YouTube Update: Please watch the video of "In the Deep with Elephants, Crazy Di & Ryo Clarke" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bF8b_5e9sY
|The massive bull in a belligerent mood|
Continuing saga of Elephant Encounters of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Kind!
February 15, 2012. It is night, and seated in the living room of our Field House, the film crew from France 3 Television, Chinthaka and I are discussing the plans for tomorrow. The night sounds of the dry zone jungles are providing a soothing symphony in the background. The entire day we had been visiting various elephant troubled areas in the Dambulla and Kalawewa areas. We’ve had our vehicle stuck in the mud with the compliments of SriLankan Airlines air taxi service, visited a refuse dump and observed elephants scavenging garbage, seen an elephant killed by a train, visited homes and fields in the Aluth Balalu Wewa area that had been attacked by elephants, and walked over 2 kilometers to watch elephants coming to the littoral plains of the historic Kalawewa tank in the evening to feed. It has been a long day of first suffering the consequences of a mired vehicle, and then driving, walking, discussing, observing and filming various issues pertaining to human-elephant conflicts. We got dinner on the way since it was rather late in the night by the time we got back to the field house. And now after refreshing ourselves—over a night cap we are discussing our plans for tomorrow. We are debating which transect to take that would give us the best chance of encountering elephants. Since the visit of my good friend Robert (please see the blogs of Sunday, January 29th and Tuesday, February 14th) and the fact that we could not show him one elephant during his first visit—we had to expand our entire research effort.
Now as a result we have a series of trail transects that we conduct regularly to gather data on elephants. So based on the data we have, we are comparing the information to select the best trail transect to take the film crew and volunteers tomorrow, that would provide us with the best chance of seeing elephants. Finally we decided to go on one of the new transects that began by our Tree Hut—we call it, the Sleeping Beauty Transect.
|Where have all the elephants gone?|
|Hello! Can you please ask the elephants to come - tell them Robert's here.|
|They should be here any minute now!|
|I'm sorry Robert - it is a "no show" today!|
|Elephants have started to move through the Tree Hut Corridor again|
|Dawn at our Pussellayaya Field House|
Long before the rising sun spreads its’ splendor over the sleeping landscape, or even sees its’ own reflection in the lake down below, or begun to unravel the Sleeping Giant and Clenched Fist contours of the Knuckles Mountain Range faintly silhouetted against a lightening sky, our barnyard chorus goes live.
I’m up with the crowing of the Brahma, Cochin, Asil, Top Hat, and back yard roosters. Interspersed with the crowing of the roosters I can hear the unmistakable braying like honking of our gaggle of Chinese geese. They completely ruin the dawn musical chorus of the crowing roosters. Geese should not be allowed to honk at dawn. There should be a law against it! When the crowing starts there is no need to check my watch—they start at 4.10 am on the dot.
|The barnyard flock|
|The Geese walking to the lake|
Seated at my work desk at 6 am I muse over the various facets of my life while a living panorama of colors comes to life right in front me. Siriya, the Major Domo of our field house brings me my customary morning cup of hot Ceylon tea, breaking my musing and bringing me to the present to dwell on more recent matters. While drinking my tea my mind wanders again, and soon I’m reliving the memories of Dodam the giant squirrel, who used to drop from the rafters onto my shoulders and then to the table to share my morning cup of tea. If not for him I would have never known that giant squirrels loved to drink tea, eat betel leaves and coconuts! Dodam during his wanderings in the village was killed by a dog when he had come down to eat something on the ground. I miss Dodam very much.
|Dodam and Ravi|
|Enjoying my cup of tea!|
|Dodam would come by every morning to have tea with me|
|Enjoying a customarily chew of betel leaves|
|Addicted to coconuts|
I convinced a chief priest of a temple in Ruwanwella who was rearing Dodam to give him to me to let him have his freedom. The trip to bring him to Wasgamuwa was an epic journey of over 250 kilometers in the middle of the night. We drove from Ruwanwella to Wasgamuwa on flooded roads in torrential rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. We had to navigate around fallen light posts and trees and finally made it to Wasgamuwa at 5.00 am in the morning. In the meantime after polishing off a whole heap of fruits inside the pet carrier we had brought to transport him, Dodam slept soundly through the entire journey with his feet up! (http://slwcsupdates.blogspot.com/2010/05/born-to-be-free-story-of-dodam-giant.html).
