Friday, January 31, 2014

A Day in the Life of an SLWCS Volunteer - And how HEC became real for one visitor from NYC

By Christina Saylor

Christina - City Girl gone wild in the jungles of Sri Lanka

Christina Saylor is the typical city girl living and working in the Big Apple where "jungle" and "wild" are generally used as metaphors to imply vastly different things to their true meaning.   

On and Off Broadway, Soho, Central Park, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village and Herald Square would be more in line with the type of terrain Chris would traverse routinely during her daily peregrinations. The last thing you would’ve expected is for Chris to pack her bags one day and head off to the tropical jungles of Sri Lanka, (where "jungle" and "wild" are not metaphors but do exist in their truest form) to help mitigate human-elephant conflicts!  And this is exactly what she did in the summer of 2013. 

NYC citizens are not unfamiliar with poop and are quite adept at side stepping it in its various guises since there is no shortage of the stuff in the big city, left with the compliments of pigeons, dogs, horses and "lord knows what."  But even for hardened New Yorkers if they had encountered an elephant turd on Park Avenue it would’ve caused much concern and raised a few eyebrows. 

This is Chris’ story volunteering with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) where she tracked elephants and became very familiar with their poop while helping to unravel the secrets of their progenitors.

Christina's Story

Last summer I spent two weeks volunteering with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), and believe me when I tell you I learned a LOT about elephant poop. I am a city girl, after all. I had no idea you can determine an elephant’s sex, age, and size from its poop. 

Extracting secrets from elephant dung
When I envisioned participating in the program Saving Elephants by Helping People, I had romantic daydreams about watching wild elephants sweep their trunks across grassy plains at sunset while they trumpet a welcoming bellow toward their well-meaning observers. As it turns out that happened too. But there are a lot of hours to fill before sunset! And assessing dung is important because it can tell you whether an elephant has been into a farmer’s crops, snacking at the garbage dump or eating its’ natural diet of manna grass or other vegetation. 

What I could not have fully understood before my trip is how complicated human-elephant conflict is. I witnessed it from both sides of the fence (or in this case the road). In fact, in just one afternoon, I went through the excited anticipation of seeing a large group of elephants, the quick dissipation of that excitement after meeting a terrified villager, and the awe of watching a herd move through the Sri Lankan twilight.

But that all happened in the afternoon, and this post is a “day in the life of.” In order for you to get a full sense of how much fun it is to volunteer with the SLWCS, I think we should start with breakfast… 

It was August 23rd, four days after I had arrived at the SLWCS field house. That morning, Leila, the house cook, made hoppers--a fermented crepe that would become my favorite Sri Lankan treat.  

Hoppers - my favorite Sri Lankan treat

Fortified by hoppers,  Monica, Alex and I set out with Chandima. Our task was cleaning “sand” traps--spots of cleared earth on steep forested hills meant to capture the paw prints of otherwise elusive leopards.

Setting a sand trap
Veroni, an SLWCS field guide, led us up and down the sharp inclines easily finding the traps which were hidden under dried leaves. After raking them clear, we broke up the heat-hardened dirt and set a smooth, soft top layer. The slopes were so steep, we had to prop ourselves against trees to stay upright. 

Veroni by a sand trap 

Setting sand traps is hard work in steep jungle terrain
Raking the trap

Taking a break after a hard day's work
It was hard, hot work, but we were rewarded with a stop at Veroni’s house where her father extracted ripe jackfruit from towering trees. Looking at a jackfruit you might never guess what a treat lies inside its stubby armor-like skin. Veroni’s father cut one open and spread the skin to loosen its bright fleshy gems. 

Veroni's father plucking jackfruits

Jakfruit - its exterior does not look appetizing at all

But once its cut open it undergoes a transformation

The pulpy bulbs or pods of a ripe jackfruit

 “Tastes like bubble gum!” we exclaimed, which, when translated, elicited a laugh from our Sri Lankan host.

Lunch and a swim in the tank (or lake) near the field house soon followed. I spent a lot of time looking out over that lake during my stay. The first time I saw it, the horizon was aflame in amber sunrise. It was my first morning in the field house, and I was the only person awake. It felt incredible to be in this remote place that was both utterly strange and beautiful.

The sun rise over the lake is spellbinding
Not only was the lake pretty, but Monica, Alex and I quickly discovered it was the only refuge during the brutal afternoon heat. After our swim and a bit of rest, we climbed back into the Land Rover to drive to the Weheragalagama (WG) tank.

The heat refuge - Pussellayaya Tank
This was such a lovely part of everyday... heading out to the WG tank where we would wait for the elephants. They were fickle. Sometimes we would see them; sometimes not. But the scenery was always gorgeous. 

