Saturday, December 15, 2012

Volunteer Adventures with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

Elephant Encounters by the Tree Hut Corridor

Safe on the Defender 
It was mid-July 2010 and we were headed to the Tree Hut Corridor to observe and film elephants.  With me in the Defender were the film crew from New York based Greener Media Film-production Company and three international volunteers.  The volunteers: Emma, Rachel and Samantha had come down from the UK and the USA to volunteer with the SLWCS for a month.  The film crew consisted of Phil, Jon and Jesse, and this was their second visit in two years to Sri Lanka.  They were producing a documentary film on human-elephant conflicts (please visit  for information about this film).  Expectations were high in the vehicle—today we hoped to get footage of wild elephants and people interacting along the Tree Hut Corridor which we frequently monitored as part of our ongoing efforts to gather data on human-elephant conflicts.  Monitoring and recording these observations was one of the several activities volunteers helped us with.  

A volunteer recording observations from the tree hut
Turning off from the main road we drove down a gravel road that led through the Weheragalagama village, over the tank (reservoir) bund, down the causeway where the water from the tank spill drained, pass the Tree Hut Corridor to two small villages located deep in the forest reserve.  As we drove along on the bund the Himbiliyakade Forest Range stretched parallel in the west directly across the tank, forming a chain of green undulating hills with the Knuckles Mountain range providing the backdrop in the far distance.  

The hills of the Himbiliyakade Forest Range mirrored on the Weheragalagama tank

The sky was a vast blue empty nothingness with a few scattered cirrus clouds floating lazily like strands of white candy floss let loose by an errant child.  Brahminy kites and a pair of white bellied sea eagles soared and glided on air currents rising from the tank.  Without doubt they were keeping their eyes out to snatch any unwary fish that came up gasping for air.  Closer to the surface by the water with similar intent were egrets, woolly neck storks, lesser adjutants, white-throated kingfishers, stork billed kingfishers, common kingfishers, pied kingfishers, painted storks, pond herons, ibis, spoonbills, bitterns, water hens, terns, pelicans and many more avian denizens. They were also keeping somber vigil to catch whatever unsuspecting fish that came anywhere near them. 

Brahminy Kites circling over the tank
Great Egret

Lesser Adjutant Storks

Black-winged Stilts

Spotted Redshank
In the water itself there were annhingas (snakebird or oriental darter), cormorants, otters, crocodiles, snakes and water monitors waiting to grab or chase down any piscine that was stupid enough to come anywhere close to them.  And then representing the most predacious and voluminous fish eater of them all were a few local fishermen laying nets from their colorful outrigger catamarans.  

Annhinga aka Snake Bird or Oriental Darter and a Grey Heron

Water Monitor
Together this consisted of a four-pronged attack on fish for consumption from that particular body of water alone.  Taken from a global context it is a wonder how fish ever managed to survive for over 400 million years since the Devonian Period—when they got really numerous or in the jargon of evolutionary scientists “radiated,” when all these predatory avian, reptilian and mammalian fauna had a passion for eating them!  Going by the great demand for fresh fish in nature, Sushi must be the first and most popular fish recipe in the world and it was definitely not invented by the Japanese—unless of course the Japanese could trace their ancestry to a kimono dressed piscivore from the Devonian Period.

The Defender crossed the causeway splashing over the shallow puddle of water that had seeped from the spill. On the other side the road had several large potholes and corrugations created by the last monsoon rains.  The Defender with its spring suspension rocked and bucked like the ark must have done during the deluge.  To everyone’s relief the road smoothened out soon enough and we came to where the road cuts across the Tree Hut Corridor.  Here it stretched straight up to the horizon and disappeared over it.  That sight for some reason never failed to invoke in me a yearning for the infinite wetlands of my childhood that are no more.

The road that cuts across the Tree Hut Corridor
Making a right turn and crossing a ditch we head off-road up to a tree where a large and comfortable tree hut had been constructed by us.  The most distinguished guest we had in this tree hut was the former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the honorable Patricia Butenis, an ardent and passionate environmentalist and animal lover.  

Arriving by the Tree Hut
Turning the vehicle around, I reversed and parked it underneath the tree.  But before anyone got off the vehicle it was important to scout the area to see whether any elephants were around.  The tall Mana grass (Cymbopogon confertiflora) that grew tall was very effective at hiding elephants.  Several times we had narrowly escaped bumping into one when getting off the vehicle to climb up to the tree hut.  The front bumper offered a good vantage point to scout the area to make sure there were no elephants lurking nearby. 

The tall Mana grass hid elephants very effectively
Once it was confirmed that there were no elephants I allowed the group to get off and climb up to the tree hut.  Everyone found a comfortable spot with a good view of the jungle and sat down to wait for the elephants to show up.  The film crew was anxious to film how elephants and people reacted to each other as they both moved through this corridor.

People are allowed to alight and climb only after checking for elephants nearby
Climbing up to the Tree Hut a la Swiss Family Robinson
In Sri Lanka the relationship between people and elephants goes back several thousand years.  The elephant is viewed as a living cultural and religious icon because of the important role it still played in the culture of the country.  But today this relationship had reached a new low, which is human-elephant conflict that resulted in the death of over 200 elephants and about 80 people annually.  For the past 16 years the SLWCS has been addressing this issue by developing innovative measures to mitigate human-elephant conflicts under its land mark and international award winning project, Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP).  These efforts have slowly and gradually brought dividends to the people and elephants at our project site in Wasgamuwa in the Central Province of Sri Lanka.  Earlier enemies now tolerated each other to an extent that it was possible to observe people and elephants using a corridor and not trying to kill each other.  This was an incredible sight to see especially on days when men, women and children traveled back and forth from school and work on this road while on either side there were elephants.  These were the interactions that the volunteers were going to observe and record and the crew from Greener Media hoped to film.   The SEHP Project in 2008 received a prestigious UNDP Equator Initiative Equator Prize for its outstanding efforts to alleviate poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.  

