Sunday, November 4, 2012

Commemorating 10 Years of the Volunteer Program

*May you live long!

The elephant and the people of Sri Lanka have had a long relationship that is estimated to be over 3,000 years old!  Even today the elephant plays a vital role in Sri Lanka because it is a living cultural and religious icon and symbol.  Unfortunately the currently prevalent intense human-elephant conflict has brought people and elephants to a crossroad where the future of the elephant looks bleak.  Today human-elephant conflict (HEC) had become one of the biggest environmental and socio-economic crises in Sri Lanka. 

A 3000 year old relationship. A good mahout with an elephant is a great team effort that is very interesting to watch
From 1991 to June 2012 alone 3,216 elephants and 1,216 people had died in rural Sri Lanka due to HEC.  The extent of crop and property damages to farmers by elephants is ~US$10 million per annum.  HEC continues to increase due to ineffective landscape-level planning and land use that is creating agriculture based livelihoods that are incompatible with elephants.  Sri Lanka’s primary rural industry is agriculture, which is a huge contributing factor to HEC. Therefore measures to mitigate HEC must benefit both people and elephants.
The death of a national cultural icon and religious symbol
For the past 16 years the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has been developing innovative and effective measures to mitigate human-elephant conflicts.  In recognition of these efforts the Society has received the following awards:

  • 2008: A UNDP Equator Initiative Prize, which honors community-based projects that represent outstanding efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • 2009: Whitely Fund for Nature Associate Award
  • 2010: National Science Foundation award for "Science and Technology Contribution to Improve Sustainable Social Development"
  • 2011: Selected as “The Charity of the Year” by the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka
  • 2011:  Annual Financial Award of the America Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Sri Lanka

Currently the society has one of the world’s foremost and longest operating projects to resolve human-elephants conflicts, which is the Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project now in its 16th year.  The SEHP Project as it’s popularly known has helped to minimize conflicts and create tolerance for elephants in an area that used to suffer from intense human-elephant conflicts.  The SEHP project has become a successful model that has been emulated in other Asian elephant range countries with similar issues successfully.  

A stone plaque commemorating the Saving Elephants by Helping People  Project 
An important reason for the success of the SEHP Project is the volunteers who help us with our field research, monitoring and data archiving.  The volunteer program of the Society is now in its 10th year and over that period hundreds of international volunteers from over 50 countries have participated in it.  In appreciation of their contributions as well as to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the volunteer program, we are sharing these memoires from former volunteers who had volunteered at our project and had contributed their valuable time, talents, skills and resources to our wildlife conservation efforts.  

One of the first volunteer groups with the SLWCS Field Staff 
The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is tremendously grateful to these volunteers and hope their memoires will inspire others to volunteer for us.  We hope you experience our wildlife and the warmth and hospitality for which Sri Lanka is legendary during your volunteer experience with us.  Our aim is to ensure that our volunteer program is the center of your wildlife conservation and cultural experience in Sri Lanka. 


Work with us
Encourage locals to value their environment
Learn about human-wildlife conflicts and about wildlife conservation
Come join us
Offer your knowledge and talents
Make new friends
Experience wildlife and Sri Lankan culture

Important Note: If you have volunteered with us and would like to share your experiences please email them as a word document with your photographs to  

Volunteer Memoires

October 2012
Volunteer Claire Beyer

In October 2012, I spent two and a half weeks volunteering with SLWCS after hearing about the organisation from a previous participant in Thailand. We were also volunteers at a project in NE Thailand which dealt with the wellbeing of captive elephants. Gene had spent three months with SLWCS and was full of great stories and enthusiasm for the project. I had wanted to visit Sri Lanka since my teenage years and after returning home from Thailand, Gene's tales stayed with me. As a keen photographer of elephants I also wanted the opportunity to photograph them in the wild and see them roaming freely.

I was met in Negombo by the very friendly Aravinda and Sampath and immediately felt at ease in their company. We set off on the 7 hour journey it would take to arrive at the project site near Wasgamuwa National Park and we chatted easily, with me bombarding them with questions! About Sri Lanka, the elephants I would see, the project. Aravinda was very knowledgeable and answered all my questions good-naturedly. The journey went quickly, stopping for a delicious lunch and a bit of sightseeing in Kandy on the way.

Arriving at the project site late afternoon, the sky was a dusty pink and the view from the house did not disappoint. Overlooking a grassy plain with a thin river running through it, usually a full lake during the wet season, and distant mountains we feasted on wonderful curry and rice and turned in for an early night, tired after our long journey. The house had five simple rooms with which to house volunteers but as the only volunteer I had a room to myself!

A dusky pink sky
Aravinda and I set off early the next morning down onto the plain for our first bird watching session and I was immediately amazed at the varied bird life. We wrote down each bird we saw, also recording our GPS location and weather conditions and after just an hour had recorded a staggering 27 different types. Bird watching fast became one of my favourite activities and looked forward the daily, early morning twitching.

Blue Naped Monarch

Changeable Hawk-eagle

Common Kingfisher

Green Imperial Pigeon
We also did transects in various locations recording the signs and movements of elephants. We reordered elephant dung size, its location and age, also measuring footprints to determine the approximate age and size of its owner. As well as recording elephant signs we also did a long trek up into the mountains through beautiful jungle searching for other mammal signs such as those from leopards and sloth bears. Some of the immense trees we passed were awe inspiring and the stories of leopards passing closely to meditating monks at the hut high up the mountain fascinated me.

Cooling off in a stream while crossing it to go collecting data on leopards
But by far the most enjoyable activity was afternoon time in the tree hut, a surprisingly comfortable structure high up in a tree which creaked and moved with the branches in the wind. It was the perfect spot to view the elephants as they made their way from the forest to the lake and made it easy to record their movements and behaviour. 

The tree hut

Climbing to the tree hut

The view
Monsoon rain became a regular afternoon occurrence and provided incredible lightning storms, also filling the surrounding water catchments with much needed water. 

White egret 

Because of the wet some of our tree hut time became jeep time but also gave us a couple of very close encounters with the elephant herds. On one rainy occasion we observed a large herd being followed by a number of males, some of the females obviously in estrous. 

A herd approaching the Land Rover by the Tree Hut
One large male approached us from behind sending Siriya clambering to the front of the Land Rover! But he turned to return to the females. It was absolutely exhilarating seeing them up close and being able to observe their behaviour, I felt very privileged.

A massive bull emerging from the jungle...

...and keeps approaching the Land Rover!

We also did fence monitoring, recording any posts that may have been broken or wire that had become slack. It was interesting to see the electric fences at work and even greater to know that they were doing their job by dramatically reducing the instances of human/elephant conflict.

Electric fence monitoring with Veroni
Visiting the local school was also a great highlight. The kids were so gorgeous, with friendly, open and curious smiles. Aravinda showed them some nature videos as well as one about the work that SLWCS does. The headmaster seemed very pleased the whole exercise and was also keen to have the children exposed to things outside of their daily lives. He became very interested in my practice of yoga and so we decided I would teach about 50 of the students a thirty minute yoga practise. Aravinda and I put together a short video presentation about yoga, its history, connection with Hindu and Buddhist religion, etc., to show them before the practice. On the day the kids were great, although the girls remained in their skirts which meant a quick rethink of poses! But they were very enthusiastic, and eager to please, and did really well. It was great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give something to the school.

A Calotes garden lizard

A herd of Axis or Spotted Deer with a magnificent stag

Everyone on the project was so accommodating and friendly and I felt very well taken care of. Leela's food was absolutely delicious and I don't think there was a single dish that I didn't love. Siriya provided ample entertainment! Sampath and Aravinda were also kind enough to take me on an excursion to Dambulla and Sigiriya which were both staggeringly beautiful. And our trip into the lovely Wasgamuwa National Park provided lots of great elephant and bird viewing.

Relaxing with Sampath & Veroni by the Tree Hut Corridor while waiting for elephants to show up
All in all it was an unforgettable experience and I leave feeling that I have contributed just a little to the great work that SLWCS does. I will definitely be back.

Crocodile Rescue

On our way to the tree hut one afternoon we began our way through the water which had collected in the concrete catchment part of the road when suddenly Aravinda called out for Sampath to halt the car. Peering forward we could see a small baby crocodile swimming ahead of the Land Rover. Jumping out and into the water we watched with wide eyes wondering what to do. We couldn't leave it for fear another vehicle may not be so kind. It swam around behind the jeep and hid alongside one of the tyres. Sampath grabbed a stick to hold it down so one of us could quickly grab it behind the head but it was too close to the tyre. Aravinda retrieved a cloth from the vehicle and as Sampath coaxed it out into the open with the stick Aravinda placed the cloth over its back, trying to get a grip behind its’ head. The frightened little thing was snapping furiously, also emitting high pitched squeaking noises. Sampath took over and managed to grip behind its head holding it up for us to examine more closely. Aravinda took over and as Sampath moved the jeep to clear the way for other vehicles we made our way down to the lake with our little croc. We found a small inlet and Aravinda gently placed the croc on the ground, removing his hand quickly, and it hastily made its way into the water. We watched as it tried to hide near the reeds, keeping itself as still as possible. No doubt wondering what on earth had just happened. We were jubilant and excited – a Croc Rescue!!

