It’s 6:30 am when we pull up to the school, to be greeted by a gaggle of anxious students and parents. Today we’re taking four jeeps, five teachers, the four of us, and a little over thirty kids who are part in the schools new ‘Nature Society,’ into the park on a field trip. The youngest is just 11 years old, while most are 16 or 17.
Ashoka and the principal (whose son is also in the group) explain the purpose of the visit. Many of these students have never been inside the park, though the school is barely 500 meters away from the main entrance, and many of them walk past it every day. Seeing elephants stalking the fence line and awaiting handouts from passing vehicles is part of their daily experience, but none have any idea how elephants truly live inside. Nor have they seen any of the other, smaller, more elusive creatures to whom this little piece of wilderness is home, or the many varied landscapes it contains. Today is the first of what we hope will be many activities with this and other schools to bring make the kids more familiar with the natural word before their very eyes, and hopefully, impress on them the importance of keeping it alive.
Having split off into two pairs of jeeps, we’re lucky enough to encounter elephants first thing in the morning. It’s the ‘B’ unit! By funny coincidence, each of the jeeps have encountered different members of the same group – Bashi and Blanche with some of their calves are found by one pair, while the other pair comes across Bitsy and Batik in one spot and Bianca and Baretail in another. We explain how we tell individuals apart and show them that males live apart from females and calves. We discuss the trees and vegetation as we go, pointing out how many trees and other plants are spread by elephants and explain the tight interdependent relationship between plants and the animals that pollinate or disperse them. We also show them how some non-native species have invaded the landscape. Overhead soar pelicans and kites.
For breakfast we convene on a big rock called Gonaviddagala, which has a panoramic view of the reservoir. The teachers are quite enjoying themselves and feel that this is the first time they themselves have learned anything about elephants.
As the morning sun gets stronger we head deeper into the forest until we come up to the Walawe River. The kids kick off their slippers and splash around for a while, laughing and posing for photographs with one another. When they’ve cooled off we line them up to photograph those who are participating in the pen pal program, and hand each one a hand-written letter. They arrange themselves along the river bank and Sameera gives them a short lesson on the trees along the river bank, showing them how vital the roots are for keeping the soil in place and keeping everything cool and moist despite the blazing sun.
As we head back up, the sun is high. We see a few little spotted deer hiding in the shade, buffalo and storks lining the water holes. Turtles and crocodiles sun themselves. Leaving the shade of the forest, I ask the kids: “Do you see what the trees do for us? What happens to our world when we cut them down everywhere?” They answer immediately in unison: “It becomes warmer!” There you go. For global warming skeptics, never was an explanation so simple.
Coming out of the park at last we take our leave of some very satisfied young citizens of the world who can’t wait for their next visit.