Getting past COVID in Udawalawe 

By Salik Ansar

Before COVID-19, the field team would regularly visit the Udawalawe National Park to track and monitor the elephant population in the region. They update records by seeking out new calves, checking for injuries or deaths among the population, and observing their day-to-day behavior. All of this regular contact also maintains a good relationship with the park authorities. During the lockdown, however, this work was impossible to carry on and our visits occurred in fits and starts, on again off again every few months.

On top of that, our work with the local community had also come to a halt with the island-wide lockdowns. District boundaries, which ordinarily one could cross without the slightest thought, turned into checkpoints that harked back to the civil war. Udawalawe National Park in fact straddles two, and suddenly our field team, based in one district to the West side of the park, could not cross over to visit the communities we had been working with in the East. They nevertheless kept in touch by phone to ensure we can resume our work on the Coexistence Project when the lockdown is lifted.

On October 2nd 2021, there was a silver lining. The government decided to open the national park, not for tourists, but for conservationists and other relevant authorities. Our field team managed to get permission to visit the park due to the goodwill from years of working in the region. Sameera, Kumara and Janaka visited the park after four long months. They were to be actively working again and were keen to get a status check of the Udawalawe National Park.

Udawalawe National Park – roads levelled and clean with no visible litter.

The Landscape
The field team visited the park five times in the first week. The first noticeable change was that the park looked lush, with more trees – the lack of human intervention has allowed nature to grow freely. The lack of tourists also meant the park was free of garbage and litter. The break had also allowed park managers to maintain and expand of the reservoirs inside the park, making them more accessible to animals.

Expansion of a reservoir, removing silt. Animals benefit from this upkeep.


While nature taking its course resulted in positive changes inside the park, the same can’t be said about the farming community. During the months of lockdown, Sri Lanka experienced some erratic weather patterns. The farmers were at their wits’ end with the scorching hot daytime and heavy rainfalls throughout the night. Those that were allowed to cultivate land during the lockdown faced some difficulties due to the climate. However, the heavy rains have also contributed to the filling up of Udawalawe’s primary and secondary reservoirs. In the upcoming dry season, the water reservoir will give the ecosystem inside the park much-needed moisture and nourishment.

Elephants in the park

Kumara was most excited about the elephants and all the new developments in their world. The lapse of a few months in field visits created a gap in record-keeping and makes tracking new changes a lot harder. For Kumara and Janaka, it meant rendering void all their hard work in record-keeping from the beginning of the year. A lot can happen in the span of four months – migration of elephants to and from the national park, elephant deaths, physical injuries, birth of new calves and behavioral changes. Nevertheless, Kumara and Janaka were anything but discouraged and ventured on to observe new developments.

Over the five days spent in the park, they came across several new calves and assigned names (or numbers). Eight calves were spotted in the five-day period, five males and three females. As usual, these calves were often spotted with their mother or in a herd. Monitoring these calves allows us to see behaviour changes and monitor their movements inside the park. Kumara and Janaka will keep track of these baby elephants and observe how they grow (hopefully, some of them will be up for adoption next year!).

Calf resting after what probably was a tiresome day of exploring!
Another pudgy calf scratches itself against a handy trunk.

The calves were cute, but the most interesting was the spotting of two male elephants. It is known that male elephants go through a  “Musth” season. Musth indicates an increase in reproductive hormones and often is characterized by aggressive behavior among males that are of similar size (though not always) and simultaneously undergoing the same state. During their visits, Kumara and Janaka spotted two male elephants, identified as M355 and M076, both in their musth season. One was seen trying to approach a female herd, while the other was running towards another elephant in an aggressive manner. Being passionate about elephants and their well-being, watching how they behave, especially in musth, never gets old for Kumara despite many years on the job.

Because of the unpredictability of Covid-19 and lockdowns, the field team wanted to maximize the time spent in the park and avoid periods of non-observation in the future. Therefore, Sameera and the rest have been working to set up camera traps surrounding the park. This will help to monitor their movements, especially at well-known entry points and common footpaths.

As long as we are still able to access the park in the coming weeks (fingers crossed!), we will continue to share more stories and notes from the park. Till then… stay tuned!

