|A magnificent tusker crossing the road at the Crossing Point|
|Group of volunteers in t he Tree Hut - a la Swiss Family Robinson|
I assure we were not making an enactment of “Me Tarzan You Jane” since for me to play Tarzan at this age was a sure way to end up becoming a paraplegic. Seriously, aside from the childhood fantasies—the actual reason why we were up on a tree hut in the Wasgamuwa jungles was to observe and study elephants.
Observing wild elephants from a Tree Hut can turn out to be a fascinating activity. Not too many things in life come close to that experience. To have an entire elephant herd feeding underneath while the tree hut swayed to a gentle breeze with background music by various avian and forest fauna is a life changing experience. There is a real danger of getting addicted to it.
|Studying a herd of elephants from the Tree Hut|
For a while we had been noticing that the tree hut corridor was an unusual place mainly because both elephants and people used it frequently throughout the year. The more we visited the corridor the more we realized that we knew very little about what went on when both elephants and people were in the same place. Of course we had more than enough information from second and third hand accounts. But we had very little primary information from first hand observations. Over time the idea that we should build tree hut observation posts in the corridor got mooted as an activity to study the interactions of people and elephants. This was back in 2003 when we had just completed erecting our second solar powered electric fence around the Weheragalagama village.
Several tree huts were built at the
beginning. One we built across the Weheragalagama
Tank (reservoir) and found out that during the rainy season we could only
access it by boat. Over the years the
tree hut at the Tree Hut Corridor became our primary observation hut due to it
been located along the route that elephants moved between the Wasgamuwa
National Park and the Himibiliyakade Forest Reserve. The people who mostly traveled through the corridor belonged
to two villages that were located in the forest reserve adjacent to the buffer
zone of the national park. The elephants
of course ranged all over this region and were part of the large population of
elephants that inhabited the area known as the lower Mahweli River Basin.
|Volunteers observing and taking down data from the Tree Hut|
|The Tree Hut|
Until we started to conduct these observations in 2003 we had very little understanding of the interactions of people and elephants. The observations from the tree hut definitely opened up an entirely different window that allowed us to get a good understanding of how elephants behaved when people were around. Fortunately the corridor was used both by bulls and large herds consisting mostly females and young. As time went by we gradually began to notice the nuances and the different patterns of behaviors of bulls and cows in response to various anthropogenic disturbances.
We’ve made some remarkably interesting observations of elephants as well as people over the years from the tree hut. Cows and young, solitary bulls and/or groups of bulls—I meant elephants not people—reacted to disturbances along the Tree Hut Corridor very differently.
|Observing a herd of elephants from the ground as they are crossing the road at the Crossing Point|
Female herds with young when they were just about to emerge from the forest always rushed back when they heard a human noise. We had also noticed that female herds retreated only when they were just about to emerge from the forest, but once the disturbance had moved away they soon returned unless they had been really frightened off. It was ironical in a way how these massive animals were so frightened of us puny humans. Another interesting behavior was, once an entire herd was out in the open grassy woodland area any number of tuk tuks or other vehicles and people could come along the road and they will not move back to the forest. They would just stop whatever they had been doing, bunched together and remained completely motionless and silent behind tall grass or scrub until the disturbance had moved away. We have observed tuk uks, cyclists and motorcyclists driving past herds of elephants that were crowded together and hiding behind tall scrub and Mana grass just a few feet away from the edge of the road. The drivers and passengers in these vehicles just drove past quite oblivious that a herd of wild elephants were just a few feet away! On some occasions a herd would rush back to a safe distance and wait quietly until the disturbance had moved off.
Bulls reacted somewhat differently. While the occasional bull would charge or attempt to chase people and vehicles, this did not happen frequently. Most bulls tend to be laid back continuing to feed completely ignoring the people and vehicles. Others would stand erect with heads raised and ears spread looking towards the direction where the disturbance was coming from or would slowly amble away into the jungle. If they were taken unawares then they would trumpet piercingly turn tail and run. Some would stop after a short distance and stare while others kept going until they disappeared into the forest. It seems elephants were startled and frightened by the sudden appearance of people the same way people frightened each other.
|A bull charging - most times these are mock charges...but whose waiting to find out!|
On one occasion three bulls were feeding right across from the tree hut about 50 yards away when a land-master two wheel tractor with a trailer loaded with men, women and children came chugging down the road. These were farmers after working in the fields heading back to their village before night fall. The three bulls though did not pay any attention and nonchalantly kept feeding seemingly oblivious to the tractor and it occupants.
The tractor driver though stopped immediately when he saw us signaling that there were elephants across the road. The driver and the passengers stood up and peered to catch a glimpse of the elephants, but due to the tall Mana grass and the short height of the tractor they could not possibly see them well. From the tree hut we gestured to the driver to keep driving. He drove up to where we were and then refused to go any further saying that without been able to see the elephants he was not going to take the chance. Normally we would have escorted the tractor with our field vehicle. But that day the vehicle had dropped us off at the Tree Hut and gone on an errand. With dusk falling fast it was important for the tractor to keep going while there was enough light to see the elephants.
|The Land Master Tractor with agitated villagers|
While we were trying to convince the driver to continue on another tractor appeared at the other end. That driver stopped immediately when he saw us guessing rightly that there must be elephants around. In the meantime the women were imploring us to help them to get to the other end of the road so they could get home safely. Deciding fast, a villager who happened to be with us and I climbed on to the tractor and went with them hoping to get a ride back from the other tractor. Standing on the iron railings of the trailer we kept an eye on the elephants. When we got to the other side to our consternation the driver of the second tractor refused to bring us back. Abandoning wherever he was going and with total disregard to our situation he turned around and followed the tractor we had traveled back to the village. Not expecting to be in such a dilemma, the two of us stood on the middle of the road and stared at the receding vehicles like two castaways watching a ship disappear over the horizon. I wondered what it would do to his Karma if we were trampled by an elephant. Not that that our Karma was in good shape either, considering we had to now hoof it down the road passing by three bull elephants.
For a moment the villager and I, eyed each other wondering who will be the first to get pulverized by an elephant. Shaking these macabre thoughts of our minds we convinced each other that the elephants looked calm enough and likely won’t bother us. Imbued by this false sense of elephant human brotherhood and having no other choice we walked back towards the Tree Hut. While they had completely ignored the tractor now all three bulls had stopped feeding and were looking in our direction with raised heads, alertly watching as we walked down the road. This was another anomalous behavior, while most times bulls were not bothered by vehicles or people on some occasions they were very alert to and vary of people moving on foot. I wondered whether this had to do with the distance that separated the people and elephants at any time.
|Keeping a weary eye on the elephants we walked to the Tree Hut|
|Bulls tend to ignore people most of the time|
How people reacted and behaved in the presence of elephants was also part of our study but in all honesty observing human behavior was more entertainment than science! I must profess that when people and elephants were present in the corridor, the elephants behaved in a far more dignified manner than people. Village men inebriated to the high heavens were the worst. Imbued by a false sense of bravado from the liquor these drunks’ attitude was to tangle with the elephants. At least David when he challenged Goliath had a sling shot! These idiots had only alcohol fumes. On many occasions we had transported such intoxicated villagers to their homes fearing for their lives. No wonder then, that of the 80 odd people that are killed annually by elephants the majority are drunks.
Another rowdy behavior we have been observing
lately was several pimped up tuk tuks that had taken to escorting convoys of small
Land Master tractors.
|A motorcyclist riding by a herd hiding motionless behind scrub|
A belligerent drunk attempting to challenge the elephants!
|The ubiquitous and obnoxious Tuk Tuks|
These three wheeled vehicles adorned with chrome fittings and equipped with strobe lights and musical horns were such a rude and contrasting element that completely ruined the sublimity of the forest environment. At dusk they would race through the corridor with their lights flashing and horns blaring, providing the vanguard to the much slower Land Master tractors. Shattering the peace and tranquility – they created a cacophony that was totally uncalled for and was not effective at all if the intention was to chase away elephants. On all occasions when we had been present at these displays of tuk tuk machismo—the elephants had either stood still quietly behind a wall of scrub or had already withdrawn to the forest edge as soon as they had heard the distant sounds of the approaching vehicles.
This is an issue we are now trying to address
through our education and awareness programs.
We intend to use footage of our observations to edify local villagers
how to behave when elephants were present in the corridor. Another plan that is been developed is to use
mobile phones to provide advanced notice to villagers when elephants were
present. This is to warn villagers who
have to travel through the corridor in advance so they could plan ahead to get
|A Tuk Tuk with lights ablaze and horn blaring driving past a herd|
|A Tuk Tuk escorting a Land Master Tractor|
The elephant behaviors we observed from the Tree Hut were not only very fascinating but obviously had implications to understanding the dynamics of human elephant conflicts. Eventually we hope this information would help us to improve our efforts to overcome the challenges of conserving elephants in a rapidly changing world.
After the elephants had fed at the Tree Hut Corridor they would head towards the gravel road to cross. After crossing the road still feeding they would head towards the tank (reservoir) that was located south of the tree hut. It was a circuitous rather than a direct route and if plotted on a map would show an arching line.
This was more or less their routine behavior.
But what was really interesting about this was that once they began their
move towards the reservoir nothing could stop them. This extraordinary
behavior we found out quite by accident.
It was a beautiful afternoon in February 2012
and we were in the Tree Hut with a film crew from France 3 television channel filming
a herd of 35 elephants. With the light fading fast and the elephants
grouping to make their final move to the reservoir, I called up to the field
house and asked one of the staff to bring immediately the three British volunteers:
Emma, Gemma and Katherine who were staying with us at the time. After
completing their afternoon assignment they had just got back to the field house,
and there was nothing like completing the day with some elephant viewing from
the Tree Hut.
|The elephants head to the tank through the Tree Hut Corridor - a massive bull on the left|
|A herd crossing the road to head to the tank in the far distance|
|A mother and calf just below the Tree Hut|
|Two young bulls play wrestling by Tree Hut|
|A bull approaching the road in advance of the herd|
|Bulls crossed the road unhurriedly and sedately|
|A part of a herd crossing with a calf tucked in the middle|
|A herd feeding nearby to the Tree Hut|
Sampath drove the vehicle slowly to where the elephants were and stopped right in front of them. It was an incongruously matched situation. The Land Rover had a canvass roof and was opened on all sides and was no match for an enraged bull or for that matter anything larger than a cow if it came to a head to head battle. But on a side note: this particular Land Rover has had more than its fair share of encounters with elephants and other natural hazards. It had always come unscathed from these encounters with its occupants none the worse for their experiences. In appreciation of its valiant nature, volunteers had named it Gloria. Once we got surrounded by a raging grass fire inside the Wasgamuwa National Park set by illegal cattle herders and poachers. We had no choice other than to keep driving through that uncontrolled and rapacious conflagration. Even then Gloria had risen to the occasion and managed to drive us to safety through a Hades invoking crackling wall of fire and blinding smoke. Up to now Gloria had never failed us. Unfortunately Mahanama was not aware of the legendary fortitude of Gloria.
|Gloria the intrepid Land Rover|
|The grass fire raging behind through which Gloria had driven us to safety|
|Sampath and Gloria stopped in front of the herd|
“I’m trying to block the elephants from crossing the road,” Sampath had replied.
“Block the elephants! Oh my God you people are crazy! Mahanama had yelled and then shouted, “Buddhu Ammey (Enlightened Mother) please help me to get out of this alive.”
Curled up on the floor, Mahanama had lamented why he ever undertook this job, wailing that he was not even married, now he will die a bachelor and not live to see his progeny. On the day he left with the film crew he gave a solemn promise that he would quit his job if they ever assigned him to another film crew that planned to visit our project. We of course were amazed by his attitude because we genuinely liked him very much and wanted him to come back.
|Mahanama's view of the bull elephant...Wake up little Suzi...Wake up|
|Mahanama on left with volunteer Gene during happier times|
|The bull charging the vehicle|
|Probably what reminded Mahanama of the people biting elephant|
|Standing by Mahanama's bedside|
I was glad that we had a film crew with us during this incident. This was behavior that needed to be captured on film. The footage would also be a big help to convince relevant authorities how important it is to protect corridors and crossing points that elephants used as part of their natural ranging. Being highly intelligent animals the elephants could have easily taken a different route effectively bypassing the vehicle to go where they wanted too. A lesser species would have done just that. But these elephants had showed an innate inability or a marked lack of wanting to take such an initiative. They had steadfastly stood their ground at the exact point from where they always crossed the road.
The implications of these
observations show that elephant corridors need not be as big meaning area wise. The currently held belief is that large swaths of
land need to be put aside as corridors to connect existing protected areas to
provide room for elephants to range naturally. Our observations show that to
provide connectivity the critical points need not be as large as it had been envisioned.
Apparently elephants show a high fidelity to the crossing points from which
they transfer from one part of their range to another, especially where roads
had bisected their range and created edge effects. If these points and
the land on either side can be safeguarded then they are able to range as they
need. It will also to a large degree prevent conflicts with people.
|We are not moving until you do...|
|Get off the road!|
|An elephant hit by a train|
|Corridors and Crossing Points are vital for elephants to range freely|
As we continue these observations helped by our international volunteers our knowledge and awareness is bound to increase, which in turn will translate into effective conservation efforts to save the endangered Sri Lankan elephant.