Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where have all the elephants gone (Part II)...we are finding out!


By October our concerns had increased due to the continuous physical absence of elephants at our Tree Hut Elephant Corridor. To find out what has happened to the elephants became even more urgent when my good friend Robert Durham came to visit us at Wasgamuwa and we could not show him any elephants. We basically combed the entire Wasgamuwa region to find an elephant to show Robert with no luck! 

Robert, Nilanga and Ravi in the tree hut
Robert checking out a dry season den of a mugger crocodile!
Hanging out by Sri Lanka's longest river, the Mahaweli Ganga
The tree hut corridor is a place that we could always guarantee where elephants would be. It seems our guarantee has run out along with the elephants!  It became important to find out what was going on or what had happened? 

How barren,desolate and unexciting our lives would be if we allowed elephants to disappear from our jungles…forever!
This entire area had become a haven for elephants and other wildlife because of the human-elephant conflict mitigation initiatives we have implemented through our Saving Elephants by Helping People project for the past 16 years. 
The entire Tree Hut Corridor area has become an haven for elephants because of the HEC mitigation efforts of the SLWCS for the past 16 years!
Therefore it was imperative to find out what were the environmental and/or anthropogenic factors that were directly and indirectly affecting the elephants and could be contributing to their absence. We also wanted to find out the temporal and spatial distribution of the elephants and to identify whether there was a seasonal pattern as to how they utilized the various habitats during the course of the year. In December, I instructed Chinthaka, the Project Manager of our Wasgamuwa operations to start implementing a new research program to gather data on the elephants in the entire Tree Hut Elephant Corridor area. These efforts were initiated with the help of our volunteers and interns whose participation makes it possible for us to cover a larger area and get more work done than it would be possible with just a few staff members. 

The Field Team consisting of volunteers and SLWCS staff
The following selected accounts are from the members of the field team as they forayed into the jungles of Wasgamuwa in search of the elephants that mysteriously disappeared…so we thought!

Craig Fox is from England and this is his second time volunteering for the SLWCS.  He first came in April 2011 for 2 weeks and for his second visit Craig stayed a month from December 2011 to January 2012.  Craig joined us at the time when we were just about to implement our new field research activities and observations so he was involved in these efforts from the beginning and we were glad to have him.  Craig also very generously donated a much needed Garmin eTrex GPS unit to the project which we appreciate very much.  This is his account.

Craig Fox
Craig Fox - A Note from the Jungle

December 26, 2012: The streets 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 hustle and bustle of Hettipola Town

A spice vendor with his aromatic and colorful produce

A street vendor with miscellaneous items
It takes an hour to drive to base camp from town.  It doesn’t feel like an hour.  The road is small but functional.  The Minipe canal flanks the road right along separating the cars, bicycles and tuk-tuks from the rice fields and the jungle.
The Minipe Canal goes right along the main road all the way up to the Wasgamuwa National Park
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 field house open-air, functional and the custodians are very welcoming.
The location of the SLWCS Ambassador's Lodge Field House

Part of the interior of the Ambassador's Lodge Field House
I quickly discover that I have arrived at an exciting time.  New projects are being developed.  The new research will help to find out the temporal and spatial distribution of the elephants in the area that is called the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor and will also help to evaluate the social and economic impacts of human-elephant conflicts within the study area.

Tracking elephant movement can help the SLWCS to identify and predict patterns.  This information is vital to achieve minimum levels of conflict as well as to act swiftly if adverse human actions are going to impact the elephants.  The SLWCS is in the process of developing new 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.

The first elephant Craig saw when he first volunteered with the SLWCS  in  April  2011
Walking in the jungle with very experienced researchers and scientists is mesmerizing.  We got to see some fascinating wildlife, including sambar, water buffalo, elephants and an incredible diversity of bird life.  

Conducting a transect
We walked, collecting information as we identified elephant dung, and other direct and indirect signs left behind by elephants.

Elephant dung...