Receiving a UNDP Equator Initiative Prize in 2008
By the time we settled ourselves in the tree hut it was about 4 pm, which was just about the right time, because as the sun started to sink behind the hills and the day got cooler elephants began to move out of the forests and head towards the grasslands.  Up in the tree hut the film crew set up their camera and sound equipment to get into instant action as soon as the first elephant showed up.  It was vitally important to be quiet and I had insisted on it and had imposed while in the tree hut any and all conversations or anything anyone had to say had to be whispered or mimed.  Unless of course, it was an urgent matter such as an elephant was trying to climb up the tree!  The tree of course had been selected to ensure that an elephant could not push it down. 

Elephants had very good hearing and they would get alarmed at the merest sound of our voices.  It was not to our best interest to alarm them before they came close to the tree hut.  Most wild animals were easily frightened and took instant flight at the sound of the human voice.  I’m not surprised at all! There are a few people I know whose voices scare the hell out of me too!  Elephants were no exception unless they were otherwise occupied, such as charging to attack or when raiding fields and homes for food.   Then no amount of shouting or screaming would deter them and the only hope was to have a good exit plan.  It had been suggested that if an elephant made a determined charge while you were on foot to leave something behind as a memento while attempting to get away.  The shirt or the backpack left conspicuously behind would suffice since there really wouldn't be enough time to discard the pants and the time it would take to do so would be counterproductive—unless of course one was wearing a sarong.  Actually this had worked—meaning not jettisoning the lower garment but leaving something behind.  It had helped to distract or divert the attention of a charging elephant.  I had once experienced this quite accidentally and quite unintentionally of course, at Lahugala in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.  I had not repeated it again, nor do I have the intention of doing it again either.  Therefore I cannot guarantee that it works always. 

Twenty feet above the ground out of the reach of elephants we whispered like conspirators, and mimed to convey complex ideas using facial expressions for which generally actors receive academy awards.  Phil who was the producer as well as the cameraman whispered, “How long will we have to wait before they showed up.”  

“That is hard to say but generally by around this time they should start coming out of the forest,” I replied. 

“Are there days that they never show up,” Jesse inquired in a bass whisper that reminded me of Barry White.

“Of course some days they don’t show up, but hopefully today will not be one of those days.”

The SLWCS gathered data on human elephant interactions from the tree hut so the three volunteers got prepared to record their observations that evening.  This was one of the several field activities that volunteers helped us with.  Emma had the clipboard to record data while Rachel and Samantha would observe and report whatever the activities they observed. 

The U.S. Ambassador pointing out at elephants while volunteers: Emma and Samantha record their observations

A part of a herd with a small calf walking away from the Tree Hut

The reason to gather this information was to look at the temporal dynamics of how elephants used the Tree Hut Corridor and how important it was to their annual ranging cycle.  Because people and elephants both used the corridor we wanted to find out the effects and impacts they had on each other.  It was an unusual and incredible sight to see. Groups of children walked to school or home on this road and on either side there were elephants!  Only very rarely had we observed bulls attempting to charge or attack people. On these rare occasions the bulls had been mostly bluffing and the people too have also learned to behave sensibly during these times.  Probably that is why so far there had been no untoward incidents.  On several such occasions when SLWCS field teams had been present they had intervened to safeguard the people by transporting or escorting them to the safety of their homes in our field vehicles.     

A Cyclist on the road that went across the Tree Hut Corridor
The crack of a snapping branch sounded very loud in the stillness of the late afternoon.  It completely halted our whispered discussion in mid-conversation.  I gestured hurriedly for everybody to be quiet and we gazed in the direction the sound had come from.  Suddenly there was another crack and then another and soon all that could be heard were elephants feeding in the forest.  They were browsing and grazing and the sounds gradually got louder and louder as they moved towards where we were.  Everybody kept scanning up and down the forest edge to spot where they would emerge from. 

The film team immediately got their equipment ready and the volunteers took up their positions to make observations and record data.  Rumbles from the elephants reverberated over to us interspersed with the peculiar squeaky noise they made.  This was a high pitched sound I have heard members of a herd make when they were relaxed and content or when they were nervous and stressed.  The piercing trumpet calls set our hearts thumping and bodies tingling with adrenalin.  As the sounds of feeding and calling got closer it became apparent that it was a large herd and they were spread out as they fed and moved towards the tree hut.

An elephant that was barely visible through the trees gradually drifted into view, its sinuous trunk snaking around bunches of grass that it scythed effortlessly and transported to its cavernous maw.  Just behind it was another elephant similarly occupied and if they continued would come right underneath the tree we were waiting.  

An elephant emerging from the forest

For such large animals the fluidity in their motions is incredible to watch
As they fed some of them would throw grass and dirt over their backs.  This must be grass that must have tasted bad.  I wish I could do the same when eating out at a swanky restaurant.  The dishes that were not up to expectations could be sent sailing over the shoulders. Yikes! This dish tastes awful, here it goes.  “Sorry old chap did not mean to festoon you with this delicate gourmet dish.” Just imagine the fun on a day when several disgruntled customers were around at the same time.  It would be like a Greek wedding!  As more of them appeared—elephants I meant and not disgruntled customersthe ones in the lead would raise their trunks to check for danger.

