Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mandi’s Reflections on Interning with the SLWCS in Wasgamuwa

Mandi (Amanda) Roberts is a student currently studying for a BSc (Hons) in Wildlife Conservation and Ecology at the University of Chester in England.  For two months from May 10th to the first week of July 2013, Mandi did a study on human elephant conflicts at the SLWCS project site in Wasgamuwa for her 3rd year dissertation. This is Mandi’s story about her internship experiences in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Mandi Roberts
For Learning in the Wider World, my placement was with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) project at Harapan Rainforest, Sumatra. I was due to follow this placement with 5 weeks in Sri Lanka with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) to conduct research on Human Elephant Conflicts for my third year dissertation.


I found organising the placement with RSPB in Sumatra very stressful from quite an early stage; there was a distinct lack of communication and lack of urgency to respond to emails which I found unacceptable considering the size of the organisation. Despite volunteering with my local RSPB reserve for over 18 months, I had never experienced that level of un-co-operation before. I had felt, prior to leaving the UK, that there was negativity about the placement despite opportunities to re-arrange it and offering to cancel or postpone the trip.

RSPB Field House in Harapan, Sumatra
I felt as though I was a hindrance before I had even arrived but, because it was such a good opportunity, I decided to put those negative feelings to one side and tried to make the most of it.  It became apparent that those negative feelings would be harder to shake; I found out that they had not arrange transport for me from Jambi airport to the camp (I at least had the initiative the night before to email again to ensure there was transport), the people whom I was supposed to be working with were all off on holiday for most of the first week—which would not have been a problem but I had asked them if they wanted me to postpone the trip at any point, and there was no formal plan for me to start when I arrived.  This, along with substandard and subsiding accommodation enhanced my feelings of being a burden and a hindrance.  Once the Head of Harapan project had returned to camp, he referred to me as a ‘problem,’ I assured him I wouldn’t be a problem but he repeated this comment over a few days to numerous other people. I could not tolerate this level of unprofessional conduct, it confirmed all my previous negative feelings and after a long talk with my mum about my options, I decided that it would be best to leave that placement early. I spoke to the founder of SLWCS and he was more than happy in bringing that part of my trip forward. After reading over my journal entries, I realised that I had not taken responsibility for my own actions in regards to cancelling the trip when I had the chance; I found, reading them back to be very interesting; maybe it was a self-fulfilled prophecy that the Indonesian leg of the trip be doomed to fail.

Sri Lanka - the view from the SLWCS Field House
Cultural Immersion – from Schools to Celebrations

Upon arriving at the field camp in Wasgamuwa, I felt instantly at ease and welcome despite the 7 hour drive from Colombo and 1.30 am arrival.  I didn’t expect to come to Sri Lanka to teach children, my first day was at Knuckles Mountain Range with around 60 students from 3 different schools—ranging from very poor to reasonably wealthy and primary to secondary. Two of the schools had English teachers but found that those children did not want to interact, but the children from the very poor school were smiling and very much enthusiastic about their day—for many of them, this was their first field trip, despite Knuckles being on their doorstep.

Handing out field work assignments to students
I assumed that if you live in the towns or cities, you had to make an effort to visit the great outdoors, whereas people who live in rural communities had it for the taking; what I found was that for most people in these rural communities, working 7 days a week and tending their farms meant they had little time to visit such places.
Distributing resuable bags* with fellow volunteer, Adam
*The reusable bags are made from rPET and were a donation to the SLWCS from Onya Innovations based in South Freemantle, Western Australia. 

It was daunting experience particularly as I have no prior experience in teaching or working with children. I brought a few extra things with me such as binoculars and a magnifying glass and introduced them to tree rubbings (in order to get the detail of the bark)—something I did as a child and naïvely assumed would be a standard practice in schools.  What surprised me the most, was not the children’s reaction to these things, though they did seem eager to try out them out, but that the teachers were perhaps more interested than the children! They were initially quite reserved but with the reaction from the children, the teachers seemed to try and jump the queue to try out the binoculars!

