Minneriya National Park

The Minneriya tank is one of the thousands of ancient irrigation lakes that waters the verdant face of the Sri Lankan lowlands, and undoubtedly the focal point of the 8,889 hectare National Park to which it lends its name. Constructed in the 3rd Century AD by King Mahasen, the tank remains an important source of water for regional crops as well as a vital resource for the numerous elephants (Elephus maximus) inhabiting the surrounding forests. Now dubbed “The Gathering” in tourism promotion circles, the congregation of elephants that can be seen on the tank- bed in the late dry season (August to October) as the surrounding water sources steadily disappear, is a remarkable wildlife phenomenon.

The natural annual cycle for the region’s elephants, sees them in small herds of one to two dozen during the wet season, feeding on the lush vegetation brought out by the rains. These scattered groups start coming together as the rains become a fading memory, and ponds and smaller tanks disappear. When the surrounds become parched, the Minneriya tank remains replenished, so it is here that the desparate herds journey, and meet up, to form larger, loose-knit associations. Eventually, at the height of the dry season, a daily ritual unfolds, whereby all the elephants in the area gravitate to the grassy plains exposed by the receding waters of the tank, to feed and socialize.

The Park encompasses a range of micro-habitats which, include classic dry zone tropical monsoonal evergreen forest, thick stands of giant bamboo, hilly pastures (patanas), grasslands (talawas) and abandoned chena cultivation. The reservoirs hold over two dozen fish species, including the endemic stone sucker (Garra ceylonensis) and combtail(Belontia signataare). Not surprisingly, a diversity of water birds benefit from the nutrient-rich aquatic ecosystem, including Painted Storks (Mycteria leucocephala), Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea), and the diminutive Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres). Large congregations of Little Cormorants (Phalacrocorax niger) are not uncommon, sometimes numbering in the thousands; and Great White Pelicans (Pelicanus anocrotalus) can also be seen treading water, to settle on the large lake’s shimmering surface. Forest birds also abound, and in total there are 160 avifaunal species, found here including several that are endemic. On the ground, a variety of amphibians and reptiles hop, scurry and slither through the undergrowth including endangered, endemic species such as the slender wood frog (Rana gracilis) and red lipped lizard(Calotes ceylonensis). Spotted deer (Axis axis), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and samb ur (Cervus unicolor) are amongst the most common of the two dozen mammal species found in the park. The shaggy sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) and the island’s top predator, the leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) are also present, if rarely seen.

On a relatively small island where space is at a premium, Minneriya and its surrounds exemplify the extraordinary yet precarious balance between the often contrasting needs of humans and elephants. Forest connections from Minneriya to a network of nearby National Parks – Kaudulla, Somawathie Chaitiya, Flood Plains and Wasgamuwa – go a long way to ensure a vast tract of quality elephant habitat – and thus space for numerous smaller species – is safeguarded for the future.

Written by: Anjali Watson & Andrew Kittle
Principal Researchers/ Founding Trustees
The Leopard Project
The Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust
Sri Lanka

http://www.wwct.org

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