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Human-Elephant Conflict: Opportunities for coexistence

As the world grows more crowded, spaces inhabited by wildlife and humans tend to overlap resulting in human-wildlife conflict (HWC). While peaceful coexistence is possible, negative encounters due to various factors continue to be a challenge in conservation. Human expansion into wildlife habitat is especially problematic for Asian elephants that need a large area for their ecological needs[1]. As a result, these animals break into human settlements and cause significant losses to the community. 

Asian elephants are found to impose the highest damages with a probability of 35.1%.[4] Photo by Lokesh Kaushik on Unsplash

Home to large numbers of Asian elephants, India’s rural population carries the daily risk of human-elephant conflict (HEC) especially in places where resources are nature-based. The practice of monoculture (planting only one type of crop in a given area), in regions like Karnataka is found to increase the frequency of HEC which can have a major negative impact on local sentiments and behavior towards conservation[2,3]. In relation to this, the country is reported to incur an estimated one million hectares of destroyed crops and 10,000 to 15,000 damaged properties yearly[4]. While these losses are often used as the basis for calculating economic impacts, there exists an irreversible casualty usually unaccounted for: human life. 

In India, the country with the largest number of Asian elephants, HEC kills 500 humans and 100 elephants every year[5]. This retaliatory elephant killing is a serious threat in conservation and is a driving factor to the decline in population[3]. A study by Gulati et al. (2019) encompassing 5000 households in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra examined damages to property and human casualties as a result of HWC[4].  Among the animal species (pig, nilgai, elephant, leopard, tiger, wolf and others) evaluated in the study, the damages caused by elephants amounted to a fifth of a farmer’s yearly crop income. Furthermore, these damages were 600 to 900 times more than that of a farmer experiencing losses from other herbivores, namely the pig and nilgai. The study’s authors therefore concluded that the elephant brought about more casualties than other species included in the study. In addition, human death only occurred in two reserves out of five, namely Nagarahole and Bandipur, but the calculated cost from the risk of injury or death from HEC already amounted to $42,236. While the Indian government provides monetary compensation for human injury and death, this only amounts to an average of $3,234 for mortality and $103 for injuries across the four states.

Damages from Asian elephants are 600 to 900 times more than that of other herbivores namely the pig and nilgai.[4] Photo by Sauhrab Mishra on Unsplash.

The current status of HEC in India tells us that much remains to be done. At present,  negative incidents seem inevitable due to the increasing number of settlements near protected areas. A long-term goal of conservationists is to enable coexistence between humans and elephants. To aid this effort, the United Nations Environment Programme and World Wildlife Fund have published The Six Elements of HWC Management[3]

  • Understanding the conflict : Measures such as research on hotspot mapping and community attitudes to understand the context for conflict.
  • Mitigation: Lessening the aftereffects of HWC through compensation, alternative livelihoods, employment etc.
  • Response: Tackling ongoing HWC through organized teams, mechanisms, and standard operating procedures. 
  • Prevention: Preventing the occurrence of HWC through devices such as fences, detection tools, warning signals etc.
  • Policy: Involvement of government and authorities by creating management measures and mechanisms. 
  • Monitoring: Assessing the efficiency of HWC interventions through acts like data collection. 

At the time of writing, Karnataka has initiated an early warning system signal through text messages, online messaging applications, and sign boards which significantly reduced deaths and injuries a year into its launch in 2018[6]. In 2020 the government of India has also launched Surakhsya[7], a compendium on best practices of HEC management, with a positive outlook towards supporting efforts to minimize conflict and reaffirm the protection of elephants by mobilizing resources supported by the government.

References:

1Neupane, D., Kwon, Y., Risch, T. S., Williams, A. C., & Johnson, R. L. (2019). Habitat use by Asian elephants: Context matters. Global Ecology and Conservation, 17, e00570. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00570

2Ramanan, SS. (2019, February 14). Landscape-level approach necessary to address human-elephant conflicts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/landscape-level-approach-necessary-to-address-human-elephant-conflicts-63242

3United Nations Environment Programme & World Wildlife Fund. (2021, July 8). A Future for All: The Need for Human-Wildlife Coexistence. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/future-all-need-human-wildlife-coexistence

4Gulati, S., Karanth, K. K., Le, N. A., & Noack, F. (2021). Human casualties are the dominant cost of human–wildlife conflict in India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(8), e1921338118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1921338118

5Nandi, J. (2020, August 10). At least 500 persons are killed in human-elephant conflict every year: Environment min data. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/at-least-500-persons-are-killed-in-human-elephant-conflict-every-year-environment-min-data/story-MbLQNN5Snm22W6gC32Of0I.html

