Friday, August 20, 2010

A Diplomatic visit, Pachyderms and People in conflict, a Wayward Cockerel, a Drunkard Head Bass, and Other Animals

It is July 19th 2010 and there is a frenzy of activities going on at our Pussellayaya field house. For the past 3 months we have been getting ready for a 3 day visit by the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the Honorable Patricia Butenis. So the field house is undergoing some major expansions. The kitchen, several bedrooms and the bathrooms are all been redone along with the roof. We have just 5 days to finish all the construction work especially the roof over the room the Ambassador will occupy and the kitchen which still needs to be completed. So when Amarasena, my right hand man comes to me and informs me that, Wijey the main head Bass (the contractor) is gone missing, I’m ready to inflict some serious human-human conflicts. I have enough experience mitigating human-elephant conflicts to know how to go about starting my very own conflicts effectively. That evening I run into the head Bass on the road in an inebriated state with an equally inebriated colleague with a small drum singing in duet traditional folksongs.

The Singing Duo of Pussellayaya


While still quite annoyed with the man for his lack of responsibility by absconding and leaving us with a half done roof―I was also debating whether to hire the duo to entertain the diplomatic contingent―sort of a local Simon and Garfunkel act with a little traditional drum sans the acoustic guitar. Wisely I decided the Bass could be put to better use by getting him to finish the construction work he had started on our field house rather than encourage him to think he was Motown material headed for the Grammys.
  

Wijey, the absconding head Bass working on the new constructions



At Moragaha Ulpotha the work on the roof of our Maha Mega Uyana (the great raincloud forest) dairy farm is also undergoing completion. The dairy project is funded by Exetel Private Limited, a major Australian company that also has a business operation in Colombo. Back at Wasgamuwa along with the construction work on the field house a pond is also been built for the geese and the ducks since the walk to the diminishing lake is becoming tiring for the waddling honkers and quackers since the dry season has finally set in.

The pond for the geese and ducks under construction
  

The pond was an instant hit with the geese and the ducks - especially now which is the height of the dry season 


Not that we didn’t have enough in our hands we were also expecting a documentary film crew from New York to descend on us amidst this (un)coordinated chaos. Adding to the mental overload two elephants had walked down the village road and broken out through the electric fence. As if that was not enough―more bad news awaits me. Samantha the farm manager informs me that there is cockerel in the farm that wants to mate with a duck! The things that goes on in farms! I decided I will never take any kids to visit a farm again.

The depraved cockerel chasing after a duck!


Samantha also informs me that he has to undergo emergency surgery to get rid of the kidney stone that has been troubling him for some time. Samantha in addition to being our Farm Manager was also our biodiversity expert, and I was hoping to use him to guide the Ambassador during the hikes in the forest and during the safari in the national park. So I had to send an urgent SOS to Gamini, a long standing friend and colleague from the days we both worked at the Dehiwala Zoo to come and help me out. Very generously he agreed to come at a moment notice. I was hoping that this would be the last challenge at least for now that I had to deal with. Otherwise I will definitely end up in a funny farm myself.

So there I was, “Sleepless in Wasgamuwa” just thinking of the diplomatic furor I will be causing for accommodating and entertaining the US Ambassador and her party in a roofless edifice with wild elephants rampaging all over the place while a missing drunkard head Bass somewhere out there in the nights sang traditional village ditties in duet while a depraved cockerel tried to mate with a duck!

Gradually―similar to how a group of jazz musicians settle back to the original groove after a mind boggling “improv” jam the work at Pussellayaya got sorted out, settled into a rhythm and finally got completed a day before the arrival of the diplomatic party. By then of course I have forgotten how to sleep!

Finally, Friday July 23rd arrived. Today I will be going to Dambulla to meet the Ambassadorial party and escort them to Wasgamuwa. It is 5.30 am in the morning and I’m at my work desk overlooking the lake. Siriya the field house caretaker has just brought me a nice cup of hot Ceylon tea. The sun rising in the eastern sky has made the sky blush in various hues of salmon pinks and mauves helping to gently unravel the lake below from its swath of velvet darkness while enticing the vast Knuckles Mountain massif situated to the south of our field house to gradually reveal itself in the horizon in a gauzy haze. To watch this vast and beautiful panorama opening up right in front of me―with birds filling the air with their varied calls and roosters crowing in the background―for me this is the best time of day at Wasgamuwa, and this is what I miss the most when I’m away from Wasgamuwa.

