Envisioning The Future

As we wrote earlier, our newly launched Coexistence Project seeks to find ways that people and elephants can continue to share space while meeting the needs for security on both sides. For people, this means economic as well as physical safety.

Back in January, we asked our focal communities in 5 villages to engage in a visioning exercise with us. Gathering at their local meeting house or at the home of a community leader, we first shared some of the results from our survey last year.

We then asked: What circumstances do you face? What are your hopes for the community for the next 10 years? And where can we help as a conservation-oriented organization? We were also curious about how people in each community responded to the presence of elephants – did they warn each other? If so how?

In larger gatherings, we broke up into small groups of 5 and had them discuss amongst themselves. We then wrote up a list of aspirations, and discussed where we might fit in.

Deepani explains what we’re here to do to a curious audience. We found that the attendance rate was much higher among communities that we had surveyed last year.

Women tended to be particularly forward-thinking in the visioning exercise. It was also interesting that although cell-phones are widespread, there was a lot of variation from place to place in their use.

A comprehensive list of these outputs will be provided in our final report, however some of the major themes that emerged were that:

  • People felt their cultivation lands were being grabbed by outside interests and they felt pressure from reduced access to forest resources.
  • Participants at around half the locations had grievances having to do with water rights and ownership of small reservoirs owing to activities of either the Wildlife or Forest department, whereas the other half didn’t.
  • All locations were affected by elephant conflict, and one location had three human fatalities in April 2017, after which the elephant had been transferred to the holding ground at Horowpathana.
  • The relationship between communities and wildlife authorities was strained. One role we could play was in helping to improve the communication between them, but we’d have to be careful not to get in the middle of disputes.
  • Each community differed in the availability and use of technology such as computers, internet, phones, and social media. Clearly no single solution or safety mechanism would work everywhere.
  • All participants nevertheless had high hopes that electric fences of some form were their best hope. In some locations we discussed the reality that even existing fences do not work once elephants habituate to breaking them, and that there was no such thing as an elephant-proof fence anywhere in the world, no matter what the design. This matter has to be further discussed and gradually understood given what we’ve seen on the camera traps.
  • Despite all this, people were not unwilling to live with elephants. Although they saw no direct benefit from their presence, they seemed to simply accept it as a fact of life and that elephants had their place.
  • Some participants, especially women, expressed the lack of after-school enrichment and need for more opportunities for their youth and children.

The last two points are promising for our future work but also moving. Did it have to be this way? It felt only fair to us that these communities, which bear the heaviest burden from elephants, should also receive some benefits from sharing their land with these powerful and emotion-provoking creatures. This is the spirit in which we launched The Coexistence Project, and part of the drive to begin with helping six pre-schools, one per village bordering Udawalawe National Park. Learn more about the schools >

We hope you’ll stay with us, as we work toward a shared vision of peaceful coexistence. If you’d like to help, please consider supporting us.


The Coexistence Project

Update June 20th: We are halfway through the campaign & on track with reaching halfway to our goals of raising $5000 from at least 40 people! Help us close the gap by multiplying your impact on Bonus Day, June 20th – the top 5% of fundraisers within that 24 hour period will be eligible for matching support from Global Giving! Donate now >

Elephant and people observe each other across an electric fence.

The Udawalawe Elephant Research Project (UWERP) started as an attempt to understand the behavior and ecology of elephants, and yield information useful for conservation of this elephant population, and perhaps even the species. But it was always evident to us that understanding the elephants’ side of the story was important, but only half the picture.

It has become fashionable in conservation to speak about the need for “coexistence” with wildlife, as opposed to conflict. Elephants are a prime example, being a conflict-prone species, with large area requirements. Because elephants can never survive purely within the confines of national parks and protected areas, this means finding ways that people and elephants can share their space. But you may wonder – elephants and people have been living on the same landscapes for thousands (if not millions) of years, how was this possible? Weren’t they already coexisting? Continue reading

Mind Over Matter

Those sneaky sneaks!

It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again.

Before we get to that, let’s back up.

Insofar as there was ever anything that qualified as “wilderness” since the arrival of our fire-wielding ancestors on the scene just over half a million years ago, these wild places surrounded us.  They were full-bodied, seemingly unending, and the creatures within them moved at will wherever they pleased.

But as humanity has continued to expand, such places have thinned out. We are now struggling to hold on to the bones and hearts (here are examples from North America, Asia, and Asia again). This in itself is said to be ambitious. Where such places contain species that could pose a risk to us, or where we are simply trying to define what belongs to “us” vs. what belongs to “them” (by which, we mean everything that is not human), we like to put up boundaries.

And so electric fencing has been embraced in Sri Lanka as a cure-all for keeping elephants away from people and vice versa, on a cramped island where the density of both is unsettlingly high.  Probably the most visibly effective fence that ever gave a pachyderm pause existed along the southern boundary of Udawalawe National Park. Here were many splendid photo opportunities of seemingly idyllic coexistence between people and elephants as a growing number of the latter patiently and politely waited for hand-outs from passers by, even as the temptation of sugar cane plantations lay on the other side of a busy two-lane highway. It was so effective that at first the authorities only bothered to turn it on from 6pm to 6am. During the daytime, passersby lingered around, oblivious to the fact that there was in fact no electricity protecting them. Bit by bit, segment by segment, the lengths of fencing grew.