The littoral plain of the WG Tank

Waiting by the WG Tank for elephants to show up
At the WG Tank

Observing elephants at the WG Tank
A family herd and a large bull at the WG Tank
This particular afternoon a family group of 5-6 elephants meandered out of the forest onto the grass. We watched them through binoculars and recorded characteristics on data sheets: ear-fold direction, tail length, tuft qualities, scars, etc. Chandima would compare his close-up photos against our sheets and fine tune the data. 

A data sheet
We were all struck by how many scars marked the elephants. Chandima explained that 80 percent of the WG elephants were marked from shotgun wounds.  Apparently some rural farmers have shotguns but cartridges are expensive and difficult to acquire.  So they keep using the same cartridge cases which they fill with stuff like ball bearings and old nuts and bolts.  While these homemade ammunition cannot kill an elephant outright some do die from wounds that become infected.  This is a horrendous and prolonged death for an elephant.  It can suffer for months before succumbing to the gunshot injuries. 

A bull with a healed gunshot wound which had formed into a cyst 

Most villagers don’t want to kill the elephants, but they will shoot them if necessary to protect homes and crops. Almost every member of our family group had at least one telltale scar. 

I felt sad for the elephants, that they should suffer pain for doing only what is in their nature--seeking out available food sources. And it was no wonder they looked to the crops, particularly during dry season (July through September) when the elephants’ food sources are naturally less abundant, a problem compounded by the villagers’ slash-and-burn agricultural practices. While the burning provides a fertile plot in the short-term, it can destroy the already scant grasses that the elephants eat. Around this same time, many crops grown by the villagers are coming into harvest. If you’re an elephant, food is food, whether it’s wild manna grass or someone’s carefully cultivated cucumber patch.  We came across dung with cucumber plants that had sprouted from seeds left after an elephant ate a cucumber.

Burning destroys whatever food that is available for elephants during the dry season

A cucumber seed that had germinated in elephant dung

After some time, the family group slipped away. Chandima thought they were headed for another tank, so we jumped back in the Land Rover and drove up to the road to follow. Not far along, we came across a farmer and two women who had paused because they heard another larger group of elephants nearby. 

A herd of elephants crossing the road
Elephant-human interaction on the road is not uncommon, but it can be dangerous. Villagers typically walk or bike, or as in this case, might drive a hand tractor, which provides no protection. To help ensure they stayed safe, Chandima invited the women into the Land Rover and asked the farmer to drive very close behind until we reached their turn-off.  

Chandima estimated there were at least 10 elephants, and I was really excited. Each time I saw an elephant, I was thrilled and awed!

Then I looked out the back of the Land Rover at the farmer behind us. I will never forget that moment because it was the first (and so far only) time I’ve ever seen a true expression of terror. The farmer was afraid for his life. My enthusiasm faltered. 

His fear was not without reason. Elephants are not animals of prey, but they will become aggressive if they feel threatened. Only three weeks earlier, a farmer had been killed by a bull elephant. I met his daughter in the English class that was being taught by SLWCS volunteers during my stay. I also heard from other Sri Lankans about families who took turns sitting up all night in tree huts over their farm plots to watch for elephants trying to "steal" their food. 

Villagers protect crops from tree huts similar to the one SLWCS uses for its observations

After we escorted the trio to their turn-off, we found a spot where we could watch the elephants without disruption. Within minutes, dark shapes formed in the twilight along the roadside. Chandima and I reached for our cameras, and our soft shutter clicks chased the forms back into the trees. 

We waited, trying not to move or even breathe heavily. We were rewarded for our patience. Twenty-eight elephants crossed the road in front of us. Some came quite close, and always there was at least one watching us carefully.

It was an incredible sight. You would likely not expect it, but these great, lumbering creatures move with incredible grace. They walk almost lightly, their adept trucks swinging and plucking as they move. 

The herd spread out in the littoral grass plain of the tank
Once across, the group moved further into the grass toward the tank and we drove back to the field house in the dark. We saw and smelled pre-crop fires burning in the distance. 

There was a special treat for dinner that night. Siriya had caught small tilapia from the tank near the field house. He tossed them with oil and chili and fried them crispy in a wok-like pan over the wood fire in the kitchen. They were delicious! Though I took the tourist opt-out on eating them bones and all like my Sri Lankan companions. 

As I fell asleep under my mosquito net in the complete rural darkness I thought about how complicated the HEC problem is. I also thought about how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to spend time with SLWCS, the villagers and the elephants. It was a trip that I will, without doubt, remember for a lifetime.

The Wild Bunch

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