...footprints and the plants they have fed are some of the obvious signs that  elephants  leave behind.
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 and other signs.  Nonetheless, this didn’t stop us.  
A massive solitary bull 
This Bull had walked along a new transect 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 noted the presence of this giant. I think he was lost and most certainly confused.

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 and along the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor.  
The Tree Hut
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 pictures 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.

A flank shot of a bull elephant
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 beginning of a very exciting phase for the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society.

Naima Starkloff is from Sri Lanka and is interning with the SLWCS for a month.  She is doing her undergraduate studies at the Bennington College in Vermont.  Naima’s internship with the SLWCS will fulfill a requirement of her undergraduate program.

Naima Starkloff
Naima Starkloff - Elephant Bones and Herds

Sunrise that morning!
January 23, 2012: In terms of elephants, this was the best day yet.  Today's transect was one of those ordinary forest-into-shrub-into grasslands-and-then-repeat sort.  Well, until we stumbled upon an enormous decaying white mass.  We had found the giant skull of an Elephas maximus maximus.  And a few meters away, we found the rest of his skeleton.  This elephant was shot in the head—we found a tiny bullet hole in his skull.  Probably he was shot in one of the villages where human elephant conflict is still very rampant and scurried away to the forest where he died, about one and a half years ago.

The Skull 
The lower jaw with the molars still intact
The ribs bones were all scattered around by scavengers
A vertebral bone
The afternoon was somewhat lively indeed. At about 4:45 pm—finally in daylight—a herd of 10 elephants, including 3 babies, tried to slide by the tree house unnoticed.  I happened to hear rustling in the brush but I didn't think much of it, just because it seemed too early.  But there, I saw an entire herd eating their way through the forest, heading for the lake.  They were beautifully coordinated and surprisingly swift.  We were told that it had been 3 whole months since an entire herd like this had been seen out in the open in this area.

The herd came to the tree hut area very quietly

They hardly made any noice!

After a while the herd spread out sensing no danger in the area
Two women, with one carrying a small child, happened to walk down the road and when they saw the herd, they stopped in their tracks.  The elephants seemed very aware of their presence and hid behind the trees.  Taking this as a cue for an open road, the two ladies ran for their lives to their village.

One of the women carrying a child running down the road to the village
Siriya, the Majordomo at the field house looking out for elephants!
A fitting sunset to end a great day!
Chinthaka Weerasinghe is the Project Manager in charge of the SLWCS operations in Wasgamuwa.  While Chinthaka is not an academically trained field scientist he has undergone training and learned a tremendous amount about field research and data collecting under the guidance of a multitude of scientists who had collaborated with the SLWCS over the years.

Chinthaka...on the right
Chinthaka - January 23rd 2012.  Last night I was on the phone with Mr. Ravi discussing various details of our efforts to gather information about the elephants in the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor. And now according to his instructions I’m discussing with Jayathilaka about marking out another new transect in the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor.  We decided to mark this new transect starting from Hettipola going north parallel to the main road from Hettipola to the Wasgamuwa National Park, and then once we got to Mahathun’s house to mark a second transect perpendicular to the first transect heading West towards the Tree Hut.  These would be two entirely new transects that we had not done before.  The field team will be led by Field Scout Jayathilaka, who is one of our senior Fields Scouts and also the technician of the Weheragalagama Community Electric Fence that was erected by the SLWCS with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002. This electric fence would be celebrating its 10th anniversary in June 23rd of this year making it the second oldest continuously operating community electric fence in Asia.  The villagers are planning a huge celebration to mark this anniversary and we are expecting the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the Honorable Patricia Butenis to attend this event as one of the honored chief guests.  The oldest electric fence is in the village of Pussellayaya in Wasgamuwa, which is one of the world’s first community-based electric fences—and it too was erected by the SLWCS and it is now 16 years old and still operating!

