Imagining Human-Elephant Coexistence on World Elephant Day

by DJ & SdS

 

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

Human-wild elephant interactions usually bring negative outcomes. The friction stems from the never ending competition of resources, mainly land. A conflict is defined as a state of mind in which an individual experiences a clash of opposing feelings. When the two species fail to share common resources, a conflict naturally takes place.The discussion must invariably focus on those who live alongside elephants. Their relationships with wild elephants vary. While some think total rejection is the answer, others considers having elephants around is fine as long as they don’t disturb their basic lifestyle.

Is human-elephant coexistence ever possible?

Well it’s quite a challenge given the damage wild elephant could cause to the farmers. A study conducted in Hambegamuwa (Northern Uda Walawe) revealed more than 90% of the farmers had been affected by the conflict during 2008-2012. Annual crop damage was 25% of their annual household income while they had to invest about 10.5% of their annual farming cost on conflict mitigation methods.  Property and life damage caused by elephants add to the question of coexistence, how far the locals would tolerate. The death of a school girl due to an elephant encounter in Balaharuwa area (East of Uda Walawe National Park) agitated locals, who demanded the ‘problem elephant’ be removed from the area. Those who tolerate wild elephants in their neighbourhood can only go so far. As conflict increases and the level of tolerance decreases, human-wild elephant relationship is a delicate balance. Conservation actions are meant to maintain this balance, the efforts may vary from low to extremely high cost.

An open dialogue should be kept between the affected locals and those parties who try to find solutions for the conflict – let’s call it raising awareness for both parties. The nature of the conflict varies with the geographic location and as there’s no universal solution for the problem, addressing the problem requires thorough analysis of the particular case. Meanwhile, the locals are better expected to understand how to be safe when living along with elephants in their neighbourhood.

Chathura Suduwella at the Sustainable Computing Research Lab at the University of Colombo. The tangle of wires next to him represents a possible innovation in electric fencing that can help farms and villages protect themselves from elephants.

Chathura Suduwella at the Sustainable Computing Research Lab at the University of Colombo. The tangle of wires next to him represents a possible innovation in electric fencing that can help farms and villages protect themselves from elephants.

Our hope for wild elephants on the World Elephant Day is a peaceful and secured life in the wilderness. Dr. Jane Goodall cited human ingenuity as one of her reasons for hope for the future. One invention is the electric fence, which has yielded some results in mitigating conflict. But electric fences are not a cure-all, they must be strategically placed and managed so that they facilitate coexistence, without creating fresh problems by blocking elephant movement unnecessarily. Rural farmers prefer low cost electric fences if they are to invest in agriculture and village fences themselves. Together with the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, EFECT is trying to help communities around Uda Walawe to build and modify low cost electric fences. It is our responsibility to help the conflict affected communities so that they can maintain their positive relationship with the wild elephants in the shared landscape.  Isn’t this also an aspect of ecosystem balance?

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Wildlife officers see what “evidence” means.

By DJ & SdS

Workshop participants

Officers from the DWC (middle and back rows) along with workshop facilitators (front row).

Decision making in wildlife management is always challenging; some may bias towards wildlife and others towards human needs. This conflict can be resolved only by making decisions based on facts or scientific data, which constitute a form of “evidence.” Thus, evidence-based decision making is considered the best approach to managing wildlife and habitats around the world. The opposite of this is management based on emotion, political agendas, or even expert opinion (which can often be wrong). Continue reading

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Ethimali Finds Her “Forever Home” In The Wild

by DJ, USW, and SdS (Photos by DJ &UWERP)

The female orphaned elephant calf found in Ethimale, Southern Sri Lanka rescued and brought to Elephant Transit Home (ETH), Udawalawa was later named Ethimali. After several years of rehabilitation, she was released to Uda Walawe National Park in March 2004, when she was about 4 years old, with another 10 rehabilitated juveniles.

Some young females at the ETH show an array of maternal or allomothering characters from an early age, despite being orphans themselves. They seem to select calves out of new arrivals and try to be as attentive to them as possible. She frequently checks whether her orphan is alright and will be the first to respond if the orphan screams or is attacked by another calf. She keeps continuous company for the orphan and with time, it starts to follow her most of the day. When the orphan seeks comfort she allows it to suck on her – in the absence of real milk, even the tip of an ear will do!

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf.

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf in 2004.

Continue reading

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Justice For Elephants in Sri Lanka: Dead or Alive

By DJ, edited by SdS

Is the future more promising?

Monks pay tribute to the slain elephants. Photo by Sanka Vidanagama

Monks pay tribute to the slain elephants. Photo by Sanka Vidanagama

Sri Lanka has been in the international news for her views towards elephants, native and exotic. Animal lovers and conservationists remain hopeful for a promising future.