As they grazed they would throw grass and soil on to their backs

A part of a herd emerging and a lead elephant checking for danger
About half the herd had come out into the open when in the distance emanated the distinct sound of a tuk tuk also known as a Bajaj three wheeled vehicle.  With its small two-stroke engine sputtering and straining the tuk tuk appeared far away headed in our direction and would shortly go past the tree hut.  As the tuk tuk got nearer and louder the entire herd became completely silent and then there was the sound of them rushing back to the jungle.  One minute they were there and in the next they were gone.  The film crew and the volunteers looked deeply disappointed.  Due to their despondent state I had to remind the girls to note down what they had observed. 

"What do we do now?” Phil asked miserably.

“We wait, the herd will come back.” I retorted.

Likewise in a short while we could hear them feeding and moving in our direction.  This time though they had moved a bit north from where they were before.  Earlier they would have come right underneath the tree hut.  But now they would appear a little bit further away from where we were. While we could still see them it was not as good as if they had been right underneath us.  Peering through the canopy we attempted to get a visual of the elephants.  I was staring at a place where I could just make out an elephant when I felt a light tap on my shoulder.  It was Jon to point out where most of the herd had come out from.  It seemed they had moved even further away and were hardly perceptible from the tree hut especially for filming. 

Phil looked at me and said in a dejected tone, “They are a bit too far to get good footage.” 

It seemed at that range it would not be possible.  I had not expected them to move that far when they returned.

“What do you suggest,” Phil asked.

“It depends on you, and if you are courageous enough.” I replied. 

“What do you mean?”  Phil asked.

“We could approach them in the vehicle.” 

“Why do you need to be courageous to do that? We are in a vehicle...will be safe...right? Or we are not? Jon asked hesitantly.

“Well... not actually inside.” I remarked casually.

“Oh! What do you mean?” Phil asked looking me straight in the eye probably having a presentiment about what was going to come. 

“What I had in mind was for you to be outside.” 

Jon’s expression was quizzical, “you want Phil to be outside the vehicle when we drive up to the elephants?”

“You and him both”

“What the ...” Jon exclaimed. 

“Alright, let me make it clear.  You both will up on the roof of the Defender and the rest of us will push it up to the elephants.  This way we will not cause any alarm by driving up to them.  There it is. What do you guys think? Are you up to it?” 

Phil grinning, “You have some brilliant ideas I must say.”

“That is just terrific,” Jon retorted.

So how often have you done this? Rachel wanted to know. 

“I have lost count,” I grinned. 

Emma, Samantha and Rachel demanded that they also wanted to be on the roof with the guys. “We’ll be good and not be a disturbance.  We will behave,” they promised.

“How you behave does not matter.  It all depends on how the elephants will behave. I remarked.

“How would they react?” Jesse inquired.

Elephants were unpredictable as much as any other animal, human being or politician was. There was no way of saying how an elephant or a herd would behave under a given situation. There was only one way to find out. 

Let’s do it and see how they’ll react,” I said climbing down from the tree hut.  

A roof top view of elephants

Phil climbed onto the front bumper and from there to the mud guard and sat himself on the front crossbar of the roll cage on the roof.  When he gestured that he was ready I passed the camera up to him very carefully.  Behind Phil to the side Jon knelt down with the recorder and the shotgun microphone.   Jesse, the three girls and I pushed the Defender towards the elephants.  From the driver’s side window I steered it while pushing against the window sill.  After the initial effort the slightly inclined road and its own momentum kept the car moving forward without much effort on our part. 

The gravel crunched loudly underneath the wheels and our bare feet.  The crunching gravel and our labored breathing were the only sounds that were audible as we pushed the car.  The mobile roof top elephant-cam slowly and gradually inched forward and got close to the herd.  I kept looking up frequently to make sure that we didn’t roll the vehicle with Phil and Jon on the roof right into the midst of the herd.  Honestly, I wanted this documentary to get completed.  We needed it to create global awareness about the plight of the Asian elephant. A pancaked film crew would be of no help.

Filming and observing elephants from the roof
Remarkably the herd did not pay much attention to the slowly approaching vehicle.  One or two elephants looked up and stared at us and then went back to feeding as if a Defender cruising on human power was something they were quite used too.  When we got to about 30 feet from the herd I called a halt.  It would have been possible to get much closer but I was concerned.  There were too many people on the roof to clamber into the vehicle hurriedly if an elephant took offense at been pried upon from a Land Rover roof!

A part of the herd emerging from the forest
Phil filmed the herd until failing light made it impossible to shoot anymore.  Some elephants ventured very close to the vehicle.  He managed to get some remarkable close up footage of elephants and also of pedestrians, people on bicycles, motorcycles and the ubiquitous and raucous tuk tuks going by the herd.  Whenever one of these intruders came along, the herd would just clumped together and remain silent hiding behind tall grass or scrub.  These people had either walked or driven by quite oblivious to the fact that a herd of wild elephants were just a few feet away. 

A noisy Tuk Tuk driving past an elephant

A Tuk Tuk with lights blazing driving by a herd that is hardly discernible
One of the feeding elephants had ventured quite close to the vehicle

To approach people this close while feeding means the elephants felt comfortable with the situation.  Notwithstanding how comfortable the people felt though!
After sunset only the stupid and the drunk venture on foot in areas where elephants frequent.  An interesting fact is, of the eighty odd people that are killed annually by elephants in Sri Lanka, the majority is men and of these men the majority had been intoxicated at the time.  The false sense of bravado that intoxication imbues had been the main cause for their deaths.  According to the accounts of sober companions who had been present—these men had gone to challenge the elephant and/or refused to seek safety which had of course led to their unfortunate demise.  It is in fact quite disconcerting even to imagine this ridiculous situation: where a puny man is telling a 10,000 pound elephant to bugger off the road.

