Envisioning The Future

As we wrote earlier, our newly launched Coexistence Project seeks to find ways that people and elephants can continue to share space while meeting the needs for security on both sides. For people, this means economic as well as physical safety.

Back in January, we asked our focal communities in 5 villages to engage in a visioning exercise with us. Gathering at their local meeting house or at the home of a community leader, we first shared some of the results from our survey last year.

We then asked: What circumstances do you face? What are your hopes for the community for the next 10 years? And where can we help as a conservation-oriented organization? We were also curious about how people in each community responded to the presence of elephants – did they warn each other? If so how?

In larger gatherings, we broke up into small groups of 5 and had them discuss amongst themselves. We then wrote up a list of aspirations, and discussed where we might fit in.

Deepani explains what we’re here to do to a curious audience. We found that the attendance rate was much higher among communities that we had surveyed last year.

Women tended to be particularly forward-thinking in the visioning exercise. It was also interesting that although cell-phones are widespread, there was a lot of variation from place to place in their use.

A comprehensive list of these outputs will be provided in our final report, however some of the major themes that emerged were that:

  • People felt their cultivation lands were being grabbed by outside interests and they felt pressure from reduced access to forest resources.
  • Participants at around half the locations had grievances having to do with water rights and ownership of small reservoirs owing to activities of either the Wildlife or Forest department, whereas the other half didn’t.
  • All locations were affected by elephant conflict, and one location had three human fatalities in April 2017, after which the elephant had been transferred to the holding ground at Horowpathana.
  • The relationship between communities and wildlife authorities was strained. One role we could play was in helping to improve the communication between them, but we’d have to be careful not to get in the middle of disputes.
  • Each community differed in the availability and use of technology such as computers, internet, phones, and social media. Clearly no single solution or safety mechanism would work everywhere.
  • All participants nevertheless had high hopes that electric fences of some form were their best hope. In some locations we discussed the reality that even existing fences do not work once elephants habituate to breaking them, and that there was no such thing as an elephant-proof fence anywhere in the world, no matter what the design. This matter has to be further discussed and gradually understood given what we’ve seen on the camera traps.
  • Despite all this, people were not unwilling to live with elephants. Although they saw no direct benefit from their presence, they seemed to simply accept it as a fact of life and that elephants had their place.
  • Some participants, especially women, expressed the lack of after-school enrichment and need for more opportunities for their youth and children.

The last two points are promising for our future work but also moving. Did it have to be this way? It felt only fair to us that these communities, which bear the heaviest burden from elephants, should also receive some benefits from sharing their land with these powerful and emotion-provoking creatures. This is the spirit in which we launched The Coexistence Project, and part of the drive to begin with helping six pre-schools, one per village bordering Udawalawe National Park. Learn more about the schools >

We hope you’ll stay with us, as we work toward a shared vision of peaceful coexistence. If you’d like to help, please consider supporting us.


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

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

Hyena girl meets elephant girl – A Chat for Skirts in Science

Some colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science have started a series featuring conversations by female scientists called Skirts in Science.  The goal is to make women in science more visible to students, especially young women and girls.

I had a lot of fun in this chat with Sarah Benson-Amram, now faculty at the University of Wyoming.  Here is a brief window into our work:

Many thanks to Paula Cushing, Kimberly Evans, and Marta Lindsay for inviting us to be part of this great series.  Check out their channel here.

Part 2 will have a discussion of how we came to do what we do. Stay tuned!

~ SdS

EARS ID Database released


We are pleased to release EARS (Elephant Attribute Recording System), designed by intern Ilja Van Braeckel. EARS is an MS Access database that permits quick searching of elephant ID photos. Users enter new ID features using a simple Excel worksheet which can be copied directly into Access. They can then query the database with a set of check-boxes for prominent natural features of individuals, which returns matching IDs and photos.  This should narrow the search substantially and cut down search time.  We recommend that a separate set of high-resolution ID photo files are maintained in parallel at another location and that once the search is narrowed final identifications are confirmed using these external files. The idea is for the database to aid, not replace, more detailed photos and human memory.

We share this tool freely hoping it will help others conduct individual-based studies of Asian elephants, and modifications may be made as required. Variations of it may also be useful for other species and contexts.

The database, excel sheet and a user manual can be found at:


de Silva S, Webber CE, Weerathunga US, Pushpakumara TV, Weerakoon DK, et al. (2013) Demographic Variables for Wild Asian Elephants Using Longitudinal Observations. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82788. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082788

An Evening With Elephants

Being A Better Scientist

I am trying out something new this month: I am hosting a fundraising event!

The event will take place on December 21st in San Francisco in the Randall Museum. We’ll show a BBC movie about elephants in Sri Lanka (trailer) and my friend Shermin de Silva will give a talk about her work with these same elephants.

Shermin de Silva

Shermin is an inspiring woman. She runs a field station in Sri Lanka, works in the United States (she is a postdoc in Fort Collins) and manages to raise enough money to keep her research going. This, as you can imagine, is not easy!

Her research is interesting, because she is one of few people who follows individual elephants in a wild Asian elephant population over time. Because she and her field crew know the individual elephants, they can see when elephant friendships form and break. It…

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