Saturday, March 10, 2012

Elephant Encounters (The Good Kind): In the Deep with Elephants, Crazy Di and Ryo Clarke

A herd of elephants feeding by the Weheragala Tank
It is around 3 pm and we are heading out to the Tree Hut Corridor to observe human elephant interactions from our tree hut.  With me is Diana van der Kamp the founder Director of Wild Invest based in England.  Wild Invest sponsored our Whitley Fund for Nature associate award in 2009.  Diana is visiting our project site to see the work we are doing in Wasgamuwa to mitigate human-elephant conflicts for the long term conservation of the Sri Lankan elephant.  Along with Diana we have with us Ryo Okazaki Clarke from Japan, who is volunteering on our Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project as a volunteer for two weeks.  He came to us through The Great Projects ( volunteer placement company.  Ryo is a jazz pianist by profession, which goes to show the diversity of the volunteers who visit our SEHP project in Wasgamuwa!  Please keep an ear out to grab a premiering swinging jazz album from Ryo Clarke Quartet very soon. 

We drive south along the main Hettipola to Wasgamuwa road and then make a right to enter the Weheragalagama village where we installed our second community based electric fence.  We pass through the electric fence gate and drive through the village and exit through another fence gate and then drive on to the dam of the Weheragalagama Tank and drive along it.  We are traveling in our 47 year old Series III Land Rover that has been named Gloria, by a former English volunteer presumably with a great patriotic spirit.  
Gloria our trustworthy Land Rover Series III on the dam
Sampath is driving, and he suddenly hits the brakes sliding us along the bench seats to pile on top of each other.  Not a very comfortable situation if you happened to be at the bottom of the pile!  Turning around Sampath excitedly pointed out towards the far end of the tank where a large herd of elephants were feeding along the tank edge.  Some of the elephants were in the water and they seem to be having a great time. 

We immediately got off the vehicle and looked for the fishermen who are always in the tank laying nets to catch tank fish.  We work with these fishermen when we do tank monitoring to collect data on elephants.   Chinthaka waved out to an outrigger catamaran that was just pulling up to the shallows some distance away and the boatman began to row towards where we were standing on the dam.  The catamaran belonged to a young fisherman called Rupé (short for Rupesinghe) from the Weheragalagama Village.  Once he brought the catamaran close to where we were standing on the dam, I went down to the boat and held on to helm for Chinthaka, Diana and Ryo to get on.  Pushing the boat away from the dam I hopped to the front and we started to row to the other side of the tank where the elephants were.
Rupé pulled the catamaran up to where we were on the dam