A man walking past a herd that had clumped together and are hiding in the grass
On a pitch black night we were driving to one of our field stations located deep in the forest. The night was so dark it felt like a solid wall.  Coming around a bend—we gasped in disbelief because illuminated in the head light beams were two men.  They were drunk to high heavens, stood on the middle of the road holding on to each other, and were staring in our direction with wide unfocused eyes. The headlights had probably blinded whatever visual faculty they had in their alcohol infused state.  Good thing we don’t believe in metaphysical apparitions.  Otherwise the manner in which they just popped out of the darkness like that would’ve scared the hell out of anybody. 

What was even more incredible was the fact that we had just passed by several bulls that obviously these two men must have walked past too.  This goes to show the leniency of elephants sometimes towards idiot and drunks or just shows that the guardian angels of drunks and imbeciles must work overtime.  We hauled in the two inebriated nut cases into the Land Rover to drop them off at their homes in the village.  I feared we will get high just breathing the fumes they were emanating.  By the time they were dropped off at their homes—assuming they were their homes but going by the commotions we heard as we left it could be that they had gone into the wrong homes—everyone was practically gasping for air.   

This evening fortunately for us after dusk ended no one came on the road—no not even drunks to disturb the tranquility of the elephants and us.  In the dark it was great to sit under that vast lustrous canopy and listen to the sounds of the herd feeding contentedly.  The years of hard work resolving human-elephant conflicts in this area by the SLWCS seemed to have paid off at least for these elephants and the people of this area.  But it is tenuous at most.  There are undesirable elements with vested interests, lack of knowledge and ill-planned agendas always conspiring to destroy this hard won coexistence.   That is why it is important for us to continue to monitor as well as work with the local communities and authorities to ensure that we save this microcosm of where people and elephants seems to get along, for posterity.  The volunteers are important and vital allies whose help and contributions are critical to make these efforts successful.       

Thank You volunteers!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Volunteer Memoires continued: Cheranga does a "Sherlock" investigation on F. Jacksoni infestations in wild elephants—it was Alimentary!

Cheranga aka Dr. Poop in the field with colleagues collecting dung samples

Cheranga Dharmasiri is a Final Year student studying International Wildlife Biology at the University of Glamorgan in the UK.  Cheranga spent 4 weeks in June/July 2012 at the SLWCS Field Projects site in Wasgamuwa to fulfill his final year field research dissertation requirement.  The SLWCS was very happy to provide Cheranga with all the field assistance and the main laboratory equipment he needed such as a powerful microscope to successfully complete his project.  The following write up is Cheranga’ personal account of his stay with the SLWCS while conducting his independent research project.                                                                         

In Hot Pursuit of F. jacksoni

My quest for the elusive Jacksoni began when I was challenged by my University to find an investigative research project. I considered many exciting projects in various exotic quarters of the world offered by reputed organizations, but after many topics been considered and then discarded, it was settled that I would go to Sri Lanka to look for a fluke named, Fasciola jacksoni, with the help of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society.

Getting ready to chase after F. jacksoni
F. jacksoni infests the Asian elephant and is known to cause morbidity and in some cases mortality. My aim was to assess the prevalence of this liver fluke in the elephants ranging outside the southern boundary of the Wasgomuwa National Park. This involved collecting fresh elephant dung, processing the dung and microscopic analysis to identify the fluke eggs.  Arrangements were finalized for me to spend 4 weeks at the SLWCS field research centre at Wasgamuwa with the kind assistance of Mr. Ravi Corea, founder President of this fantastic organization.

Breaking apart a dung pile to get a fresh sample
If F. jacksoni is there I'll find them!
 Although, my main aim was this project, I had ample time to learn more about the SLWCS activities. We watched informative documentaries on an open air screen during dinner and also participated in project activities such as mapping transects used by the elephants.  

Observing elephants from the Tree Hut...

...and from the Land Rover

A young female feedings peacefully by the Land Rover
Nothing is as cute as a baby elephant!

The matriarch of the herd feeding close to the Land Rover means the herd is used to the presence of the field crew
Spending time with Chinthaka (the Field Projects and Volunteer Program Manager) and his two assistants, Aravinda and Sampath enabled me and three other volunteers from the UK to obtain firsthand experience of the work done by the SLWCS in an effort to minimise Human-Elephant conflicts. We had a lot of fun and felt safe throughout our stay.

In the jungle...going on a transect to observe elephants and collect dung samples

No pile of fresh dung is left unchecked

Taking a break in the cool sands of a dry water course nearby to hole dug by elephants and other  wildlife searching for water
Lunch! All activities must stop for lunch - even scientific research I assume
With the cooperation of SLWCS field staff and fellow volunteers, I managed to collect a plentiful supply of fresh elephant dung to process and analyse. I was thrilled to find the first F. jacksoni   egg. The preliminary data indicated that the prevalence of F. jacksoni  in the free ranging elephant population was lower than in the elephants confined within the boundary fences of Sri Lanka’s national parks.

I enjoyed my free time fishing in the lake with Siriya, who always had the bigger catch. It was not always bad news as it meant more of Siriya‘s special dish of tasty fried fish.

The Siriya - catching fish

Posing with Siriya's catch

It was sad to say goodbye, but I left knowing I have made good friends and hopefully contributed in a small way to the valuable work carried out by the SLWCS.  

