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.

For behavioral research, we tended to hang around the areas where elephants are more visible. Also, we would typically enter the park in the morning at 6am, come out for lunch during the hot mid-day hours when animals are resting and less visible, go back in around 2pm and have to leave again by 6pm. Since the park has only one entrance, this kind of pattern means that we would never observe animals in the interior during the early morning, mid-day or late afternoon, when they would be likely to come out of the forest to feed or drink.  To sample the area more evenly, we needed to mix it up – spend more time in roads that went through the forested interior of the park, staking out water holes, and the grassy reservoir beds located there. We would occasionally have to stay inside for the full day or even overnight. So in August, which was supposed to be the peak of the dry season, I made plans for Kumara and myself to remain overnight inside the park.

Our first stint was at the Thimbirimankada bungalow, which is perched on a hillside overlooking one of the northernmost edges of the Udawalawe reservoir. When I came to the park in 2005, this was where I had seen wild elephants for the first time in my life. Tour operators at the time that they had frequently brought guests here to reliably find elephants. Except, that was nearly the last time I ever saw herds there – virtually overnight, the grassland that usually appeared as the water level receded was replaced by an invasive species. By the next year, it had taken over much of the forest edge. Although the grass still grew beneath it, it was not as easy for the elephants to feed on. In the subsequent years, I came hopefully many times to Thimbirimankada, but rarely caught sight of anything besides cattle, deer and birds.  It was an early lesson that elephant behavior can change very quickly and dramatically, to accommodate a changing environment. The few elephants I did see were not recognizeable, which led me to believe that there was a hidden subset of the population here within the forests, distinct from those we encountered in the open spaces further south.

So I here I was again, hopeful that if I could stay until the late afternoon and also head out early in the morning, I might catch a glimpse of these elusive herds. But nature didn’t seem to want to cooperate. The first day, it rained. It is not supposed to rain so heavily in August, but the clouds didn’t seem to know that. At the Thimbirimankada reservoir bed, we saw numerous dung piles and patches of bare ground where the elephants had fed, interspersed with the cattle droppings. But the first day passed with no sightings other than one little group of three females, and two distant solitary bulls.

We nearly drove past [355] as she stood silently watching the road…

That night we directed the beam of a powerful flashlight toward the reservoir, trying to see if we could spot any of its denizens. The eye-glow of animals gave them away. On the opposite shore we noticed a large herd of what we initially took to be cattle, but then were shocked to see that they were in fact deer! We had never seen such a number during the day time – their eyes glowed like hundreds of fireflies as they streamed past in a fast-moving leaps and bounds.

The wind howled fearfully and rain blew in horizontal sheets as we tried to sleep. Kumara and I had taken extra care in parking the jeep where there were no large branches overhead. The bungalow keepers, who were used to this, told us that the previous guests, consisting of a large family from India, had spent the night huddled and terrified in the single room upstairs. They’d been convinced that the roof would blow off at any moment.

[431] was looking tired.

The cause looked like a bullet wound from a trap gun.

By the second day, elephants were responding to the rain. Although we still had no luck around Thimbirimankada, the elephants were out and about in the forest. Our first sighting of the day was a sad one though. Her number was [431] and she seemed to be by herself. We had known her almost since the beginning of the study, so she was no stranger to the park, but she hadn’t been seen for some time. She seemed to be walking in an odd way, tiredly. Looking closer, we noticed a lump on her chest. There were two holes, suggesting she’d been grazed by a trap gun. Fortunately, it had missed her jaws. We were saddened to see this innocent animal, who had never threatened a soul, had suffered from such a despicable hunting device.

We then caught sight of some less familiar elephant groups while parked near water holes in forest clearings. The drying ponds were adorned with flocks of pelicans, colorful painted storks, and the occasional ibis or spoonbill.In the afternoon we saw a subset of the S family, which was feeding leisurely along one of the picturesque and lesser-used roads deep within the park. They had not been seen for quite some time, so this alone made our effort worthwhile. What’s more, they had a new baby among them.

A fragment of the S group emerges along a shady forest track, amidst a light drizzle.

As we headed back out at the end of the day, we came across a group of four large, well-built females. They did not seem very accustomed to vehicles, and we did not immediately recognize them either. They eyed us cautiously, growling and trumpeting, tossing dust over themselves. It reminded me of how many of our now-familiar families had regarded us more than ten years ago, when Udawalawe National Park was still a sleepy little-known stop visited only by locals, and elephants enjoyed the serenity of a landscape nearly devoid of vehicles. We didn’t linger long, other than to take their pictures, so as not to disturb them. As ever, I wondered where these ladies had wandered in from and where they were going. Clearly, this landscape had not yet given up all its secrets.

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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

Save Our Skins

“The use of elephant skin in Asia is not new. Surveys by the nongovernmental organization Traffic found elephant skin openly on sale in Mayanmar’s Mong La market in 2006,2009, and 2014, with ever larger quantities on show each year. Yet these findings, and their implications for Asian elephant conservation, were overshadowed by the conservation world’s focus on the poaching of elephants for ivory and, as a result, solely on efforts to save African elephants.”

Skinned: The growing appetite for Asian elephants. Report by Elephant Family, April 2018

If you ask people what the leading threat to elephants is, most will likely respond: “ivory poaching”.  But if you take a look at the pictures posted throughout this blog, you will see that this does not pose a risk to the majority of Asian elephants, which have no tusks.  All females and most calves are tuskless, and some males as well. Instead, Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss, conflicts with people, smuggling of live babies and now lately – poaching for skin.

Warning: this post contains graphic content. Continue reading