Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hannah's First Hand Experiences of Human Elephant Conflicts

Hannah Patterson is a student currently at the University of Birmingham studying Anthropology and Classical Literature and Civilization in a joint honours programme.  For a month, from July 1st to the 31st Hanna did a project on human elephant conflicts for her university dissertation at the SLWCS project site at Wasgamuwa.   This is her account of her experiences during the month she spent at the SLWCS project site.

Hannah Patterson
I did not really know what to expect when arranging to do my dissertation research with the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society. During the month I spent with SLWCS, I have been incredibly lucky to not only see elephants on 20 out of the 29 days but also many aspects of the reality of human-elephant conflict on a first-hand basis.                          

A large herd drinking at the drying out Weheragalagama Tank
Not having any previous knowledge about how elephant activity is scientifically recorded I was eager to learn about the techniques SLWCS used and what sort of results were been discovered.  Chandima, the SLWCS Field Projects Coordinator is clearly very knowledgeable in this field and took time to explain the society’s research procedures to me and their significance to understanding the human-elephant conflict in this part of Sri Lanka.                         

Heading out to the field with other volunteers and SLWCS field staff

With Chandima and the rest of the team gathering field data
The observations at the tree hut revealed how often just one section of the corridor was used by both humans and elephants and how dangerous it can be for both parties. It was interesting to see how different people reacted while travelling through the corridor as young children feared for their safety while attempting to walk home from school while often tuk tuk drivers seemed indifferent to the threat of a hiding elephant as they drove their vehicles at top speed making a lot of noise. 

The Tree Hut provided an ideal window into human elephant interactions
A family and an elephant using the corridor at the same time
Running away when the elephant begins to head in their direction

Two Buddhist Monks and a motorcyclist walking past a bull elephant

Two men cycling past several elephants

A man and woman looking alertly at an elephant while walking to their village

Two Land Master tractors driving past a large bull elephant
Seeing a herd of eighteen, with one of them a magnificent tusker and a couple of young calves, on my second day of been in the field was a truly amazing experience. However, when spending a night in the tree hut I was woken in the early hours to the sight of a bull elephant with a snare tightly wound around its trunk, probably making it impossible for it to eat. Chandima contacted the Department of Wildlife Conservation in the hope that they could do something for the elephant. However, I heard no news about this matter for the rest of my stay in Sri Lanka so I remain worried for the elephant’s health. 

A herd of 18 elephants under the Tree Hut

A part of the herd approaching the Tree Hut

The elephant with a snare around its trunk

A bull with a large cyst that had grown over a gunshot wound
Human encroachment into the elephant habitat was made further apparent while conducting research on the transect trails. It became obvious that some areas were being used by elephants more often than others. For example, the transect from the tree hut to the national park proved to be very popular as there were many samples to record, possibly because it is considered to be a safer route of travel by the elephants as it is hidden in the forested areas. Furthermore, throughout my time I saw dung with evidence of crop raiding through the remains of sweetcorn, cucumber, jack fruit, watermelon and rice. Not to mention that significant number of the samples we did record also contained large amounts of plastic and other rubbish.                                  
Poop Investigators analyzing elephant dung
Before arriving at SLWCS I had never heard of elephants entering rubbish dumps however I have now seen for myself that elephants will travel to these areas specifically in search of discarded food from villages and towns. On a trip to Dambulla we went into a dump on the whim that an elephant may be around and actually just as we got there three elephants came to the dump almost immediately. It was quite upsetting to see these magnificent creatures shovel bag after bag of discarded household waste into their mouths. These rubbish dumps are a rich resource of food that is easily accessible for the elephants therefore it is understandable that they would travel to these areas regularly.                       

Three elephants eating at a garbage dumb by the Bakamuna Dambulla Road
While conducting my own research for my dissertation Chandima helped me interview some of the local people. Everyone was so friendly inviting us into their homes and appearing genuinely interested in my research and the questions I was asking. It was fascinating to hear all the real life experiences that these people have faced with elephants - with some people encountering these animals nearly every day.                                                 
A village home broken by an elephant

The owner inspecting the damage the elephant had caused

The bags of stored food crops the elephant had eaten 

Discussing with the owners their experiences with crop raiding elephants
However, it is one thing to hear about these experiences and another to experience similar ones yourself. While driving past the electric fence one evening a bull elephant swam across the river to face us on the other side and looked as if it would try and break through. The elephant had to be scared away by villagers shouting. However, the next morning the fence has been broken in a different area and there was clear evidence of crop damage from where the elephant had walked through a field into the village. Despite the fence being fixed by villagers immediately, a few days later a man in the village was killed by an elephant- thought to be the same one that we saw a few times by the fence. This tragedy had an obvious effect on the community as they all came together to pay their respects*. Witnessing this grief made the statistic the equivalent of one person every week dies from elephants attack in Sri Lanka feel almost too real to bear. This moment made me realise how truly important the work of SLWCS as these communities live in fear for their safety each day.            

*When such incidence happens at SLWCS project sites, the society provides financial assistance to the victim’s family.

A bull waiting to cross into a village

The villager was killed by an elephant on July 25th night while protecting his crops
I have had the most amazing month here and really do not want to leave!  I will definitely miss Siriya and his hilarious antics.  I recommend all volunteers to ask him to dance his “Chicken Dance” before they leave—it is a must see!  I can’t thank Chandima enough for helping me with my dissertation research!  I’m also going to miss the three cats, Useless and Sebastian, though not the female Princess* that much since she only ever loved me for my food.  Little AD (Amaray the Asiatic Scops Owl) had grown so much while I have been here and I hope he stays safe and well.  I’ve been so lucky to see and be up-close to so many elephants (sometimes too close for comfort).  I will definitely be back soon.

*Editors note: Sebastian's and Princess' actual names are Meaningless and Nonsense. 

Heading out to the field with Siriya in the faithful old Land Rover Gloria

Amaray (AD) with Meaningless (Sebastian) and Nonsense (Princess)
I hope to return to Pussellayaya in the next year or two to see how the society has progressed and revisit what I now consider to be my old friends. This has truly been an unforgettable experience and I am really glad I have been a part of the work that SLWCS does—even if it was for such a short time.

Visiting one of the ancient and historic Buddhist Temples


  1. Good article .. wide experience .. in Sri Lanka Wild Life ..

    Janaka Mudalige .. Director .. Ministry of Defence

  2. What an incredible experience learning about the challenges of resolving human elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka.