How Sri Lanka’s Man-Made Reservoirs Created Elephant Migration Areas in Minneriya

Minneriya National Park in central Sri Lanka is known for its amazing seasonal congregation of elephants. Around September and October, up to 300 elephants migrate to the park and congregate around Minneriya Lake. However, this watering hole which serves as the elephants’ main food and water source isn’t natural, and is actually an ancient man-made lake. It’s a vision of an ancient Sinhalese civilisation, whose construction of artificial water reservoirs called tanks created diverse wildlife areas.

Construction of Minneriya Tank

A tank is an artificial reservoir, which are mostly found in Sri Lanka and India. They serve to catch rainfall and water from rivers to replenish the water supply in parts of the country; this water is then used for drinking, agriculture, as well as for sacred rituals and bathing. Tanks are constructed by modifying depressions in the land, building mud banks to hem the water in. While some tanks have brick structures along the edges, others appear to look just like natural lakes.

Minneriya Tank was built during the reign of King Mahasena, who reigned from 2778CE – 304CE, also known as the Great Tank Builder. During his lifetime, he constructed 16 tanks across the country. Minneriya tank was the largest tank he built, at 4,670 acres (18.9 square kilometers), or about a third the size of Manhattan. The tank was created by damming the Minneriya River with a 13 metre tall dam, which irrigated a huge area of central Sri Lanka.

Wildlife Spotting in Minneriya National Park

Minneriya National Park is in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, located about 45 minutes drive from Sigirya. For most visitors, the appeal of Minneriya National Park is seeing the elephant congregation around the tank. In addition, there is also a chance to spot rare Sri Lankan animals such as sambar deer, the Sri Lankan leopard, and the sloth bear.

Sketch of asian elephants on a sri Lankan safari

Arranging a Safari Vehicle for Minneriya National Park

The sound of crunching gravel coming down the road meant that our 4×4 had arrived to take us to the park. It was battered and tough, painted black, with six seats in an elevated tray, a roll cage, and a tied-up canvas canopy. We grinned in delight. It was our safari vehicle for the day, and it was all ours. We booked it via our hotel in Sigirya, which arranged everything through the reception – meals, bikes, guides, and cars.

We began racing along the single lane highway towards the national park. Big, knobbly offroad tyres were making a hypnotic rumbling sound as we drove. The forest flashed by in a blur of green. Our driver/guide stopped once along the way to honour a roadside shrine, and again to admire a lone bull elephant which was grazing by the road. After an hour, we pulled into the entrance of Minneriya National Park, where a dozen black 4x4s just like ours milling around, their occupants securing permits and paying entrance fees. When we returned to the car, the roof had been taken down.

Ready to begin!

Sketch of an asian elephant on safari Sri Lanka minneriya national park

Wildlife Spotting in Minneriya national Park

The diesel engine clattering, we picked our way through dense forest first, admiring gnarled tree branches, overhead strangler vines, red-brown termite mounds and fanned clusters of bamboo. Standing tall in the back as we lurched along the dirt path, we photographed wild pigs shuffling through the leaf litter, conspicuous glossy-blue peacocks with long outreaching tails, and a huge buffalo wallowing up to the shoulders in a muddy pool.

A Sri Lankan junglefowl (Sri Lanka’s national bird) was scratching in the soil, a yellow rooster with brilliant blue tail feathers. As herds of skittish deer melted into the forest, we discussed spotting the rarer animals with our driver; the Sri Lankan sloth bear, and the object of everyone’s search, the leopard. So far, no sightings.

As the forest thinned, a group of lanky toque macaques with very long, slender tails went scattering when we approached. Defensively, sentries took up carefully calculated positions on top of logs to watch us, reevaluating their ideal watchtowers every time we drove closer. We saw peacocks with fully fanned tails, and fluorescent green insect-eating birds darting inbetween branches.

Sketch of Sri Lankan monkeys sitting on a log

The treeline ended, and a sandy offroad trail led to a clearing, which opened up to a vast plain. A wide grey lake sparkled in the wan afternoon sun. Our driver had a magic eye for spotting wildlife; he pointed out a tiny fox slinking through the grass. Closer to the lake, a herd of water buffalo was grunting impatiently as they shuffled through the shallows. Other safari vehicles began to appear, and were converging at a particular spot. The stars of the park were nearby – elephants.

The Elephant Gathering of Minneriya

A large family group was scattered by the waterhole. Dozens and dozens of elephants gathered, ripping tufts of long green grass to eat, socialising, mingling, headbutting and tossing piles of earth onto their own backs for sun protection. Youngsters played and chased each other, and male suitors sought female elephants. All of the car engines were turned off, so the only sounds were distant trumpets and low grumbles, and the thin whistling of the wind.

Sketch of minneriya national park male elephants playing with their trunks

The elephants migrate to Minneriya from Wasgamuwa National Park during the dry season. As the waters of the tank dry out, fresh grasses are exposed. These grasslands surrounding the banks of the tank are a great food source for the elephants, and there is always a supply of water for the large family groups. Some reports have counted up to 700 elephants, and it’s thought to be the world’s largest elephant congregation. Lonely Planet lists the elephant gathering as one of the top wildlife spectacles in the world, along with the Great Migration of Tanzania and Kenya, the bat exodus of Malaysia’s Deer Cave, and brown bears fishing for salmon. It truly is an unforgettable sight.

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Without the Minneriya Tank, the annual Gathering of elephants of Minneriya National Park probably wouldn’t take place. This amazing construction by the Sinhalese civilisations millennia ago has a lasting legacy beyond their original intentions. In its heyday, the tank irrigated crops, provided clean drinking water, and gave a place to bathe and perform rituals. Today, it’s the natural world which is taking advantage, giving us the beautiful, biodiverse and protected Minneriya National Park.