The baby crocodile hiding by the tyre

Sampath trying to capture it by pining down with a stick

Sampath The Crocodile Hunter

The baby crocodile none the worse for its adventure

October 2012
Chiara Melone & Claudio-Massucco

Intrepid travelers: Chiara and Claudio

Dear Ravi,

First of all I would like to thank you, your team of people for the welcome, their kindness, politeness and professionalism.

It has been great  to experience Sri Lankan culture and life at the field house: Chinthaka, Aravinda and Sampath have been very nice and explicative at any question husband and I asked and didn't let us get bored but at the same time they they gave us the freedom to take our time to enjoy the quietness of the lake or to observe its beautiful living beings. 

Observing nature with Sampath

On a jungle trek with Aravinda

Observing birds while waiting for elephants

There is always something fascinating to photograph

Freshly prepared food is served for all meals
The food was very good, I also miss the tea time, and Leela, the female cook, is a really lovely person.  Siriya was very nice and helpful.  And as I'm a cat lover, the presence of Useless, the cat was a real bonus.

For dessert there is fresh fruits and curd and treacle

I'm only a little bit sad that during our week in the project the elephants turned up only a couple of times and both times it was too dark to take pics and for a short time.  As I had written in the form, I'm really keen on wildlife photography in which I'm better than in reportage pics but it has been very interesting to take part in everyday activities and to meet or simply smile with local people while doing it.
Recording data

Volunteers collecting data is a tremendous help to the Society's conservation efforts

At the tree hut with Aravinda

In the field with Chinthaka, Siriya and Aravinda
By the Weheragalagama Tank

Itinerant conservationists 
And even if elephants weren't so nice to show up when we climbed the treehouse or walked in the jungle looking for evidence of the passage or checked the fence or got involved in something which had to do with elephants, I know that in any case we helped a little bit for their welfare and to smooth over the human-elephant conflict. 

I will go on following your blog and your work and I'm happy to have found new friends by getting involved in your SEHP Project.

Take care!!

August 2012
Nick Bradsworth

Nick the avid birder and photographer
Hi Ravi,

I just wanted to send an email to thank you again for taking me on board volunteering with the SLWCS and to let you know how much of a great time I had during my stay in Sri Lanka. After I spoke to you on the phone I really got into a routine staying there and I honestly wish I was still there. I learnt, saw and experienced so much.

Going on a leopard study transect
It's a shame we didn't get to meet in person because from what people have said about about you, and watching documentaries with you in them you sound like such an amazing person and you ought to be proud of what you have achieved and set up with the SLWCS. What I want to achieve in life is similar to what you have done yourself. Next year I will be returning to University to start a Bachelor of Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology) and doing these different volunteer projects will give me (I believe) a great advantage over other students and further down the track, in job applications.

An Anhinga (snake bird) and a heron

Paradise Flycatcher - they come into the field house

A grave group of endangered Lesser Adjutant Storks

A tree load of noisy Malabar Pied Hornbills

A sober looking garden lizard
During my stay, (I am not sure if Chinthaka or Aravinda told you), I started a little side project in updating your data sheets so that they are 1. more uniform and 2. easier for everyone to use. I have attached them for you to look at, please let me know what you think and if there is anything missing from them. Once you are happy  I will send them out to everyone to print off and start using for the next volunteers.

A bull dust bathing during sunset has created a hallow - is it a sign of its impending extinction and sanctification?

Two bulls fun jostling

Two bulls testing each other's strength

I wish you all the best for the future of the project and if there is anything I can do to help (from Melbourne) please let me know. I spoke to Chinthaka about me trying to put in an article in our local weekly paper about your organization and my experiences and a couple of my pictures, I'll see where I go with that and I'll let you know.
The eye of the cameraman

June/July 2012
Cheranga Dharmasiri

Cheranga fondly called by the field team Dr. Poop collecting elephant dung to analyze parasite infestations...
...while Craig writes down locality information
Dear Mr. Corea,

Hope you are keeping well. I came back last night from Sri Lanka after spending a wonderful time in Wasgomuwa. Everyone was very helpful and I was able to collect the needed data on 32 samples. I will forward you the final report once the data is tabulated. Chinthaka, Aravinda and Siriya looked after us well. I was sorry to have missed you, but have left a small gift with Chinthaka for you as a token of appreciation for giving me the chance to do my project.

