The Brief Life of [T212]

By SdS & USW

All looks peaceful…


…until you look closer.

He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.

But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong.

Closer inspection reveals a tiny wound, in the middle of the forehead. A small streak of what could have just been a splash of water, but was in fact a trickle of dried blood.

By the time the veterinarian and others arrived to investigate, it was too late. [T212] was already dead.

[T212] at final rest.

He was two months shy of his twelfth birthday.

Born in February of 2007, [T212] belonged to a very small and exclusive club – tusker calves born inside Udawalawe National Park. His mother had the ID [111], Naomi of the N family. The Ns were an aloof bunch, preferring to keep mostly to themselves. In the early years of the research project, we saw them only in the dry season, close to the reservoir on the Southern most end of the park.

[T212] in 2011 with his mother, Naomi, and younger sibling, when he was four years old.

We were initially mystified at how they showed up there every year, without being spotted anywhere else. Did they travel only by night? Did they stay away from roads? How did they avoid all those tourists on their journey from wherever it was they spent the wet months, to their dry season home at the reservoir? The answer, as we discovered, seemed hard to believe, but it explains why [T212] became such an easy target.

With some of the other N’s in 2014.

With the family in 2015. Behind [T212] are his mother and younger brother.

But first let us tell you about [T212].  We weren’t sure he was a tusker at first. The pointy little nubs sticking out past his lip were so thin, we thought they might be tushes. But as he grew, so too did his teeth. As far as we could see, he was the only tusker the family had produced. Though we were pleased, we worried that he was growing up so close to the edge of the park.  There was a spate of illegal calf kidnappings going on, and a baby tusker would be a sought-after prize. But the risk is highest until the age of three or so, after that they’re too much trouble to overpower. We were relieved when he outgrew this risk, but kept close tabs on him.

[T212] in 2016, when he was nine years old.

Tuskers are exceedingly rare in Sri Lanka. No one quite knows why – perhaps they were a rarity to begin with in the founding population of the island. Perhaps it is the result of generation upon generations of selective capture and hunting.  So when a baby tusker is born, we watch anxiously until they grow up and disperse from their families. An elephant takes so long to mature, it’s only happened once so far in the duration of our twelve year study.

A dispersing animal faces many perils. He loses the safety of protection and vigilance afforded by his family. He must navigate unfamiliar surroundings and find food that is hopefully safe to eat. Above all, he must learn to avoid people. Elephants born in the park are especially susceptible to two dangers. First, they are so habituated to people they may not fully realize the danger humans present. Second, those that get accustomed to hanging around near the fence might get fed by people, a bad habit that is as difficult to break in people as in elephants.  If the calf happens to be a tusker, the temptation of ivory rears its ugly head.

[T212] still wrestles and plays with other calves, though increasingly more independent by 2017.

As the years went on, park management cleared new roads and fire breaks along the edge of the reservoir.  Irregularities in rain dried out the reservoir in some years, so that the water level was low enough to drive around even during the “wet” months.  We were able to access the far end of the reservoir – and who did we see? The N family!

They seemed to live in their little patch of forest year-round, which would make it one of the smallest home ranges for an elephant family ever known, barely a few tens of square kilometers. In the wet season, they enjoyed a sort of isolated kingdom of their own. On the southern side, the electric fence prevented the intrusion of people. In all other directions, a wide body of water spared them from competing with elephants in the rest of the park, while also keeping them hidden from nosy tourists and researchers alike. They had plenty to eat and shade to retreat under. In the dry season they were merely more exposed so we could see them, but their movements likely didn’t change much.

This tiny area was home to [T212]. He must have known every inch of it, having walked it all with his mother and her family.  At eleven years old, he had started putting more distance between himself and them, but he hadn’t set off on his own yet.  He took to grazing by himself, in plain view of the road and all passersby. He could not have known that the familiar ground on which he had spent his whole life, where people passed by daily and presented no threat, could ever be a danger to him.

We feared it was only a matter of time before opportunistic hunters made plans to go after him.

A wildlife officer inspects the lifelike body.

And so it happened that on December 1st [T212] met his fate. They must have come in the night, and shot him from the road. They probably expected him to collapse there, where they would easily remove the tusks.  But he didn’t fall as they’d expected. As he sank down, his tusks speared the ground and propped him up. There he sat, looking for all the world as though he were merely at rest. His ears may even have moved in the breeze.

They must not have known he was dead, so they didn’t dare try and take the tusks.

So ended the story for [T212]. The saddest part in all this is that he had an entire park to explore, and might have enjoyed a longer life had he chosen to turn anywhere but South. No amount of patrolling could have protected him. The vast majority of people in Sri Lanka love and respect tuskers too much to kill them, those in Udawalawe no different. But it only requires one greedy desperate person to take a life. There are other young tuskers who innocently risk the same fate. We keep hoping they stay safe each day, and grow up to be the magnificent creatures they were meant to be.


Stake-out, Part 1: Where did all the elephants go?

by SdS

A lone male at the reservoir was all we saw…

Back in 2007, 2008 and 2009 UWERP devoted intensive effort to surveying all parts of the park in order to make an estimate of the elephant population. Ten years on, it is time to re-do this exercise. What that means is that for a few specific months each year, we have to try and cover the park more evenly in space and time than we normally do when studying behavior. The trouble was, the elephants were missing. For much of the preceding weeks elephants had been scarce, so much so that guests were leaving annoyed. This was not unusual – I remembered that during the hottest and driest months, elephants usually stayed in the shade until late afternoon even back then. I supposed they were resting and conserving their energy until nightfall. But we could never know for sure. Continue reading

Investing in The Next Generation

By SdS

Students at Kalawelgala elementary school can now learn in peace thanks to the metal grilles installed on the windows, which prevent monkeys and other animals from getting in.

Back in June we held a crowdfunding campaign to support our work with some of the villages bordering Udawalawe National Park and the Wetahirakanda corridor. Thanks to our sponsors, we were able to raise $6000 for improvements at five pre-schools (Montessories) and an elementary school. We re-visited each of the schools in July to confirm their needs. In August it was my pleasure to visit with each of the teachers in order to provide the initial installments of funds. As the schools were on break, we visited several at their homes. Each teacher undertook individual accountability for showing that work was progressing and funds were being spent as intended.

Ms. Lakshimini accepts the sponsorship.

The first stop was with Ms. Lakmini of Pubudu Pre-school. Continue reading

The Folly of Fences

Electric fences that split forested habitat are all too common. As a result, occurrences like this are frequent.

Sri Lanka is part of the ancestral home of Asian elephants and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers colonized and cultivated, before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonizers and governments. This was their land long before humankind set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else. Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbors an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: do we want elephants (and their bretheren) to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question on World Elephant day because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome. Continue reading

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. Continue reading