As the sun sinks toward the distant horizon, the elephants begin to emerge from the scrub vegetation and move solemnly toward the water of a lake. It is September, towards the end of the dry season, and most water sources have long since disappeared. The Minneriya tank, however, retains water throughout the parched months and the now-exposed tank bed is flourishing, the fresh growth attracting herds of elephants from near and far.
The gentle, charismatic giants congregate here every year at this time, their numbers sometimes exceeding 300. To see so many together –playing, eating, swimming, looking for mates –is nothing but breathtaking. That this occurs very near to the physical centre of a fairly diminutive, densely-populated and compact island is symbolic of the elephant’s indigenous importance.
The crowded ecological stage
Elephants may be the most celebrated of Sri Lanka’s diverse wildlife, but they actually represent just one actor on a crowded ecological stage. For instance, this is one of the best places in the world to see the elusive leopard, and one of the only places where the big cat is top predator in the system – the king of the Sri Lankan jungle. With striking markings, a sleek, powerful body, and graceful movements, the leopard is thrilling to observe – try Yala National Park in the south-east coastal and zone.
The final member of Sri Lanka’s ‘big three’ is the sloth-bear, a shaggy, shambling denizen of the dry zone forests whose elongated snout and scimitar-like claws are ideally adapted for extracting termites from their mounds. In May and June they take to the trees – a fantastic if incongruous sight! – to feed on the sweet yellow fruits of the palu tree. Wasgamuwa National Park is one of the best places on the island to have the pleasure of a sloth-bear encounter.