Leaving to observe elephants and collect dung samples

On the trail of elephant dung

There is a lot to elephant dung than meets the eye...apparently!
I am hoping to come to Sri Lanka again in two weeks with my parents and younger brother and will be in touch then. We will be there for four weeks and hope I will be able to meet you then, if you are back in Sri Lanka.

Sharing experiences during the visit with family

On the Sunrise Rock by the SLWCS Field House with Chinthaka
Thanks again for all the support.

Best Wishes,


December 2011 – January 2012
Craig Fox

The Indomitable Craig
A Note from the Jungle

The street(s) of Hettipola are a far cry from the bustle of Sri Lanka’s metropolis, Colombo.  The jungle air is intoxicating.  The men discuss whilst the women glide in their saris, commerce everywhere.  Fresh fruit, vegetables and fish add colour to the timber buildings.  Hettipola is the closest town to the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) research station, in Sri Lanka’s Central Province.  Here, the city echo that drowns out silence is gone.

The colorful street vendors of Hettipola Town

A vegetable vendor measuring an order of bitter gourd

A Spice Vendor with various chili and curry powders
It takes an hour to drive to base camp from town.  It doesn’t feel like an hour.  The road is small but functional.  Two canals flank the concrete and separate the cars, bicycles and tuc-tucs from rice fields and the jungle. 

The trip from Colombo to base camp can be quite arduous.  But, all that frustration seems to vanish when I’m being introduced to the camp staff.  The camp is open-air, functional and the custodians are very welcoming. 

I quickly discover that I have arrived at an exciting time.  New projects are being developed.  This research will help to evaluate the social and economic impact of human-elephant conflict within the study area. 

Tracking elephant movement can help the SLWCS researchers identify and predict patterns.  This information is vital to achieve minimum levels of conflict.  The SLWCS is in the process of developing new trails (transects) that researchers and volunteers can regularly use to monitor elephant activity.  I’m very fortunate to have been witness to the foundational phase of this research.  Like the first time I saw a wild elephant, this was extremely exciting.

Chinthaka, J-Banda and Craig Assessing a new trail transect

Field Scout, J-Banda on a fallen tree branch scouting for elephants
Walking in the jungle with very experienced researchers and scientists is mesmerizing.  We got to see some fascinating wildlife, including sambhur, water buffalo, elephant and a montage of birdlife.  We walked, collecting information as we identified elephant dung, ground and aerial spoor. 

One of the new study transects
A large elephant bull had arrived in the area.  Tracking an elephant can be quite difficult.  They can move a lot faster than people, especially people who are relentlessly searching for tracks.  Nonetheless, this didn’t stop us.  This Bull had walked along a new transects less than two hours before we arrived in the area.  Everyone was very confident that the new transect was going to yield some good data.  The presence of this new bull was daunting but very encouraging.   For days after we first found fresh tracks, we always seemed to be just behind this elephant.  It was becoming clear that this bull had never been in this area before.  His movement patterns had very little deliberateness about them.  As we developed new transects we would regularly note the presence of this giant.  I think he was lost and most certainly confused. 

Pinky one of the largest dominant bulls in the study area
During most evenings we would retire to a tree house that the SLWCS and local villagers had built, to observe elephants moving in the buffer zone of Wasgamuwa National Park.  Being up high is a great way to observe terrestrial mammals.  By being very quiet and patient you can almost blend to the surroundings, allowing wildlife to behave very naturally.  We observed elephants moving to water on three occasions.  Both were top class sightings.  We were able to get some good picture of each elephant’s head, ears and flank.  All this information will be used to identify individuals in the future and create a database that can be used as a reference for future sightings. 

Searching high...

...searching low...

...Craig always finds what he is looking for!
I met a lot of the local villagers and farmers on my trip.  The SLWCS works very closely with the local people.  There is a shared respect, which is marvelous to see.  All the people I met were very warm and welcoming.  Something I haven’t always experienced in other parts of the world.  I felt a part of the start of a very exciting phase for the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society


July 31, 2011
Becky Knueven

Becky and fellow volunteer Stefania in the Knuckles Mountains
I decided to come to Sri Lanka for an opportunity to see elephants in the wild, which is not something many can say they have been able to do. Preparing myself for the trip was easy, as this was not my first time living in an equatorial region and I was expecting the heat, humidity and insects. For someone unfamiliar with the climate and day-to-day life, it would be difficult to adjust. 

