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Guest Blog | Helping the Elephants of Sri Lanka

Guest Blog | Helping the Elephants of Sri Lanka

Long time Elephant Family supporter Tim Stevenson visited Sri Lanka in November last year, and worked with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society to help in their efforts to protect the Asian elephant. We're lucky enough to be able to post a journal of his trip, which he has written especially for Elephant Family. Here's how he got on...

I have been involved in volunteering and fundraising for Elephant Family since 2010 when my interest was stimulated by the wonderful Elephant Parade of 258 elephant sculptures placed throughout London. Last year I decided it was time to see these creatures in real life, in the wild, and preferably to do something to help them in their struggle to survive.

The Elephant Family website has a link to the Great Projects ecotourism organisation, and through them I volunteered to work with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) based to the south of the Wasgamuwa National Park in Matale district on the edge of the ‘Cultural Triangle’.

I chose to travel for 18 days in early November which luckily was just before the beginning of the north eastern monsoon season in Sri Lanka. Having said that this is a tropical area, I enjoyed several major downpours during my stay, mostly from the shelter of the field house fortunately.

Over the two weeks, I and the rest of the volunteers happily settled into the routine of our days’ activities, enjoyed many new experiences and learnt a great deal about elephants, Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), and the culture of the people of Sri Lanka, both from firsthand experience and from discussion with our excellent SLWCS hosts. 

Water Tank Monitoring

Tanks are large, usually man-made, reservoirs or lakes, part of the ancient and amazing Sri Lankan irrigation system for managing water supply in a country that experiences drought and tropical downpours in different places at different times of year. Elephants are attracted to the tanks as articial watering holes, and SLWCS in this area monitors the local Weheragala tank in the elephant corridor south of the Wasgamuwa National Park. We would be looking for elephant herds or single males by sight or by inspecting dung!

You can tell a lot from elephant dung: males tend to lay bigger boules; boule circumference gives an idea of the elephant’s age; its location indicates their dispersal patterns; the contents reveal what they are eating (e.g. native plants or villagers’ crops or even food from the nearby rubbish tip, as shown by banana leaves, plastics, spoons and cartons in the dung, which pass through the elephant’s digestive tract relatively unscathed); fungus and beetles give an indication of how old the pile is and hence when the elephant was here.

It doesn’t even smell bad if the responsible elephant has been eating native plants - it’s reminiscent of Virginia tobacco. It is however a good idea to carry a stick for poking with rather than using a more hands-on approach.

Transects

These are paths or strips of land in the elephant corridor that vary in length from a few kilometres to 50 metres. We would check for 5 metres (plant growth permitting) either side along the length of a transect to record the presence of recent dung and record its GPS location to ascertain distribution, abundance and eating habits over different seasons and habitats.

Electric Fence Monitoring

SLWCS had a novel and practical brainwave - rather than trying to fence off the elephants, they fenced in the villages. The village and the fields around it are surrounded by a 12,000 volt pulsing solar powered electric fence with removable wires across the main access paths, which is turned on from dusk to dawn when elephants are about. The shock is not fatal to elephants (or humans) but is enough to dissuade further exposure to it. The fence is maintained by locals living near each section under the watchful eye of a village committee that meets monthly to discuss issues. Our task would be to walk the fences making sure poles are upright and sound, the three wire strands that conduct the electricity are attached and not shorting out, that vegetation is not earthing the fence by growing over it, and that overhanging growth is not causing a problem. Any issues are reported to the committee for resolution.

Sandtrap Monitoring

Not a hole for trapping wildlife, but randomly selected areas of the forest near the elephant corridor where a patch of ground is cleaned, has sand mixed with the earth and the whole area levelled and smoothed over so that any animals walking over it will leave a clear imprint. The aim is to understand the diversity, distribution and numbers of non-elephant wildlife (especially the elusive leopard) that live in the forest to add to the biodiversity picture of the area. Our job would be to carefully lift off any leaf cover, record any prints and then level and smooth the trap again.

Tree Hut

SLWCS has a tree hut overlooking a small road that runs through the elephant corridor leading to a tiny village and giving access between areas of human habitation. The hut was used by villagers when there were crops beneath to watch out for elephant encroachment so they could alert locals to come and scare the elephants away with lights, noise, (e.g. by use of thunderflashes) and sometimes gunshot.