After we had agreed on the two new transects and had mapped them out I drove the field team to Hettipola which is the beginning point of the new transects.  After I dropped the field team at the starting point I headed to our Irriyagaha field camp site with our camp cook Leelawathi.  She had brought with her all the provisions to prepare lunch for the field team.  After dropping Leelawathie at Irriyagaha I drove back to the Tree Hut which was the ending point of the second transect to wait for the arrival of the field team.  It took the field team over three hours to get to the Tree Hut.  

The Field Team arriving at the tree hut after doing one of the new transects
I picked them up and brought them to the Irriyagaha Field Camp where Leelawathie had prepared a sumptuous lunch consisting of local curries.  After lunch we relaxed for a while discussing the new transects.  Apparently the team had come across a lot of elephant signs—more than we had imagined we would find on these two transects.  Around 3 pm we went back to the tree hut to observe elephants.  We climbed up to the tree hut and settled down to wait for the elephants to show up.  Some evenings even though the elephants are not visible we can hear them rumbling, screaming and trumpeting in the forest adjacent to the tree hut as they moved parallel while making their way to the Weheragala Tank (lake).  What is unique about observing elephants from the tree hut is that the road leading to the village also runs through the corridor.  Very often both people and elephants are at the corridor at the same time and it is interesting to watch the interactions between people and elephants.  

People moving through the corridor

 A bull elephant looking towards the road

It is interesting to see how differently herds which consists mostly females and calves and groups of males or lone bulls behave when people are traveling on the road either by foot or by vehicle.  The female herds would stop feeding and bunch together and become absolutely still and quiet or either rush into the forest or hide behind trees.  The massive dominant bulls generally just keep feeding or would turn facing the direction of the people and wait with their ears spread and heads held high sometimes with their trunks partially raised until the people have moved away to resume feeding.  

Some bulls would face the direction of the vehicle with their trunk  raised or...

Younger bulls tend to get nervous and will run into the forest trumpeting excitedly with their tails held high.  So far we have not observed elephants making any deliberate attempts to attack people.  Our efforts to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in the area have contributed to creating this sense of tolerance in the two species and we are doing our best to keep it that way.  In fact that is why we started the current study to find out what was making the elephants change their ranging in the Tree Hut Corridor.  What we have begun to observe more frequently is the increasing number of vehicles—especially tuk tuks and motorcycles that are traveling on this road.  

Increasing vehicular traffic on the road through the Tree Hut Corridor
A Land Master Tractor full of people...

...a motorcyclist ...
...a cyclist all add to the increasing traffic

We are closely monitoring this increasing vehicular traffic too, to see whether it is also having an impact on the elephants.  To round off a really great day around 4.45 pm a herd of thirteen elephants showed up by the Tree Hut.  
A large herd showed up by the tree hut in the evening
The herd settled down and they were still feeding by the time we left at 8.30 pm to the field house.  It is an incredible experience to be up in the tree hut swayed by a gentle breeze listening to a herd of elephants down below contentedly feeding while making various vocalizations. It was a great ending to a very productive and fulfilling day.

Naima Starklof - Right into the heart of the elephant’s lair

January 24, 2012: All these days, we were told by the two Field Scouts, Jayathilaka and Veroni that we may come across elephants during transects and that sometimes we'd just have to run.  At the time I would say "ahhh hondai hondai" or directly translated, "ahhh, good good".  After all the dung and footprints we've been tracking, it would have been interesting to actually encounter the animals.

Well today was that day—sort of.  We headed into the forest and followed a trail of dung, footprints and damaged trees—some of which was still fresh from that very morning.  To accompany these we heard some occasional rustles and low hums as we got closer to what seemed like a herd's shelter.  There were large but slight indentations on the ground where some elephants had laid down—the elephants' beds!

A tree broken by elephants
Dung of baby elephants
As we continued with the transect we seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the elephants' lair.  Sure enough within a few meters, our guide told us that elephants were on both sides and we couldn't continue.  Even though we couldn't see any elephants, we could hear loud rustles and the occasional rumble coming from right in front of us.  We had woken them up from their slumber, it seemed.  Just the mere proximity of these mighty beings made my body shake slightly.  I kept thinking about the juxtaposition of our sizes—little me and enormous them.

