Saturday, December 15, 2012

Volunteer Adventures with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society

Elephant Encounters by the Tree Hut Corridor

Safe on the Defender 
It was mid-July 2010 and we were headed to the Tree Hut Corridor to observe and film elephants.  With me in the Defender were the film crew from New York based Greener Media Film-production Company and three international volunteers.  The volunteers: Emma, Rachel and Samantha had come down from the UK and the USA to volunteer with the SLWCS for a month.  The film crew consisted of Phil, Jon and Jesse, and this was their second visit in two years to Sri Lanka.  They were producing a documentary film on human-elephant conflicts (please visit  for information about this film).  Expectations were high in the vehicle—today we hoped to get footage of wild elephants and people interacting along the Tree Hut Corridor which we frequently monitored as part of our ongoing efforts to gather data on human-elephant conflicts.  Monitoring and recording these observations was one of the several activities volunteers helped us with.  

A volunteer recording observations from the tree hut
Turning off from the main road we drove down a gravel road that led through the Weheragalagama village, over the tank (reservoir) bund, down the causeway where the water from the tank spill drained, pass the Tree Hut Corridor to two small villages located deep in the forest reserve.  As we drove along on the bund the Himbiliyakade Forest Range stretched parallel in the west directly across the tank, forming a chain of green undulating hills with the Knuckles Mountain range providing the backdrop in the far distance.  

The hills of the Himbiliyakade Forest Range mirrored on the Weheragalagama tank

The sky was a vast blue empty nothingness with a few scattered cirrus clouds floating lazily like strands of white candy floss let loose by an errant child.  Brahminy kites and a pair of white bellied sea eagles soared and glided on air currents rising from the tank.  Without doubt they were keeping their eyes out to snatch any unwary fish that came up gasping for air.  Closer to the surface by the water with similar intent were egrets, woolly neck storks, lesser adjutants, white-throated kingfishers, stork billed kingfishers, common kingfishers, pied kingfishers, painted storks, pond herons, ibis, spoonbills, bitterns, water hens, terns, pelicans and many more avian denizens. They were also keeping somber vigil to catch whatever unsuspecting fish that came anywhere near them. 

Brahminy Kites circling over the tank
Great Egret

Lesser Adjutant Storks

Black-winged Stilts

Spotted Redshank
In the water itself there were annhingas (snakebird or oriental darter), cormorants, otters, crocodiles, snakes and water monitors waiting to grab or chase down any piscine that was stupid enough to come anywhere close to them.  And then representing the most predacious and voluminous fish eater of them all were a few local fishermen laying nets from their colorful outrigger catamarans.  

Annhinga aka Snake Bird or Oriental Darter and a Grey Heron

Water Monitor
Together this consisted of a four-pronged attack on fish for consumption from that particular body of water alone.  Taken from a global context it is a wonder how fish ever managed to survive for over 400 million years since the Devonian Period—when they got really numerous or in the jargon of evolutionary scientists “radiated,” when all these predatory avian, reptilian and mammalian fauna had a passion for eating them!  Going by the great demand for fresh fish in nature, Sushi must be the first and most popular fish recipe in the world and it was definitely not invented by the Japanese—unless of course the Japanese could trace their ancestry to a kimono dressed piscivore from the Devonian Period.

The Defender crossed the causeway splashing over the shallow puddle of water that had seeped from the spill. On the other side the road had several large potholes and corrugations created by the last monsoon rains.  The Defender with its spring suspension rocked and bucked like the ark must have done during the deluge.  To everyone’s relief the road smoothened out soon enough and we came to where the road cuts across the Tree Hut Corridor.  Here it stretched straight up to the horizon and disappeared over it.  That sight for some reason never failed to invoke in me a yearning for the infinite wetlands of my childhood that are no more.

The road that cuts across the Tree Hut Corridor
Making a right turn and crossing a ditch we head off-road up to a tree where a large and comfortable tree hut had been constructed by us.  The most distinguished guest we had in this tree hut was the former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the honorable Patricia Butenis, an ardent and passionate environmentalist and animal lover.  

Arriving by the Tree Hut
Turning the vehicle around, I reversed and parked it underneath the tree.  But before anyone got off the vehicle it was important to scout the area to see whether any elephants were around.  The tall Mana grass (Cymbopogon confertiflora) that grew tall was very effective at hiding elephants.  Several times we had narrowly escaped bumping into one when getting off the vehicle to climb up to the tree hut.  The front bumper offered a good vantage point to scout the area to make sure there were no elephants lurking nearby. 

The tall Mana grass hid elephants very effectively
Once it was confirmed that there were no elephants I allowed the group to get off and climb up to the tree hut.  Everyone found a comfortable spot with a good view of the jungle and sat down to wait for the elephants to show up.  The film crew was anxious to film how elephants and people reacted to each other as they both moved through this corridor.

