The Patels Visit Udawalawe

Guest post by Yogi & Nikita Patel

We traveled to Sri Lanka to work with Trunks & Leaves in support of schools surrounding the Udawalawe National Park. We first arrived in Negombo, Sri Lanka where we were met by Deepani, who works with Trunks & Leaves, and her friend Jocelyn. We traveled by car to Udawalawe where we were joined by Sameera, the project coordinator. We visited the first Montessori preschool, operated by Sameera’s sister, Chathurika. She was gracious in showing us the school, which was closed for the holidays. She had been hard at work painting furniture and cleaning the classroom and play area for her 18 students. Her school, which is attached to her home, is surrounded by many fruit trees. Her family members supported her passion for educating children in her town.

Our next stop was school teacher Shiromi’s home. We met with Shiromi who greeted us with her family and offered the most amazing homecooked treats. We chatted about her work in the village and her school, Dimuthu preschool. We met with Shiromi again the following day, where we observed the children in her classroom. The parents were very supportive of Shiromi and came to the school with their children even though they were supposed to be on holiday. We got to sing and dance the “hokey pokey”.

Deepani, Yogi and Sameera with the first cohort of preschool teachers whose schools received support from Trunks & Leaves’ sponsors (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

The next few days were dedicated to teacher training, held at the Kalawelgala primary/elementary school. The premises were surrounded by trees, monkeys, peacocks, squirrels and many birds. The school is wonderfully open and there is a new screen on the windows that was funded by Trunks & Leaves. The screen allows for a breeze, since it can get very hot, but protects from monkeys that like to explore the classroom and cause some mischief. Each day, 5 teachers came to the training to learn about Montessori methodology and Positive Discipline. Despite there being a language barrier, we were all able to communicate both non-verbally through hand movements and translation by Deepani and Sameera.

The grillework at Kalawelgala lets in the breeze while keeping out the animals (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

Montessori teaching materials donated by Kinderhouse Montessori School (photo by Hamish John Appleby).

We also taught the teachers how to use the learning equipment that was donated by Kinderhouse Montessori School in San Diego. Funds raised by Kinderhouse students alongside sponsors from around the world were also used to purchase tables, chairs, rugs, water tanks and other learning equipment that was assembled by the local team. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done in providing equipment, English lessons and training to the teachers who are keen to learn. Out of a total of 44 schools in this area close to Udawalawe National Park, we focused on six. We were humbled to see how much work has already been accomplished at the national park and the wonderful care that is put into taking care of the elephants. With the community’s involvement, we hope everyone including the elephants will benefit.

At the Elephant Transit Home (photo courtesy of Yogi Patel).

Elephant spotting.

On the last day, we went into Udawalawe National Park with the research coordinator Kumara, and his assistant Ravi. They spend spend lots of time following elephants and their behavior. Kumara’s ability to identify each elephant within seconds by looking at their ears was impressive. Deepani and Sameera also work on elephant conservation, with a special focus on the communities bordering the park. We truly appreciate the time they both spent with us and the many aspects of their work.

We also appreciate the time each teacher took to come out for the training. We learned so much from one another – language, educational similarities and differences, cultural values, and much more. The time we spent together was not nearly enough and the teachers were enthusiastic to learn more about Positive Discipline and Montessori principles. Some of the school children also came to the training, along with their parents. They were absolutely crucial in the lesson-giving portion of the training. We are grateful and humbled to have been received with love, curiosity for learning and for being able to grow personally in a heavenly environment filled with nature. The chance to laugh together and connect on a deep and meaningful level is one that we are thankful for.

Yogi Patel is the founder of Kinderhouse Montessori School and a certified trainer in Positive Discipline. Now retired, she is a member of the Advisory Committee for Trunks & Leaves. Yogi & her daughter Nikita visited the project to gain a personal glimpse into how work to strengthen educational capacity in these communities is crucial for long-term conservation.


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. Continue reading

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