The Coexistence Project

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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.

Before we get to that, let’s back up.

Insofar as there was ever anything that qualified as “wilderness” since the arrival of our fire-wielding ancestors on the scene just over half a million years ago, these wild places surrounded us.  They were full-bodied, seemingly unending, and the creatures within them moved at will wherever they pleased.

But as humanity has continued to expand, such places have thinned out. We are now struggling to hold on to the bones and hearts (here are examples from North America, Asia, and Asia again). This in itself is said to be ambitious. Where such places contain species that could pose a risk to us, or where we are simply trying to define what belongs to “us” vs. what belongs to “them” (by which, we mean everything that is not human), we like to put up boundaries.

And so electric fencing has been embraced in Sri Lanka as a cure-all for keeping elephants away from people and vice versa, on a cramped island where the density of both is unsettlingly high.  Probably the most visibly effective fence that ever gave a pachyderm pause existed along the southern boundary of Udawalawe National Park. Here were many splendid photo opportunities of seemingly idyllic coexistence between people and elephants as a growing number of the latter patiently and politely waited for hand-outs from passers by, even as the temptation of sugar cane plantations lay on the other side of a busy two-lane highway. It was so effective that at first the authorities only bothered to turn it on from 6pm to 6am. During the daytime, passersby lingered around, oblivious to the fact that there was in fact no electricity protecting them. Bit by bit, segment by segment, the lengths of fencing grew.

Things changed in 2010 with the arrival of Ghost, a one-tusked bull translocated into the park for causing mischief elsewhere. Tusks being non-conductive of electricity, he made short work of the fences and also the sugar cane. Soon afterwards, others followed his lead. Ear-splitting bangs could be heard nightly, echoing like a miniature war zone, as people tried to drive them away with crackers. But while Ghost was experienced in stealth raiding, the others were more brazen. The electricity now needed to be kept on 24-7, they tried their luck in broad daylight.  It didn’t end well for at least two young males – one was killed falling into a well and another was first shot and then electrocuted.

Out of desperation, the Wildlife Department set up a secondary fence line a few hundred yards inside the perimeter. The objective was to remove direct handouts and discourage temptation for both people and elephants.

For a while, it seemed successful. Trees shot up in the no-man’s land and the interior of the park was shielded from view. The beggars dispersed back from whence they came, save for the placid yet doggedly stubborn Rambo.

Encouraged by this, a more ambitious plan was devised to fence portions of the Park’s interior, with the intention of allowing grasses and trees to recover from elephant feeding pressure.

This elephant is strolling along one of the interior fences.

But unfortunately, the scale of these fences, and their position inside a quickly regenerating monsoon forest, made them nearly impossible to maintain. Also, they were an inconvenient nuisance to elephants and vehicles alike, requiring substantive de-tours to pass around. So of course, the elephants broke through. And this is what is now happening along all parts of the electric fence, inside or outside the park. It became common to see downed posts and tangles of wire lying around. Elephant calves are now growing up with fences as playthings.

A calf of about 4 years old toys around with the current-free wires.

Which brings us to the story at hand. Our camera traps were set up as part of a collaboration with the Wildlife Department to evaluate the efficacy of certain planned electric fences. Which is why this clip is so striking.

A young male wanders up and breaks the fence with a single confident, practiced stride. He pauses briefly to relish his success and ambles off. But then nearly an hour and half later comes a young female. Alone, and not yet fully grown, she’s obviously curious about the broken post, but reluctant to cross it. She sniffs, possibly even touching the wire, which may or may not have electricity still humming through it. She hovers around, feeding, and disappears without having crossed the line. The elephant equivalent of a dutiful, law-abiding citizen.

Of course, we don’t know if at some point she got up the courage to investigate the other side, out of our frame of view. Perhaps she brought her entire family over with her. But what this so powerfully illustrates is that a fence is above all a psychological barrier. It is only by virtue of this psychological barrier that the physical one works. The mind is what matters. How many exposures would it take an individual like this to overcome their hesitation? How many elephant calves are growing up with no reluctance to push these boundaries at all?

Our guess is that this elephant population will soon not be fully habituated to electric fences, which will be to the detriment of those who use them as a last line of defense to protect their lives and livelihoods, given an elephant’s considerable lifespan. Scenarios like this are probably playing out the world over. In Southeast Asia, where oil palm companies are trying to protect sprawling plantations. Electric fences have been tried and defeated. Likewise in India. But that doesn’t prevent them from trying again.

Over. And. Over.

People always seem to think that it is simply a matter of imagining a better design, something more robust, something that stands up to all manner of abuse. A better and better and better mouse trap. This is not the way forward. Animals will try to overcome barriers to get where they need to be. We have to re-imagine these fragmented bits of landscapes as parts of a greater, fuller, functional whole.

We have some ideas for how that would look, and you can bet we are working on it. Care to support us? Join our cause.

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

The Secret Life of Elephants

We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:

But all is not paradise. Continue reading

Fencing the conflict

by DJ and USW

A female elephant was seen on the corridor - note the gut shot wounds

A female elephant was seen on the corridor – note the raised bumps on the skin, which are suspected to be old gunshot wounds.

Uda Walawe elephants have access to nearby protected areas (managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation) through two separate “corridors;” Dahayyagala, connecting the park to the proposed Bogahapattiya Sanctuary on the northern boundary and Wetahirakanda, connecting it to Lunugamwehera National Park on the eastern border. Elephants can be found outside the park pretty much all along the border except for the southern section. The identified corridors, however, are too narrow at some places (500-1000m). Corridor boundary is marked by electric fencing. The existing fences sometimes run too close to human settlements and at other times they run through forested habitats leaving elephant needs (like water holes) outside the corridor. In such cases, those who maintain electric fences have to walk into elephant habitats for a few kilometres daily and that doesn’t sound practical (as a result, some parts of the fence easily go non-functional).  Given the inefficiency of fenced boundaries and escalating human elephant conflict in the area, the Department has taken a very timely decision to re-define corridors and upgrading electric fences to better serve both humans and elephants. The plan is that eventually the corridors will be broadened while the existing fences will be lengthened and strengthened. Continue reading