A Useless friendship!
I was blessed with an opportunity to revisit them in August 2012 , this time with my family and we spent three days at the Field House and enjoyed a great programme of activities.

Philosophical reflections with Useless about uselessness
Thank you again for all the support.
Cheranga Dharmasiri

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Commemorating 10 Years of the Volunteer Program

*May you live long!

The elephant and the people of Sri Lanka have had a long relationship that is estimated to be over 3,000 years old!  Even today the elephant plays a vital role in Sri Lanka because it is a living cultural and religious icon and symbol.  Unfortunately the currently prevalent intense human-elephant conflict has brought people and elephants to a crossroad where the future of the elephant looks bleak.  Today human-elephant conflict (HEC) had become one of the biggest environmental and socio-economic crises in Sri Lanka. 

A 3000 year old relationship. A good mahout with an elephant is a great team effort that is very interesting to watch
From 1991 to June 2012 alone 3,216 elephants and 1,216 people had died in rural Sri Lanka due to HEC.  The extent of crop and property damages to farmers by elephants is ~US$10 million per annum.  HEC continues to increase due to ineffective landscape-level planning and land use that is creating agriculture based livelihoods that are incompatible with elephants.  Sri Lanka’s primary rural industry is agriculture, which is a huge contributing factor to HEC. Therefore measures to mitigate HEC must benefit both people and elephants.
The death of a national cultural icon and religious symbol
For the past 16 years the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has been developing innovative and effective measures to mitigate human-elephant conflicts.  In recognition of these efforts the Society has received the following awards:

  • 2008: A UNDP Equator Initiative Prize, which honors community-based projects that represent outstanding efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • 2009: Whitely Fund for Nature Associate Award
  • 2010: National Science Foundation award for "Science and Technology Contribution to Improve Sustainable Social Development"
  • 2011: Selected as “The Charity of the Year” by the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka
  • 2011:  Annual Financial Award of the America Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Sri Lanka

Currently the society has one of the world’s foremost and longest operating projects to resolve human-elephants conflicts, which is the Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project now in its 16th year.  The SEHP Project as it’s popularly known has helped to minimize conflicts and create tolerance for elephants in an area that used to suffer from intense human-elephant conflicts.  The SEHP project has become a successful model that has been emulated in other Asian elephant range countries with similar issues successfully.  

A stone plaque commemorating the Saving Elephants by Helping People  Project 
An important reason for the success of the SEHP Project is the volunteers who help us with our field research, monitoring and data archiving.  The volunteer program of the Society is now in its 10th year and over that period hundreds of international volunteers from over 50 countries have participated in it.  In appreciation of their contributions as well as to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the volunteer program, we are sharing these memoires from former volunteers who had volunteered at our project and had contributed their valuable time, talents, skills and resources to our wildlife conservation efforts.  

One of the first volunteer groups with the SLWCS Field Staff 
The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is tremendously grateful to these volunteers and hope their memoires will inspire others to volunteer for us.  We hope you experience our wildlife and the warmth and hospitality for which Sri Lanka is legendary during your volunteer experience with us.  Our aim is to ensure that our volunteer program is the center of your wildlife conservation and cultural experience in Sri Lanka. 


Work with us
Encourage locals to value their environment
Learn about human-wildlife conflicts and about wildlife conservation
Come join us
Offer your knowledge and talents
Make new friends
Experience wildlife and Sri Lankan culture

Important Note: If you have volunteered with us and would like to share your experiences please email them as a word document with your photographs to  

Volunteer Memoires

October 2012
Volunteer Claire Beyer

In October 2012, I spent two and a half weeks volunteering with SLWCS after hearing about the organisation from a previous participant in Thailand. We were also volunteers at a project in NE Thailand which dealt with the wellbeing of captive elephants. Gene had spent three months with SLWCS and was full of great stories and enthusiasm for the project. I had wanted to visit Sri Lanka since my teenage years and after returning home from Thailand, Gene's tales stayed with me. As a keen photographer of elephants I also wanted the opportunity to photograph them in the wild and see them roaming freely.

I was met in Negombo by the very friendly Aravinda and Sampath and immediately felt at ease in their company. We set off on the 7 hour journey it would take to arrive at the project site near Wasgamuwa National Park and we chatted easily, with me bombarding them with questions! About Sri Lanka, the elephants I would see, the project. Aravinda was very knowledgeable and answered all my questions good-naturedly. The journey went quickly, stopping for a delicious lunch and a bit of sightseeing in Kandy on the way.

Arriving at the project site late afternoon, the sky was a dusty pink and the view from the house did not disappoint. Overlooking a grassy plain with a thin river running through it, usually a full lake during the wet season, and distant mountains we feasted on wonderful curry and rice and turned in for an early night, tired after our long journey. The house had five simple rooms with which to house volunteers but as the only volunteer I had a room to myself!

A dusky pink sky
Aravinda and I set off early the next morning down onto the plain for our first bird watching session and I was immediately amazed at the varied bird life. We wrote down each bird we saw, also recording our GPS location and weather conditions and after just an hour had recorded a staggering 27 different types. Bird watching fast became one of my favourite activities and looked forward the daily, early morning twitching.

Blue Naped Monarch

Changeable Hawk-eagle

Common Kingfisher

Green Imperial Pigeon
We also did transects in various locations recording the signs and movements of elephants. We reordered elephant dung size, its location and age, also measuring footprints to determine the approximate age and size of its owner. As well as recording elephant signs we also did a long trek up into the mountains through beautiful jungle searching for other mammal signs such as those from leopards and sloth bears. Some of the immense trees we passed were awe inspiring and the stories of leopards passing closely to meditating monks at the hut high up the mountain fascinated me.