From right next to me, then came an unusually loud, low, beastly hum!  Let’s call it a hum—which pretty much creeped the living daylights out of me.  I turned in its direction, only to find our Field Scout, Jayathilaka, making that very loud, low, beastly hum for the second time. He then waited to get a response from the elephants.  There was nothing but silence.  Jayathilaka repeated that hum, and once more it send shivers down my spine.  The elephant responded with a similar hum, letting us know he was close.  We turned to leave, trying to be as soundless as possible. Jayathilaka suddenly turned to us and whispered "run!" and we all ran me more diligently than others.  This made for much teasing later, of course.

Jayathilaka calling back to base to inform that we are surrounded by elephants! 
That evening we spent watching elephants play hide and seek from the tree hut.  An aged, limping fellow, known as Nondiya (Limper), showed himself at exactly 4:50 pm.


Nondiya hiding behind a bush

Nondiya approaching the tree hut

Limping along

Nondiya looking towards road
Chintaka claims for the next few days we will, for sure, see elephants at around 4:45 pm like the day before.  This bugger would trot into the forest only to be pushed out by an elephant inside.  Then he would run further and try to get into the forest that way.  These 2 played around like this for a while.  Perhaps the first elephant was being pushed out of the herd as punishment or perhaps he was scanning the scene for the herd that appeared an hour later, or perhaps he was just playing.  There was much speculation.  Nondiya was seen just that morning around 11 am heading to the lake.  He was the guy we had been running from.

Nondiya feeding after been chased off from entering the jungle

Two men happened to walk down the road at that time.  Seeing the elephant, they ran into the grasslands and climbed up a tree.  A tractor driving by at one point stopped close to where the elephant was and shouted "I need to get home now. Please go!" and Nondiya actually listened and moved away.  As it got darker, a tuk tuk drove along the road just as the elephants were crossing further away.  As they saw the giant animals, they promptly turned off the lights and ran as quickly as they could to the tree house.

The two men who  came along when Nondiya was by the tree hut

The two men climbed a tree as soon as they saw Nondiya
Chinthaka - January 24, 2012. It is the beginning of another beautiful day at the SLWCS Ambassador’s Lodge Field House at Pussellayaya, Wasgamuwa.  I’m seated in the veranda with a cup of Ceylon tea working on the day’s work schedule while an incredible sunrise is unfolding right in front of me.  This is one of the best things about living in the field house—to be greeted every morning by a panoramic display of the rising sun!  Visitors to the lodge love seeing the sunrise and rave about its kaleidoscopic display which never fails to mesmerize the beholder.  

Sunrise at the field house
The reason I’m up this early is that I’m planning a new transect which I hope to conduct today with the field team.  The plan today is to lay out a new transect from the Tree Hut towards the boundary of the Wasgamuwa National Park through the forest.

By 9.00 am the field team has assembled by the Tree Hut.  After taking a GPS point of the Tree Hut location which is the starting point of the transect, the team started to walk towards the national park boundary which is about 5 kilometers away marking out the new transect. 

Getting ready to leave on a transect
At this stage the transect went through grassland and open scrub jungle.  Eventually the team will enter the thick forest which from afar looked impenetrable.  These were the forests where elephants took refuge during the day time from the hot scorching sun.  In the gloomy recess of the forest the grey forms of the elephants blended like leaf insects on guava leaves.

Leaving on a transect led by Field Scout Jayathilkaka
Jayathilaka looking for elephants or picking nellie fruit?

