Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Volunteer and Intern Memoires: Sri Lanka without guides, maps and hotel reservations

Sri Lanka - on top of Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Over the past 10 years many volunteers have participated in the volunteer program of the SLWCS.   We have also hosted students who had come to fulfill their academic internships as well as a few local and international dignitaries.  

Traveling to the SLWCS project site in Wasgamuwa is a journey from the known to the sort of unknown, because Wasgamuwa due to an unexplainable reason had stayed hidden from the radar of conventional tourist itineraries, guides, news, gossip, and isolated from the general hubbub.  This is what gives Wasgamuwa its unique flavor and adds to the colorful experiences of the volunteers.  Caught in a time warp unique to itself, Wasgamuwa trundles through life and the cosmos at the hybrid speed of a rabbit and a tortoise.  

Wasgamuwa encapsulated in a clock of its own
Toys 'R' Me - a village boy playing with a toy car he had made
Family and dog going on a jaunt. The hand tractor has the speed of a mechanized tortoise
Excursions into the dry zone jungles with their mysterious depths of light and shadow, myriad jungle denizens, encounters with mythical-looking elephants, and opportunities to immerse in local culture and traditions provide a never ending saga of excitement, adventure and exhilaration.  Sometimes the encounters with the wildlife in the jungle feel tame in comparison to the unexpected interactions with the resident wildlife in the field house.

Into the light and shadows of the dry zone jungle
A Diplomatic Visit

In 2010 we were honored by a visit from the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis who stayed at the field house for 3 days.  Passionate animal lover, environmentalist and an ardent supporter of all efforts to save elephants, Patricia Butenis is the embodiment of the global ambassador for animal rights, environment protection and wildlife conservation.  It was a great privilege to have her visit our project site in Wasgamuwa.

The former US Ambassador with Dodam the giant squirrel
All the staff and volunteers in resident at the time were advised to be in their best behavior and not to utter anything that would lead to tension between the US Embassy and the SLWCS.  Last thing we wanted was a US led embargo on our field site.  So while the staff and volunteers behaved immaculately, I found out later the resident wildlife in the field house had not. 

It’s hard to suppress a grin whenever I hear the Ambassador talking about her experiences at our field site: “I had to use the bathroom in the company of ogling frogs that were hugging the walls, geckos with huge eyes peering from the rafters, moths and a host of other insects jostling around the light, beady eyed toads sulking in the corners and malicious looking scorpions scuttling on the floor.  I had never shared a bathroom with such an assortment of diverse companions in my entire life.” I feel glad that I forgot to mention to her about the little micropteran bat that hangs on the roof in the room she occupied.

An ogling frog

One of the sulking toads
The bat that evaded detection
Fortunately the wild elephants she met were well behaved and hopefully made up for this lack of decorum in the lesser beasts.  So it was a huge relief to hear her tell that, “We were surrounded by about 65 elephants all feeding and making contended noises while several young babies played.”  The elephants continued to behave in an unassertive manner (for which the SLWCS is very grateful) even when the Ambassador was observing them from the tree hut and from the top of one of our Land Rovers.

Two precocious babies that entertained the Ambassador
The go anywhere Ambassador and the champion of elephants

Observing elephants in the corridor
As to the ill-mannered fauna that had invaded the bathroom I presume whatever diplomatic discussions that must have gone on between them and the Ambassador must have been in our favor, because the Ambassador very kindly selected the SLWCS to receive the Charity of the Year Award in 2011.  This was in recognition and appreciation of our efforts to help conserve elephants by developing an applying several successful measures to mitigate human-elephant conflicts.  The details of the Ambassador’s visit can be read at this link:

As the Charity of the Year SLWCS receiving a check from the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka 
In November 2013 we had the most number of volunteers and interns this year.  We had six interns from the Rotterdam University in Netherlands and 5 volunteers: Three from England, one from Poland and one from Germany.  All piled six deep in the field house with other sundry resident animals and staff.  These are some excerpts of their accounts volunteering and interning with the SLWCS.

Intrepid volunteers and interns heading to the field

All work and no play can make volunteers a dull crowd
Rotterdam University, Netherlands

Bryan on the Tree Hut
According to me, the first two weeks at SLWCS were really amazing. It is the total picture: the location of the field house, the village we’re in, the staff of SLWCS, the duties, the internship itself, the food, the transport, you name it. It really is the way as I expected. The only thing I expected more is the contact with the villagers. In my imagination, I thought it should be more, but we’re a bit isolated between two hills.
Dawn at the field house
It is so different than the situation back home and I think that’s a good thing for a person to develop. Throwing me out of daily routine and see how to cope with that stays really interesting. It is an experience that is very valuable, personally and professionally.
A rain cloud gathers above the hills. 
This is the first time for SLWCS to have so many internees at one time. I don’t experience it that way, to be honest. I keep in mind that we have not one, but six different persons from abroad working on different subjects. That brings challenges for the organization (on logistics for example) but the supervisors over here (Zeenath and Chandima) do their outmost best to get things done for us. The visa problems we have (and the different times to extend our visa’s) makes some planning a real challenge but the supervisors succeed in getting a workable situation at the Fieldhouse. I am very satisfied with the guidance and overall program of the internship.
That’s it. I really like the food here, and I don’t care if we get rice three times a day. I don’t care about Singhalese music. I just want to fully enjoy the local situation.
Really looking forwards on the next coming days.

