Dry Rations Donations in Udawalawe

By Salik Ansar:

At the beginning of 2022, no one would have anticipated Sri Lanka’s year to be so dire (and that’s saying something after the anguish from the global pandemic we all shared in!). The country suffered from one of its most severe economic crises – there was no fuel, extended power cuts, no fertilizer, no food crops, no tourism, and the list goes on… With no political and economical stability, Sri Lanka was looking over the precipice of a terrible crisis. Given Sri Lanka’s demographics, the majority of the people in rural areas are farmers and they were severely affected by these difficult times.

Over the years Trunks & Leaves has established relationships with the communities around Udawalawe National Park and the Wetahirakanda Sanctuary. Our preschool projects and camera-trap projects have created the opportunity for our team to work closely with many local communities. It was during 2022’s hard times that our team came to know their struggles. These farmers and their families needed very little to survive on, yet, with no imports and no fertilizer to help grow foods, they found it hard to sustain themselves.  The particularly harmful and long-term effects of food insecurity on pregnant people and children were even highlighted by the BBC. This prompted us to initiate our dry ration project. T&L identified households who were in especially dire conditions and, with the help of our supporters on Global Giving, we have provided 240 families ration packs, to date, which provide 1 – 2 months of their much-needed supplies.

Trunks & Leaves has been involved in Udawalawe for decades. While we have worked with the community and helped them for many years, this year was when our team felt our help was needed the most. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has severely affected the farming community in Udawalawe and bear in mind that over 85% of the population there are farmers. If you are interested in reading about the what, how and why we established our dry ration project, you can find more details in our previous blog post here!


Our field team wanted the distribution of aid to happen swiftly. In addition, however, the team also wanted to spend time with each family without just dropping off the ration packs.  The time spent with each household was eye-opening. They were able to understand the plight of these villagers and how important the ration packs were.

Their distribution process was fraught with obstacles, however. The ongoing fuel crisis made distributions difficult, and the adverse weather also further hindered the process. Yet, despite all this, the team still found ways to circumvent the problems and distribute the goods.

After distributing over 100 emergency dry rations packages, word of the team’s ration distributions had spread all over Udawalawe and they were inundated with calls and requests for aid.  They decided to change tactics to supply these requests: their new plan of action was to gather people in one location and distribute the packs from there. Trunks & Leaves had conducted a preschool project previously and they had worked with teachers, principals, and village heads of that area, so it was easy for the team to muster the benefactors in groups and into common locations, whether it be preschools or community halls etc. This way the team was able to distribute the packages in bulk and more efficiently.

Stories from the Project

Our project came through at the most important time, many recipients have reiterated that our ration pack has helped their families. We’re proud to share some of their stories below.

“It is very difficult to find crops that you can cultivate without fertilizers; we were scraping thanks to the vegetables that are growing in our back yard. This box of rations is truly a blessing, even when our kids send us money, in our old age it is very difficult to travel and buy these items.” –  elderly mother of 4 children, a recipient of our dry ration donation.

Even our field team mentioned that this work has been eye-opening and fulfilling. “Many of the recipients shared stories that were heartbreaking, we shared their pain and comforted them the best we could. Our aid will go a long way for them. During one such distribution, despite having so little themselves, this elderly lady insisted that we stay and eat at her house before we continued our distribution. Like how a mother will be concerned for her child, this lady viewed us in a similar way. There are many nice people around Udawalawe and through this project, we actually saw how hospitable and generous our Udawalawe community is.” Sameera Weeratunga (Field Coordinator)

Our help did not only mean we distributed rations, but through this project, we were able to help the community in many different ways. For example, our dry ration project meant more than everything to Ms. Shanika from the Hambegamuwa Colony in Udawalawe. She is living with five family members, her husband, her child, and her mother and father. During our dry ration visit, the team came across her house and she was glad to receive a dry ration pack. It was during our chats with her and her family that we understood that they were severely affected during this economic crisis and their daily labor wages have been insufficient. Shanika had begun construction of her house and then struggled to complete it due to the crisis. She had no roof and was struggling each day knowing the monsoon season is just around the corner. Sameera and our team decided to find ways in which we can help, and within a few days, they were able to collect enough funds to complete the rooftop.

The rooftop was completed within a week and Shanika was very grateful that Sameera and the boys walked by that day with the dry ration pack. 

In another story, our team came across a family of four, where the father has suffered an accident and had broken his leg. His wife, Mrs. Noona from Nawasiripura in Sooriya Ara, now must work daily to make ends meet. Her income was sufficient for them to survive but they were unable to buy the necessary medicines for their special needs child. The child was diagnosed with down syndrome and needed certain medicines and supplements. This family was vouched for by a friend of Sameera. Our team facilitated and offered her LKR 10,000, in addition to the dry ration pack, so that she could buy sufficient medicines for her child.

Our field officer Sameera and his son giving the LKR 10,000 for medical expenses. Sameera had invited his son along on our dry ration distribution trip and thought it was great that his son experienced the act of charity at a young age.

These are but a few of the stories in which our team has helped directly or facilitated aid in the right direction. The dry ration project was welcomed by the community and the team was immensely appreciated. What a high to end the year on! As well as delivering emergency aid, we’ve ensured that we’ve established a good rapport with the community and that they will extend their help in future conservation projects.

Despite focussing on humanitarian aid and deviating from our usual course, we can agree that this deviation was necessary for the community that has given us everything. However, we have exciting work ahead of us in the new year as it looks likely our alternatives crops work can continue. Human-elephant conflict is still sadly rising – as it has been in previous years – and without political stability, no policies are yet in place to assist. We’ve launched a new GlobalGiving project to fund Facilitating Human-Elephant Coexistence in Asia (in Sri Lanka and Thailand) through projects such as researching alternative crops for farmers which provide an income for them but are less attractive to neighboring elephants.

Stay tuned for updates on other projects in the pipeline.

You can find more details on these coexistence and alternative projects here and here!


A tribute to our beloved Jasmine

Remembering a gentle spirit.

Jasmine, and Asian elephant.
Jasmine (center left with pink ears), in 2012 with her calf Josh.

From Shermin:

When I first started the project in 2005, I was touched to see the relationship between an inseparable pair of elephants. The elder, who I named Janet, was toothless and slender, clearly a grandmother who was peacefully nearing the end of her long life. The other, who looked almost exactly like a younger version of her, was in the peak of her life. I thought this must be her daughter, somewhere in her twenties perhaps. I named her Jasmine, after my favorite flower, because I thought her so pretty with her perfectly triangular and symmetric pink-edged ears. She was perfectly proportioned, a textbook example of elephant-ness. They went everywhere together, drifting in and out of a larger social group that I thought might be a single family.

In time, Janet passed away. The group consolidated around another mature female, Jane. Jasmine continued to be around her former companions, but she also wandered around alone and even mingled with other social groups. The J’s, as it turned out, made frequent use of a corridor to the east, and so would disappear for months on end. At these times, Jasmine might remain in the park on her own. As we wrote in the previous blog post, this pattern typifies what many elephants apparently do – as many as 3/4 of the elephant in the park are non-residential, with social groups often splitting up across years. Jasmine also ventured toward the corridor, but given how often we saw her in the park she must have remained close by.

In 2012 we were happy to see her with a new calf, now named Josh. Despite her youthful appearance, Jasmine didn’t have many calves. In fact, Josh was the only calf to survive in the years since we knew Jasmine. Though elephants can optimally breed every 4 years, it seemed the Udawalawe population was worryingly below this. Overall, it suggested that the population might be going into a slow decline.

Jasmine and some youngsters of the J’s.

In October, I received news that broke my heart. Our sweet Jasmine had been shot on the road side, next to her habitual spot at the edge of the corridor. I was stunned – Jasmine, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, shot? Did I hear that correctly? This was no “conflict” incident, no poaching attempt. She was innocently minding her own business in a protected area when she was quite thoughtlessly executed. In death, as in life, Jasmine’s story is an example of what is happening to elephants in Sri Lanka and around the world. Most, like her, are harmless and merely trying to survive in the fragmented landscapes elephants now call home. They risk their lives just trying to move about. They don’t deserve this.

It is sadly not the first time we have lost animals we care about. But the park will never be the same for me without Jasmine, it was not her time to go. It makes me determined to keep working towards a better future for all the Jasmines out there.

Rest in peace dear girl, find Janet, T212 and Raja too.

Monks pray over Jasmine’s body. Post-mortem revealed a bullet in the lodged in the head.

From Sameera:

Since the time I embarked on this journey, as a researcher and conservationist in Udawalawe, I have known one of the most innocent elephants, easily distinguished by large ears and white hair on her tail. Her name was Jasmine. My time knowing Jasmine began in 2005. This was roughly 17 years ago and we have monitored and tracked her since then. We assume she is in her 30s or early 40s. We always spotted her roaming around the forest and was always healthy.

She is also known as (205), the number assigned to her name in our catalog. She is often spotted with two other elephants (239) and (238), the herd also has 15 other younger elephants. During this period of knowing her, she has never left the Udawalawe forest. Our team mainly spotted her in a few places, in Udawalawe forest, and through the Wetahirakanda corridor that leads to Lunughamvehara National Park next-door.

She and her group/herd were born and raised in Udawalawe and we believe she had very little need to change locations. She would have always thought this place was her home. Unfortunately, things did not pan out well, our beloved Jasmine fell prey to a gunshot wound, we guess it is a hunter’s rifle and just like that her life was cut short.

They were often observed there, as if it was her designated spot. Neither she nor any from her herd ever entered any village or farm, or even the tourist area. Yet, she was killed. This devastating news was very hard to accept, my team and I often saw her and we rejoiced at how we were able to track her for so long. It was a heinous act, killing an innocent animal, and that too in her land.

These days, HEC has increased dramatically. The lack of food in the forest is forcing the elephants to venture into villages and farms. We, as humans, act rashly. Many villagers or farmers have set up illegal electric fences, built shoddy trenches, carried man-made bombs (Hakka Pattas), and even prepared traps. All these inhumane acts are the main reasons why innocent elephants are dying and worse being crippled for the rest of their lives.

Despite the many elephant deaths recorded within the year, somehow Jasmine’s death feels heavier. Seeing her body with gunshot wounds only shows the lack of understanding and empathy we humans have. It is important to note that she was killed in a Protected Area. The whole idea of segregating protected areas is so that the wildlife in that area is unharmed, but Jasmine’s story shows how government laws are not respected and not effective.

Hunters are more prevalent than before. Due to the economic crisis and the drought season in Udawalawe, many hunters venture into the forest to hunt wild boars and other animals for the meat. These hunters keep some and sell the rest of the meat. The rise in the price of meat products has affected many villagers, hence they seek these illegal methods to obtain meat. This means that hunters are entering the park from multiple locations, which in turn makes it difficult for wildlife officers and forest officers to catch these hunters.

On 2nd October 2022 she was killed. We can only assume that the hunters were startled and fired at Jasmine, or they feared the presence of an elephant and killed her, whatever the reason may be, she was killed when she shouldn’t have been. There are many elephants that we know, who frequently raid farms and villagers, Jasmine was never one of them. As I mentioned earlier, she did not even step out of her usual boundary. A day before she was killed, the team and I noticed her and her herd in the same usual spot. Sadly, after the death of Jasmine, the herd is split and now we see different elephants forming different groups. The herd we knew for so long is changing; it can never be the same without Jasmine. But the group lives on.

There are more elephant deaths each year and one of the reasons is because of the fear instigated by careless statements from those in the government. Our wildlife minister said, without any evidence, that there are more than 7000 elephants in the country. This has caused fear in the farmers. They believe these words and act rashly which brings misery.  This, I believe, is the reason we lost Jasmine.  This is my opinion, but today, tomorrow and in the future, I will mourn the death of our beloved Jasmine.


