Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thalakola Nights: how matters of men and elephants are resolved

Two elephants feeding in the vicinity of rice fields
Prologue: It was in Wasgamuwa, Sri Lanka for the first time an electric fence was erected around a village. The idea behind erecting an electric fence around a village and not a national park was to keep elephants “out” and not “in.” This electric fence was erected 16 years ago in the village of Pussellayaya in Wasgamuwa by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS). Fortunately, for most villages as well as for the elephants this concept was quickly adapted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) in their efforts to mitigate human elephant conflicts in Wasgamuwa. The DWC had previously attempted to fence elephants twice into the Wasgamuwa National Park with no success.

Today, there exists a network of electric fences in Wasgamuwa erected by the SLWCS and subsequently by the DWC that protect villages. There are though still several villages that are outside this network of electric fences. In addition, there are seasonal fields that are only cultivated from January to April during the Maha cultivating season that coincides with the Northeast Monsoon rains. These fields are also located outside the network of electric fences for the obvious reason that they are abandoned and lie fallow for most part of the year once the crops are harvested in April/May. During the dry season these fields provide an important food source for elephants and other wildlife. The intrepid farmers that still made an effort to grow rice in these fields used age-old methods to protect their fields, crops and lives from elephants.

A herd feeding along the boundary of cultivated fields
February 17, 2012 – The time is around 4.30 pm and we were on our way to Thalakola to film farmers who used traditional methods to protect their crops from elephants. In the Land Rover with us was the film team from France 3 Television Network. The French team was lead by journalist, Betrand who was an astute guy with an outgoing personality and a great sense of humor. On top of that he also had a never ending supply of good French wine! I wondered how he managed to pack all that wine safely into a traveling suitcase and brought them all the way from France. André was the cameraman, while he looked small he was very energetic and strong. He lugged that massive high definition video camera and tripod of his all over the countryside and never stopped to catch his breath. And then there was Jean Michel the Soundman who looked to me like a retired rock musician. All together they were three very nice Frenchmen.

Crossing the Minipe Irrigation Canal
Guiding the Land Rover over the narrow bridge
We crossed the Minipé irrigation canal over a bridge that was not much wider than the Land Rover and bounced along a cart track that was deeply rutted and again no wider than the car. We headed towards the jungle. The road was a circuitous route that skirted the seasonal wetlands where the paddy fields’ were. Shortly we came to a water course that flowed across the track. It was not that wide, but due to the muddy color of the water it was difficult to gauge how deep it was or see what was underneath and could damage or mire the vehicle. 

A cardinal rule when driving off road is, never put a vehicle into water however narrow, wide or shallow it looked without first checking the depth and whatever other dangers that might be lurking beneath. These dangers could be mud, sand banks, rocks, logs, branches, various debris and of course large holes. The only way to check for all of these underwater hazards was to get off the vehicle and get into the water and walk or wade while keeping a wary eye out for crocodiles, snakes, water monitors and buffalo leeches! Not that they will show up in this exact order or they will give advance warning of their intentions—but you are most likely to bump into them in the water when you least expect too.  

Driving a vehicle into water without checking it out first is like bungee jumping off a cliff, without first checking the rope was secured safely at both ends and it was much shorter than the height of the drop! Otherwise it would end up been a very, very painful experience. I’m yet to see an owner, who looked happy when their vehicle suddenly submerged like a hippopotamus in Lake Victoria, just because they didn’t bother to check the water before crossing.

This reminds me of an incident that happened about 14 years ago when a former colleague—whom we called CC (please don’t ask why) took his parents brand new Mitsubishi double cab truck for a jaunt in the Mahaweli River! I meant literarily. He drove the cab into the river and drove along the shallows doing about 15 to 20 kilometers an hour probably thinking it was the Mahaweli Expressway! With the wipers on and a bow wave riding in front the truck sped away leaving a frothy wake trailing behind. The smile on CC's face at the sheer joy of riding the water could not be described.  Probably only porpoises or dolphins had grins that came anywhere close to resembling the smile on CC's face that day.  Everything was splendid and great fun until the truck dove into a hole on the riverbed. It was like watching a seal disappear into a hole in the ice when pursued by a polar bear! The expression on my esteemed colleague’s expression was priceless! I have seen the same expression on an extremely hungry baby grey langur that enthusiastically bit into a red chili pepper thinking it was some sweet fruit! The vehicle of course was completely ruined and had to undergo an expensive engine overhaul to put it right. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of my colleague, since brain overhauls are not yet a medically approved procedure to improve the intellectually impaired! CC went on his merry way and over the course of his career with the SLWCS managed to get most of our vehicles into situations, where if the manufacturers had found out, they would have sued us for malicious misuse and abuse of their vehicles.

Chinthaka checking the water
It does not matter how shallow or narrow it looks it has to be checked
Chinthaka got off the Land Rover and walked across the water to check out how safe it was for the vehicle to cross. In the meantime, Sampath maneuvered the Land Rover to find the best approach that would give him a straight line across the water. It was a tricky place—the track angled down and had a sharply curving bend just before it entered the water. I climbed on to an embankment by the water and waited to lend a hand in case Sampath got into any trouble. Putting the Land Rover on 2nd gear Sampath forded the water maintaining a steady even speed.  As the vehicle reached the opposite bank suddenly the backend fish tailed as it struck a patch of soft mud and lost traction! It was important to have weight in the back and I was glad that we had the three crew members of France 3 Television with us. Their combined weight helped the rear wheels to find traction and the vehicle crossed without further mishaps. One more reason to appreciate French cuisine and wine! As I stood on the embankment and watched the Land Rover go across the water, memories came flooding of a similar situation where we had to do multiple water crossings. This was in 2006 when we were conducting post tsunami ecological assessment in the Block II of the Yala National Park.

Sampath getting ready to cross the water

The Land Rover arriving at the opposite bank 
Sampath managed to cross the water without further problems. Chinthaka and I got back into the vehicle and we continued on to Thalakola. The track ended by a beat office of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.  Parking the vehicle by the beat office we crept through a barbed-wire fence and headed out to where the farmers guard huts were. Our plan was to spend some time with several farmers whom we knew, so that the film crew could get footage of their efforts to protect crops from elephants. These farmers used traditional methods such as shouting, lighting fire crackers and large open fires to protect their crops. While none of them of course admitted to it, I was quite sure that some of them had shot guns with homemade cartridges to use as a last resort.

The paddy fields we walked through seemed endless
We walked through a vast expanse of paddy fields to the guard huts of the farmers. Wijey, a farmer from Weheragalagama and J. Banda also from the same village, who also worked as a Field Scout for the SLWCS was guiding us. We waded and sloshed through small irrigation canals and teetered and slipped on ridges that bordered the paddy fields and arrived at the guard hut of farmer Seneviratne. He and his wife, Kiri Menika welcomed us with warm friendly smiles and soon had us all comfortably lying around the hut sipping hot tea sweetened with a piece of juggery (a hard sweet candy made from coconut or kitul palm toddy). Several other farmers joined us and soon the conversation was all about the challenges of cultivating in unprotected fields and the risks they faced from crop raiding elephants. They took us to see a field where three elephants had fed the night before. Massive footprints and huge piles of dung and flattened rice plants was testimony to the incredible damage elephants can do to cultivations. The area the elephants had destroyed by trampling around was thrice the size of the area where they had fed on.

Inspecting a field that had been raided

The jungle along the boundary of fields makes it impossible to see when elephants approach

A bull elephant approaching a field in the night is practically impossible to see.  One of the ways to detect elephants is  by  listening

Elephants do more damage by trampling rather than feeding

This field has sustained tremendous damage

An elephantine footprint...

...and dung boli  are visiting cards left behind by elephants
It was amazing how flimsy the huts of these farmers were.  The frames of the huts were made of sticks and wooden poles and the roofs were either covered with a plastic sheet or thatched with straw.   It was even hard to believe that entire families, some with small children spent more than 3 months at a time in these fragile structures to protect their fields especially from elephants!   I saw several children sleeping on ground mats inside the hut on the floor as well as outside underneath its eaves.

Arriving at one of the guard huts and meeting the farmers and their families

I asked Seneviratne, “Aren’t you concerned about the safety of your women and children?”

“It is a very difficult situation sir we cannot leave them alone by themselves in the village homes so we have to keep them with us in the fields. For additional safety we have the tree huts. The moment we know elephants are present we send the women and children up to the tree huts. If we leave them at home then we keep worrying about them and cannot concentrate on our work.” Seneviratne explained.

Farmers and their families practically lived for nearly 4 months in these flimsy huts

Women and children all had to pitch in to protect the crops ortherwise they will all go hungry
I could well understand their predicament. To leave the women and children behind at home in the village did not guarantee their safety. This is because elephants ventured into villages and broke homes to get at stored grain, salt and just for the heck of it. I have met families who had either lost members or had members who had got seriously injured when elephants broke their homes. Elephants used their massive heads to push walls in. The brick walls fall on people sleeping inside killing or injuring them seriously.

The three small children were seriously injured when this house was broken

A member of the family was killed during this attack

“How about their schooling” I inquired.

“They go to school from here, and some of the older kids have dropped off from school and work on the fields full time with their parents.” Seneviratne replied.

It was a somber realization to see the challenges these people faced to barely eke out a living under these inhospitable conditions. I could not help but wonder if city people had to deal with similar challenges to make a living probably most of them would become raving lunatics.

We were gathered in a group so I posed this question to the farmers “If I was to ask what you needed the most, what it would be?”

They all replied, “Give us an electric fence for these fields.”

“Would it actually be a feasible solution? I asked. “You cultivate these fields only during the Maha season and that is also if there is sufficient rain from the Northeast Monsoon. So how can the cost of erecting an electric fence be justified? Also who will maintain and take care of it during the months the land lies fallow? A fence would also unnecessarily deprive elephants from accessing a vital food source during the dry season. Maybe we need to look at an alternative and simple solution?”

“What do you suggest?” Wijey asked.

The film crew had been quietly filming our discussion and now Betrand wanted me to explain to the camera what the farmers and I were discussing.

After explaining to the camera I turned back to the farmers and asked them, “how about a seasonal electric fence rather than a permanent electric fence? This way you erect the fence only if and when you cultivate these fields and then dismantle it once you are done.”

The farmers thought about it and asked, “How will it be powered?”

“Can‘t you get the power from the Weheragalagama electric fence? It can’t be that far away from these fields?

J Banda felt that it could be done and he said, “We could bring a single hot line from the Weheragalagama fence and hook it to power this fence.”

“Get all the farmers together and discuss how this can be done.” I suggested. “Once you have a plan together we can also give you some help by providing the wire for the fence. Think about it.  Since it will be a seasonal fence you need to string only one hot wire around the fields.”

The farmers liked the idea and they talked amongst themselves to hold a group discussion to come up with a plan to construct a seasonal fence.

While the film crew filmed the farmers and I had a discussion

The sun was going down and the sky lighted up with various hues of mauve, pink and cerulean splashed with salmon pink and orange—presenting a giddy kaleidoscope of living color.  To observe the sky changing colors was like watching a masterpiece coming to life under an artist’s hand.  Across the sky huge flocks of white egrets, herons, pelicans, spoon bills, woolly-neck storks, cormorants, painted storks, and snake birds flew languidly to their roosts.  To see them fly silhouetted against the changing colors of the waning sky was like seeing art in motion.  

One of these roosting places is located at the base of the Sunrise Rock which is nearby to our Pussellayaya field house.  Every evening around 5 pm the birds begin arrive to roost.  As the massive flocks of egrets in their brilliant white plumage settled on the trees the entire roosting area begins to look as if it’s been turned into a winter wonderland.

The setting sun shines bright before it finally sets

A living masterpiece of vibrant color!
With the sky darkening the stars emerged one by one and within a short time the entire universe lay splattered across the night sky.  The twinkling of the stars in the heavens was reflected on the fields by the twinkling of a million fireflies—at least it seemed that way to me.  As night fell our ears tuned into the nocturnal sounds of the Dry Zone jungle.  How the chorus of night sounds gets started always reminded me of how an assemblage of jazz musicians started a jam session.  First it is the crickets that started it with a chirp here, a chirp there and got the session going by setting up a groove of incessant trilling.  Soon the frogs jump in, with the bull frogs providing the grunting bass line while the other frogs provides a continuous orchestral background.  And then the nocturnal birds such as frogmouths. nightjars and owls join in and within a short time the entire ensemble of nocturnal creatures is in full swing!  If an elephant happened to puncture the night with its’ high pitch trumpeting, it is easy to give into one's imagination and make believe that the spirit of the great Louis Armstrong had made a guest appearance.     