A group of children working on their assingments

Another group working on their assignment

Observing and recording information about the natural world

Another group removing litter

SLWCS Project Manager, Chandima explaining the assignments
SLWCS Project Manager, Chinthaka assisting a group of students
The great outdoor classroom

Class of May 2013
I and a volunteer had been asked to teach English in a class by the principal of one of the schools; which we were happy to do. There were 50 students aged around 10-11 years old, the classroom was of a level of heat I hadn’t expected and the teachers just abandoned us! We did have the field manager for SLWCS, Chandima Fernando and Field Scout Veroni (who is a teacher in training) so we at least had people who could translate for us. As some of the students had been to Knuckles the previous Saturday, we decided to keep to the theme of food chains, with the understanding that the children have some knowledge of English and the natural world. Turns out they knew very little of both! It was quite difficult explaining that a dolphin isn’t a freshwater fish and that vampire bats aren’t fruit eating birds; but they seemed to enjoy themselves!

The students apparently enjoyed their English lessons
As it turned out the best way to communicate with kids is through smiley faces and thumbs up (they got a bit too overexcited with double thumbs up!); we decided we had pitched the lesson plan too high for the children, they did enjoy learning the English names for some animals, so myself and Chandima decided it would be best to start next time with these simple translations.

An endemic horned lizard (Ceratophora species) in the Kunckles

A Blue Mormon butterfly
It was the celebration for Buddha’s birthday and two of the staff members were Buddhist, so I asked if it would be ok if I attended the local temple to see what the celebrations would be like. Veroni’s family were responsible for the main gift of flowers and had previously picked several hundred lotus flowers, which all needed to be prepared (to look as though they’re in bloom) before being donated; so I and several of the volunteers went to Veroni’s home to help with the preparation. It was a very relaxing experience, it was nice to see how other religions celebrate and at what lengths they adhere to the philosophies; it was a unique experience that I was glad to see and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite my atheism! The day ended with a trip to the temple to give another gift of flowers and to light incense sticks; as I and the other volunteers were not Buddhists we only stayed a very short time as we did not wish to divert attention to the reason why people were there.

Siriya with a basket of freshly picked purple lotus flowers
In Situ Field Research

Their small hills are my mountains
I have gained some experience in field research through my degree; however, as I wish to be based outside the UK, I wanted to gain experience working in a tropical environment.  I found the hardest thing to deal with was the heat and humidity; which I expected but did not appreciate how difficult it would be. The actual physical work of the line transects, creating sand traps and monitoring the electric fence was fine, but it was made so much harder when I had to deal with the heat and the speed in which you dehydrate. At times I did find it too much, particularly when trying to catch up with the field scouts; I decided fairly early on that if they were going too far ahead then I could just slow down or ask for a break; I passed this onto the volunteers that turned up in subsequent weeks as I noticed that some felt too embarrassed to ask for a break. It took a good week to acclimatise and I did notice that some tasks we did during the first two weeks were a lot easier towards weeks 4 and 5. 

I’ve been shown how to do GPS mapping which has been great and has given me the enthusiasm to look into GIS courses once I’ve returned home. Though technology is not my strong point (in fact, I try to avoid it where possible), GIS is something that would greatly benefit my career after my degree.

The favourite part of my day involved elephant monitoring. This took place in the elephant corridor, which was situated between three villages; data surrounding people and their use of the corridor was collected as too was the elephant population, demographics and time they were in the corridor. It was a very relaxing part of the day; I would sit on top of the Land Rover and wait for elephants to show (which happened less often then I would have liked!)*.  

*Note: In the forests along the corridor elephants are present most of the time but whether they would venture out into the open is depended on disturbances. In addition elephant movements are also seasonal. This is why the observations made and data collected at the Tree Hut is important to understand the temporal dynamics of the elephants in this area.

After the busy morning of conducting field research, it was a great end to the day. I managed to see one herd of 14 elephants, which was amazing but at the same time I’ve seen the growing conflict between people and elephants. The people use government issued firecrackers (which are essentially fireworks) to scare the elephants off, however in some cases, this only aggravates an elephant more and at other times, they throw the firecracker at the elephants deliberately to injure the elephant. I knew of some methods prior to coming to Sri Lanka; however I wasn’t aware of firecrackers and found the practice of using them disgraceful.  I am aware that as a westerner, it’s easy to be so judgemental about the use of firecrackers as the people do deal with raids of their crops; however, what I did find through conducting surveys in the villages, was that many of the people found it difficult to describe the behaviour of elephants they came across in the corridor and their first thought would be to throw a firecracker.  If the people knew how an elephant behaved, then I think that HEC could be alleviated a lot quicker, as much of the time, elephants will not react to people providing they’re quiet and do not disturb them.