Bryan with Casper at Dambulla Rock Temple
Tina Gentner
Volunteer, Germany
Early summer 2013 I decided to spend my vacations in Sri Lanka – for three weeks I planned on traveling around Sri Lanka with a friend but I had two more weeks of vacations and since I do not like travelling by myself and had some good experiences with volunteer work before I looked for a volunteer project based in Sri Lanka on the Web. I am very interested in elephants and my other volunteer projects also involved elephants, that’s why searched the web only for volunteer projects involving elephants. I found the website of the SLWCS and looked at the information given and liked it. I sent them an email and got an immediate response. Since I was told that November is still a good time to do the volunteer project I agreed to stay with them for the first two weeks in November.

On Nov 4th, I was greeted by Chinthaka at the station in Colombo and he took us to the field house via train and bus. Traveling with the other volunteers was a nice experience since we already had the time to get to know each other a little bit. At the field house we met Chandima, Siriya and Lila, the cook. We decided who is going to sleep in which room, had dinner and went to bed pretty early.



The next day we skipped on the morning activities and just got settled in to the house – in the afternoon we drove up to the tank for the first time and got a first impression of the tree hut.  From the next day on we followed our daily duties such as trail transects, checking sand traps or observing human and elephant action from the tree house. Chandima was always with us, sometimes we were also accompanied by Chinthaka, later on Sampath joined in and also Siriya came along a couple of times.

Setting a sand trap
Analyzing a pile of dung with Chandima and Veroni in the field

Heading out on a trail transect
Zeenath and Lotte watching elephants from the tree hut

A massive bull crossing the road by the tree hut

Another bull approaching the tree hut
At the Weheragalagama Tank watching elephants
Watching a solitary bull feeding at the tank
Observing a herd feeding by the tank
Volunteer, Poland
Amadeusz with Daniel and Joseph at the tank
I really like the staff working on the project, Chandima is very knowledgeable about all the animals and we have learned a lot during the project. All the staff is making good effort to make sure that our experience is as good as possible and they also consider our views and ideas. I have also learned a lot about the elephants and I found out that there is a lot that we still don’t know about their behavior.

My favorite activities are watching the WG tank and walking around the jungle doing transects because there is many interesting thing to observe and think that we can learn from the people that work here.

Observing and collecting data on elephants at the tank

Watching elephants
My overall experience was really good and I’m glad that I have chosen this project. The main think that I would improve is communication between the project and the companies organizing the trip and also it would be nice to have a website that is regularly updated.

I fill like this project actually allowed me to help a bit with the elephant\human conflict and it allowed me to better understand why this is happening. I would recommend this project to anyone that is looking for a unique experience.
Rotterdam University, Netherlands

Isabelle showing the locals some Dutch moves
We’re already two weeks in Sri Lanka. I have a very nice time here! The first day in Sri Lanka we spend in Colombo, but because it was Sunday it was a little bit quiet in the city. The trip from Colombo to Wasgamuwa was very exhausting. Luckily we had places to sit down. But the view was very beautiful! It was almost 7 o’clock in the evening when we arrived the house.

The unforgettable bus rides
Now two weeks later It goes much better and It feel more like a home. We’re now with 11 volunteers/interns in the house, sometime it’s very busy , but we also have a lot of fun. But what I love is to wake up with the noise of the birds outside. Sometimes it’s very difficult to adapt me to the culture here. In the Netherlands is the culture so different.
Two juveniles feeding
Last week was an introduction week for us and we’ve meet the programs of SLWCS. I think this was very nice. We could see also more of Sri Lanka, like the nature, culture and of course the elephants. Every time we left for a transact of something else I hoped to see some elephants. Chandima is the supervisor of these programs. We don’t come here for volunteer work, but I missed that on the trips.

A Useless moment
I’m very happy that we have Zeenath here. She helps us a lot with our assignment, she comes with good ideas and know a lot of different things. She also someone we can tell tings to when we are not happy about things and tried to solve it. It’s also an advance that she can speak a little bit Singalees. Without her was it very difficult to do some things for our assignment here, because Chandima is very busy with the volunteers etc. Siriya is a man who you can laugh with and knows a lot about thing in the village and he tries to involve us in the village. Like this week he organised a few boys to play volleyball with, I really loved it!


