Friday, December 17, 2010

Discover Sri Lanka- ‘The Gathering’

When I launched my TV series Discover Sri Lanka’ in 2008 on state television, my vision was to highlight some of the lesser known marvels of Sri Lanka. My first programme in the series was on one of Sri Lanka’s wildlife wonders which defies conventional wisdom - ‘The Gathering’, regarded as the most spectacular event in the international wildlife calendar.

‘The Gathering’ is a massive concentration of our Elephants, which takes place each year, from around July to October when the dry season sets in, and the elephants go in search of food and water. Over three hundred wild Elephants, from far away as the jungles of Wasgomuwa and Trincomalee converge on the receding shores of the Minneriya Tank, in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka.

The Minneriya tank is an ancient man made lake constructed by King Mahasen in the 3rd century AD. This ancient tank fills during the North-East monsoon and gradually shrinks as the dry season sets in. As the waters recede, lush grassland sprouts attracting Elephants in search of food and water retained in the tank.
Nowhere else in the world will one find such a huge gathering of wild Asian Elephants, concentrated within a few square kilometers of luscious land.

Together with my able television crew, we traveled to the historically famous city Sigiriya, to meet Srilal Miththapala a fervent elephant enthusiast at Hotel Sigiriya- our host hotel.

The next day we took off in a convoy of jeeps to the Minneriya National Park, to film The Gathering!

Despite my many years experience in most aspects of TV, this was a first for me and it was an exhilarating experience.

Unfortunately no one had advised me on the type of attire I should wear. My jeans and T-shirt were okay but my footwear was something else. My mother had made me promise that I would wear knee high boots, in case I stepped on a snake.

Neither of us were aware that at the Minneriya National Park, no one is allowed to get off their vehicles and the engines are kept running just in case!!!

As we entered the park I was stunned to see so many elephants of all shapes and sizes. Big ones, small ones and tiny little babies a couple of weeks old.

Srilal proved to be the expert on elephants and very comfortable facing the camera. He explained the insignificance of the male elephant except to procreate and when the task is accomplished the poor male is kicked out by the matriarch elephant.

He had once seen three adult male elephants trying to impress a matriarch who was looking for a suitable mate for one of her ‘girls’ in her brood- an arranged match. Each male had been trying to be more macho than the other which didn’t impress the old lady at all. She then raised her trunk and sniffed out all three ‘boys’ to check on any defects.

The first one was no good, and she showed her rejection by swinging her large trunk and landing a hefty blow on the unsuspecting male, which sent him reeling despite his size. The second one got the same treatment but the third guy proved to be lucky- no defects!

All male baby elephants receive the same TLC and protection as the girls. The herd is made up of grandmothers, daughters, aunts, and grand-daughters and little boys but once they reach puberty, the boys are kicked out, to prevent in-breeding. These male elephants lead a lonely, depressed life and end up being very destructive. Many of them become a great headache to the farmer and his crops.

I was amazed to see how these mammals protect their young. While walking in two rows or one behind the other, the baby is kept in-between the adults. And if the baby tries to wonder away, it’s gently nudged back into the herd by the trunk of one of its many caregivers.

After filming these amazing animals, it was my turn to do my part on camera as the host of the show, and what a circus that turned out to be!!!!

Since the camera crew and I were in the same jeep, I now had to get myself onto the bonnet of the other jeep without stepping on the ground. The two jeeps were parked side-by-side and worse, the boots made my task a nightmare!

However, using the two spare wheels attached to the back of the jeeps, I managed to land myself in the other vehicle in one piece. Phew! I should include that feat in my Curriculum Vitae.

Thereafter I retired the boots and opted for sneakers for the rest of our visits in Sigiriya!
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