The beginning of a new day at Wasgamuwa

The vast Knuckles Mountains at dawn


Of course my tranquility and bliss is not for long because I hear a loud thump just next to me―to see Dodam the giant squirrel on the ground looking a bit dazed. Apparently the new roof construction has messed up his regular route over the roof. So there he was on the ground because he had miscalculated the new dimensions of the roof, distance between rafters and of course my shoulders. I guess non-life threatening short falls is all in a day’s work for an arboreal (living in the trees) animal such as Dodam. I picked him up and brought him over to my work desk where he quickly finished off my cup of tea. Talk about a quick recovery! I never knew that giant squirrels liked hot tea especially with Nestomalt! The things you learn in the wilderness!

Dodam drinking tea from my cup after falling from the rafters



The Ambassador and her party arrived at the field house in time for lunch. On the way from Dambulla we stopped by at the Maha Mega Uyana dairy farm to see the work in progress, to meet some of the project personnel and learn about the goals and objectives of the farm. When they arrived at the field house the party was received with a welcome drink by Sarath, the Project Manager in charge of the society’s Irriyagaha Ulpotha campsite and hospitality services. A dip in the lake, lunch and some time spending relaxing helped the guests to unwind from the long road trip. Later in the afternoon a short hike up a rock and then along the littoral plain of the lake helped the Ambassador to see the beautiful environment where the field house was located.
  
 The Honorable Patricia Butenis, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka arriving at the SLWCS field house

The view when you arrive 

Sarath receiving the Ambassador with a welcome drink

Observing the workers putting the roof

Having a discussion about the dairy project


Meeting Darshana who is the SLWCS Logistics Manager overseeing all the construction work at the farm


Soon it was time to leave to see some of the local wildlife. In the evening the entire party went to the tree house to observe elephants and human-elephant conflicts. The tree hut is located alongside a road that leads to a village deep in the forest reserve. On either side are open scrub forests and grasslands which are frequently used by elephants to move between the dense forests patches and water. In addition habitual crop raiding bull elephants move through this area on their way to raid the villages and fields. So the tree hut is ideally located at a point where people and elephants intersect and interact.

As we drove along the road to the tree hut I saw our Land Cruiser with Chinthaka our Project Manager that oversees the Wasgamuwa operations and the three volunteers, Emma, Rachel and Samantha parked a little further away from where the tree hut is. That meant they had already run into elephants on their way to the tree hut. I immediately cautioned everyone to be quite, turned off the engine and let the Defender drift on neutral gear to where the Land Cruiser was.

As we got closer I could see them pointing their hands towards the place where the elephants were. As we glided to a stop I could see about seven elephants feeding amongst the guinea grass (Panicum maximum) known locally as Mana. Elephants in Mana grass give a very deceptive appearance. The fact is that Mana grass can grow as tall as an elephant which creates an illusory image that the elephants are small. That is until one appears right next you! The second concern is that you cannot see all the elephants when they are in the Mana grass―especially the adolescents and juveniles. So if you were unfortunate enough to get into a middle of a herd where an adolescent or a juvenile feels they have been cut off from the rest of the herd then all hell will break loose. This is the time that a matriarch will charge to kill. Third and main concern is that a person on foot, motorcycle or bicycle, tuk tuk or hand tractor cannot see elephants from the ground when they are in Mana. The only sign that elephants are present is the noise they make grazing on the grass and the calls and sounds they make while feeding. This creates a highly charged and dangerous situation where both elephants and people are not aware of each other until they are practically on top of each other―literally in the case of the people.

After the Defender came to a stop various members of the party got onto the roof of the vehicle to be able to see the elephants better. For nearly an hour we observed elephants in this manner until they wandered towards the tree hut. Soon they will pass by the tree hut and then cross the road and head towards the tank where they will drink and bath.


Observing wild elephants near the tree hut from the roof of the Defender
  
Elephants look deceptively small when their in Mana grass 

After feeding near the tree hut the elephants cross the road to go to the tank


I slowly reversed the Defender and drove underneath the tree where the tree hut is. The Cruiser followed me and stopped behind. Chinthaka and I got down first and scrutinized the entire area to check for any elephants nearby and finding none we signaled everyone to get out of the vehicles quietly and climb to the tree hut. Soon everyone was settled in the tree hut which is pretty large and spacious and built very sturdily to hold easily close to 9 adult people. Soon most of the elephants were feeding near the vicinity of the tree hut.