With Zeenath in the tree hut
Posing with Sabina and some elephants
I’m also happy to be here. I feel very relax here and I’m very happy with the assignment for SLWCS! You here from me soon.

Rotterdam University, Netherlands

Casper on the tree hut
After I spend 6 days in Colombo and Negombo, Bryan and I leave Colombo Fort to go to the field house. I was surprised at the other people who were there, but they were friendly and it was very nice to meet them.

In the train
The place here I really like. I hadn’t expectations about the location or nature around the field house, but when I came here I needed a short time to acclimatize here because I just came from the cities, but now I came in the nature, without the noise of horns, busses and all other kind of transport. But the field house is really nice and I am happy that I am here and can enjoy the nature and views from the field house as the rock besides the field house.

A grandstand view 
A black nape hare
A grey mongoose
As close as you can get

At Sigirya with the rest of the interns
About the internship I am happy at this moment. We have done (Tuesday November 26) already 7 interviews done and I think Bryan and I can finish the data collection at the end of next week.
A herd at the tank
A discussion at the tank
Rotterdam University, Netherlands

Maartje with an elephant

First of all, up till now I am really enjoying my time in Sri Lanka and in the field house of SLWCS. The trip we made to the field house was unexpected, but a nice trip. I saw a lot of Sri Lanka and it was a new experience with so many people in one bus. When we arrived at the field house, it was exactly what I expected. Accept for the bugs of course, but well, you can’t have everything. I know it can be difficult for some people to share one house with 13 people, but I don’t have any problems with that. I also think there are working some really nice people for this organization, like Siriya and Sampath, who needs to be appreciated. They are a big part of the whole experience. Especially because Siriya has taking us to a temple, to the city and has organized a volleyball game with local school kids.

Maartje with Lotte traveling in the train
Looking at the food, I expected a lot of rice and curry. And that’s fine because that’s what everyone is eating over here.  The first week was about getting to know the organization and what they exactly are doing. I think this was a very good start of the internship. Now we have a much more clear picture about the activities and the goals of the organization.

Doing interviews
Blending with the locals

With Siriya On the Rocks

Let me show you how we do  it in Netherlands
Working on the assignments with Tim and Lotte
Four Rotterdam Uni interns hard at work
When it comes down to our research, I think this is going very well. We had some good conversations about their perspectives for the research and what our thoughts are. For Lotte and me, the way of doing research is very clear so that is positive. Another very important note I want to make is that I’m very very glad Zeenath is here. Especially because it is a big group and Chandima’s focus is on the volunteers. Zeenath is very open minded and a strong woman. So every time I think something is wrong or I don’t like how things are going, I’m not afraid to tell Zeenath about it because she can see my perspective as well. Besides, she already knows SLWCS and knows how to arrange things within this organization.
Over all, I’m still very glad with my decision to do research for SLWCS and enjoying every part of it.

The view from the field house
Daniel Mitchell
Volunteer, England

Daniel with Amadeusz (on left) at the Tank
Once we got to the field house the accommodation was pretty much exactly as it was described to us and the facilities were very good and I think the house is a very nice place to stay. The food is also very good and as it was described to us. The staff were all very friendly and welcoming. They are easy to talk to and happy to answer any questions. The local people are also very friendly which is nice.
There is something about dung...a group photo with a dung pile.  

Preparing to head out on a jungle trek
Another photo op with a dung pile
Showering in a rain shower
Tina, Joseph and Daniel going on a transect
Our daily activities were also great and it was good to see how all the data is collected, all the volunteers get involved and made to feel like they were helping. We were led to believe that we would be doing a lot more walking when we booked the trip but the walking we did do was very enjoyable especially in the forest. We also get plenty of chances to go into the town to go shopping and look around and we did this more than we thought we would which was good.

Rotterdam University, Netherlands

Sabina taking a shot at driving a Tuk Tuk
I had a great time, the first 2 weeks in Sri Lanka were really nice, I was so excited to come here. At school we prepared our assignment almost every school day and now we are finally here. I really liked the introduction week, the trip from Colombo to Wasgomuwa was nice.
In the bus with Isabelle

With new friends in the bus
When we finally arrived at the Fieldhouse we saw our first sunset, the view was amazing. The facilities in the house are pretty good, except the internet access. I’m glad that we got Zeenath as our supervisor, she take care of us very well. If there is any problem she will try to solve it. The meals are also good, but I would like to eat more varieties, because we eat rice almost every day with the same dishes.

The stunning view from the field house

Voila! This is Sri Lanka
At the moment we have a big group with people from different countries, that makes it really nice. I really enjoy my time here, thank you.

