Saturday, March 31, 2012

Elephant Encounters of the Good kind: Waking Sleeping Beauty!

YouTube Update: Please watch the video of "In the Deep with Elephants, Crazy Di & Ryo Clarke" at

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.  
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!
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.

Elephants have started to move through the Tree Hut Corridor again
February 16, 2012.  Dawn in Wasgamuwa cannot be surpassed—the sunrises are just absolutely stunning!  I have seen on many occasions the dawn sky painted with colors that I’m sure artists have never imagined or knew to exist!   

Dawn at our Pussellayaya Field House

Unimaginable colors!
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. 

The barnyard flock

The Geese walking to the lake 
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. 

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 - August 2010
Dodam with U.S. Ambassador, Hon Patricia Butenis, July 2010

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!  (

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
Bertrand, the TV journalist with the film crew outlines to me what he would like to film during the trail transect and wants to know whether it would be possible to do so.  I ask Chinthaka to help us out since he has done this transect before whereas I have not.  The surprising fact was that during all the earlier attempts the field team has never being able to complete the entire transect from beginning to end—a total distance of about 3 kilometers.   During all prior attempts they had encountered elephants and had to turn back!  Chinthaka, Betrand and I discuss quickly to come up with a safe plan for the film crew to obtain the footage they need without putting any ones’ life at risk.

Chinthaka making sure everyone understands the importance of being alert all the time
Senior Field Scout, Jay Banda (JB) short for Jayathileka Banda is from the neighboring Weheragalagama village and has been working for the SLWCS for 10 years.  On any transect we go JB goes ahead in front as the lead scout.  Having walked in these forests since he was a toddler, JB is our best advance warning system if there are elephants ahead of us in the jungle.  Having made sure the team was thoroughly grounded in some basic field behavior and procedures we head into the jungle with JB in the lead followed by the film team, our other senior Field Scout Veroni, then Chinthaka, and the four volunteers.  Mahanama the Tripod Man and I bring up the rear. 

JB our advance elephant alert system
The first 300 meters were through tall and robust Mana grassland, jotted here and there with a young tree or spindly sapling on a mission to create a secondary succession forest.  The Mana grass can get as tall as an elephant very effectively hiding elephants until one is almost on top of them, or in this case the other way round!  Not an ideal situation to be in, and to be avoided at all costs.  So it is very important to be vigilante and pay attention to either side, front, and back of the trail as we hiked through the grasslands and in the forest too where visibility is no better.

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
We come to the end of the grasslands and enter the forests where we are soon engulfed in a green tinged twilight world.  The paths created by elephants were the best routes to take in this kind of terrain.  Treading as quietly as possible and keeping communications to a minimum we keep heading into the deep recess of the forest where visibility was not more than 5 feet.  Even a small bend in the path made the person in front disappear because the understory was so thickly grown.  A unique feature of these forests is that there are certain areas where the entire forest is devoid of undergrowth.  The trees are evenly spaced and their top branches meet overhead completely covering the entire area with a ceiling made up of the upper canopy.  These are the favorite resting and hangout places of elephants.  Fresh piles of dung and footprints of elephants are everywhere.  We come across the fresh prints of a mother and a very small calf.  It seems like elephants have moved through this area barely minutes before us! 

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
The “hrrmph” was barely audible in the silent forest which was broken only by the cooing of the spotted doves and the incessant noise of the cicadas.  We had stopped by one of the natural clearings in the forest to check a fresh pile of dung when we heard it.  Immediately we all crouched low on the ground and JB moved quietly forward to pinpoint where exactly the elephant was.  From where I was, I could smell the pungent musky odor of elephants.  I moved pass the group and joined JB to help locate where the elephant or elephants were.  Removing our footwear we moved silently on bare feet eyes straining to see into the deep shadows made by the trees where the elephants were.  The rest of the team waited poised either to retreat or come forward based on our signals—that is only if we get enough time to warn them! 