People are allowed to alight and climb only after checking for elephants nearby
Climbing up to the Tree Hut a la Swiss Family Robinson
In Sri Lanka the relationship between people and elephants goes back several thousand years.  The elephant is viewed as a living cultural and religious icon because of the important role it still played in the culture of the country.  But today this relationship had reached a new low, which is human-elephant conflict that resulted in the death of over 200 elephants and about 80 people annually.  For the past 16 years the SLWCS has been addressing this issue by developing innovative measures to mitigate human-elephant conflicts under its land mark and international award winning project, Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP).  These efforts have slowly and gradually brought dividends to the people and elephants at our project site in Wasgamuwa in the Central Province of Sri Lanka.  Earlier enemies now tolerated each other to an extent that it was possible to observe people and elephants using a corridor and not trying to kill each other.  This was an incredible sight to see especially on days when men, women and children traveled back and forth from school and work on this road while on either side there were elephants.  These were the interactions that the volunteers were going to observe and record and the crew from Greener Media hoped to film.   The SEHP Project in 2008 received a prestigious UNDP Equator Initiative Equator Prize for its outstanding efforts to alleviate poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.  

Receiving a UNDP Equator Initiative Prize in 2008
By the time we settled ourselves in the tree hut it was about 4 pm, which was just about the right time, because as the sun started to sink behind the hills and the day got cooler elephants began to move out of the forests and head towards the grasslands.  Up in the tree hut the film crew set up their camera and sound equipment to get into instant action as soon as the first elephant showed up.  It was vitally important to be quiet and I had insisted on it and had imposed while in the tree hut any and all conversations or anything anyone had to say had to be whispered or mimed.  Unless of course, it was an urgent matter such as an elephant was trying to climb up the tree!  The tree of course had been selected to ensure that an elephant could not push it down. 

Elephants had very good hearing and they would get alarmed at the merest sound of our voices.  It was not to our best interest to alarm them before they came close to the tree hut.  Most wild animals were easily frightened and took instant flight at the sound of the human voice.  I’m not surprised at all! There are a few people I know whose voices scare the hell out of me too!  Elephants were no exception unless they were otherwise occupied, such as charging to attack or when raiding fields and homes for food.   Then no amount of shouting or screaming would deter them and the only hope was to have a good exit plan.  It had been suggested that if an elephant made a determined charge while you were on foot to leave something behind as a memento while attempting to get away.  The shirt or the backpack left conspicuously behind would suffice since there really wouldn't be enough time to discard the pants and the time it would take to do so would be counterproductive—unless of course one was wearing a sarong.  Actually this had worked—meaning not jettisoning the lower garment but leaving something behind.  It had helped to distract or divert the attention of a charging elephant.  I had once experienced this quite accidentally and quite unintentionally of course, at Lahugala in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka.  I had not repeated it again, nor do I have the intention of doing it again either.  Therefore I cannot guarantee that it works always. 

Twenty feet above the ground out of the reach of elephants we whispered like conspirators, and mimed to convey complex ideas using facial expressions for which generally actors receive academy awards.  Phil who was the producer as well as the cameraman whispered, “How long will we have to wait before they showed up.”  

“That is hard to say but generally by around this time they should start coming out of the forest,” I replied. 

“Are there days that they never show up,” Jesse inquired in a bass whisper that reminded me of Barry White.

“Of course some days they don’t show up, but hopefully today will not be one of those days.”

The SLWCS gathered data on human elephant interactions from the tree hut so the three volunteers got prepared to record their observations that evening.  This was one of the several field activities that volunteers helped us with.  Emma had the clipboard to record data while Rachel and Samantha would observe and report whatever the activities they observed. 

The U.S. Ambassador pointing out at elephants while volunteers: Emma and Samantha record their observations

A part of a herd with a small calf walking away from the Tree Hut

The reason to gather this information was to look at the temporal dynamics of how elephants used the Tree Hut Corridor and how important it was to their annual ranging cycle.  Because people and elephants both used the corridor we wanted to find out the effects and impacts they had on each other.  It was an unusual and incredible sight to see. Groups of children walked to school or home on this road and on either side there were elephants!  Only very rarely had we observed bulls attempting to charge or attack people. On these rare occasions the bulls had been mostly bluffing and the people too have also learned to behave sensibly during these times.  Probably that is why so far there had been no untoward incidents.  On several such occasions when SLWCS field teams had been present they had intervened to safeguard the people by transporting or escorting them to the safety of their homes in our field vehicles.     

A Cyclist on the road that went across the Tree Hut Corridor
The crack of a snapping branch sounded very loud in the stillness of the late afternoon.  It completely halted our whispered discussion in mid-conversation.  I gestured hurriedly for everybody to be quiet and we gazed in the direction the sound had come from.  Suddenly there was another crack and then another and soon all that could be heard were elephants feeding in the forest.  They were browsing and grazing and the sounds gradually got louder and louder as they moved towards where we were.  Everybody kept scanning up and down the forest edge to spot where they would emerge from. 

The film team immediately got their equipment ready and the volunteers took up their positions to make observations and record data.  Rumbles from the elephants reverberated over to us interspersed with the peculiar squeaky noise they made.  This was a high pitched sound I have heard members of a herd make when they were relaxed and content or when they were nervous and stressed.  The piercing trumpet calls set our hearts thumping and bodies tingling with adrenalin.  As the sounds of feeding and calling got closer it became apparent that it was a large herd and they were spread out as they fed and moved towards the tree hut.

An elephant that was barely visible through the trees gradually drifted into view, its sinuous trunk snaking around bunches of grass that it scythed effortlessly and transported to its cavernous maw.  Just behind it was another elephant similarly occupied and if they continued would come right underneath the tree we were waiting.  

An elephant emerging from the forest

For such large animals the fluidity in their motions is incredible to watch
As they fed some of them would throw grass and dirt over their backs.  This must be grass that must have tasted bad.  I wish I could do the same when eating out at a swanky restaurant.  The dishes that were not up to expectations could be sent sailing over the shoulders. Yikes! This dish tastes awful, here it goes.  “Sorry old chap did not mean to festoon you with this delicate gourmet dish.” Just imagine the fun on a day when several disgruntled customers were around at the same time.  It would be like a Greek wedding!  As more of them appeared—elephants I meant and not disgruntled customersthe ones in the lead would raise their trunks to check for danger.

As they grazed they would throw grass and soil on to their backs

A part of a herd emerging and a lead elephant checking for danger
About half the herd had come out into the open when in the distance emanated the distinct sound of a tuk tuk also known as a Bajaj three wheeled vehicle.  With its small two-stroke engine sputtering and straining the tuk tuk appeared far away headed in our direction and would shortly go past the tree hut.  As the tuk tuk got nearer and louder the entire herd became completely silent and then there was the sound of them rushing back to the jungle.  One minute they were there and in the next they were gone.  The film crew and the volunteers looked deeply disappointed.  Due to their despondent state I had to remind the girls to note down what they had observed. 

"What do we do now?” Phil asked miserably.

“We wait, the herd will come back.” I retorted.

Likewise in a short while we could hear them feeding and moving in our direction.  This time though they had moved a bit north from where they were before.  Earlier they would have come right underneath the tree hut.  But now they would appear a little bit further away from where we were. While we could still see them it was not as good as if they had been right underneath us.  Peering through the canopy we attempted to get a visual of the elephants.  I was staring at a place where I could just make out an elephant when I felt a light tap on my shoulder.  It was Jon to point out where most of the herd had come out from.  It seemed they had moved even further away and were hardly perceptible from the tree hut especially for filming. 

Phil looked at me and said in a dejected tone, “They are a bit too far to get good footage.” 

It seemed at that range it would not be possible.  I had not expected them to move that far when they returned.

“What do you suggest,” Phil asked.

“It depends on you, and if you are courageous enough.” I replied. 

“What do you mean?”  Phil asked.

“We could approach them in the vehicle.” 

“Why do you need to be courageous to do that? We are in a vehicle...will be safe...right? Or we are not? Jon asked hesitantly.

“Well... not actually inside.” I remarked casually.

“Oh! What do you mean?” Phil asked looking me straight in the eye probably having a presentiment about what was going to come. 

“What I had in mind was for you to be outside.” 

Jon’s expression was quizzical, “you want Phil to be outside the vehicle when we drive up to the elephants?”

“You and him both”

“What the ...” Jon exclaimed. 

“Alright, let me make it clear.  You both will up on the roof of the Defender and the rest of us will push it up to the elephants.  This way we will not cause any alarm by driving up to them.  There it is. What do you guys think? Are you up to it?” 

Phil grinning, “You have some brilliant ideas I must say.”

“That is just terrific,” Jon retorted.

So how often have you done this? Rachel wanted to know. 

“I have lost count,” I grinned. 

Emma, Samantha and Rachel demanded that they also wanted to be on the roof with the guys. “We’ll be good and not be a disturbance.  We will behave,” they promised.

“How you behave does not matter.  It all depends on how the elephants will behave. I remarked.

“How would they react?” Jesse inquired.

Elephants were unpredictable as much as any other animal, human being or politician was. There was no way of saying how an elephant or a herd would behave under a given situation. There was only one way to find out. 

Let’s do it and see how they’ll react,” I said climbing down from the tree hut.  

A roof top view of elephants

Phil climbed onto the front bumper and from there to the mud guard and sat himself on the front crossbar of the roll cage on the roof.  When he gestured that he was ready I passed the camera up to him very carefully.  Behind Phil to the side Jon knelt down with the recorder and the shotgun microphone.   Jesse, the three girls and I pushed the Defender towards the elephants.  From the driver’s side window I steered it while pushing against the window sill.  After the initial effort the slightly inclined road and its own momentum kept the car moving forward without much effort on our part. 

The gravel crunched loudly underneath the wheels and our bare feet.  The crunching gravel and our labored breathing were the only sounds that were audible as we pushed the car.  The mobile roof top elephant-cam slowly and gradually inched forward and got close to the herd.  I kept looking up frequently to make sure that we didn’t roll the vehicle with Phil and Jon on the roof right into the midst of the herd.  Honestly, I wanted this documentary to get completed.  We needed it to create global awareness about the plight of the Asian elephant. A pancaked film crew would be of no help.

Filming and observing elephants from the roof
Remarkably the herd did not pay much attention to the slowly approaching vehicle.  One or two elephants looked up and stared at us and then went back to feeding as if a Defender cruising on human power was something they were quite used too.  When we got to about 30 feet from the herd I called a halt.  It would have been possible to get much closer but I was concerned.  There were too many people on the roof to clamber into the vehicle hurriedly if an elephant took offense at been pried upon from a Land Rover roof!

A part of the herd emerging from the forest
Phil filmed the herd until failing light made it impossible to shoot anymore.  Some elephants ventured very close to the vehicle.  He managed to get some remarkable close up footage of elephants and also of pedestrians, people on bicycles, motorcycles and the ubiquitous and raucous tuk tuks going by the herd.  Whenever one of these intruders came along, the herd would just clumped together and remain silent hiding behind tall grass or scrub.  These people had either walked or driven by quite oblivious to the fact that a herd of wild elephants were just a few feet away. 

A noisy Tuk Tuk driving past an elephant

A Tuk Tuk with lights blazing driving by a herd that is hardly discernible
One of the feeding elephants had ventured quite close to the vehicle

To approach people this close while feeding means the elephants felt comfortable with the situation.  Notwithstanding how comfortable the people felt though!
After sunset only the stupid and the drunk venture on foot in areas where elephants frequent.  An interesting fact is, of the eighty odd people that are killed annually by elephants in Sri Lanka, the majority is men and of these men the majority had been intoxicated at the time.  The false sense of bravado that intoxication imbues had been the main cause for their deaths.  According to the accounts of sober companions who had been present—these men had gone to challenge the elephant and/or refused to seek safety which had of course led to their unfortunate demise.  It is in fact quite disconcerting even to imagine this ridiculous situation: where a puny man is telling a 10,000 pound elephant to bugger off the road.

A man walking past a herd that had clumped together and are hiding in the grass
On a pitch black night we were driving to one of our field stations located deep in the forest. The night was so dark it felt like a solid wall.  Coming around a bend—we gasped in disbelief because illuminated in the head light beams were two men.  They were drunk to high heavens, stood on the middle of the road holding on to each other, and were staring in our direction with wide unfocused eyes. The headlights had probably blinded whatever visual faculty they had in their alcohol infused state.  Good thing we don’t believe in metaphysical apparitions.  Otherwise the manner in which they just popped out of the darkness like that would’ve scared the hell out of anybody. 

What was even more incredible was the fact that we had just passed by several bulls that obviously these two men must have walked past too.  This goes to show the leniency of elephants sometimes towards idiot and drunks or just shows that the guardian angels of drunks and imbeciles must work overtime.  We hauled in the two inebriated nut cases into the Land Rover to drop them off at their homes in the village.  I feared we will get high just breathing the fumes they were emanating.  By the time they were dropped off at their homes—assuming they were their homes but going by the commotions we heard as we left it could be that they had gone into the wrong homes—everyone was practically gasping for air.   

This evening fortunately for us after dusk ended no one came on the road—no not even drunks to disturb the tranquility of the elephants and us.  In the dark it was great to sit under that vast lustrous canopy and listen to the sounds of the herd feeding contentedly.  The years of hard work resolving human-elephant conflicts in this area by the SLWCS seemed to have paid off at least for these elephants and the people of this area.  But it is tenuous at most.  There are undesirable elements with vested interests, lack of knowledge and ill-planned agendas always conspiring to destroy this hard won coexistence.   That is why it is important for us to continue to monitor as well as work with the local communities and authorities to ensure that we save this microcosm of where people and elephants seems to get along, for posterity.  The volunteers are important and vital allies whose help and contributions are critical to make these efforts successful.       

Thank You volunteers!