Art in Motion: A flock of black headed ibis 

Heading home - a flock of egrets flying to roost
The film crew informed that they had got all the footage they needed and were ready to move on. From Seneviratne’s hut we go to Wijey’s hut to film the farmers singing Pel Kavi (folksongs). The folksongs that the farmers sing when they guard their fields are very old and have soulful lyrics and haunting melodies. Singing Pel Kavi was how farmers kept awake and communicated with one another. By integrating events as they happened into the lyrics the farmers also kept each other informed of what was happening.

Heading out to film the singing of Pel Kavi (folk songs)
Another interesting thing to listen to was these long drawn out mournful hoots the farmers made. In the quietness of the night these hoots had a mystic quality as they echoed across the vast open fields. That was until suddenly the night was shattered by the yodeling victory cry of Tarzan of the Apes! It was Chinthaka one of our Project Managers. He had been given the nickname Tarzan by the volunteers of course the female ones. Apparently Chinthaka in an attempt to live up to his nickname had felt it was an appropriate way to answer or to challenge the hoots of the farmers. When Chinthaka’s hysterical and quavering yell shattered the night the farmers in their huts became completely silent and stayed that way for a long time. I could just imagine what must be going through their minds! All alone in their huts with their beliefs in supernatural and maleficent spirits they must have wondered what kind of devil had made that howl! After a long silence one or two farmers called out to find out what had made that sound and to make sure no one had got devoured by an unknown devil.
Chinthaka covering up in embarrassment after screaming like Tarzan
As we wrapped up filming farmers singing folksongs, a shout came from the direction of Seneviratne’s hut that the elephants had arrived and they were in a scrub forests by the western boundary of the fields. The time was about 9 pm. We immediately rushed through the fields to where the elephants were. Tripping over rice bushes, sinking into knee deep mud and wading through water we arrived back at Senevirathne’s hut. By the time we got there the elephants had begun to move towards the Thalakola Tank (reservoir). We paused to catch our breath and to make a plan to film the elephants. While we discussed we could hear the elephants rumbling and breaking branches pierced occasionally by a trumpet call. In the dead of night standing on the same ground with a group of wild elephants less than 30 feet away invoked primeval emotions that are hard to describe.

Making a plan to have no plan to film elephants in the night
As the old saying goes,” the best plan is to have no plan at all,” we got ready to head towards Thalakola Tank.  Actually we did make a plan which was pretty simple, it was “we’ll adapt to the situation.” First we waited, until Kiri Menika and the children got safely up into the tree hut just in case if another bunch of elephants showed up while we were gone.  Then we took off after the elephants.  This trek in the night turned out to be a real off road adventure sans the off road vehicle!  To begin with it took some valiant effort on our part to keep up with the villagers who seemed to be naturally endowed with night vision, radar, GPS navigation, 4 wheel drive and all terrain tires. Apparently, not been blessed with these abilities was not our only handicap, we also had no idea where the hell we were going and on top of that we were barefoot! This was not the most ideal manner to go traipsing in the wilderness in the night!

Not the most ideal way to go chasing elephants in the night
For the farmers who was used to a lifetime of been barefoot it was no problem at all, but for our pampered feet it was a walking nightmare. In the dark we could barely see where we were putting our feet down. One moment we whizzed by undergrowth that whipped at our feet and the next we were either trying to extricate ourselves from mud that clung as tenaciously as a buffalo leech or navigated water that elephants had crossed and pockmarked the muddy bottoms with deep holes with their pillar like legs. It was not fun to have a leg suddenly go into one of these holes. The result was to lose balance and fall face down in the water which ensured that you end up taking a few gulps of the fetid water. Now I know what the primordial ooze taste like! It does not taste anything like vintage French vine. Having had to drink the muck involuntarily several times, I did my best to block my mind as to what must be in that water! I was quite convinced that no self respecting water buffalo or a Singularis porcus (wild pig) would step into that ooze we had waded through.

We soon found out that these hardships were in fact heaven, compared to running barefoot over patches of thorny mimosa that looked enticingly like patches of grass in the dark. It was sheer agony as the tiny thorns penetrated our soles softened by water and mud. It was somewhat amusing and astonishing to observe how the people in the group reacted to the mimosa. The villagers felt no discomfort at all. Obviously years of walking barefoot has inured their feet so much so that I’m quite positive that they could have walked with ease on hot lava and fire!