A herd of elephants by the Tree Hut
An elephant that had approached very close to the vehicle
One aspect that has been brought to the forefront for me is that I’m a lot more controlling than I would like to believe; I have previously been a store manager and used to staff members doing what I asked, but I had to remind myself that I was working with fellow volunteers and not my staff, so it was not my place to say what could and could not happen. I did find this interesting and something to be aware of—I just like things the way I like them!

I assumed my development of communication and interpersonal skills would revolve around the discussion of ideas to mitigate HEC and other matters related to conservation; what I found is these skills were developed through the raising of AD the Collared Scops Owl.

AD the Asiatic Scops Owl
AD arrived at SLWCS a week before I did*; I don’t have any experience working with birds never mind raising an owl chick! I found that they had him in awful housing (a metal bucket with a lid on top) and fed him the wrong diet (a diet of fish, when his species does not consume it) which I quickly changed.

Around the middle of my first week, we had returned to the field camp from a morning out conducting research to find that AD had diarrhea, possibly from being fed a diet of nutrient poor fish.  Naturally very concerned, I attempted to clean him up and asked for someone to get fluids and sugar water; it quickly transpired that AD was a lot sicker than we had realised, when he began to have fits.  He had between 10-15 fits, each getting progressively worse than the last, with three major fits that resulted in entire body convulsions; to hear a chick scream out of pain is a truly awful thing to experience—he got so bad that the others had to leave as they found it too upsetting and Siriya said he couldn’t see AD anymore, it was a horrible moment to experience as he had said what I was thinking. Chandima had tried to reassure me that AD would be fine, but I knew from experiences my friends had had with birds of prey, when they finally show symptoms of being sick, its normally too late.

AD as a downy owlet
I kept a vigil by AD; continuously trying to make sure he had fluids, a small amount of rehydration salts (Boots own brand!!) and made sure he was comfortable and able to sleep.
In my own astonishment, he managed to pull through! I felt bad for the times I wished for someone to put AD out of his misery—and was quite glad I had never actually said it! I knew that someone—anyone—human or owl—couldn’t have that many fits and walk away without any problems, and the next day, we found he was blind.

I stayed in with AD the day after his fits, we played games where I would put him at one end of my bed and make whistling sounds for him to follow; which he did, he seemed to enjoy the interaction. I hoped that because he was still so young (around 3-4 weeks old) he would be able to recover at least part of his sight as he grew.

As of writing, AD is living off a diet of crickets, grasshoppers and geckos (we are currently in very short supply of geckos in the field house!); his sight has fully recovered and is becoming more adventurous with his flying!

AD after he recovered from the fits
I’ve managed to gain communication and interpersonal skills through the request of hoona and mia (geckos and mice) forAD’s meals with Siriya, who only speaks Sinhalese! 

Gecko (Huna or Hoona)

Mouse (Mia, Miya or Meeya)
I’ve been discussing AD’s future and in the creation of new, bigger cages for him until we can find a permanent residence. It’s certainly not what I expected to find when I came to Sri Lanka, but for me the whole experience has been made by the presence of AD; I felt like I had to share his story.

I’ve raised this little owl from a chick, through a very difficult period when he was very sick and the knowledge that he would never be able to be released into the wild is awful, as that is where he should be. Though the trip so far has been incredible, AD has been at the centre of everything I’ve done here; leaving him behind is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  He’s a ‘proper little owl’ now, though has a bit more growing to do and a very good reason for me to keep coming back to Sri Lanka!!

A memorable friendship. Mandi & AD (June 2013)


  1. Wildlife Conservation Society has initiated many environmental projects in Sri Lanka. They have shared unforgettable wild life experiences with Local & International students. I wish them .. all the best.

    Janaka Mudalige, Director (IT/118 Emergency), Ministry of Defence & Urban Development, Sri Lanka.

  2. Hello Mandy, I read your diary and found it all rather exciting especially AD's story! Am so glad he survived! I will be heading to Wasgamua soon and i hope to find your little friend in good spirits. I was also very happy to learn that your overall experience with SLWCS has been such a wonderful one. I volunteered with them many years ago and took away with me some memories i shall always cherish... from among them was one i'll never forget; being chased by an elephant tusker.... but that would make for another story!
    Cheers, Zeenath