Where the elephants roam
Plenty of reasons to smile
Up on the tree hut observing elephants
Jousting elephants 
Chilling in the tree hut
Volunteer, England

Joseph on the trail of the illusive
The field house fit the description in prior information precisely and was basic but good facilities and very easy for all the volunteers to socialize between each other. The staff were very nice and extremely welcoming, including all the locals as well.

Hanging out at the tree hut

Another Meaningless moment

Interns and volunteers relaxing in the evening
The food at the facility was basic but very good and was exactly what was described in the information pack, with the bulk of meals being vegetarian curries.

All the activities we did on the trip were really informative, interesting and we all got involved. The field guides and staff were good at picking up personnel interests and skills and using them to make you feel a valued member of the group and that all the individuals were inputting something to the project.

The bones of a dead elephant

The parts of the skull and leg bones

Collecting data on elephant dung
The information we got given about the chances to go to shops and other areas of Sri Lanka on the weekends was fairly accurate as well although would say that you have more chances to visit shops than described in the information pack and our weekend trips can be very easily done if organized with local taxi drivers and the project staff, where they all have contact between each other and is easily sorted out.

Conducting a transect
I feel the overall goal of the project was clearly explained and we got access to see the current affects of elephant and human conflicts around the research sites very openly with helping to maintain electric fences, do vehicle and animal surveys around environmental corridors and learn more about the affects elephants have on the locals by visiting elephant remains and getting local point of views on the project. So overall was a very fulfilling and educational trip.

Heading to the jungle with Veroni

Rotterdam University, Netherlands

Lotte with Nuisance
I really enjoyed my first two weeks in the field house. The trip to the field house was pretty good, got to see a lot of Sri Lanka. When we arrived at the field house, it was pretty much what I expected.

Wearing a cap made from a native plant leaf
I am really happy we have Zeenath as our supervisor. I feel like she really wants to help us as good as she can and puts a lot of effort into this. Right now our research is pretty stable. We know what to do and already planned interviews and a group discussion.  I really like Siriya, we spend a lot of time with him in the field house and he takes us on a lot of trips. We went on the rock next to the house, he took us to Hettipola, the temple in the village and to play volleyball with the locals. I really enjoy these activities and he really wants to show us all these things.

Showing the local boys some techniques from The Netherlands

First a clean sweep of things...nothing like starting with a clean wall

A fresco comes to life slowly and gradually

It comes to life under the hands of the artists: Maartje & Lotte

Working on the finishing touches...a master artist at work

Nearly there...

This is how a peacock is born.  A masterpiece fresco
Maartje, Lotte and Bryan at the Royal Botanical Gardens
I think that was all I wanted to mention. I am having a really good time here.  I love the view from the house, the contact with the local people and the good vibe here.

Tim Stevenson
Volunteer, England

An elephant following Tim! Its just another day in the jungle
I fully agree that the train to Kandy and the bus to the site is much better than a bus all the way! While the public bus is certainly an immersion in Sri Lankan life, perhaps a private van/bus would be faster and shorten what is a very long days travelling.

A local train
Bryan posing in front of a local bus

Kandy Railway Station
The food has been almost uniformly excellent considering the conditions – expectations were well set by the travel information I got. I was worried my stomach might suffer but if anything it’s been better than at home! The introduction of fruit and a bit more variety has been a great help.

Tim, Lotte and Maartje on the field house veranda
The actual experience of going out, helping with research and of course seeing elephants has been excellent. Chandima in particular (who, along with Sampath, I have literally trusted with my life this week) but all the SLWCS staff in general, and Zeenath, are very competent, friendly, knowledgeable, patient and informative.

Chandima with a piece of elephant dung
Zeenath with a friend from the village

The bouncy land rover ride is all part of the experience too! I particularly like that we can ask about all aspects of Sri Lankan life, not just the wildlife, and I’ve gained a fascinating insight into the reality of HEC and its complexities.

Gloria the bouncy Land Rover
The Chief Priest of the local Temple tying blessed thread (Pirith Nule) on the volunteers

Trying out some local cuisine
The SLWCS film on the second night was interesting and educational. Perhaps a few more structured evening things would be good, though I liked the casual evening times too J

Checking a sand trap
Two large herds of elephants in the background and a massive herd of water buffalo in foreground

 A mother and a calf

A big bull among a large herd of females
Over all I have had a fascinating, educating and enjoyable experience, and have been very lucky with the mix of fellow volunteers as well as the SLWCS staff. Would I recommend to a friend? Definitely!

The Wild Bunch

Unforgettable vistas and memories

Photo Credits:

Amadeusz Rzeznik
Bryan Hogerheide
Casper den Besten
Chandima Fernando
Chinthaka Weerasinghe
Daniel Mitchell
Joseph Huntley
Isabelle van den Bosch
Lotte Hoek
Maartje Veeke
Ravi Corea
Sabina Goei
Zeenath Khalid

For information about the internship program email us at: