Stake-out, Part 1: Where did all the elephants go?

by SdS

A lone male at the reservoir was all we saw…

Back in 2007, 2008 and 2009 UWERP devoted intensive effort to surveying all parts of the park in order to make an estimate of the elephant population. Ten years on, it is time to re-do this exercise. What that means is that for a few specific months each year, we have to try and cover the park more evenly in space and time than we normally do when studying behavior. The trouble was, the elephants were missing. For much of the preceding weeks elephants had been scarce, so much so that guests were leaving annoyed. This was not unusual – I remembered that during the hottest and driest months, elephants usually stayed in the shade until late afternoon even back then. I supposed they were resting and conserving their energy until nightfall. But we could never know for sure.

For behavioral research, we tended to hang around the areas where elephants are more visible. Also, we would typically enter the park in the morning at 6am, come out for lunch during the hot mid-day hours when animals are resting and less visible, go back in around 2pm and have to leave again by 6pm. Since the park has only one entrance, this kind of pattern means that we would never observe animals in the interior during the early morning, mid-day or late afternoon, when they would be likely to come out of the forest to feed or drink.  To sample the area more evenly, we needed to mix it up – spend more time in roads that went through the forested interior of the park, staking out water holes, and the grassy reservoir beds located there. We would occasionally have to stay inside for the full day or even overnight. So in August, which was supposed to be the peak of the dry season, I made plans for Kumara and myself to remain overnight inside the park.

Our first stint was at the Thimbirimankada bungalow, which is perched on a hillside overlooking one of the northernmost edges of the Udawalawe reservoir. When I came to the park in 2005, this was where I had seen wild elephants for the first time in my life. Tour operators at the time that they had frequently brought guests here to reliably find elephants. Except, that was nearly the last time I ever saw herds there – virtually overnight, the grassland that usually appeared as the water level receded was replaced by an invasive species. By the next year, it had taken over much of the forest edge. Although the grass still grew beneath it, it was not as easy for the elephants to feed on. In the subsequent years, I came hopefully many times to Thimbirimankada, but rarely caught sight of anything besides cattle, deer and birds.  It was an early lesson that elephant behavior can change very quickly and dramatically, to accommodate a changing environment. The few elephants I did see were not recognizeable, which led me to believe that there was a hidden subset of the population here within the forests, distinct from those we encountered in the open spaces further south.

So I here I was again, hopeful that if I could stay until the late afternoon and also head out early in the morning, I might catch a glimpse of these elusive herds. But nature didn’t seem to want to cooperate. The first day, it rained. It is not supposed to rain so heavily in August, but the clouds didn’t seem to know that. At the Thimbirimankada reservoir bed, we saw numerous dung piles and patches of bare ground where the elephants had fed, interspersed with the cattle droppings. But the first day passed with no sightings other than one little group of three females, and two distant solitary bulls.

We nearly drove past [355] as she stood silently watching the road…

That night we directed the beam of a powerful flashlight toward the reservoir, trying to see if we could spot any of its denizens. The eye-glow of animals gave them away. On the opposite shore we noticed a large herd of what we initially took to be cattle, but then were shocked to see that they were in fact deer! We had never seen such a number during the day time – their eyes glowed like hundreds of fireflies as they streamed past in a fast-moving leaps and bounds.

The wind howled fearfully and rain blew in horizontal sheets as we tried to sleep. Kumara and I had taken extra care in parking the jeep where there were no large branches overhead. The bungalow keepers, who were used to this, told us that the previous guests, consisting of a large family from India, had spent the night huddled and terrified in the single room upstairs. They’d been convinced that the roof would blow off at any moment.

[431] was looking tired.

The cause looked like a bullet wound from a trap gun.

By the second day, elephants were responding to the rain. Although we still had no luck around Thimbirimankada, the elephants were out and about in the forest. Our first sighting of the day was a sad one though. Her number was [431] and she seemed to be by herself. We had known her almost since the beginning of the study, so she was no stranger to the park, but she hadn’t been seen for some time. She seemed to be walking in an odd way, tiredly. Looking closer, we noticed a lump on her chest. There were two holes, suggesting she’d been grazed by a trap gun. Fortunately, it had missed her jaws. We were saddened to see this innocent animal, who had never threatened a soul, had suffered from such a despicable hunting device.

We then caught sight of some less familiar elephant groups while parked near water holes in forest clearings. The drying ponds were adorned with flocks of pelicans, colorful painted storks, and the occasional ibis or spoonbill.In the afternoon we saw a subset of the S family, which was feeding leisurely along one of the picturesque and lesser-used roads deep within the park. They had not been seen for quite some time, so this alone made our effort worthwhile. What’s more, they had a new baby among them.

A fragment of the S group emerges along a shady forest track, amidst a light drizzle.

As we headed back out at the end of the day, we came across a group of four large, well-built females. They did not seem very accustomed to vehicles, and we did not immediately recognize them either. They eyed us cautiously, growling and trumpeting, tossing dust over themselves. It reminded me of how many of our now-familiar families had regarded us more than ten years ago, when Udawalawe National Park was still a sleepy little-known stop visited only by locals, and elephants enjoyed the serenity of a landscape nearly devoid of vehicles. We didn’t linger long, other than to take their pictures, so as not to disturb them. As ever, I wondered where these ladies had wandered in from and where they were going. Clearly, this landscape had not yet given up all its secrets.

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