From Dodam my mind wonders to another giant squirrel that I had rescued, and similarly to Dodam would join me to share my early morning cup of tea. I have not seen Ollie in over a year, since he became an adult and started to wander about on his own, but I do keep hearing about his escapades and whereabouts from various villagers. The most recent I heard was that he had taken abode in a shrine room in the village dedicated to a local God known as Dedi Mundi Deviyo. This is obviously because of all the food offerings that devotees make to the resident deity everyday in supplication for various blessings. I don’t know how many villagers receive blessings, or have their prayers answered by the local deity for the offerings they make—but, apparently Ollie seems to be receiving blessings and having his prayers answered every day! He is one smart giant squirrel—who is absolutely profiteering from religion! The last time I saw Ollie was when the cops came to arrest him (just kidding). The police came to provide security to an Air Force helicopter we had rented to do an aerial shoot over the Mahaweli River. Ollie dropped by the same day and that was the last time I saw him.
|The day Ollie arrived at the field house as an orphaned baby|
|Training Ollie to be a free giant squirrel|
|Ollie just like Dodam used too, would drop by my work table in the morning|
|Ollie running from the law!|
|The village shrine dedicated to a local deity that Ollie moved into to feed on the offerings|
|Last time I saw Ollie - February 18, 2012|
By 7 am everyone is up and soon after breakfast around 9 am we get into two of our 4WD drive field vehicles and head out to the Tree Hut. It seems like it’s going to be a great day, the sky is filled with fluffy cumulus clouds, bunched up like cotton balls floating lazily against a light blue sky. We gather the group where the trail transect begins and hold a discussion to brief the film crew and volunteers what to expect, the necessity to be silent and pay absolute attention to our signals when walking in the jungle. Last time the field team had done this transect they had encountered an entire herd of elephants. The team had walked right into the midst of a herd taking its mid-day siesta. Hence the name of the transect, Sleeping Beauty. Fortunately due to the thick understory the team had been able to beat a hasty retreat while keeping themselves out of view of the elephants. We emphasized again the need to be very quiet and to communicate only by sign, or if utterly necessary to talk in whispers.
|At the starting point of the trail transect|
|The intrepid Field Team: Mahanama, Gene, Veroni, JB, Gemma, Katha, Emma, Chinthaka, Bertrand, Andre & Jean Michel|
|Chinthaka briefing the team on some essential field behavior and protocols|
|Chinthaka making sure everyone understands the importance of being alert all the time|
|JB our advance elephant alert system|
|Heading out through the lush Mana grasslands|
|The ten foot tall Mana grasses can easily hide elephants|
|Elephants in tall Mana grass can be hard to see from the ground|
|Chinthaka explaining to the film crew the activities that are done during a transect|
|JB scouting ahead for elephants|
|The thick under-story cut visibility to a few feet|
|Chinthaka explaining to the volunteers how to collect data on signs left behind by elephants while the crew films|
|Waiting for a signal from JB either to advance or go back|
|The massive bull in musth that was always with the herd|
|JB signaling that he has found where the elephants are and beckoning me and Veroni to join him|
As our eyes got adjusted to the light and the shadows in the forests we began to see parts of other elephants through the trees. They were all standing or lying down in a very shady and thick glade. When the sun gets high in the sky and the day becomes hot, elephants retire into thick forests like the one we were in and only come out again in the evening as the sun goes down. It is not an easy thing to observe them like this since these forests are not easy to traverse. Without a knowledgeable person who knows about the terrain and elephants to guide—such a venture into a forest like this could end in disaster. As we were observing, a large male laid down on its side to sleep. This was indeed a very rare sight that only very few people get to observe. Wild elephants are aware that when they are lying on the ground on their side they are vulnerable. So they will do this only if they are completely relaxed and in a place where they don’t feel threatened. Since the herd seems to be oblivious to our presence and relaxed enough to lie on the ground Veroni went back to guide the film crew and the rest of the team to where we were.
|Veroni bringing the rest of the team to where the elephants were|
|The sleeping elephant sensing us stood up with a fluid and graceful movement|
|Andre filming while the elephant looks on|
|The elephant just stood their calmly looking in our direction|
|Less than 10 meters separates us and the elephant|
|We just stared at each other|
|Heading back to meet up with the vehicles|
|A successful morning of encountering elephants|
|JB and Sampath wearing one of the combined sun hat/hand fan contraptions brought by the volunteers|