6Niyogi, DG. (2019, February 21). Early elephant warning systems help, but are short-term measures: Experts. DownToEarth. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/early-elephant-warning-systems-help-but-are-short-term-measures-experts-63311

7Fernandes, B. (2020, August 12). World Elephant Day: Union Min Prakash Javadekar launches portal on human-elephant conflict. Republic World. https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/union-min-prakash-javadekar-launches-human-elephant-conflict-portal.html

Conservation Amidst COVID-19

By USW

Life has been a challenge for everyone these past two years. COVID-19 has made every little aspect different and difficult. Much like everyone else, I too, had to adapt and change to this new normal. The country’s situation was much better in 2020 than in 2021. As the virus started to spread, many rules and restrictions were imposed, our conservation work was hindered.  Meanwhile, the lockdowns enabled increases in poaching, elephant killings, human-elephant conflict and the like.

Against such a backdrop, I tried my very best to stop these unauthorized activities in and around the Udawalawe National Park, relying on the assistance of farmers, villagers, environmental organizations, the Wildlife Conservation Department, and the Forest Department. Both the Wetakhirakanda and the Dahaiyagala corridor were key area of focus for most of these activities. Over the years being in this region and my work outside of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, I have strengthened relationships with these stakeholders – especially the villagers and farmers – which allow me to be updated and be quick to respond to any such activities.

The Dahaiyagala Incident

The beginning of 2021 was a terrible period for the environment. The current government, led by the President, made decisions that caused a number of environmental catastrophes all over the country. These included many illegal land development strategies. Although, the government wasn’t directly involved, their lack of involvement saw an increase in illegal land clearing by local councilmen and thugs in the area. The deforestation of forests such as Sinharaja and Muthuraja are some of the prime examples. In addition, certain places surrounding the Polonnaruwa tank, where elephant sightings are common, were also part of the mass deforestation.

An illegal clearing at the Dahaiyagala corridor.

The President, in a surprising move, seemed to have decided to de-gazette the Dahaiyagala Elephant Corridor between Udawalawe and Bogahapalessa and distribute that land to the farmers in that region (see: Deja Vu at Dahaiyagala). I was one of the first to become aware of this. It was crucial to quickly bring this information to the public as it would hinder the movement of the elephants traveling from Bogahapitya to Udawalawe and vice versa. This would in turn increase the human-elephant conflict since fencing off parts of the Dahaiyagala Sanctuary would leave elephants no choice but to encroach human habitation in search of food. Environmentalists, some local villagers, civil society activists, ex-officers and I were actively looking for ways to put a stop to this.

Despite the COVID situation rapidly getting out of control, with my family’s support, I was still able to create the necessary awareness to halt the deforestation. My family during this time was very supportive – knowing the risks I was taking by meeting with the public, putting my family and children at the risk of contracting the virus, they still understood the importance of protecting the Dahaiyagala corridor, especially what it meant to the elephants.  Like us, many others shared the same feeling. Working together, the issue was brought under control, which made it massively satisfying. There were certain sections of the Dahaiyagala forest cleared by the local councilmen and local area thugs, however, the main clearing of the land by the government was halted and that was a major win for all of us. In more ways than one, I felt like this was my small contribution to reducing the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.

The Dahaiyagala situation caused a stir all throughout Sri Lanka and helped bring attention to the many other deforestation issues occurring around the country. Many Lankans who usually were oblivious to the environmental destruction, became aware and vocal about the deforestation. In March 2021, I participated in large protest in Colombo, over a thousand gathered, many of them youngsters. Participating in this protest was not in itself a big achievement but it made me see the number of youngsters taking part and gave me hope for our future.

Rambo’s future

Next major thing that happened this year was the attempt to relocate our infamous Rambo, the elephant. Rambo once thrilled the tourists who flocked to Udawalawe. The chance to feed him fruits was a popular attraction for the local and international tourists alike. More than once, the Department of Wildlife conservation (DWC) initiated steps to capture the 50-year old Rambo and relocate him to Horowupathana Elephant Detention Center – which is just as it sounds, a prison for misbehaving elephants. Now on hard times with no tourists to be fed by, Rambo has been raiding nearby farmlands for fruits as well as the sugarcane fields just across the road. As he is now a threat to the farmer’s crops and their lives, the DWC decided to take this action to reduce human-elephant conflict.

