Changing Shades of Green

by DJ and USW


Picture taken in 2011 shows scattered trees and grass species in between

If your garden is left unattended it grows wild after several seasons. Eventually, there will be a mini-forest of a few species carefully chosen by a natural process. This is an ecological succession. The same takes place in the wild. Once a habitat is disturbed but then left undisturbed by humans, it goes through a series of structural changes in the vegetation with time.

Uda Walawe National Park was declared in 1972 following the establishment of Uda Walawe reservoir for generation of hydro-electricity. The park acquired areas of human settlements, timber plantations, mature forests and scrublands. It subsequently played an important role as a catchment of the reservoir and a wildlife refuge. A substantial area of newly declared park was consisted of abandoned slash-and-burn (chena) cultivations.

Traditionally in Sri Lanka, cultivated and then harvested chena plots are abandoned for another 5-10 years before burning it again. During the period chena goes through ecological changes starting from grasses and herbs to young trees of less lignified tissues. If disturbed again, the chena will never grow into a mature forest but the structural changes already in the ecosystem over time support an array of species diversity. It is identified that many herbivores are benefited by early stages of these changes and particularly elephants for a great extent [1].

Until late 2000s, Uda Walawe’s abandoned chena cultivations had biomass of grasses (predominantly Panicum maximus or Guinea grass, an introduced grass species of invasive nature but in this case encouraged as herbivore fodder) and many herbs which contained less cellular deposits like lignin. Elephants enjoyed grazing in these plots specially after monsoon showers. Presence of year-round grasses and water in the park favoured the elephant populations and in 2011 we estimated about 1000 elephants used the park seasonally [2].


Panicum maximum (foreground) used to nourish elephants of Uda Walawe



Elephants in their version of heaven in 2008

However, the primary vegetation Uda Walawe was making a comeback through ecological succession and the grasslands gradually started changing into young forests with species like Bauhinia racemosa (Bidi leaf tree), Cassia fistula (Golden shower tree), Ziziphus mauritiana (Chinese apple) and Flueggea leucopyrus (Bushweed). Concurrently, Lantana camara (wild-sage) took upper hand in many parts of the national park, including changing grasslands. It is known to be an invasive species in South Asia and is propagated through seed dispersal by perching birds.


Lantana camara shows the widest spread in Uda Walawe replacing elephant food species (2016)



Eupatorium, a bush not readily consumed by elephants, is widely spread in the park

Young forest species don’t meet elephants’ food demand and they are not as nutritive as the grass and herb species of primary succession. Further, elephants have to compete with the domestic cattle inside the park for remaining grazing grounds. Subsequently in mid 2010s wild elephants of Uda Walawe started exhibiting poor body conditions. Our studies continue to monitor demographic changes of the population along with the changing green shades of the park.

There is a school of thoughts that fire management can be a solution for non-elephant-friendly vegetation changes in Uda Walawe. Annual fires regenerate grass and tender herb species. That is a suggestion to interfere with the natural ecological succession in the park and to set it at square one! It could be a strategy to sustain herbivores for another few years, but conservation doesn’t mean protecting only a few chosen species – the total ecosystem deserves attention as a whole. The questions for Uda Walawe are practical ones – what’s the right balance, and what risks do we incur in altering them?


Elephants with lower body condition as seen in 2016


[1] Pastorini, Jennifer, et al. “A preliminary study on the impact of changing shifting cultivation practices on dry season forage for Asian elephants in Sri Lanka.” Tropical Conservation Science 6.6 (2013): 770-780.

[2]de Silva, Shermin, Ashoka DG Ranjeewa, and Devaka Weerakoon. “Demography of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka based on identified individuals.” Biological Conservation 144.5 (2011): 1742-1752.

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Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant


A young female named Right Hole puts her trunk over the head and back of another female of similar age with the ID [458]. The two are from different social groups, though they know each other.

Elephants are commonly thought to live in matriarchal societies which rely on the strong leadership and wisdom of elders, with strong age-based dominance hierarchies. Our new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology overturns this view, finding that in fact Asian elephants, unlike African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership” [1]. Continue reading

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Collateral Damage Part 2 – Bycatch

By DJ & SdS


In the fishing industry, the term “bycatch” refers to species that are entrapped in fishing nets that are not the intended target species.  Such victims, many of whom may die and simply be discarded overboard, represent a terrible waste of life.

Well, in Uda Walawe the bycatch this time was an elephant. Continue reading

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Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods. Continue reading

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Collateral Damage Part 1 – Snares

By DJ & SdS

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

An adolescent at Minneriya National Park with a snare injury on his right foreleg.

A snare is a hunting device resembling a wire noose. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to trap wild animals. In Sri Lanka, such poached bushmeat consists of wild boar, porcupine and lesser members of the deer family and is mostly locally consumed. Hunting non-protected species (wild boar and porcupine, which are considered as vermin) is not illegal but other species like deer are protected by the local Fauna and Flora Ordinance.

Locals say snare traps are often meant for wild boars. Unfortunately, these traps do not discriminate, they also make victims of species like leopard and elephant. During the last five years, more than ninety percent of the leopard deaths occurred in hill country, Sri Lanka was due to physical injuries of ensnaring. Our observations in Uda Walawe and Minneriya National Parks suggest that it is usually less-experienced juvenile elephants are the victims of snare traps, though adults may sometimes show signs of old wounds. Trunk injuries show the animals are vulnerable even during grazing, not just while walking. Perhaps calves’ natural curiosity makes them especially vulnerable. Continue reading

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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? Continue reading

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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


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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