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.
Visual monitoring of wild animals has been modernized over the years through technologies such as high definition photography and camera trapping. 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. Because identification remains a manual task, extracting information from visual data can be expensive and time-consuming. (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A new study brings hope for reducing conflicts between elephants and farmers in Thailand
Guest post by Antoinette van de Water
Kaeng Hang Maeo district in Eastern Thailand is in an area of high human-elephant conflict. A herd of about 70–80 elephants lives between the protected areas and agricultural land, causing damage to crops almost on a nightly basis. Over four years ago, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) and the Phuluang Wildlife Research Station started a joint project to evaluate the effectiveness of beehive fences in deterring Asian elephants, under supervision of Dr. Lucy King. We set up a pilot beehive fence around a subsistence farm surrounded by elephant habitat and installed camera-traps to record the elephants’ reactions to the bees, which belong the species Apis mellifera, or European honeybee.
Over a decade ago now, Dr. Lucy King developed the beehive fence as an elephant deterrent, capitalising on a then-recent discovery that African elephants avoided African honeybees (Vollrath & Douglas-Hamilton, 2002). The beehive fence is a relatively simple, inexpensive deterrent, aiming to be a tool that communities can use independently following set-up. The basic premise is that a series of beehives surround an area to be protected from elephants, and if elephants attempt to enter, they will disturb the beehives, causing the colonies to swarm (refer to King et al. 2009; 2017 for more details). It should come as no surprise, that the success of multiple beehive fence trials in Africa, led to a curiosity as to whether this technique could also help Asian communities experiencing comparable levels of crop-raiding.
On World Elephant Day, Trunks & Leaves is challenging travelers and travel companies alike to commit to responsible tourism practices when it comes to viewing and interacting with Asian elephants.
For the first time in recent history, the world has slowed down, the travel industry is on hold, and humankind has a chance to reflect on the way we’re doing things and how we can improve in the future – for both humans and wildlife.