The herd kept on feeding and bathing with no alarm at our approach

In the wobbling Catamaran

Gliding quietly in the boat we approached the elephants 

The herd numbering over 27 elephants were spread out

The wobbling became acute as we got close to the elephants in the water 
With quick strokes Rupé had the boat pointed out towards the other end of the tank and we were soon gliding swiftly across its calm surface.  Seated at the stern I reach out to my camera bag that I had wedged in the very front of the boat when suddenly the boat rolled unsteadily and I saw the outrigger go underwater and come up!  I was at the very front facing forward which is not the best position if you want to know what is happening in the back.  In the very confined narrow space of the unstable catamaran I was debating whether I should twist my head or turn around to inquire what made the boat wobble.  Turning my head to get a peripheral view of the rear I inquired from Chinthaka and the boatman what was going on!  I did not get any answer.  Apparently the rowing sound and the noise of the boat gliding over the water were drowning out my voice.  The boat rolled again unsteadily and I grabbed at the gunwale to steady myself and to keep myself from falling into the water.  The boat steadied and kept moving swiftly towards the elephants.  I desperately wanted to find out what was making the boat roll!  We were now only a few meters away from the elephants that were in the water, and I was not keen at all to join them— which, it seems like we would be doing pretty soon, whether I liked it or not! 
Unintentionally we were about to crash an elephant pool party! 
Since we were so close to the elephants I did not want to raise my voice since sound carries well over water and I did not want to alarm the elephants.  The last thing I wanted was to meet up with an angry elephant in the water where it definitely had all the advantages.  This was a difficult situation.  Keeping my voice as low as possible I requested again from the back to report why the boat is unsteady.  I just wanted to know why I’m about to fall into water that had elephants in it!  Apparently sound carries backwards in a catamaran quite slowly. After a long silence, Chinthala tells me, “Diana is moving around in the boat.”  I try to picture the six foot Diana moving around in a boat that is not much longer than her height.  Apparently we had not taken into consideration the risk factor of having those long and lanky legs in a catamaran that was barely only 12 inches wide.  Now those long dangling legs were spelling trouble with a capital T!    
Diana - either in a yoga position or just about to fall into the water
I tell Chithaka, “What does Diana think she is on—a cruise ship?”
I then hear Chinthaka telling Diana, “Mr. Ravi says this is not a cruise ship, and to stop moving around.” He then tells Diana, “without sitting sideways why don’t you sit on the cross beam facing forward?” 
I grab the gunwales with one hand and my camera bag with the other as the catamaran wobbles and the outrigger goes under and comes up again.  I assume Diana is moving around, to find a comfortable perch.  Holding tightly to the gunwale I contemplate the chances of coming out of this adventure without getting dunked in the tank.  I’m hoping that Diana will find a comfortable seat soon, otherwise we are all going to end up in the big pond!  What was surprising was that we did not hear a hum from Ryo! 
After a little while, I hear Diana tell Chinthaka, “Oh this is so much more comfortable—why was I seated sideways?”
Chinthaka, “I don’t know, you are the one who chose to sit sideways.”

I would like to point out again the diversity of the volunteers and visitors we get at Wagamuwa!

Ryo the Jazz Pianist
Seated on a crossbeam just behind where the front outrigger beam is tied to the gunwale, I notice the ropes holding the cross beam, that connects to the outrigger have come loose!  At the same time Chinthaka had noticed the same with the outrigger beam tied at the rear.  We are now experiencing frequent wobbling and the situation was becoming desperate!  With much concern I watched the outrigger—anxious whether it would part company with the boat, which was not a comforting thought at all.  I call out to the fisherman cautiously lest even talking loudly might get the boat and outrigger to part like two illicit lovers!  I tell the fisherman that that there is a problem at both ends of the boat—that the outrigger is lose and we need to tighten it up before we all got unloaded into the tank.  We were now no more than 15 meters from the elephants in the water and I had serious doubts that they would take kindly to us crashing their pool party!
The elephants fortunately weren't aware that we were about to crash their party! 
The part of the tank that we were moving through had fingers of land jutting into the water.  These mini peninsulas along with a series of small islands had created a narrow and shallow channel.  Three large bull elephants were in front of us in an open water area surrounded by several of these small peninsulas.  On the left close by to us was one of the islands—a small grassy knoll on which I asked Rupé to land the boat.  He steered the catamaran to it and I jumped off and held on to the boat while Diana, Ryo and Chinthaka got off.  We made ourselves comfortable and inconspicuous while Rupé repaired the outrigger, while just a few meters away in the water the bulls were playing like a group of school boys.  
Rupé repairing the outrigger

An elephant keeps an eye on Rupé while he is repairing the outrigger
 Along the water’s edge a herd of twenty five elephants and several massive bulls were feeding placidly.  The bulls in the water were having a great time.  We watched the elephants for more than 2 hours. 
We made ourselves inconspicuous on the island

The elephants went about their business with hardly a glance at us

A massive bull coming out of the water

It walked out of the water not more than 10 meters from us

Elephas maximus maximus (the biggest largest elephant)

Diana observing elephants

Ryo with elephants

Hey guys look over there...

...its Diana!

Yoohoo Di!
While we were thus engrossed, a lone bull completely covered in mud appeared suddenly on the bank, right opposite to where we were!  It immediately sensed that we were across the water and kept raising and waving its’ trunk probably to get a whiff of us.  Then it purposely strode to the water a few meters across from us and entered it.  Wading up to its belly the elephant drank directly from the mouth.  Then it submerged its head and did a headstand in the water raising its massive posterior like a breaching whale!  Diana, who is a yoga freak, thought that this was a very admiring trait in the bull!  Her only criticism was that he did not raise his rear legs to form a perfect vertical yoga headstand.  I invited Diana to teach the bull how to do it!  While the bull was thus occupied—doing yoga head stands in the water it was joined by another bull.  

