Sunday, January 8, 2012

Where have all the Elephants gone…will we ever know?

It was the second week of October 2011 and we were beginning to feel that something has drastically changed in the area that we call the Tree Hut Corridor. Normally on any given day we could guarantee that there would be elephants by the tree hut from the afternoon onwards, but by the 2nd week of October it seems all the elephants had vanished and our guarantee along with them!

Elephants can be found by the tree hut practically everyday by afternoon.
Just the week before we were with a French film crew from Ocean Television based in Montreal, Canada and elephants were everywhere. We even organized a limited over cricket tournament between the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society staff and two of our project villages for the film crew with the elephants providing a unique backdrop. But now all of a sudden they were gone and we had no clue as to why, where or when!

The elephants provided a unique backdrop to the local cricket tournament
During this time we had a very good American friend of mine, Robert Durham from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo drop by with two of his friends to spend some time in the wilderness observing elephants. They spent 3 days with us and all three days we went scouting for elephants on foot and by vehicle and covered an area of over 50 square kilometers. We left everyday at 4 am in the morning and came back to the field lodge only in the late evening beat from our excursions in search for elephants to get revived by Jack Daniels and Sri Lankan curries. Twice we took Robert and his friends to the Wasgamuwa National Park but we did not see one elephant! Further adding to our frustrations was the fact that during our foot safaris we would came across fresh piles of elephant dung but no elephants! We waited by the Hettipola town’s garbage dump stoically ignoring the stench hoping for elephants to show up. Normally elephants would show up at the dump exactly the same time as the tractor with the day’s garbage collection. No Luck this time! Either the elephants have had enough of eating garbage or had moved on to better food!

Robert at the Sunrise Rock at our Field House

Everyday at 4 am we left by vehicle...

...and by foot to look for elephants 

Crossing the littoral plain of the dried up Namini Oya Lake

We frequently came across piles of fresh elephant dung but no elephants!
Robert the intrepid aventurer with a herd of water buffalo in the background
It was obvious by then that the elephants in the area have changed their ranging patterns and it was important for us to understand this change—especially to know whether this was an annual cyclic event that was important to the ecology of the elephants in the area. If this was the case then we need to identify the environmental and anthropogenic factors directly and indirectly related to the seasonal distribution of elephant and their transit through the Tree Hut Corridor.

A herd of elephants at the Tree Hut Corridor
The area that we call the Tree Hut Corridor connects the southern boundary of the Wasgamuwa National Park (WNP) and the Vee-Yaya forest reserve with the Weheragalagama Tank and its associated littoral plain and reservation areas and the hilly forest reserves and lowland plains of Sudu Kanda Range extending southwards through Goda Ulpotha and Namini Oya to connect with the Elawana Kanda Range that provides a link to the Knuckles Mountains. Elephants range throughout this entire area all the way up to the Pitawala Pathana, which is a plateau located nearly 5,000 feet in the Knuckles Mountains. The Tree Hut Corridor is a contiguous landscape that provides a vital and important link to various habitats for elephants which is also crucial for their annual ranging. While it would be great to study the temporal and spatial distribution of elephants in this entire area—due to practical considerations we were only interested in the area extending from the southern boundary of the WNP in the north to the northeastern boundary of the Elawana Kanda Range in the south. Observations conducted since 2002 shows that elephants are present in this area throughout the year—which means there is a resident population—but it seems their composition, density, distribution, ranging, and habitat use within this area changes drastically through the year. Therefore it was imperative that we gather data to understand the temporal and spatial distribution of the elephants and to identify the various habitats they utilize during what time of the year in their annual ranging within this area.

Elephants use the Tree Hut Corridor to access the Weheragala Lake that can be seeing in the background

A SLWCS field vehicle approaching the tree hut amidst a herd of elephants that are right underneath it

On some days the elephants are so numerous they cause local traffic jams!
While we were developing the research plan for this project Shafin Kidy from England spent a week with us as our first volunteer for December. Shafin saw six elephants on his first day in the evening feeding at the edge of the Weheragala Tank (reservoir) and on his second day he observed a herd of five elephants from the tree hut. This same herd Shafin observed again the following day when he was returning after helping with a trail transect to collect data on elephants and leopards. A day prior to his departure Shafin spent an entire day in the Wasgamuwa National Park where again he saw a large number of elephants including various other wildlife.