Rambo was a year-round resident of Udalawawe National Park, where he is supposed to be protected. This was not his fault – it was people who created the problem. I did not want to see him spend his last few days in some detention center. He has a right to live in Udawalawe and I was determined to make sure he does. To get this information to public, I started telling his story bits by bits to my followers on Facebook and hoped for the information to spread.

Soon many heard about the plans in store for Rambo. Environmentalists and other activists reached out to me and we started to work on finding ways to halt this relocation.  During this time, a revered monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, got together with me and was able to speak to the farmers and convince them that relocation was not a permanent solution. If not Rambo, sooner or later it will be another elephant in the same situation.  Ven. Sobitha Thero and I also spoke to the DWC Director and he finally agreed to stop the relocation of Rambo and let Rambo stay in Udawalwawe. The director also assured us a solution to crop raids in the coming weeks, which we communicated to the farmers.  Rambo being able to roam free in Udawalawe National park is a small victory for me.

However, over the next few weeks and till this day, DWC are yet to provide a solution for the crop raids. With each passing day, the farmers are becoming restless and I fully realize that my word and responsibility are on the line. We do worry that one day, man or elephant, someone will get hurt.

Rambo pleasing the tourists.

What Comes Next?

The Covid 19 situation now has been out of control in Sri Lanka and the country is once again imposing travel restrictions and lockdowns in many parts. However, this hasn’t reduced the environmental destruction or elephant deaths. Many were electrocuted and shot this past year, and Sri Lanka is on track to break its world record for elephant deaths again. During every situation I dedicate myself to be involved in some way.  One of the saddest moments of this past year was when I witnessed a female elephant consuming the “hakka pattas” – a man-made grenade (Read: Explosive Food and What It Tells Us About Ourselves). She suffered for two days, despite the assistance of some local villagers and Dr. Malaka Kasun, the veterinarian’s, care, she passed away.

Ever since I was a child, I always loved the environment, and it’s that love that propels me to go above and beyond any situation, dedicating my time and effort completely to the cause. Regardless of the country situation, I still continue to help the farmers in any way possible. I make sure the next generation is educated about the environment so that the cycle of destruction does not carry forward. I believe that mother nature can cure and solve all our problems, but in order to do so, we must love the nature and protect it as best as we could. I live by these principles and I will do my part in this world. Let us hope as the year progresses, things turn out better.

Sameera Weerathunga is the Field Manager and Project Coordinator of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project.

Follow these stories @trunksnleaves, #DefendDahaiyagala and #UWERP.


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The Global Goals and Asian Elephant Conservation

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for people and the planet. In celebration of Earth Month, we broke down all 17 Global Goals to discover how each relates back to our mission to protect and conserve Asian elephants and their habitat.

Global Goal 1: No Poverty

In developing countries where elephants roam wild, like Sri Lanka, poverty and elephants can become intertwined. Small farmers can lose their entire livelihood overnight from an elephant raid, and an 8,000 pound animal walking through a farm can destroy everything in its path.

Finding ways for farmers to make a living alongside Asian elephants is key to the survival and success of both elephants and people. Our Coexistence Project studies both sides to develop innovative ways that farmers can maintain a steady income while living peacefully alongside wild Asian elephants.

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The Sumatran Elephant: Human-Elephant Conflict, Habitat Use and Home Ranges

By Gaius Wilson

The Sumatran elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus), found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, is critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The population is decreasing with approximately 1500 elephants left in the wild in fragmented populations. Deforestation, loss of habitat and poaching for ivory are amongst the major threats to the survival of this species.

The Leuser Ecosystem (which forms a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’) and Ulu Masen in Aceh, Sumatra are a stronghold for the critically endangered Sumatran elephant and other critically endangered wildlife (e.g. orangutans, rhinoceros, and tigers). Both Leuser and Ulu Masen are essential for the survival and conservation of the Sumatran elephant, but much of their habitat falls outside the protected areas and in the most threatened lowland forests, creating elephant human contact. This makes it critical that effective mitigation strategies are developed that take into account elephant behaviour and the use of technology such as early warning systems to reduce conflict with the local communities.

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Can Asian elephants use water as a tool?