January 26th marked International Customs Day. Sri Lanka destroyed nearly 1.5 tons of ivory confiscated in 2012 by the local customs, becoming the first to do so in South Asia. The shipment was en route to Dubai from Kenya and contained tusks of African elephants killed by bullets. DNA tracking later sourced the origin of tusks as Mozambique and Tanzania, which are known elephant killing fields. Despite many requests from locals to donate part of the seized stock to Buddhist temples as ornaments, customs was stern with their decision to destroy the total shipment of “Blood Ivory.” Continue reading

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Feeding Our Waste to Wildlife

By DJ, USW, and SdS

Baby_at_garbage

A two day old baby, with its mother and companions spotted at a dump near Minneriya National Park.

A study conducted in 2012 revealed that Sri Lankans dispose of 15 million polythene lunch sheets a day and 20 million plastic shopping bags a month. Part of this, along with other household wastes, goes to landfills. The majority is piled up in urban and remote areas at garbage dumps as identified by the Central and Local Governments. Sometimes, local residents decide the ‘best’ places to start a garbage dump. It usually starts with a single person or a one family and a small bag of waste and then the rest of the community gradually follows. Continue reading

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How early life may influence the way elephants age

Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield

Elephant babies in myanmar

Elephant calves at a logging camp in Myanmar. Image courtesy of Hannah Mumby.

There are a great many reasons to study elephants; they’re endangered, highly social, quite frankly huge and hold a unique and central place in many cultures. They can also be very strong, sometimes dangerous and slow to do what you want. But that’s not enough to stop me from working on them! One of my interests is actually their life cycles. In the past I’ve studied humans and non-human primates and the fact that elephants evolved long lives, almost on a par with our own, but on a separate evolutionary trajectory was fascinating to me. Elephants also usually only have one calf at a time and each calf is dependent on its mother for many years. These characteristics allow us to test a lot of ideas underpinning theories of life history and ageing, including ones that have been primarily designed with humans in mind.

So why is this interesting? Continue reading

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Rehabilitated elephants can be good moms!

By Deepani Jayantha & Sameera Weerathunga

In August 2015, one of our frequently sighted females in Uda Walawe named Indika was seen suckling two calves of different ages on either sides of her. The younger male calf Indika was nursing was about three months old and merely skin and bones. He was obviously malnourished and weak. She already had a rounded and bulky belly suggesting another calf was on her way. This unusual behaviour of the elephants intrigued us so we dug deeper into our field notes.

[208] and calf

[208] with her newborn calf in June

It turned out he was not her calf – he had been born to [208] in June, 2015 and was the first calf we had witnessed her to have produced during our study. A few days after the birth she lost her interest in the new-born and may have stopped lactating. The calf’s body condition started gradually declining so our team informed it to the veterinary staff at the Elephant Transit Home. Continue reading

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Bring back the dead or save the living?

Thoughts For Breakfast

No, I’m not talking about zombies.

This post considers two stories in the news last week.  The first, is a new study in Science Advances by Ripple et al. finally spotlighting what we’ve known for a while: herbivores around the world are collapsing, particularly the large charismatic ones. This is bad news not just because they’re iconic species that people love to love, but because they are major components of ecosystems and their disappearance would have widespread cascading effects.

Columbian Mammoth in the George C. Page museum, Los Angeles

The second is an interview on NPR with Dr. Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz on her new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.  It leads with the question “If science could clone a mammoth, could it save an elephant?”

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Life’s Joys and Sorrows

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I was honored to receive the President’s Award for Scientific Publication on October 31st 2014.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is the result of a lot of hard work by many people. I am most thankful to Sameera Weerathunga and T. Kumara for sticking with a very demanding job despite all challenges, Ms. Nisha Suhood for doing all that is necessary behind the scenes and more, and Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, our longtime collaborator at the University of Colombo.  I’m also lucky to have a wonderful and supportive husband, Sergey Kryazhimskiy. And of course where would anyone be without their beloved parents.  Thanks Mom & Dad.

But, in a constant reminder that all good things must pass, I am very sorry to have lost a beloved member of the family.  I cannot write this post without also honoring the memory of Dr. Arkady Kryazhimskiy, my dear father-in-law.  A brilliant mathematician, wonderful father, and gentle human being.  May he rest in peace and may his ideas live on.

~SdS

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Hyena girl meets elephant girl – A Chat for Skirts in Science

Some colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science have started a series featuring conversations by female scientists called Skirts in Science.  The goal is to make women in science more visible to students, especially young women and girls.

I had a lot of fun in this chat with Sarah Benson-Amram, now faculty at the University of Wyoming.  Here is a brief window into our work:

Many thanks to Paula Cushing, Kimberly Evans, and Marta Lindsay for inviting us to be part of this great series.  Check out their channel here.

Part 2 will have a discussion of how we came to do what we do. Stay tuned!

~ SdS

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