Shafin with an elephant

Shafin observing an elephant from the SLWCS field vehicle

Getting an up close and personal experience
Shafin enjoying a delicious cup of Ceylon Tea by the Mahaweli Ganga River
By the time we were ready to start the preliminary field surveys Craig Fox from England joined the team on December 25th. On December 27th we started to conduct elephant surveys in the Tree Hut Corridor. The first trail transect was conducted from the Namini Oya tank to where the tree hut is along a South-North axis. The transect was on a new trail about 2 kilometers away parallel to the old track. The field team followed an elephant path and signs left behind by elephants to mark out this new trail. The team consisting of Chinthaka, Craig and Jayatileka who is a local villager the SLWCS has trained as a Field Scout had first encountered the dung of a large bull at the beginning of the transect and had come across piles of more recent dung in the open scrub and savanna areas. They had also found leopard scat! It seems like this area has tremendous potential for wildlife research.

Chtinthaka, Jayatileka & Craig conducting the first Tree Hut Corridor field survey

Craig checking out elephant dung

A GPS point is taken of every dung pile that is encountered
The first transect was ended after 4 kilometers. The following day the team continued from the point where the transect was ended to all the way up to the tree hut—a total distance of 12 kilometers. On January 3rd three massive bull elephants had come right underneath the tree house and have been playing around. They had come around 5.30 pm and stayed up until 7.00 pm.

Three big bull elephants at the Tree Hut

A curious bull elephant
No worries there -  just some curious elephant fans up in a Tree Hut - nothing unusual! 
The bulls spent a relaxed evening while there is much excitement up in the Tree Hut!

On January 2nd we were joined by Gene Wheeler from Seattle, Washington, USA, so now the team consists of 4 people. During the dry season we do tank monitoring to gather data on elephants along the littoral plains of all the irrigation tanks in the area. Due to the monsoon rains currently the Weheragala Tank (lake) including all of the other tanks are at spill level so there is no way to drive or walk along the shoreline. To overcome this seasonal obstacle the field team goes by boat to the forest to gather data on elephants. The first lake crossing was done on January 4th. The team had crossed the lake and immediately met an elephant in the forest. They had taken cover behind a bush until the elephant had moved away.

Due to the Monsoons all the tanks are at spill level

Elephant sign is still numerous along the shorelines

The trails around the lakes get flooded making it impossible to walk along the shorelines

Taking a boat is one solution.  Gene at the helm of the boat

Heading into forest to gather data
SLWCS Field Scout Jayatileka leading the way

Taking cover behind some bushes... the sudden appearance of a large bull elephant!
An interesting and fascinating additional activity has been integrated into our daily excursions into the jungles to gather data on elephants. Mr. Rathnayake is the government Archeology Officer and the person responsible for Archeological research in the Wasgamuwa area. He has met Chinthaka at the Divisional Secretary’s office in the Hettipola Town and had mentioned that he is very interested to do some Archeological surveys in the area but found it impossible and was also scared to go alone into the jungle due to the presence of wild elephants. He has asked Chinthaka whether he can join our team when we do trail transects in the forest. On January 4th Mr. Rathnayake had come to our field house to explain and demonstrate to the team how to help with archeological surveys. After spending the night at the field house the early next day morning Mr. Rathnayake had taken the team to do some preliminary archeological training surveys along the shoreline of the Karawgas Weva, which is a lake just below our field house. During this initial training demonstration they have found ancient iron artifacts, ore samples and the remains of a black smith foundry.

Mr. Rathnayake, the government Archeology Officer demonstrating field techniques

Iron artefacts

Another iron artefact

A black and white magpie by the ancient iron foundry

Some of the many ancient iron artefacts that were found at Pussellayaya
An iron ring
It seems like adding the archeological research to the elephant research will give a nice mix of culture and nature activities for our international volunteers. The Wasgamuwa region is steeped in legends, myths, and history. Historians claim Wasgamuwa was where an epic battle was fought during 2100 BC. This is incredible! We cannot imagine what exciting new discoveries are waiting to be found in those dry zone jungles? What will we find out about our ancient past along with our efforts to get a better understanding of the current movement of elephants at our project site? Will our efforts to unearth the buried history of Sri Lanka shed new light on our long standing contentious relationship with the elephant?

Would you like to be a part of these efforts? Why not join us and have an adventure of a life time! Contact us at:
For additional photos of our current field work and volunteer experiences please visit our Face Book at SLWCS Sri Lanka.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff! Enjoyed it as much as if I was there.