Things changed in 2010 with the arrival of Ghost, a one-tusked bull translocated into the park for causing mischief elsewhere. Tusks being non-conductive of electricity, he made short work of the fences and also the sugar cane. Soon afterwards, others followed his lead. Ear-splitting bangs could be heard nightly, echoing like a miniature war zone, as people tried to drive them away with crackers. But while Ghost was experienced in stealth raiding, the others were more brazen. The electricity now needed to be kept on 24-7, they tried their luck in broad daylight.  It didn’t end well for at least two young males – one was killed falling into a well and another was first shot and then electrocuted.

Out of desperation, the Wildlife Department set up a secondary fence line a few hundred yards inside the perimeter. The objective was to remove direct handouts and discourage temptation for both people and elephants.

For a while, it seemed successful. Trees shot up in the no-man’s land and the interior of the park was shielded from view. The beggars dispersed back from whence they came, save for the placid yet doggedly stubborn Rambo.

Encouraged by this, a more ambitious plan was devised to fence portions of the Park’s interior, with the intention of allowing grasses and trees to recover from elephant feeding pressure.

This elephant is strolling along one of the interior fences.

But unfortunately, the scale of these fences, and their position inside a quickly regenerating monsoon forest, made them nearly impossible to maintain. Also, they were an inconvenient nuisance to elephants and vehicles alike, requiring substantive de-tours to pass around. So of course, the elephants broke through. And this is what is now happening along all parts of the electric fence, inside or outside the park. It became common to see downed posts and tangles of wire lying around. Elephant calves are now growing up with fences as playthings.

A calf of about 4 years old toys around with the current-free wires.

Which brings us to the story at hand. Our camera traps were set up as part of a collaboration with the Wildlife Department to evaluate the efficacy of certain planned electric fences. Which is why this clip is so striking.

A young male wanders up and breaks the fence with a single confident, practiced stride. He pauses briefly to relish his success and ambles off. But then nearly an hour and half later comes a young female. Alone, and not yet fully grown, she’s obviously curious about the broken post, but reluctant to cross it. She sniffs, possibly even touching the wire, which may or may not have electricity still humming through it. She hovers around, feeding, and disappears without having crossed the line. The elephant equivalent of a dutiful, law-abiding citizen.

Of course, we don’t know if at some point she got up the courage to investigate the other side, out of our frame of view. Perhaps she brought her entire family over with her. But what this so powerfully illustrates is that a fence is above all a psychological barrier. It is only by virtue of this psychological barrier that the physical one works. The mind is what matters. How many exposures would it take an individual like this to overcome their hesitation? How many elephant calves are growing up with no reluctance to push these boundaries at all?

Our guess is that this elephant population will soon not be fully habituated to electric fences, which will be to the detriment of those who use them as a last line of defense to protect their lives and livelihoods, given an elephant’s considerable lifespan. Scenarios like this are probably playing out the world over. In Southeast Asia, where oil palm companies are trying to protect sprawling plantations. Electric fences have been tried and defeated. Likewise in India. But that doesn’t prevent them from trying again.

Over. And. Over.

People always seem to think that it is simply a matter of imagining a better design, something more robust, something that stands up to all manner of abuse. A better and better and better mouse trap. This is not the way forward. Animals will try to overcome barriers to get where they need to be. We have to re-imagine these fragmented bits of landscapes as parts of a greater, fuller, functional whole.

We have some ideas for how that would look, and you can bet we are working on it. Care to support us? Join our cause.

Save Our Skins

“The use of elephant skin in Asia is not new. Surveys by the nongovernmental organization Traffic found elephant skin openly on sale in Mayanmar’s Mong La market in 2006,2009, and 2014, with ever larger quantities on show each year. Yet these findings, and their implications for Asian elephant conservation, were overshadowed by the conservation world’s focus on the poaching of elephants for ivory and, as a result, solely on efforts to save African elephants.”

Skinned: The growing appetite for Asian elephants. Report by Elephant Family, April 2018

If you ask people what the leading threat to elephants is, most will likely respond: “ivory poaching”.  But if you take a look at the pictures posted throughout this blog, you will see that this does not pose a risk to the majority of Asian elephants, which have no tusks.  All females and most calves are tuskless, and some males as well. Instead, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflicts with people, smuggling of live babies and now lately – poaching for skin.

Warning: this post contains graphic content. Continue reading

Social Structure in South Indian Elephants

Guest post by Nandini Shetty

A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project

India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.

I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading

Elephant Gardens

Guest post by Jessie Panazzolo

A camera trap photo shows Sumatran elephants trekking through lush regenerating forest.

I had always been told the same thing over and over again from my schooling, the scientific papers I read, and people I met growing up. This was that once primary rainforest was gone and removed from the Earth, it could not grow again. I was told that the forest needed a constant cycling of nutrients to flourish. That without the trees blanketing the ground in leaf litter the soil would be devoid of any nutrients needed to create such rich life again.

I had also been told that important forest dwellers such as the Sumatran Orangutan would only find a home in thick established forests. I had read in many different papers that Sumatran Orangutans, unlike their Bornean cousins, never spent any time walking on the forest floor in fear of the predatory Sumatran Tiger.

Considering all this, you could imagine my surprise and awe when I found myself in the middle of a brand new Sumatran rainforest, barely five years old, seeing orangutans walk the ground in front of my very eyes. It was then that I knew that anything was possible. Continue reading