Myself and Chinthaka kept an eye out for elephants while the entire party clambered up to the tree hut

Observing elephants from the tree hut


Both Chinthaka and I were half way up the ladder observing a young male that had got onto the road and were walking along it towards us. Very soon it will go past us. As we were observing the elephant it suddenly stopped with its ears spread and trunk slightly raised and we soon heard an approaching motorcycle which we could not see clearly because of the tree canopy blocking our view. As soon as the motorcyclist saw the elephant on the road he stopped. Then we heard a child cream in fear and a woman’s voice pleading the motorcyclist to turn back. As soon as we heard the child scream, both Chinthaka and I came down from the ladder and we saw that there was a woman and two children with the motorcyclist. The man seems to be acting belligerent and was trying to scare the elephant by racing his engine. The elephant agitated by the noise began to move again towards the motorbike. We could hear children weeping and the woman imploring to the man to turn back and the man vehemently refusing to back down claiming he was not scared of elephants. This was a sure sign that the man was either an imbecile or inebriated or both. Of the nearly 80 people on average that are killed in Sri Lanka every year by elephants - majority of them are men who were drunk at the time when they were killed. The liquor gives them a false sense of bravado that leads them to an untimely death.

The young male elephant walking towards the motorcycle


It seems like we were going to witnesses a great calamity whether we liked it or not if something quick was not done pretty soon. I got off the ladder and walked quickly to the road and gestured at the elephant which made it to stop moving. At the same time I called out to the woman to bring the two children and come to me as soon as possible. The man was admonishing the woman not to leave. I kept urging the woman until finally seeing the wisdom of seeking safety she gathered the two children and ran towards me completely ignoring the man’s objections. I quickly herded them into the safety of the Land Cruiser. In the safety of the vehicle the woman and children soon settled downed and began to enjoy their experience. After about an hour the man was again acting up and demanding the woman and the children to leave with him and they kept refusing to do so. At this point we also found out that his motorbike did not have headlights and the time is now about 6.30 pm. To prevent an awkward domestic dispute from arising in which we did not want to get involved as well as avert a disaster if the man forced the woman and children to leave on his motorbike, I asked Chinthaka to take the woman and children in the vehicle to their home in the village. The man followed behind the Cruiser weaving on the bike in his drunkard state. It seems as of late drunks have become a bane in my life―makes me want to take to the bottle myself.

The drama that plays out at the tree hut practically every day is an incredible window into one of the biggest environmental and socio-economic crises of the rural Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, which is human elephant conflict (HEC). Annually on average 225 elephants are killed in retaliation by farmers for raiding crops and about 80 people are killed annually by elephants. Most of these people are killed in their own villages, backyards and fields. HEC is pretty intense in Sri Lanka and is escalating practically every year.

It was dark by the time the Cruiser returned and there was no point in staying at the tree hut any longer since all the elephants have now moved beyond it and it was impossible to see them in the dark. We returned to the field house to relax, refresh and discuss the events of the evening. After partaking in some well earned gin and tonic and a sumptuous dinner of local rice and curry eaten out in the open overlooking the lake brightly illuminated by a full moon every one retired for the night. The film crew arrived without mishap late in the night that day and checked into a neighboring facility.

The next day morning was a historic occasion of giant proportions. The U.S. Ambassador got to meet Dodam the giant squirrel. The meeting between Dodam and the Ambassador took place as was his customarily habit, on top of the Ambassador’s shoulders. Dodam is getting to be quite a celebrity―but unfortunately his celebrity status is not helping him to find a suitable mate. Marriage brokers from all levels of society including the help of a wife of a very high senior Minister of the government has been sought to find Dodam a wife. In the meantime Dodam is chalking up a pretty impressive list of dignitaries as his fan club.

A meeting of giant proportions that took place on the top of the Ambassador's shoulders

On the 2nd day some of the members of the Diplomatic party went for a hike in the forest with Gamini and me. A dip in the lake is always a refreshing end after such a long a trek in the forests.


Going for a hike in the forest reserve

Meeting the buddhist monk that lives by himself and meditates in the forest

Out birding with Gamini at the lake

Pachyderm water sports


In the evening the entire party went to the Wasgamuwa National Park. The mood for the entire safari in the park was set by a group of elephants frolicking in the water as soon as we entered the park. Irrespective of their size they still reminded me of a rambunctious bunch of school boys in a pool.
  