Cooling off in a stream while crossing it to go collecting data on leopards
But by far the most enjoyable activity was afternoon time in the tree hut, a surprisingly comfortable structure high up in a tree which creaked and moved with the branches in the wind. It was the perfect spot to view the elephants as they made their way from the forest to the lake and made it easy to record their movements and behaviour. 

The tree hut

Climbing to the tree hut

The view
Monsoon rain became a regular afternoon occurrence and provided incredible lightning storms, also filling the surrounding water catchments with much needed water. 

White egret 

Because of the wet some of our tree hut time became jeep time but also gave us a couple of very close encounters with the elephant herds. On one rainy occasion we observed a large herd being followed by a number of males, some of the females obviously in estrous. 

A herd approaching the Land Rover by the Tree Hut
One large male approached us from behind sending Siriya clambering to the front of the Land Rover! But he turned to return to the females. It was absolutely exhilarating seeing them up close and being able to observe their behaviour, I felt very privileged.

A massive bull emerging from the jungle...

...and keeps approaching the Land Rover!

We also did fence monitoring, recording any posts that may have been broken or wire that had become slack. It was interesting to see the electric fences at work and even greater to know that they were doing their job by dramatically reducing the instances of human/elephant conflict.

Electric fence monitoring with Veroni
Visiting the local school was also a great highlight. The kids were so gorgeous, with friendly, open and curious smiles. Aravinda showed them some nature videos as well as one about the work that SLWCS does. The headmaster seemed very pleased the whole exercise and was also keen to have the children exposed to things outside of their daily lives. He became very interested in my practice of yoga and so we decided I would teach about 50 of the students a thirty minute yoga practise. Aravinda and I put together a short video presentation about yoga, its history, connection with Hindu and Buddhist religion, etc., to show them before the practice. On the day the kids were great, although the girls remained in their skirts which meant a quick rethink of poses! But they were very enthusiastic, and eager to please, and did really well. It was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give something to the school.

A Calotes garden lizard

A herd of Axis or Spotted Deer with a magnificent stag

Everyone on the project was so accommodating and friendly and I felt very well taken care of. Leela's food was absolutely delicious and I don't think there was a single dish that I didn't love. Siriya provided ample entertainment! Sampath and Aravinda were also kind enough to take me on an excursion to Dambulla and Sigiriya which were both staggeringly beautiful. And our trip into the lovely Wasgamuwa National Park provided lots of great elephant and bird viewing.

Relaxing with Sampath & Veroni by the Tree Hut Corridor while waiting for elephants to show up
All in all it was an unforgettable experience and I leave feeling that I have contributed just a little to the great work that SLWCS does. I will definitely be back.

Crocodile Rescue

On our way to the tree hut one afternoon we began our way through the water which had collected in the concrete catchment part of the road when suddenly Aravinda called out for Sampath to halt the car. Peering forward we could see a small baby crocodile swimming ahead of the Land Rover. Jumping out and into the water we watched with wide eyes wondering what to do. We couldn't leave it for fear another vehicle may not be so kind. It swam around behind the jeep and hid alongside one of the tyres. Sampath grabbed a stick to hold it down so one of us could quickly grab it behind the head but it was too close to the tyre. Aravinda retrieved a cloth from the vehicle and as Sampath coaxed it out into the open with the stick Aravinda placed the cloth over its back, trying to get a grip behind its’ head. The frightened little thing was snapping furiously, also emitting high pitched squeaking noises. Sampath took over and managed to grip behind its head holding it up for us to examine more closely. Aravinda took over and as Sampath moved the jeep to clear the way for other vehicles we made our way down to the lake with our little croc. We found a small inlet and Aravinda gently placed the croc on the ground, removing his hand quickly, and it hastily made its way into the water. We watched as it tried to hide near the reeds, keeping itself as still as possible. No doubt wondering what on earth had just happened. We were jubilant and excited – a Croc Rescue!!

The baby crocodile hiding by the tyre

Sampath trying to capture it by pining down with a stick

Sampath The Crocodile Hunter

The baby crocodile none the worse for its adventure

October 2012
Chiara Melone & Claudio-Massucco

Intrepid travelers: Chiara and Claudio

Dear Ravi,

First of all I would like to thank you, your team of people for the welcome, their kindness, politeness and professionalism.

It has been great  to experience Sri Lankan culture and life at the field house: Chinthaka, Aravinda and Sampath have been very nice and explicative at any question husband and I asked and didn't let us get bored but at the same time they they gave us the freedom to take our time to enjoy the quietness of the lake or to observe its beautiful living beings. 

Observing nature with Sampath

On a jungle trek with Aravinda

Observing birds while waiting for elephants

There is always something fascinating to photograph

Freshly prepared food is served for all meals
The food was very good, I also miss the tea time, and Leela, the female cook, is a really lovely person.  Siriya was very nice and helpful.  And as I'm a cat lover, the presence of Useless, the cat was a real bonus.

For dessert there is fresh fruits and curd and treacle

I'm only a little bit sad that during our week in the project the elephants turned up only a couple of times and both times it was too dark to take pics and for a short time.  As I had written in the form, I'm really keen on wildlife photography in which I'm better than in reportage pics but it has been very interesting to take part in everyday activities and to meet or simply smile with local people while doing it.
Recording data

Volunteers collecting data is a tremendous help to the Society's conservation efforts

At the tree hut with Aravinda

In the field with Chinthaka, Siriya and Aravinda
By the Weheragalagama Tank

Itinerant conservationists 
And even if elephants weren't so nice to show up when we climbed the treehouse or walked in the jungle looking for evidence of the passage or checked the fence or got involved in something which had to do with elephants, I know that in any case we helped a little bit for their welfare and to smooth over the human-elephant conflict. 

