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.

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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.

Leaving aside the insults of landscape conversion and persecution elephants suffered during the colonial era, the greatest threat to elephants today continue to be our land and water use policies. These policies serve economic and agricultural interests. Their by-product, we term “human-elephant conflict”. But HEC is only a convenient label for problems that originate with the willful ignorance of how nature behaves, an open disregard for science, and an unwillingness to face the really difficult question of how a population 5000 elephants can manage to survive among over 20 million people. Because let’s face it, our lives would be easier without elephants. People would feel safer, wildlife managers would be under less pressure, development schemes would proceed unhindered, and many conservationists could turn to careers that actually pay a decent wage. Elephants present a problem. So why don’t we simply round them up, put them where they belong (the designated sanctuaries) and forget about them, as called for by the latest plan by the Ministry of Wildlife?

For one, the very process of driving elephants from one place to another is traumatic. Innocent herds of females and calves, which are largely not responsible for conflict or human fatalities, will be shot at and hassled until they are cornered like cattle. They will wander around in unfamiliar territory, which likely already contains its own belligerent population of elephants, until they eventually die. We have seen all this before. If death is the outcome, they are better off shot than enduring such suffering. The bulls meanwhile, which are of actual concern, will not stay put.

Calves die when their mothers don’t have sufficient nutrition to provide milk. This one born in 2015 (top photo) lasted only three months (bottom photo). For full story see links in the text.

Udawalawe National Park presents an informative case study. For over thirteen years my team and I have had the privilege of following the lives of the elephants here. Our earliest findings were that this tiny scrap of protected space of barely 300 square km hosts a seasonal population of 800-1000 elephants, which is 2-3 times higher than the officially acknowledged figure. Just how many of these go in and out of park is unknown, but they regularly pass through the Dahaiyagala and Wetahirakanda “corridors”. These electric-fenced passages are really just fragments of the greater landscape elephants use outside the protected area system. But all is not well even for these elephants. Though the public will show righteous outrage at the occasional death of a tusker, it barely notices the bony females and thin calves that will eventually vanish, let alone the ones that are never born at all. The Udawalawe elephant population may linger for a while, but it would quietly collapse without access to habitat outside the park, just as the population in Yala already has.

Jane’s family regularly crosses into the Wetahirakanda sanctuary, across a major road through the gap in the electric fence surrounding Udawalawe National park and the corridor. Of course, such gaps also allow elephants to pass entirely outside the fenced areas. National Parks alone are not sufficient to support even the elephant populations that regularly use them, so without the ability to move outside, these elephants would die.

The electric fence on the southern boundary of UWNP, along the Thanamalwila road, was perhaps the most famous and (at one time) functional one in the country. It is regularly broken by elephants now, ever since the over-abundance of electric fences inside the park itself taught elephants how easy they were to knock over. An internal review by the Department of Wildlife Conservation found that only 20% of the fences in and around Udawalawe were actually functional. Sri Lanka already has over 4000 km of electric fencing (not including the home-made ones), and the plans call for at least 2000 km more. Yet there is no such thing as an elephant-proof fence, no matter what their design, nor how much money is thrown at them.

A young bull breaks an electric fence. Their overuse leads to habituation. For full story and videos, see links in text.

Then there is the matter of the holding grounds. Prior monitoring by the Center for Conservation Research and the Department of Wildlife Conservation had shown that translocated elephants rarely stayed put, and were likely to leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they blundered their way back from whence they came. So the holding grounds were intended as a final solution for just those regularly “problem” animals who could not be dealt with any other way. Except that if every crop-raiding elephant is deemed a problem, the facilities will fill up fast. We actually have no idea how many individuals are actually responsible for conflict incidents – 100? 1000? How many holding grounds and how much resources would it take to contain all of them for the rest of their lives, nevermind those new troublemakers that are born every day? These questions are unanswered yet a second one is slated for construction at Lunugamwehera, with anticipated funding from the World Bank under ESCAMP, to follow the failed attempt at Horowpathana. This one will be bigger and better. However the consultative process, both  with the local people or the community at large, leaves a lot to be desired. There are houses next door, with children playing in their gardens. When an elephant breaks out, which it invariably will, who will take responsibility for the deaths that will result? This colossal waste will not serve elephants, nor will it serve people. What saddens me most is that the outcome can be predicted, yet we choose to repeat these mistakes.