By Dr. Lisa P. Barrett

Asian elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo

The floating object task is a puzzle that comparative cognition researchers present to animals (including humans) to study the evolution of cognitive abilities, like cause and effect understanding and the ability to use water as a tool. To solve the task and retrieve the floating reward inside, you must add water to a tube to raise the water level and reach the reward. Some primates, like orangutans have been able to solve the task by carrying water in their mouths from a drinker and spitting it into the tube to reach a peanut.

My colleague, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, and I presented this puzzle to elephants for the first time (Barrett & Benson-Amram, 2020). We wanted to see if elephants’ unique trunk morphology would make them well-equipped for the floating object task. Since they spray water for bathing, and hold water in their trunk as a vessel for bringing it to their mouth, we predicted that they would be up for the task. We collaborated with the National Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo to carry out this research. We used a tube filled about 1/3 of the way with water, baited with a floating marshmallow. As is often the case with animal research, things did not go as we expected.

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Deja Vu at Dahaiyagala

by SdS

Elephants at the Pokunutenna reservoir.

When we saw the destruction, we felt that strange sensation of history repeating. We’d been here before, a little over ten years ago.

Dahaiyagala sanctuary is a little-known, nondescript little strip of forest north of Udawalawe National Park, one of the two official “corridors” that supposedly links the park to the outside world. It is supposed to lead to another forest area, which conservationists and wildlife authorities refer to as Bogahapattiya. It also borders Pokunutenna village, a hotbed of unrest with respect to human-elephant conflict. Dahaiyagala represents unfinished business to the various parties, in very different ways.

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A Christmas Wish

By USW

Back in 2004, a male calf was born to the young female elephant, 458. The calf had baby tusks and this made his birth all the more special. He was named Therapuththa, or T458. We named him Therapuththa but labeled him as T458, following his mother’s ID, this is because it helps us keep track of him in the future when we catalog his movements, features and characteristics. His name, Therapuththa, was taken from ancient history: it is said that King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors protecting him and Therapuththa was one of the most loyal and endearing ones. The mother, 458, was often spotted with two other female elephants, who we have labelled as 040 and 041. After tracking this herd for so many years, we have unfortunately not seen any calves after Therapuththa. So he was quite special, besides being a tusker, which is rare in Sri Lanka.

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Support Asian Elephant Conservation with Holiday Gifts that Give Back

The holiday season is upon us! As you start your holiday shopping, consider giving a unique gift that gives back.

From notebooks and weekend totes to performance shirts and cozy blankets, our Elephant Store has the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Best of all, your purchase will directly support our work to protect endangered Asian elephants and their habitats.

Read on to get inspired with our 2020 holiday gift guide.

For the Wildlife Lover…

Symbolically adopt a wild Asian elephant with our Elephant Adoption Kit. Each animal available for adoption represents a real individual from the population in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka. Adopters receive a Certificate of Adoption, exclusive information and updates about the elephant, and the option to add an adorable plush. 

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Can Lemongrass Help Reduce Human-Elephant Conflict in Sri Lanka?

By Salik Ansar  

So-called human-elephant conflict has been a recurring issue in Sri Lanka for years. With no viable and permanent solution, different organizations and groups come up with their own plan and methods of dealing with this dilemma. Some, of course, favor humanity at the cost of the wildlife.

With farmers constantly suffering from crop raids and elephants being subjected to agonizing forms of repellents, Trunks & Leaves dedicated our energy and resources to finding a suitable solution to this issue. Our aim is to achieve peaceful coexistence between people and elephants by developing sustainable agricultural models that are compatible with elephants and, at the same time, securing the livelihoods of farmers. We believe that the solution to this is to understand the problem from both angles: the elephants and the farmers.

A few months ago, we partnered with HDDeS Pvt Ltd, one of the largest exporters of spices, essences and floral extracts in Sri Lanka, to test if incense sticks can deter elephants. This project has been set back due to the pandemic but is still ongoing. But we are now exploring ways to develop alternate sources of income for farmers who lose crops to elephants.

The climate and landscape of the Udawalawe region are fertile for plants like lemongrass, and the value of this plant has increased due to the commercial importance of aromatic oil. This is a product HDDeS needs, and research shows that it is not preferred by elephants. Thus, Trunks & Leaves and HDDeS Pvt. Ltd are interested in trying lemongrass as a supplementary crop to provide additional income which can hopefully offset losses from elephants.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) is an aromatic and tall sedge that grows in many parts of tropical and sub-tropical Southeast Asia and Africa.
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