at Mihintale Mountain whose wise words stay with me long after we part ways: “Buddha told his priests to go in different directions. Walk the same path and there will be conflict — you must find your own way.” Like the good Doctor, I think. He’s walked a different path, found his own way to the answer. Now the challenge is to get others to follow.

Travel essentials

Getting there and around
British Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways have indirect flights to Colombo from UK airports. Only Sri Lankan Airlines flies there direct, from Heathrow.

Average flight time: 10h30 (direct); 13h30 (one stop).

Sri Lanka has a decent rail and bus network and roads are largely well maintained. A hire car with driver will cost from about £40 a day.

When to go
Sri Lanka can be visited at any time of year, although the wettest months in the Cultural Triangle are between October and December. Peak season is January to April, and sites are therefore more crowded and prices higher. The climate tends to be hot and humid all year, and temperatures rarely fall below the mid-20Cs (even at night).

How to do it 
Nature Trails offers an eight-night wildlife and culture tour of Sri Lanka, featuring Minneriya National Park, Anuradhapura, Ritigala (a village famous for its martial arts), Sigiriya, hot air ballooning, whale-watching at Trincomalee, and more, from £2,700 per person. This includes accommodation at the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana and Trinco Blu by Cinnamon, guides, park fees and internal transport, but excludes international flights.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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