I will go on following your blog and your work and I'm happy to have found new friends by getting involved in your SEHP Project.

Take care!!

August 2012
Nick Bradsworth

Nick the avid birder and photographer
Hi Ravi,

I just wanted to send an email to thank you again for taking me on board volunteering with the SLWCS and to let you know how much of a great time I had during my stay in Sri Lanka. After I spoke to you on the phone I really got into a routine staying there and I honestly wish I was still there. I learnt, saw and experienced so much.

Going on a leopard study transect
It's a shame we didn't get to meet in person because from what people have said about about you, and watching documentaries with you in them you sound like such an amazing person and you ought to be proud of what you have achieved and set up with the SLWCS. What I want to achieve in life is similar to what you have done yourself. Next year I will be returning to University to start a Bachelor of Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) and doing these different volunteer projects will give me (I believe) a great advantage over other students and further down the track, in job applications.

An Anhinga (snake bird) and a heron

Paradise Flycatcher - they come into the field house

A grave group of endangered Lesser Adjutant Storks

A tree load of noisy Malabar Pied Hornbills

A sober looking garden lizard
During my stay, (I am not sure if Chinthaka or Aravinda told you), I started a little side project in updating your data sheets so that they are 1. more uniform and 2. easier for everyone to use. I have attached them for you to look at, please let me know what you think and if there is anything missing from them. Once you are happy  I will send them out to everyone to print off and start using for the next volunteers.

A bull dust bathing during sunset has created a hallow - is it a sign of its impending extinction and sanctification?

Two bulls fun jostling

Two bulls testing each other's strength

I wish you all the best for the future of the project and if there is anything I can do to help (from Melbourne) please let me know. I spoke to Chinthaka about me trying to put in an article in our local weekly paper about your organization and my experiences and a couple of my pictures, I'll see where I go with that and I'll let you know.
The eye of the cameraman

June/July 2012
Cheranga Dharmasiri

Cheranga fondly called by the field team Dr. Poop collecting elephant dung to analyze parasite infestations...
...while Craig writes down locality information
Dear Mr. Corea,

Hope you are keeping well. I came back last night from Sri Lanka after spending a wonderful time in Wasgomuwa. Everyone was very helpful and I was able to collect the needed data on 32 samples. I will forward you the final report once the data is tabulated. Chinthaka, Aravinda and Siriya looked after us well. I was sorry to have missed you, but have left a small gift with Chinthaka for you as a token of appreciation for giving me the chance to do my project.

Leaving to observe elephants and collect dung samples

On the trail of elephant dung

There is a lot to elephant dung than meets the eye...apparently!
I am hoping to come to Sri Lanka again in two weeks with my parents and younger brother and will be in touch then. We will be there for four weeks and hope I will be able to meet you then, if you are back in Sri Lanka.

Sharing experiences during the visit with family

On the Sunrise Rock by the SLWCS Field House with Chinthaka
Thanks again for all the support.

Best Wishes,


December 2011 – January 2012
Craig Fox

The Indomitable Craig
A Note from the Jungle

The street(s) of Hettipola are a far cry from the bustle of Sri Lanka’s metropolis, Colombo.  The jungle air is intoxicating.  The men discuss whilst the women glide in their saris, commerce everywhere.  Fresh fruit, vegetables and fish add colour to the timber buildings.  Hettipola is the closest town to the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) research station, in Sri Lanka’s Central Province.  Here, the city echo that drowns out silence is gone.

The colorful street vendors of Hettipola Town

A vegetable vendor measuring an order of bitter gourd

A Spice Vendor with various chili and curry powders
It takes an hour to drive to base camp from town.  It doesn’t feel like an hour.  The road is small but functional.  Two canals flank the concrete and separate the cars, bicycles and tuc-tucs from rice fields and the jungle. 

The trip from Colombo to base camp can be quite arduous.  But, all that frustration seems to vanish when I’m being introduced to the camp staff.  The camp is open-air, functional and the custodians are very welcoming. 

I quickly discover that I have arrived at an exciting time.  New projects are being developed.  This research will help to evaluate the social and economic impact of human-elephant conflict within the study area. 

Tracking elephant movement can help the SLWCS researchers identify and predict patterns.  This information is vital to achieve minimum levels of conflict.  The SLWCS is in the process of developing new trails (transects) that researchers and volunteers can regularly use to monitor elephant activity.  I’m very fortunate to have been witness to the foundational phase of this research.  Like the first time I saw a wild elephant, this was extremely exciting.

Chinthaka, J-Banda and Craig Assessing a new trail transect

Field Scout, J-Banda on a fallen tree branch scouting for elephants
Walking in the jungle with very experienced researchers and scientists is mesmerizing.  We got to see some fascinating wildlife, including sambhur, water buffalo, elephant and a montage of birdlife.  We walked, collecting information as we identified elephant dung, ground and aerial spoor. 

One of the new study transects
A large elephant bull had arrived in the area.  Tracking an elephant can be quite difficult.  They can move a lot faster than people, especially people who are relentlessly searching for tracks.  Nonetheless, this didn’t stop us.  This Bull had walked along a new transects less than two hours before we arrived in the area.  Everyone was very confident that the new transect was going to yield some good data.  The presence of this new bull was daunting but very encouraging.   For days after we first found fresh tracks, we always seemed to be just behind this elephant.  It was becoming clear that this bull had never been in this area before.  His movement patterns had very little deliberateness about them.  As we developed new transects we would regularly note the presence of this giant.  I think he was lost and most certainly confused. 

