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. The previous year she had managed to collect just Rs. 200 (amounting to $1.25) per student, for the thirty or so students in the class. The fact that parents chose to put their children in pre-school at all with whatever little means they had, when they could have merely left them to their own devices, spoke volumes to us about the emphasis on education among these communities. They did not have a building of their own, and met at the local community hall. Our support would go towards providing them desks and chairs, a safe drinking water supply, and laying foundations for a new building. We paused for a traditional offering of tea, bananas, and a lovely home-made sesame seed sweet.

“Most people focus on supporting higher-level studies,” she told us. “There is virtually nothing for pre-schools. It is such a great thing that you have chosen to help with this level of education.”

The principal of the Kalawelgala elementary school, Mr. Siriwardana, proudly shows off the many improvements made to the school under his care, with assistance from various well-wishers.

At Kalawelgala, the principal of the elementary school was busy supervising the installation of metal grilles on all the classroom windows to prevent animals from entering. He was an energetic and enthusiastic character, adept at securing resources for his school from anyone who could help. The work was progressing nicely, and would be complete before classes resumed in September. As we sipped yet another cup of tea accompanied by sweets, he showed us an album in which he maintained a record of all the improvements he had initiated and overseen during his fifteen years in office. On the walls sparkled brightly-colored pie charts and histograms showing off the top marks his students had received in regional examinations. Particularly remarkable was a series of dates and names – the terms of office for each of the principals that had been in charge of the school, all the way back to 1938!

Ms. Kumudini watches a clip from the school play by students of Kinderhouse Montessori School of San Diego, who rallied behind the cause.

Sirisumana pre-school, which was run out of a crumbling classroom attached to the elementary school, had fortunately received government funding to construct its own independent building. When we arrived, bulldozers were kicking up dust as they cleared and leveled the space. Our support would provide them desks and chairs. The pre-school had a new teacher, Ms. L.S. Kumudini.

Her own house had been damaged by an elephant in April. The replaced bricks are visible.

We were surprised and concerned to learn that a wall of her own modest home had been knocked over by an elephant back in April. The home was tiny, so one wall was effectively one quarter of it. They had a few acres of coconut trees and other crops, which always endured damage from elephants.

One by one we visited the teachers at their homes or schools. Our last stop, around 2pm, was with Ms. Gunawathie of Dilena Tharu pre-school. We had been advised to not to have lunch anywhere else before we arrived, but were still astonished to find the feast that awaited us. Rice with a spicy locally-caught river fish curry, a leafy green sambol of Gotu Kola, and other local seasonal specialties ended our day. You know a meal is good when you hear nothing but silence! Ms. Gunawathie and her cadre of moms had prepared the meal in thanks, echoing the sentiment that any kind of support for pre-schools was rare indeed.

Sponsored items for Dimuthu pre-school included book shelves, cupboard and speakers for playing music. Wanamal pre-school invested in a clean water supply.

Dilena Tharu received books, an abacus, and other teaching aids.

We were impressed at the dedication and desire of teachers to provide whatever they could for their students. Art work on the walls spoke of the teachers’ own creativity in transforming everyday objects into enrichment for the kids. It lifted our spirits to see these colorful spaces, tucked away among the villages, and reaffirmed our commitment to work with these communities to better safeguard human and elephant lives.

Ms. Managalika of Wanamal pre-school stands beneath colorful lanterns floating in her classroom; resourceful artwork adorns the walls all the schools.


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