Now the crops have moved behind the electric fences and the hut is used by SLWCS, mostly in the afternoons but also overnight, to observe and record the movements of elephants and humans in the area and, if they coincide, to record the nature of any HEC or interaction. Over time SLWCS are building up data on the spatial and temporal distribution of elephants and humans in the area and the intensity of any interactions.

Elephant Observation

While we are here to assist SLWCS in their work, they also appreciate that we’re here to see elephants in the wild merely for the splendour and wonder of them, so whenever elephants are spotted (usually in the tank where they are most easily and safely observed) other activities are put on hold and we divert to the tank to observe these amazing animals in their natural habitat. Our main SLWCS guide and research scientist, Chandima, warned us at the briefing that there hadn’t been many elephants seen recently so we may be out of luck. In this he was, unusually but fortunately for us, mistaken.

Close Encounters of the Elephant Kind

Every day brought fresh encounters with elephants, singly and in herds. TV programmes are all very well, but to experience wild elephants in real time, in real life - the anticipation of waiting for their grey bulk to emerge slowly and silently from the trees to graze and play in the open grassland of the tank, the sights, smells and sounds as they go about their daily lives – this is to feel a real sense of connection with these majestic and fascinating creatures. My first encounter, seeing a lone adult ambling back into the forest without seemingly a care in the world, would have bought a tear to my eye if I wasn’t so British.

I saw herds of 20 or more elephants of various ages: female groups shielding babies, protecting them from danger; adults teaching youngsters how to curl their trunks around grass clumps, pull them up, beat the earth off on their raised front foot and eat the succulent shoots, dropping the seedy tops to the ground in distinctive sheaves (these we used to track their movements on various hikes).

I saw two bull elephants, both in musth (like being on heat, with a strong pheromone laden scent, earthy and musty, quite attractive according to one of the girls in our group!) facing off across a pool of water, flapping ears, throwing earth on their backs and spraying water on themselves from their raised trunks. Fortunately there was no physical contact and they ended up swaying their huge rears off into separate parts of the forest, passing on either side of our watching group within maybe 15 yards.

I saw a juvenile female, separate from the main herd, clearly just larking about, having a fabulous time with a mischievous look on her face: nonchalantly sidling up to one of the ever-present peacocks then rushing it and taking great delight in its startled flapping retreat to a safer distance; trotting back and forth through a coarse grass area, gambolling, swinging her legs, fiddling with her left front leg using her trunk, looking for more trouble to cause; chasing other birds about like a kid in a park.

I saw 2 adults and a baby having what is best described as a bundle: crashing into each other, one lay down as the other sat on it while the baby climbed on top looking triumphant – King of the Castle elephant style. Later the baby charged through the herd, chasing birds, squeaking with the fun of it.

I saw two young bulls play fighting – nonchalant grass pulling, feints, bum bumping (like belly bumping but with their bums, sideways), shoving, barging, and occasionally checking all was well by wrapping their trunks round each other.

I was reminded one evening that these are wild elephants and we are intruders in their territory. After several hours of observation in the tank we had clearly outstayed our welcome and began receiving increasingly angry false charges from different directions from two or three females, forcing us to get back in the Land Rover ready for a quick departure. Things seemed to calm down after our excellent guides Chandima and Sampath intervened (by apparently saying ‘Go, Go’ in non-threatening but firm Sinhalese) and the herd moved away down our only exit route. As we tried to drive off a big bull and a cluster of females around their babies were in our path and refused to move, despite Sampath flashing the lights and revving the engine in imitation of an elephant’s rumbling.

Then two females to our right also began making false charges and trumpeting angrily. Sampath and Chandima made increasingly firm noises and gestures in the fading light to ward off these charges and get the herd moving, but with little noticeable effect. Ultimately Sampath had to make small elephant-like charges and retreats of his own in the Land Rover to start the herd moving away from us far enough to prevent them charging as we drove off. All in all a very tense half hour. While I have complete faith in Sampath and Chandima’s amazing abilities with elephants, thoughts did cross my mind of at least a bashed vehicle, through having to walk home, up to some serious injury to someone.

