Monsoon Days

October brings welcome rain for the people and the wildlife. This year the monsoon started as early as August, so by now everything is a luxurious green. The elephants are having an easier time because it has been wetter than usual. Perhaps for this reason, there have been a lot of babies born this year.

The rains follow a typical pattern over the course of the day – sunny and hot in the morning, showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Udawalawe sits at the intersection of two climate zones, which makes for strange and beautiful cloud formations with at times surreal atmospheric conditions. In the park we play games of cat and mouse with the rain clouds, trying to dodge the hyper-local downpours that are visibly framed against the brilliant sunlight. Pro tip – elephant viewing is best when there is a little bit of drizzle to cool us all off.

Monday afternoon started off well, sunny and bright. We encounter a group early on right along the main road. It’s two females with the IDs [476] and [478], along with the calf of [478]. They’re grazing placidly. [478] demolishes a small maila tree, but clips off and eats only the branches. The leaves she lets fall on the ground. Maila is well-adapted for abuse by elephants, like a hydra it sprouts multiple trunks whenever one is destroyed. Elephants also disperse its seeds far and wide so that each tree is in effect like a signpost of elephant presence.

Spotting rain overhead we veer off on a side road, but it overtakes us in a torrent. In dry weather the leather canopy of the Jeep is kept rolled up so as to let us stand up. Though we quickly unroll it during downpours, water blows in from the sides and collects in pools above our heads. As usual, we scramble to get the books and gadgets out of harm’s way. Whoever sits in the back of the vehicle is not so fortunate, and cannot escape a thorough soaking. The roads are well-rutted, in need of maintenance. Little creeks that are dry the rest of the year gurgle merrily along, larger streams gush by like so many gallons of milk tea. Ravi, who has only been with us since this year, is already a well-seasoned and careful driver. It’s at times like these that our perky little 4-wheel drive Mitsubishi Jeeps really shine, sure footed and steady despite their age. These vintage vehicles from the 1970s out-perform the newer trucks most safari services now use, which have impressive-looking tires but lack the engine or gears to match. As a result, we can venture into areas where others risk getting stuck.

We find several more groups scattered through the mid-section of the park. One female is [105], whom we see relatively rarely. She has a baby that is a few weeks old. We all crane our necks and strain our eyes to make out whether it’s a boy or girl, tricky to determine at this age due to their tiny size and intervening shrubbery. Finally there’s no doubt – it’s a boy!

Another nearby group belongs to a family seen in and around the Seenuggala reservoir, and so have been named the S unit. Among them I recognize Sarika, whose ears have large branching veins. A few of the social groups have been given alphabetical names because they were part of the initial study, started in 2005. The S unit is large, consisting of many families whose relationships to one another are not entirely clear.

The air grows still in the pauses between spells of rain, sounds seem to be amplified in the windless calm. The elephants themselves are incredibly quiet, unlike the myriad species of birds that surround us. Doves, hornbills, peacocks and innumerable other invisible avian voices fill the silence with their conversations.

Not far away, we run into some members of the T family. In contrast to the S’s, the T’s keep mostly to themselves. Today we see just two adults and two calves. One of the adults is a young female with a frisky newborn. We’re not immediately sure who she is, so we make a note to double check. The other is Tulita, by now one of the oldest individuals we recognize. She looks thin and bony, despite the abundance of foliage around her, possibly because she is down to her last pair of molars. This would mean she is at least in her sixties.

The rain tapers off, but the sky is quickly growing dark and we see no more elephants, so we head back out and call it a day.


On a roll

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, January 7, 2013

We’ve been on a roll this last week.  Or maybe the elephants have.  Either way, I’ve heard far more vocalizing in the past week than in both of my first two weeks combined, and have managed to record some of it as well.  I hope for our luck to continue as we gather our equipment this morning and pile into the jeep.

Baby on the road

Before long we see [474]’s group, and almost immediately hear a rumble.  Unfortunately Kumara and I are still busy setting up the recording equipment, but I wait in the hopes of catching another call.  As I watch the elephants, I notice that they seem unusually “touchy-feely” today, for lack of a better word.  Continue reading

We’re part of the #SciFund challenge!

There are at least two kinds of science today – a) the kind that requires millions of dollars, a small army of techs and postdocs, and many fancy doo-dats or whatsits and b)everything else. The latter doesn’t do too well in today’s funding climate, which is geared toward funding BIG EXPENSIVE science. A small group of scientists – mostly students – are trying to change all that by appealing directly to the public to fund small, very cool, science projects and earn a nifty little reward of thanks. The projects are diverse – everything from zombie fish to next-generation algae technology.  The result: The #SciFund Challenge! Help us help elephants – and help science along the way!


Please share the link above to help us reach our goal!

Check out all the other projects here:

The Magnificence of Mud

It’s October, and the monsoon is in full force.  As we wrote in an earlier post the elephants love mud.  They’re just oversized piggies with big floppy ears.  Here’s a video for your amusement:

Why do they love mud so much?  As anyone who has seen or enjoyed a muddy spa retreat can tell you, it’s good for the skin and helps with thermoregulation.  Because elephants don’t sweat, when it’s hot outside the evaporating mud cools them off.  Rudyard Kipling so mischievously wrote in ‘The Elephant’s Child’:

‘Don’t you think the sun is very hot here?’ [says the Rock Python]

‘It is,’ said the Elephant’s Child, and before he thought what he was doing he schlooped up a schloop of mud from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo, and slapped it on his head, where it made a cool schloopy-sloshy mud-cap all trickly behind his ears. Continue reading