It is too easy to blame wildlife managers, and they are not blameless. But they are merely struggling to do the impossible, carrying out the whims of politicians who come and go like children on a merry-go-round. Nine times out of ten these officers are not responsible for the policies that bring elephants and people into conflict in the first place, but expected to manage the mess. Policies such as the irrational and uneconomical pursuit of ever-increasing paddy cultivation despite the fact that we are rice self-sufficient. To support this pursuit we built irrigation infrastructure that further encourages water-demanding crops in drought prone areas, which may ultimately prove useless in the coming era of climate change. The architects of these schemes evade accountability for the consequences, as they are supposed to be acting in the name of the farmers. Yet will the next generation be willing to spend as much time in the mud?

The lower section of the Uma Oya irrigation project passes by the Wetahirakanda sanctuary. One needs little imagination to foresee the consequences.

We cannot forget about the people. Those who stand to benefit the most from elephants are the already wealthy urban elites who profit from tourism revenue or enjoy the occasional holiday jaunt to a national park. Then there are all the local operators, and those who sustain the sector through their labors. This segment of the population bears none of the cost of elephants. Those who benefit least are the farming families, who also bear the entire cost. Would I want risk raising a child in a place where she might run into an elephant outside? No. Would I be content to pursue a livelihood that could any day be upended by the mere passing of a single animal? No. So how can I expect another to?

Surveying households in the communities adjacent to UWNP, we found the poorest among them survive on an annual income of less than rs. 200,000. The cost of living in Sri Lanka has soared thanks to a falling currency, inflation, taxation, and a glut of local and foreign post-war investment. In a just world, those who benefit from elephants in any capacity need to subsidize and support the welfare of those who suffer the most, speak up for the interests of all, and invest in building sustainable rural enterprise. It is useless ranting online from the comfort of an armchair while happily profiting from the status quo. Moreover, the money being wasted on elephant management would be better spent on education that anticipates the needs of the future and developing an economy based on ecologically appropriate agriculture and industries. This would be the compassionate and practical means to help those who are truly in need. But of course it is not as simple as erecting a fence. And once it is up, the land beyond can be up for grabs.

Growing up, I took our elephants for granted as many still do. The living animal seemed as commonplace as its iconography. If we let them die out here, we should also wipe their image from our artifacts and objects of enterprise, lest future generations notice our exploitative hypocrisy. Elephants were once free to roam every square kilometer of this land, from seashore to cloud forest and grassland. Yet today they are globally restricted to lowlands. Whereas their ancestors traversed the length and breadth of continents, evolving with the changing seasons and climates, we now haggle over whether they should be entitled to cross the few kilometers between restricted fragments of habitat. Yet our most recent work in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation using camera traps shows that in fact elephants are remarkably good at avoiding people, day or night, even on busy paths that both use. It is surprising just how frequently this occurs. Coexistence seems not only possible, it is already the norm. We need to overcome the barrier-mentality and work toward most lasting solutions.

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

Elephant Gardens

Guest post by Jessie Panazzolo

A camera trap photo shows Sumatran elephants trekking through lush regenerating forest.

I had always been told the same thing over and over again from my schooling, the scientific papers I read, and people I met growing up. This was that once primary rainforest was gone and removed from the Earth, it could not grow again. I was told that the forest needed a constant cycling of nutrients to flourish. That without the trees blanketing the ground in leaf litter the soil would be devoid of any nutrients needed to create such rich life again.

I had also been told that important forest dwellers such as the Sumatran Orangutan would only find a home in thick established forests. I had read in many different papers that Sumatran Orangutans, unlike their Bornean cousins, never spent any time walking on the forest floor in fear of the predatory Sumatran Tiger.

Considering all this, you could imagine my surprise and awe when I found myself in the middle of a brand new Sumatran rainforest, barely five years old, seeing orangutans walk the ground in front of my very eyes. It was then that I knew that anything was possible. Continue reading

News that caught our attention

Before we start, a disclaimer: there’s a lot of bad news out there. We’re not going to amplify it by reposting here. But we thought it would be nice to highlight interesting news every now and then. Things that give us hope (#ElephantOptimism) and/or make us think.

Here are a couple.

  1.  To bee (hive-fence) or not to bee (hive-fence)

Image: Bangkok Post

We recently published the results of a study done back in 2014 with Dr. Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees Project showing that Asian elephants are not very keen on bees (read the blog post here).  But of course, plenty of people had heard about the earlier studies with African elephants and had already jumped to the final step – beehive fences as a means of deterring crop raiding. Continue reading