Pinky one of the largest dominant bulls in the study area
During most evenings we would retire to a tree house that the SLWCS and local villagers had built, to observe elephants moving in the buffer zone of Wasgamuwa National Park.  Being up high is a great way to observe terrestrial mammals.  By being very quiet and patient you can almost blend to the surroundings, allowing wildlife to behave very naturally.  We observed elephants moving to water on three occasions.  Both were top class sightings.  We were able to get some good picture of each elephant’s head, ears and flank.  All this information will be used to identify individuals in the future and create a database that can be used as a reference for future sightings. 

Searching high...

...searching low...

...Craig always finds what he is looking for!
I met a lot of the local villagers and farmers on my trip.  The SLWCS works very closely with the local people.  There is a shared respect, which is marvelous to see.  All the people I met were very warm and welcoming.  Something I haven’t always experienced in other parts of the world.  I felt a part of the start of a very exciting phase for the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society


July 31, 2011
Becky Knueven

Becky and fellow volunteer Stefania in the Knuckles Mountains
I decided to come to Sri Lanka for an opportunity to see elephants in the wild, which is not something many can say they have been able to do. Preparing myself for the trip was easy, as this was not my first time living in an equatorial region and I was expecting the heat, humidity and insects. For someone unfamiliar with the climate and day-to-day life, it would be difficult to adjust. 

Getting familiar with elephant sign
As far as life on the project goes, I enjoyed doing different activities on a daily basis. It was awesome to see the scope of the project and how it covers a wide range of needs, whether it be collecting data on elephant movement and human/elephant interaction in tree hut to aiding villagers and providing orange plants to protect their homes. 

Monitoring the growth and condition of an orange plant provided by the SLWCS
A village woman with one of the fruit bearing orange trees

Stefania observing elephants from the Tree Hut
From the perspective of someone who studied geography in an undergraduate program, the project covers many facets of the discipline. It was interesting to watch the human/elephant interactions and observing the conflict first-hand. The knowledge gained from our daily activities and tree hut observations gave me a new outlook on the issues affecting Sri Lanka today. I had no idea about the variety of ways in which the program helps the people. My eyes were opened to multiple methods of deterrence, such as orange trees and electric fences.

An elephant approaching the field vehicle

Chinthaka is a fantastic guide and supervisor and is more than willing to give the volunteers tours of sites and to give us advice on what places to check out. His knowledge, along with that of Veroni and Jay, gave me a greater appreciation for what the project’s goals are and how they are working hard to attain those goals. 

Useless trying to look purposeful

One of the recommended outings was to visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation for a weekend. Stefania and I were able to work with Sumana, the foundation’s oldest elephant. The experience was eye opening for both of us. Stefania will write about her recommendations for enrichment activities, so I won’t comment on that, but I do want to note that the experience made me feel even more strongly that the project’s goal of helping people and elephants live in (relative) harmony is imperative if the sanctity of elephants living in the wild is to be maintained. I would go so far as to say the volunteers should all be required to see elephants in captivity. 
One of the captive elephants at the Millennium Elephant Foundation

Tourists going on an elephant ride at the Millennium Elephant Foundation
A herd of wild elephants by the Weheragalagama Tank
The amount of information we learned during those two days was invaluable. We came back to Wasgamuwa with a new attitude and a new passion for the project.


February/March 2011
Michael Elkins

Mike preparing lessons for the following day's English classes
The month that I spent in Pussellayaya, Wasgamuwa was incredible. The opportunity to do so many varied tasks both in the school and in the area made the month hugely rewarding. There were a couple of things that could have helped me settle in a little quicker. Prior to my first days teaching it would have been nice to have visited the school and seen the kids just so I had an idea of what to expect, I was led to believe that this was meant to happen but due to a number of reasons it couldn’t. A translator would have been great at time to get my lessons across to the kids quicker but once again i fully understand why this couldn’t happen and it made me think on my feet a little more and find ways to make the kids understand what i was saying. Having 

Helping a student

Emma and Mike conducting an English class at the village public school

A caring teacher
Chinthaka in the house was a constant help, nothing was ever too much trouble and he really helped me understand the culture of the area and the country as a whole. He was also extremely flexible and allowed me to experience things that were not included in my volunteer programme, tracking the elephants, spending the afternoon in the tree house observing and taking the other volunteers and I out at the weekend. All of these things enhanced my experience massively. And the memories of these activities will stay with me forever. 
Giving a helping hand to the Project Orange Elephant

Repairing one of the Society's bicycles

At the Farm 

Taking care of the flock

Relaxing with the waterfowl
I also have to say that the all the guys working at the house were superb, Syria was always getting involved with us, keeping us entertained and generally looking after us in whatever way he could. Our carom games were always pretty close although I’m not sure he was trying too hard. 
Playing carom with Siriya
The food was brilliant and exactly what I needed after teaching!! As a result of this programme I am now in the process of doing my teachers training and once qualified would love the opportunity to come back and teach again.
An appreciative student flock
There was an article on human elephant conflict on the BBC website and the work the SLWCS were doing in the villages. Great to see that the hard work is getting the exposure it deserves.  Thanks for the opportunity to take part in the programme. I will hopefully be back for more in the not too distant future.


Hope to see you soon!

Photo credits in alphabetical order:

Aravinda Rathnayake
Becky Knueven
Chiara Melone
Claire Beyer
Craig Fox
Chinthaka Weerasinghe
Nicholas Bradsworth
Ravi Corea
Stefania Laddaga Silvestri