How elephants in Sri Lanka use protected areas

By Annie Madsen

Elephant behavior has long endeared the public. From complex social structures to tool use, hearing stories about behavior not only teaches about fantastic ecological adaptations, it shows a window into elephant’s lives that we can understand and relate to on a personal level. Showcasing behaviors has often been used to help elephant conservation. However, behaviors are sometimes disconnected from how managers actually conserve elephant populations. In a new study, we examine elephant space use behavior in the hope that it can directly inform management practices.

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Sri Lankan Economic Crisis: Why it Matters

UWERP’s field technician, Janaka, delivering a month’s supply of dry rations to a rural Sri Lankan family

The story so far

Over the last few months, Sri Lanka’s economy crashed and the island nation is now facing its worst economic crisis in history. For Sri Lankans, the crisis has turned their daily lives into an endless cycle of waiting in lines for basic goods – many of which are being rationed. Why is this happening?

The main reasons are loss of foreign currency due to COVID’s impact on tourism, and mismanagement of the country’s predominantly agricultural economy. Foreign reserves have been reduced by roughly 85%, grinding daily life to a halt. There are huge lines for fuel (for transport) and gas (for cooking). The lack of fuel also affects the country’s power supply, with people facing up to 16 hrs of power cuts daily. The lack of fuel has created a shortage of vegetables in the market and thus the prices have shot up by 30-80%. Additionally, as the country cannot afford imports, products like butter and milk powder are now unavailable. The Sri Lankan Medical Association has also stated that medical supplies are running low and by the end of April, Sri Lanka ran out of key medicines and medical supplies. 

Why are we helping farming communities? 

Trunks & Leaves has been involved in the Udalawawe area for more than a decade. We have worked with communities around the national park helped them for many years, because we know that people are key to conservation success. Although farmers are sometimes painted as villains owing to their part in so-called “human-elephant conflict,” nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers recognize and appreciate the value of elephants and other wildlife, they simply need to earn a livelihood as well. Last year in 2021, farmers in Southerns Sri Lanka actually went on a hunger strike, demanding the creation of a promised reserve, which they hoped would help the elephants and reduce the pressure on their croplands.

This year, we were to launch our trials of (elephant-resistant) alternative crops on a larger scale, but have had to put everything on pause given the current crisis. And yet we realized, NOW is when help is needed the most. Although we are a wildlife conservation organization and not dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, we couldn’t stand by and do nothing.

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Convolutional Neural Networks for Individual‑identification of Wild Asian Elephants

Visual monitoring of wild animals has been modernized over the years through technologies such as high definition photography and camera trapping[1]. Researchers can now document populations, movement, and behavior of certain species using large volumes of data over longer periods[1,2]. These tools aid population research, but photo-identification still relies on our ability as humans to distinguish certain features of individuals[3]. Because identification remains a manual task, extracting information from visual data can be expensive and time-consuming[4]. (Read our previous blog on UWERP’s EARS – Elephant Attribute Recording System – IDs Database here).

MSc student, Elgiriyage de Silva, at the University of Colombo, is lead author on their recently published CNN study, alongside others including Dr. Shermin de Silva and Udawalawe Elephant Research Project’s (UWERP) Research Supervisor, T.V. Kumara. The study made use of CNN in order to determine the feasibility of such technology to identify Asian elephants, and used 10 years of labeled photographs of wild Asian elephants collected by the UWERP study. The researchers considered full body, face, and ears as three points for individual identification. Two techniques namely Training from Scratch (TS)  and Transfer Learning (TL), which made use of a pre-trained model, were applied to five CNN models: Xception, Inception V3, VGG16, ResNet50, AlexNet. These models were evaluated for their efficiency in correctly identifying an individual as the top candidate or including the correct individual among the top five possible candidates[3]

Caption: Photos of male 006 showing all three types of images used in the study – body, face and ears. Clearly photos of even the same individual can look very different based on angle, lighting and movement!
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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


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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