Waiting for a signal from JB either to advance or go back
JB, I and Veroni stepped one foot at a time searching for the whereabouts of the elephants.  We were homing in on infrequent huffs, puffs and snorts that we could hear directly in front of us now.  From the left came a deep loud rumble that stopped us in our tracks immediately.  We looked at each other and peered into the forest—eyes straining—for such a deep solitary rumble could only come from a bull.  If this was the herd we have been observing for the last few days then with them was this massive bull elephant that was over 10 feet.  It was in musth—a condition peculiar to elephants where bull elephants begin to discharge from their temporal glands and dribble urine mixed with the male sex hormone testosterone.  During this period they seem to be always in a crabby mood—basically pissed off at everybody!  Some bulls tend to get into a heightened sexual or aggressive state and are prone to fight with other males.  They apparently take any intrusion on their space by any animal or human as a challenge to their dominancy or as a personal insult.  Just few days ago we observed this particular bull roar loudly and charge at another elephant that was close by to the herd.  The other male just turned around and bolted into the jungle.  We would have been able to see a violent pachyderm interaction if the other bull was also the same size and in musth.  We had observed this male several times recently and it was always with this herd.      
The massive bull in musth that was always with the herd
The very deep rumble could be from this bull and the last thing we wanted was to meet him—especially knowing the kind of mood he was in!  Holding our breath we waited to hear whether he would rumble again.  If he rumbled again that could mean he was aware of our presence, and since there was no way of knowing what he’ll do in his cantankerous mood—beating a hasty retreat was the wisest thing to do!  We waited about five minutes and did not hear the bull rumble again, so we began to move forward.  JB was about 3 meters in front of me and Veroni about the same distance behind me.  I saw JB crouch low and then squat on ground and then he beckoned us to come to him.  

JB signaling that he has found where the elephants are and beckoning me and Veroni to join him
Crouching next to him we stared into the deep shadowy areas of the forest waiting for our eyes to get adjusted to the dim light.  As my eyes got accustomed to the light I suddenly noticed it.  An elephant was standing facing in our direction.  What gave it away were its flapping ears, otherwise I would never have guessed that there was an elephant standing among those trees.  It is incredible for their size how elephants, can be so quiet, stand still like statues, and move so silently—like ghost ships gliding amongst the trees. 

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
André the cameraman, JB and I were less than 10 meters from the closest sleeping elephant. With us was also Jean Michel the sound guy and Bertrand.  We stood there quietly and started to film and take photographs.  The three volunteers stood a little distance behind us observing and taking photographs.  It was probably the sound of our cameras clicking that woke up the sleeping bull nearest to us.  It was amazing to see how swiftly, gracefully and silently this huge animal stood up!  There was nothing cumbersome about its movements considering its size.  It turned around and stood looking straight at us.  Always safety is a priority in a situation like this.  After the volunteers had a chance to see the standing elephant, I gestured to Chinthaka to take the volunteers and part of the film crew (André stayed behind to film) and head back to the rendezvous point, which was our tree hut. 

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
The elephant and we stared at each other—it was a momentous moment.  It made no move or sound just stood there looking in our direction.  We stood still and André kept filming.  At that moment even we became oblivious to everything else around us—especially that there was the rest of the herd including a massive bull close by.  We were locked in time with this one elephant.  We were all standing on the same ground at the same time looking at each other just separated by a few meters of nothing in between!

Less than 10 meters separates us and the elephant
In a situation like this I always feel that I’m privileged—meaning that I feel like I’m one of the chosen few to experience a situation like this with a wild animal especially an elephant!  This is especially so at a time in human history where our weapons are called “smart” probably to imply that people are stupid!  Maybe we are stupid, considering the rate at which we are destroying the very earth that provides us with a home and all this incredible diversity. 

We just stared at each other
As much as I want to hold on forever to this incredibly precious moment—I’m aware that we got to be conscious and disciplined to move away from it—causing the least amount of disturbance to the elephants.  I beckoned JB and André to move back with me as quietly as possible.  With the wind in our favor and due to the low light conditions of the forest the elephant could not make out who we were.  Probably that is why it just stood there uncertain.  Stepping backwards as silently as possible we moved back until we could not see the elephant and then we turned around and made a beeline back to the rendezvous place to meet up with the rest of the team.
Heading back to meet up with the vehicles
We caught up with the others by our Tree House and from there walked up to the road and went to the prearranged point to meet the vehicles.  We were a really excited group of people.  I guess given the regular life style that our volunteers live back home—to experience what we did today would be something they would hardly imagine would happen in their lives and will never forget.  This is a situation that most people would either read about or see in television.

A successful morning of encountering elephants
Chinthaka called ahead to the vehicles that were parked about 300 meters away.  This we do to avoid disturbing or scaring elephants if they happened to come out of the forest.  When the vehicles arrived the team members relived their experience to Sampath and Darshana since they had to stay behind with the vehicles.  The three girls had brought with them this unusual contraption they had got at Pinnawala—it could be used either as a sun hat or a hand fan.  It is indeed a very unique idea and design—a multipurpose apparatus for thermoregulation! 

JB and Sampath wearing one of the combined sun hat/hand fan contraptions brought by the volunteers
It was past noon when we headed back to the field house.  The film crew and the volunteers were a very happy lot.  After we got back to the field house we refreshed ourselves, had lunch and spent some time planning the activities for the afternoon.  We decided to go back to the tree hut and spend the entire evening there. We know now from the field data and observations we have been making recently that elephants are moving through that area again.  Hopefully they will do the same today—we will know for sure once we get there!

Elephants by the Tree Hut
To be continued… 

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