Three large male elephants frolicking in the water

They were like a bunch of school boys playing the fool in a pool


As we drove around the park the excitement heightened and the atmosphere became charged as large herds of elephants converged around the Defender. Some “mock” charged while others postured aggressively and made rumbling and trumpeting sounds all around us. Two small precocious baby elephants were a delight to watch and wonderfully entertaining. Thankfully my “sleepless nights” worried about rampaging elephants during the Ambassador’s visit did not come to fruit.
Elephants surrounded our vehicle which can be an incredible experience
  
Some mocked charged us...
...while others postured aggressively
The baby elephants are adorable and they are very mischievous and curious


As the evening wore on we made one last effort to get a glimpse of a leopard or a sloth bear on the Kiri Oya road which would have been the highlight of the day. The Kiri Oya road is a narrow sand and gravel track that winds through dense dry zone jungle and can look pretty foreboding in the crepuscular (dawn to dusk) hours. Unfortunately we did not see any leopard or sloth bear on the drive along the Kiri Oya road. On the way back in the fading light I got a diplomatic request to narrate some ghost stories. Weaving through the thick dark jungle I started to narrate a story about a famous murder that happened in Sri Lanka in the 1960s and the ghost stories that have now evolved around this murder. One story led to another and by the time we were nearby to the field house I was narrating an unusual midnight experience (nothing to do with ghosts) I’ve had involving a large dog when I used to work as a research assistant in a lonely and remote field outpost in Bandarawela. As the story was coming to an end the maniacal black dog that lives down the road and has a bad habit of running out barking loudly at any moving vehicle did that just right then. The effect it had on the people inside the car now scared out of their wits by my ghost stories had to be seen to behold. People were literarily jumping off their seats meeting in midair, landing on each other’s laps and hanging on to each other for their dear lives sake in sheer fright. Heavy breathing and staggered gasps were all I could hear for a moment. I’m sure any ghost would have been proud to take the responsibility for having scared the wits out of a diplomatic party in such a manner. And there I was with some unpleasant thoughts about what I would like to say to that dog if I ever got to meet him personally―while trying to figure out what the correct diplomatic protocols were to give CPR to an Ambassador if I had too! Gin and tonic was liberally consumed that night.

Dinner by moonlight

Breakfast in the great outdoors
The food is so great that people line up before Sarath can get the Buffet organized

 
Weheragalagama was a village that was affected by raiding elephants very severely. In 2001 the villagers requested the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society to help them to stop elephants from raiding their homes and fields and the danger and risk they posed to their lives. Nearly 70 percent of the land in the village was abandoned due to crop raiding elephants and the entire village lived every day in fear of elephants. There were days when people got locked down in their own homes and children couldn’t even go to school because wild elephants were roaming in the village. One day a funeral of a person killed by an elephant was disrupted and had to be postponed because of elephants coming into the cemetery. Makes one wonder about the Karma of the deceased!

In 2002, the SLWCS with funding from the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided the Weheragalagama village with a 10 kilometer solar powered electric fence. That fence has been operating for the past 8 years and is completely managed, maintained and operated by the villagers. This was the second fence the SLWCS erected under its’ internationally award winning Saving Elephants by Helping People Project. The fence effectively stops elephants from wondering into the village. Since the fence was erected there is no HEC in the village. No homes or crops have been damaged or people injured or killed by elephants and no elephants have been injured or killed either by farmers. The fence has created a win-win situation for the farmers and elephants. The villager’s income has increased by 212% and agriculture production is up by 93 percent. Most villagers have progressed from mud huts to brick homes and several village children have gone on to do higher studies in the universities. Until this January a young man from the village who had received a degree in Statistics worked for the SLWCS as a research assistant. He represented SLWCS at the first Asian human-elephant conflict workshop in Beijing last year which was again funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Presently he is a school teacher in the village school.

So on the 3rd day morning the villagers of Weheragalagama in appreciation of the help they have received from the US government to resolve HEC in their village which has helped tremendously to reduce poverty and alleviate them socioeconomically held a charming traditional reception to welcome the U.S. Ambassador. On the way to the reception the Ambassador visited the Anandarama Temple in Pussellayaya and met the Chief Incumbent, the very young Reverend Yanananda. The Chief Priest personally escorted the Ambassador around the temple showing her the Boddhinvansa (the sacred pipal tree), the newly constructed Vihara, and the new Chaitiya that is under construction.