For the farmers to chase elephants over various terrains in the night in poor visibility was part of their occupation.  For us this nocturnal jaunt was supposed to be a fun filled adventure and a learning experience.  For sure I learned  a lot about mimosa which I will never forget.  I also got to know the pain threshold that my poor bare soles’ were capable off.  It was too low for me to qualify as a barefoot elephant chaser.  As far as the fun filled adventure was concerned somehow other the “fun” part had got lost somewhere in the dark.  The farmers ran over the patches of mimosa—this is where the analogy to all terrain tires applied—as if they were running over grass.  Meanwhile Chinthaka, Sampath, the French film crew and I, when we ran over the mimosa, we pronked and pranced like a troop of great apes afflicted with a bad case of the shakes and shivers.  

So we shaked and we shivered and tried to run as fast as possible using the balls and heels of our feet so as to provide the least surface area to the ubiquitous thorns.  If anyone was observing us they would have thought we were dancing some obscure and abstract ballet in mime!  We had flashlights but could not use them because elephants are wary of flashlights and we did not want to scare them off.  Not that it would have helped us either since we were not following a distinct track.  Cursing the mimosa and suffering silently with an infrequent muffled yelp of pain we headed towards Thalakola Wewa in the dark.  My respect for these farmers—in fact for all farmers who had to go through this suffering to protect their livelihood in this manner just increased in leaps and bounds.  To imagine that they did this practically every night for months in the course of trying to make a living made my soles curl and was mind boggling to comprehend.   

As we got closer we heard the elephants feeding and communicating somewhere on the banks of the tank. We climbed on to the bund quietly and from the top took a bearing on their sounds to locate where they were. André set up his tripod and camera and signaled to us that he was ready to film. Together we all shined our flashlights in the direction where the elephants were. What happened was amazing. As the flashlight beams hit the elephants they erupted in panic. They bunched together and without making any vocalizations other than for the loud sounds of water splashing they ran off into the jungle. Standing on the bund we heard the receding sounds of their panicked retreat. It was remarkable to see them disappear like that! It was as if they never existed and what we had seen were ghostly apparitions. From the bund we scanned the area with our flashlights. Other than for the usual sounds of the night—the elephants had completely vanished even the ripples in the water had dissipated leaving no sign of their presence.

A herd drinking at dusk

A group of bulls moving away from a waterhole
It was a rather dejected group that wearily trudged back to Seneviratne’s guard hut. After all the agony that we—meaning Chinthaka, Sampath, the film crew and I—had gone through plus the efforts of the farmers, it was disappointing that we did not get to film the elephants. Kiri Menika had very thoughtfully prepared tea which helped tremendously to boost up our morale and energy. Seated on a tree stump nearby with the help of a flashlight I removed the mimosa thorns that were imbedded in the soles of my feet. As I worked out the thorns my gaze fell on the camera equipment piled up next to the hut. It struck me what a paradoxical scene it made. All that high tech gear staked up against a flimsy hut that could be flattened in seconds by an angry elephant. It was a clear contrast of the diversity of lifestyles that existed in the world today. On one hand we had these amazing technological advancements on which entire nations depended, while on the other hand there were communities like these farmers who were so oblivious to them or had none of it. They lived their lives in a satisfied manner—irrespective of our opinions—fully adapted to their environment and most importantly unfettered to many of the so called technological innovations that millions including me cannot contemplate living without.  It was impossible sometimes not to envy them. 

There is nothing like a cup of Ceylon tea to revive flagging spirits
We took farewell from the farmers and left promising to come back again one day to spend an entire night with them. Wijey stayed behind to protect his family and field. On the return journey we crossed the water with no problem and dropped off J Banda at his home and headed back to our field house. On the way we discussed plans for the next day. Who knows what other adventures awaited us tomorrow—in our quest to capture moving images of gray shadows and silent footprints.

Until next time


  1. Always nice to read these adventures. Thank you

  2. Amazing pics! Love this place would surely visit here.
    Night Safari

  3. Love the ellies although i know its dangerous for humans. Particularly now when ellies seem to ascertain 'good' humans from 'bad' humans