The mud splattered bull suddenly appeared from the side

It kept raising its trunk

Hi chaps what's up!

The bull strode to the opposite side of where we were... 

...and kept coming towards our direction

The bull striding towards our direction

Rupé and I hauled the boat as the bull kept coming towards us

Finally it stopped and walked towards the tank...

...tested the water
A tern watched entire incident from the air
They played in the water for a while and in the interim had moved closer to where we were on the island.  Suddenly the first bull, the Yogi, saw us and it immediately stood up with water cascading down its body.  With head held high and ears fanned out it looked in our direction very much aware of our presence. 
The bull approaching the boat
Rupé and I slowly pulled the boat back and discussed an exit plan if the bull decided that we needed to be taught a yoga trick or two!  To begin with we had very few exit options.  Mainly because, the narrow channel was not deep enough for us to quickly row away, with five adults in the boat.  The island we were on was just a grassy knoll, and it had nothing to offer in the way of a tree or even a large vertical rock to climb onto, or hide behind if the elephant decided to give us personal yoga instructions.  The last option was for Rupé and me to haul the boat with the rest on board until we came to deep water to row away.

As we were discussing the merits of the available options the elephant began to move towards us.  I signaled everybody to move behind the boat while Rupé and I hauled it backwards.  We moved back in concert with every forward step of the elephant.  Since rowing out of there was not possible because of the shallow depth, our only hope was to keep a safe distance between us and the bull.  At least until we reached water deep enough to get into the boat and row away.  The bull kept moving in our direction and its massive pillar like legs created waves with a loud splashing noise.  We were now at a point that we had to either get on the boat or stand our ground.  We stopped moving and the bull came to a standstill as well.  For an insignificantly finite period we stared at each other—two species entwined through a long historic relationship that spanned over 3,000 years.  Which of course the bull was not aware of!  Suddenly, it turned towards the lakeshore and walked away.  It went up to a dust bath and began to spray liberal volumes of dust on itself in a content and unhurried manner.  
At the elephant spa!

A dust bath is the fad

Dust is good

More powdery the better!

Enough of dust - got to get on
In the meantime the large herd, that was loosely and widely distributed along the tank edge, feeding and socializing, had all moved away in the direction of the forest in a manner that always reminded me of synchronization in music.  It is amazing how a large group elephants on cue bunch together and move away in minutes!  One minute the entire group is spread out and doing their own thing, and then suddenly the entire herd is walking together, singly or in pairs headed towards some common destination.  The herd gradually disappeared into the forest.  
On cue elephants that were widely spread will regroup and move off together...

...singly... pairs...

...and as a herd
It is amazing how a landscape that was just occupied by tens of sometimes even hundreds of elephants, could, within a matter of minutes become completely empty and desolate giving no indication of their earlier presence.  I fervently hope this would not be an indication of what the future holds for the elephant in Sri Lanka—to disappear without a trace from our lives! 
An empty landscape that was moment ago full of elephants

With great satisfaction of having been able to observe elephants in such an awesome situation, we headed back to the dam where Sampath was waiting with Gloria the Land Rover.  As we were leaving I could not help but dwell on the matter of, “for how long, would wild elephants enjoy freedom in this manner, before development and electric fences imprisoned them in national parks and reserves forever.”  This obviously led to the more important question which is, whether, we would be able to safeguard and protect the last wild places in Sri Lanka? 

What does the future hold for our elephants?


  1. I should have joined ...... Great .. Janaka Mudalige

  2. Always enjoy reading these posts. It truly is saddening to think that these magnificent animals would most probably be restricted in their movement due to development etc. Some things we humans must leave untouched and the wilderness is one of them. Respect towards your hard efforts for the conservation of these animals Mr. Ravi.

  3. What a fantastic experience! Stunning pictures.

  4. Great blog.
    The pics on this one were awesome due to the proximity of the herd.


  5. wow that's a lucky moment! beautiful pictures :)