Lizzie has a proper ‘field day’: the first of many!

Lizzie honing her elephant ID skills on Udawalawe’s calves

By Lizzie Webber

“Maybe your camera is as excited as you!!” Ashoka teased with a huge grin as I fiddled with my temperamental camera, trying to get it to work again. Tomorrow was to be my first day studying wild elephant calves, and after a year of planning, I just couldn’t keep my toes from wiggling in excitement!!

Coming from the cool summer climate of Scotland, I travelled to sunny Sri Lanka to join Shermin, Ashoka and the rest of the team studying Asian elephants in Uda Walawe National Park. I want to compare the physical and behavioural development of elephant calves in the wild and captivity. I’m really hopeful that this work, looking at the differences, will help us to make sure that the elephants in captivity are as happy as they can be. Studying how the calves grow and their development of motor and social skills may also help us to understand what it takes to rear a healthy elephant calf successfully. Knowing why some calves survive and others don’t can help improve the success of breeding elephants in zoos so that youngsters are never again taken out of the wild, or separated from their original families. I also hope this would allow us to measure the stability of elephant populations- both in the wild, and those in captivity.

Bitsy’s calf, [cBitsy], behind [Blanche] who’s distinguished by her white tail hairs.

At 6am on my first field day, the UWERP team, myself & my wiggling toes, headed for the park. I quickly realised that my methods of recording calf behaviour used in the UK needed some serious alterations for the wild calves, and that I’d have my work cut out learning to identify the adult females. And then there was the question of which little guy belonged to which of these adults?! Some of the elephants have names which are pretty self-explanatory: ‘Blanche’ with white hairs on her tail, ‘Bitsy’ a large elephant with itsy-bitsy ears, or ‘Bare-tail’ who doesn’t have much hair on her tail but who I think should be given a MUCH prettier name relating to the beautiful bright depigmentation about her eyes which give her the appearance of wearing a reddish-pink super-hero’s mask!

Gently nudging aside my sheer delight & excitement at being near the Uda Walawe elephants, I managed to get down to the business of concentrating on individual calves. Each calf is named by a letter denoting its age category, followed by its mother’s ID code. Newborn calves are under 6months old, and on my first day we came across 3 little guys; [n002], [n219] and [nDEV].  In fact [002] is Raka and therefore [n002] is Raka’s feisty little calf, who featured in ‘The Mystery Newborn’ story posted earlier this year.

Raka and [219] look very similar and so were difficult to tell apart.  Gradually, I learned that Raka has sharper corners on her ears, unlike the curved arches of [219]’s which remind me more of soft nan breads!  From the side, [219] had a little dip in her backbone, while Raka has pink pigmentation behind her ear as though someone has just crayoned her in pale pink. In another grouping we identified [nDEV], a rather special calf. ‘DEV’ (short for Devika & also called “Big-Collared” due to a radio collar which she has since nearly worn away) was released into the park from the nearby Elephant Transit Home where they rehabilitate orphaned calves. So knowing that she has a calf of her own is quite promising!

[219] nursing her calf, [c219]

I’m delighted that my time here will be filled with gaining new personal skills and knowledge. In addition to learning how to ID all the elephants here, one talent I aspire to achieve is to become as skilled as Shermin with her “elevision” in scouring the landscape for groups of elephants whilst simultaneously “surfing the jeep” as Ashoka or Sameera masterfully navigates the park’s bone-jarring terrain. The great news is that within a week I can feel a vast improvement in my land-surfing skills (fewer bruises!) and a great lesson on behaviour has already been uncovered: that an elephant’s behaviour is very different than that of the elephant-shaped-bush/tree/grass/shrub/rock that I could unfortunately claim I was much more adept at spotting. I’m hoping I’ll manage to hone in my skills!

Just before 6pm, it’s time for us to leave the elephants to it, (both real and imagined) and head out of the park. The jeep, however, decided upon a momentary break-down to compose itself after the day’s exhilaration, causing an unanticipated extension to our day. Although a little nervous about not knowing how long we’d be stranded in the park, I was secretly thrilled by the hope of seeing a leopard at dusk. No such luck this time, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled! Sameera worked some magic on the jeep and we were stranded just long enough to see the sun set on an incredible first day I certainly will never forget.

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