Preschools Day 2: Or, how toilets can also be bridges!

New slide at Nirmala Sigithi preschool.

The second day we were accompanied by a hard-working (and long-suffering) wildlife officer named Naveen. Not only was it an opportunity for us to meet the parents, but it was a rare chance for dialogue between the community and wildlife personnel, with whom there tends to be a strained relationship in areas where there are conflicts with elephants.

Head of the farmers’ association.

In the morning we received a gracious welcome at Nirmala Sigithi preschool from Ms. Madushani, the teacher. Following long speeches by both Naveen and Ms. Madushani, the families spoke up. Because the building doubled as a meeting place for the farmer’s association, the head of which was in attendance, Naveen was on the spot for answering questions about perceived inadequacies in the system for compensating wildlife damage. Luckily, the positive mood created by the occasion kept the discussion civil and demonstrated to us the value of providing the more of such opportunities for communities to interact with wildlife personnel. Moreover, we were impressed that despite cultural expectations, both senior representatives of the farmers’ association happened to be women. The meeting wrapped up with a song sung by one of the children, followed by a remarkable breakfast prepared by the teacher and community members.

With our support, the pre-school was able to install a proper lavatory, which would be for communal use for any gathering that took place in the building, as well as wildlife personnel charged with maintaining the electric fence. Who thought a toilet could be a symbol of togetherness! They also gave the building a fresh coat of paint both inside and out, as well as installed a new slide for the playground.

At Kekulu preschool.


Wildlife officer Naveen at Kekulu.

At Kekulu the teacher had obtained educational toys, building blocks and other tools for the children as well as electricity and wiring for the building, and a slide for the playground. This teacher, Ms. Indumathie, and her husband were important members of the community as his family had been among the earliest settlers in the area. They were very welcoming of us and even insisted that we come to their house for lunch at the end of the day. At each place, Naveen reiterated the proper procedure for applying for compensation for the losses suffered due to elephants. Unlike the previous school, we felt our audience was mostly quiet at during the meeting. Afterwards, however, one of the mothers approached Naveen to reveal that her sister’s child had been killed by an elephant not long ago. It was a case familiar to everyone in the area, and we felt great sorrow for their loss; of course no amount of compensation can suffice. It was a sad reminder of why we were here in the first place.

At Sigithi Divihuru the children greeted us with bunches of paper flowers. We were cheered up by a special treat – they had rehearsed a little dance for us. Because our entertainers were outfitted in colorful dresses, we were thoroughly amused to learn in the end that all but one were actually boys! Possibly the girls had been too shy? Cupboards, shelves and playground equipment were the chosen investments at this school.

Our entertainment at Sigithi Divihuru.

The final school was Rainbow. The smallest class of our entire cohort, the classroom was little more than a lean-to shelter alongside the teacher’s own house. But despite this modest appearance, Ms. Dilrukshi had proven herself quite capable and resourceful, as she had won a set of proper Montessori teaching materials through a local competition. From us they requested only a new sign for the school and a music player for the children’s theatrics. We are optimistic that this school will develop well thanks to the efforts of their enterprising teacher and wished the little school well in all its future endeavors.

Rainbow preschool.

Coexistence Project Preschools: Day 1


Children dressed in their finery for the year-end school concert at Chuti Tharu preschool go for a spin on the merry-go-round sponsored by the Coexistence Project.

We supported 12 pre-schools in 2019 as part of the Coexistence Project thanks to contributions from individual sponsors and the US Fish & Wildlife Asian elephant conservation funds. We visited each of the schools toward the end of the year to take stock of what was done and meet the parents of the children. We were also invited to attend the school play and other festivities, where we distributed small packs of school supplies for the kids.

The teachers universally appreciated that we had asked them to decide what was most needed in their pre-schools rather than doing so our ourselves, and the smooth process for receiving the assistance they had been promised. A series of posts this week and next provide a run-down of the improvements made at each school and our experiences at them; photos were taken with their permission to post. Continue reading

Why We Study The Asian Elephant

Guest post by Drs. Priya Davidar & Jean-Philippe Puyravaud, Sigur Nature Trust
All photos courtesy of Drs. Davidar & Puyravaud

During the 2017 drought in Tamil Nadu, up to 25 elephants per day were coming to drink water in our water tank.

We were trained as plant ecologists but have made the decision of venturing into research on the Asian elephant. The reasons are two-fold: first, we have a lot of respect and affection for this animal, second is our concern about the demonization of the elephant by the media where it is held responsible for intentionally causing ‘conflicts’ that harm human interests and cause loss of human lives (1). Although the destruction of its habitat, increasing human density and expansion into forest areas are routinely mentioned in most publications, interventions to arrest the loss of habitat and population connectivity is rarely considered a mitigation issue. The human-elephant ‘conflict’ (HEC) mitigation however is given a high priority for funding agencies and research (2,3), although its not clear how successful these efforts have been. Our ultimate reason to get involved in conservation biology however is somehow self-centered. If people don’t learn now to live in harmony with nature, including elephants, then our civilization will alter the biosphere to such an extent that humanity itself will suffer. To us, this is an unacceptable but possible outcome that we attempt to fight. Continue reading

Old Acquaintances

By SdS

Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!

A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as [047] on top.

[047] 2008

[047] in 2008.

When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading

Monsoon Days

October brings welcome rain for the people and the wildlife. This year the monsoon started as early as August, so by now everything is a luxurious green. The elephants are having an easier time because it has been wetter than usual. Perhaps for this reason, there have been a lot of babies born this year.

The rains follow a typical pattern over the course of the day – sunny and hot in the morning, showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Udawalawe sits at the intersection of two climate zones, which makes for strange and beautiful cloud formations with at times surreal atmospheric conditions. In the park we play games of cat and mouse with the rain clouds, trying to dodge the hyper-local downpours that are visibly framed against the brilliant sunlight. Pro tip – elephant viewing is best when there is a little bit of drizzle to cool us all off. Continue reading

Militant exploitation vs. militant conservation – how far will this go?

By SdS

Protecting nature can be dangerous and messy. Two recent reports bring to light what seem to be flipsides of the same coin. On one side are those who heroically fight and even lose their lives defending their homes, wild places, and wild animals. Then there are those who take lives, for the same purpose. August 12th is World Elephant Day. Normally, I would say something about elephants. But I already did that in the last post. So today I want to reflect on the people who protect wildlife, in one way or another.

It’s been on my mind a long time, but particularly since a conference I attended a few years ago. It was supposed to be an academic conference, but the audience was a mix of scientists, conservation practitioners and activists. Alongside the sessions people would huddle around in their little cliques, chatting about the state of affairs on the ground. Some of the conversations were depressing, there was no hiding it. Here we were free to speak truth out loud, in an atmosphere of urgency that everyone present acknowledged. I had a palpable sense that some (perhaps even many) of those present acted as though we were at war. It was a mindset that people stewing in, breathing in, day in and day out. I imagined that this was not unlike how reporters felt, who had spent too long embedded in war zones – a creeping feeling that far from the comfortable lives that most of our colleagues and acquaintances led, an epic battle was raging. Continue reading

E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them? Continue reading