On my overnight observation from the tree hut I was treated to an almost mystical encounter with a lone female elephant. Awakened from a fitful sleep at about 3:30am, I heard a branch break to the north on our side of the road. A short while later I heard legs dragging slowly through the undergrowth and grass being pulled, beaten and eaten. Hearing these movements but seeing nothing in the gloom was eerily atmospheric, and then in the faint moonlight I saw her grey bulk, indistinct in the long grass, ambling past about 15 yards or less from our tree heading for the tank, slow and sedate. Once she was well past us Chandima shone a torch on her back (to avoid the light startling her) and we watched and listened as her ample rear swayed off into the trees.

On the last two days of the trip I also saw the sadder side of elephant existence in Sri Lanka – captive elephants. At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy a group were being readied with colourful capes and howdahs by attentive but firm mahouts for a parade to mark the new moon. They looked bored rather than distressed, certainly not carefree and spontaneous like my wild elephants – more resigned to their captive lot. In Colombo at the Gangaramaya Temple on my last day I saw a mature female chained by front left and rear right foot to restrict movement, swaying, tossing the palm leaves that appeared to be her only creature comfort. Her eyes were yellow, white and staring, not like the dark brown contentment of the wild elephants I’d seen. Sadly that was the last elephant encounter of my trip, but it served to emphasise the many high points I’d experienced.

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Many thanks to Tim for this journal of his trip, and for his support of Elephant Family's work over the past few years. Firsthand accounts like this of elephants in the wild highlight the importance of our work, and in Sri Lanka especially, where we have recently become deeply concerned over reports of baby elephants being taken from the wild to be sold to elephant camps.

written by Elephant Family on 26 March 14

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Celebrating World Wildlife Day and a New Agreement to Stop Illegal Trade

Celebrating World Wildlife Day and a New Agreement to Stop Illegal Trade

Today is the first ever World Wildlife Day; a day introduced by the United Nations to instigate a world-wide celebration of the planet’s phenomenal creatures and plants. It’s also a day for us to recognise that the world’s fauna and flora is facing a crisis of epic proportions. The illegal trade in wildlife is now an estimated £12 billion industry, the fourth most lucrative illegal trade in the world. And, it’s growing exponentially.

The fallout of this commercial war on wildlife has become so severe, global leaders gathered in London last month to devise a critical battle plan.  Forty six countries agreed to a number of decisive actions to overpower the rampant greed and corruption driving the trade, including: support for an international ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory; renouncing the use of products from species threatened with extinction; amending laws to take poaching and wildlife trafficking seriously; strengthening global co-ordination through the sharing of intelligence, and supporting natures protectors who stand on the frontline of conservation. Building on previous commitments, these actions could make a real difference, if implemented and enforced.

Elephant Family has been working hard to make sure that Asia’s wildlife has not been forgotten during these critical talks. The savage slaughter of Asian elephants for their ivory is on the increase, and it’s not just elephants facing onslaught. India lost 41 of its rhinos last year, out of a total population of just over 2,500; Asia’s big cats are being annihilated for their skin and bones; and pangolins are disappearing from the forests, along with thousands of other endangered species.

Last year, our co-founder Mark Shand accompanied the Prince of Wales to the forests of India to show him what is remaining of Asia’s wildlife. Mark emphasised the fact that the upcoming meeting on wildlife presented a watershed moment to recognise that Asia’s animals and plants are in crisis too. We were incredibly encouraged that the Prince of Wales included the following in his opening address to the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade on 13th February:

“This tragedy [for wildlife], of course, is not confined to Africa alone.  It is crucial to understand that Asia's, specifically India's, wildlife is also being decimated and if the world's focus remains solely on Africa we risk losing South-East Asia's wildlife, which includes 20% of the world's species.”

There is global accord on at least one point; the time for talking has past. There are already other international days for the environment, but by making today World Wildlife Day we are reminded that we can all work together to incite greater action to save the planet’s species – making sure that 3rd March does not become a memorial day, a moment where we mourn the loss of what once was, rather than celebrating what we still have.

written by Jo Cary-Elwes on 03 March 14

Tags: World Wildlife Day, Poaching, Asia, Prince of Wales, Illegal Wildlife Trade

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