Getting familiar with elephant sign
As far as life on the project goes, I enjoyed doing different activities on a daily basis. It was awesome to see the scope of the project and how it covers a wide range of needs, whether it be collecting data on elephant movement and human/elephant interaction in tree hut to aiding villagers and providing orange plants to protect their homes. 

Monitoring the growth and condition of an orange plant provided by the SLWCS
A village woman with one of the fruit bearing orange trees

Stefania observing elephants from the Tree Hut
From the perspective of someone who studied geography in an undergraduate program, the project covers many facets of the discipline. It was interesting to watch the human/elephant interactions and observing the conflict first-hand. The knowledge gained from our daily activities and tree hut observations gave me a new outlook on the issues affecting Sri Lanka today. I had no idea about the variety of ways in which the program helps the people. My eyes were opened to multiple methods of deterrence, such as orange trees and electric fences.

An elephant approaching the field vehicle

Chinthaka is a fantastic guide and supervisor and is more than willing to give the volunteers tours of sites and to give us advice on what places to check out. His knowledge, along with that of Veroni and Jay, gave me a greater appreciation for what the project’s goals are and how they are working hard to attain those goals. 

Useless trying to look purposeful

One of the recommended outings was to visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation for a weekend. Stefania and I were able to work with Sumana, the foundation’s oldest elephant. The experience was eye opening for both of us. Stefania will write about her recommendations for enrichment activities, so I won’t comment on that, but I do want to note that the experience made me feel even more strongly that the project’s goal of helping people and elephants live in (relative) harmony is imperative if the sanctity of elephants living in the wild is to be maintained. I would go so far as to say the volunteers should all be required to see elephants in captivity. 
One of the captive elephants at the Millennium Elephant Foundation

Tourists going on an elephant ride at the Millennium Elephant Foundation
A herd of wild elephants by the Weheragalagama Tank
The amount of information we learned during those two days was invaluable. We came back to Wasgamuwa with a new attitude and a new passion for the project.


February/March 2011
Michael Elkins

Mike preparing lessons for the following day's English classes
The month that I spent in Pussellayaya, Wasgamuwa was incredible. The opportunity to do so many varied tasks both in the school and in the area made the month hugely rewarding. There were a couple of things that could have helped me settle in a little quicker. Prior to my first days teaching it would have been nice to have visited the school and seen the kids just so I had an idea of what to expect, I was led to believe that this was meant to happen but due to a number of reasons it couldn’t. A translator would have been great at time to get my lessons across to the kids quicker but once again i fully understand why this couldn’t happen and it made me think on my feet a little more and find ways to make the kids understand what i was saying. Having 

Helping a student

Emma and Mike conducting an English class at the village public school

A caring teacher
Chinthaka in the house was a constant help, nothing was ever too much trouble and he really helped me understand the culture of the area and the country as a whole. He was also extremely flexible and allowed me to experience things that were not included in my volunteer programme, tracking the elephants, spending the afternoon in the tree house observing and taking the other volunteers and I out at the weekend. All of these things enhanced my experience massively. And the memories of these activities will stay with me forever. 
Giving a helping hand to the Project Orange Elephant

Repairing one of the Society's bicycles

At the Farm 

Taking care of the flock

Relaxing with the waterfowl
I also have to say that the all the guys working at the house were superb, Syria was always getting involved with us, keeping us entertained and generally looking after us in whatever way he could. Our carom games were always pretty close although I’m not sure he was trying too hard. 
Playing carom with Siriya
The food was brilliant and exactly what I needed after teaching!! As a result of this programme I am now in the process of doing my teachers training and once qualified would love the opportunity to come back and teach again.
An appreciative student flock
There was an article on human elephant conflict on the BBC website and the work the SLWCS were doing in the villages. Great to see that the hard work is getting the exposure it deserves.  Thanks for the opportunity to take part in the programme. I will hopefully be back for more in the not too distant future.


Hope to see you soon!

Photo credits in alphabetical order:

Aravinda Rathnayake
Becky Knueven
Chiara Melone
Claire Beyer
Craig Fox
Chinthaka Weerasinghe
Nicholas Bradsworth
Ravi Corea
Stefania Laddaga Silvestri

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