The field team head towards the forest
I was waiting by the Tree Hut.  Field Scout, Jayathilaka who is a local villager and one of our most jungle experienced senior field assistants is leading the team.  The plan is for me to wait by the Tree Hut with the Land Rover until the team passed the 2 kilometer mark.  Around 11.00 am I climbed up to the Tree Hut to observe from the top the surrounding area. I scanned over the jungle and open forest and grasslands and then I heard an elephant rumble from the direction of the track that the field team had gone!  I was getting concerned and just then I got a call on my mobile from Jayathilaka and I was hardly able to hear him!  Jayathilaka was whispering that they could not proceed with the marking of the new transect because they have run into elephants! When they had tried to go through the forest they had got charged by an elephant! While I’m talking to Jayathilaka I see from the tree hut a lone bull elephant going pass the tree hut heading towards the Weheragala Tank (lake).  This was very unusual—to see an elephant here at this time.  Probably it is the same elephant that had charged the field team?  It seems elephants were moving—even though we could not see them it seemed like they were moving through the forests patches and this was dangerous to the field team. I could not take a chance—so I immediately instructed Jayathilake to return to the Tree Hut with the team as soon as possible. The safety and security of our volunteers, visitors, interns and staff is always our number one priority. We had no choice—it was not just the presence of elephants but the fact that they were moving in the forest—which made it doubly dangerous for the field team to be in there on the ground amidst the second large terrestrial mammal in the world.  We called a halt to the transect and came back to the field house.  Around 4.00 pm we went back to the Tree Hut to observe elephants and around 4.45 pm an elephant came up to the tree hut and we got the opportunity to observe plenty of human-elephant interactions at the corridor.

Naima – A Project Orange Elephant Village and an Encounter with a Sneaky Elephant

January 25, 2012: Today we visited the village of Randunnewewa where the SLWCS had given families 10 grafted orange seedlings each, to check on their progress.  These plants had been given more recently about a year ago.  It seemed as though these villagers had a lot of commitment for the project.  The orange plants were still small since they were just over a year old but they were well kept and planted strategically against elephant attack.  The difference with this village, however, was that they were not surrounded by an electric fence. So they had elephants as occasional visitors. They have more of an initiative as a result.

Checking the orange plants

We saw the elephant bells once again, this time with old cans and barbed wire.  The villagers said they used firecrackers and shouting to scare off elephants when they did come.  I think they are, as a result, eager to grow the citrus.

Rudimentary Elephant Early Warning System made of old cans

A party household

Anything that would make a jingling or jangling noise is utilized

In the afternoon we went to the tree hut and Siriya, the Majordomo of the Ambassador’s Lodge field house came along with us.  After been in the tree hut for awhile Siriya was getting bored.  So Siriya and Chinthaka went down to see whether they could spot any elephants from the road.   From the tree hut I could see both of them chatting on their phones when I spotted one lone bull elephant.   This bull was moving soundlessly and almost slipped by Chinthaka and Siriya unnoticed within 10 meter of them!

Siriya chatting on the phone

The bull came by noiselessly...

...headed towards the road soundlessly

Even the two dogs on the road did not notice or hear him!

Crossing the road

Siriya oblivious to the fact that a massive bull elephant is behind him!

Epilogue - sort of!

From these short accounts and the information we have gathered so far—while we cannot make definite conclusions in regard to the temporal and spatial distribution of elephants—at least we know they had not disappeared from the area as we had earlier feared! The elephants seem to have changed the time of their ranging in the area and are moving during the late morning and afternoon which seemed very unusual.  The observations show that the elephants were moving much earlier or later during the day than we were used to seeing them do in the past. This could be because we never made an attempt to observe elephants during these times before.  But on the other hand we know for sure that for the past 3 months they were not making an appearance during the usual times at the places we used to see them very frequently.

This could be a seasonal behavior that we were observing based on weather and the availability of food and water since the jungle is still very lush and verdant from the last rains. What is exciting for us is that elephants are still frequenting and moving through the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor albeit at different times.  According to the ongoing observations it seems they are in the process of reverting to their former routine—we will know this for sure as the dry season gradually sets in and the availability of food and water depletes in the forest.  Nevertheless this current information bodes well for my good friend Robert Durham, who is planning to celebrate his birthday in a grand manner next month amidst the elephants at Wasgamuwa!  This is an event everybody in Wasgamuwa is waiting for in high anticipation. Maybe we can arrange an elephant to blow out the candles!!!  
I'll be back!

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