Meeting Reverend Yanananda the Chief Incumbent of the Pussellayaya Temple who gave a personal tour of the temple to the Ambassadorial party

Meeting some of the young devotees of the temple

The new Dagoba or Chaitiya under construction


In Weheragalagama, under the shade of a Maila (Bauhinia racemosa) tree nearby to the control room of the electric fence the villagers had constructed a beautiful reception area with benches made from tree branches. The officers of the Electric Fence Maintenance Committee welcomed the U.S. Ambassador and members of her party and officers of the SLWCS by extending in warm welcome hands of beetle leaves. A large table was laden with traditional sweetmeats, kiribath (milk rice) and local confectionaries. A hot herbal beverage made from Iramusu (Hemidesmus indicus) with juggery was served as the drink. The Ambassador using an independent translator discussed with the villagers their experiences with human-elephant conflicts and the positive impacts the electric fence has had in their lives and how it continues to do so. At the request of the villagers the Ambassador promised to attend the 10th Anniversary Celebrations of the electric fence in 2012 as their Chief Guest.


Arriving at Weheragalagama and being greeted and welcomed with traditional hands of betel leaves by the villagers

Explaining how the solar powered electric fence operates

The Ambassador having a discussion with the villagers

Serving traditional sweetmeats and drinks. 


For me the whole event in some manner was a surreal experience―especially to have the U.S. Ambassador not only visit one of my first field sites but also stay nearly 3 days with us. It was way back in 1997 as an undergraduate at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at the Columbia University in New York that I first conducted my first survey of human-elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka. It was at that time that I came up with the concept to put electric fences around villages as oppose to fencing elephants in national parks. The idea was to keep elephants “out” from areas rather than “in” national parks which unnecessarily obstructed them from their natural ranging and having access to essential resources outside the national parks. When I presented my concept at several international elephant symposia at the time I was told by several eminent international Asian elephant experts my concept would not work. The first fence I erected celebrated its 10th Anniversary last year and the project Saving Elephants by Helping People was awarded a prestigious UNDP Equator Initiative Equator Prize in 2008 for being an outstanding effort to alleviate rural poverty through the sustainable conservation of biodiversity. When compared to the scale and magnitude of human elephant conflicts in Asia and Africa the efforts and achievements of the SLWCS might be small. Yet for the people and elephants in our projects sites they have made a world of change for the better. At times like this I cannot but help think of what the British orator, Edmund Burke, said, “Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

Soon after the reception the entire party went back to the field house for a quick lunch after which the diplomatic party departed to Colombo. Prior to leaving the Ambassador and her entire party planted several indigenous trees in the SWLCS field house compound.

The Ambassador planted a Mee tree (Madhuca longifolia) prior to her departure



The visit of the U.S. Ambassador, the Honorable Patricia Butenis is an incredible milestone that will stand out in the history of the SLWCS in the years to come. Her visit has been a tremendous encouragement to us as well as to the rural farming communities we work with. I thank her most warmly and sincerely for taking the time from her busy schedule to visit our projects in Wasgamuwa.

Some of the other animals:

A grey mongoose kept the Ambassadorial party entertained with its hunting efforts

A green bee eater

Next: Ollie the baby giant squirrel arrives at Pussellayaya to the utter bafflement of Dodam (who is still a bachelor) and basically scaring the wits out of him, garbage eating elephants, the great cat rescue and adventures of a New York based film crew filming human-elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka (Oh Sweet Child of Mine!).

Ollie the baby giant squirrel comes to Pussellayaya

A garbage eating elephant at the Trincomalee garbage dump

The New York film crew literarily in the dumps!

Post Script: The erratic behaviour of the wayward cockerel and its undying fascination and abnormal; love for ducks has been a central topic of humorous discussion between the film crew from New York, the volunteers from England and the US and SLWCS staff. Especially what would be the result of such an unusual union? How would the progeny look like and what should they be called? A suggestion has been made to hold a naming contest. So far the suggestions that have been received are: chucks, chuckens, dickens and duckens. Please send your suggestions to: info@slwcs.org

A lively discussion going on of the ways of the wayward cockerel and of there outcomes

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