By Salik Ansar
Before COVID-19, the field team would regularly visit the Udawalawe National Park to track and monitor the elephant population in the region. They update records by seeking out new calves, checking for injuries or deaths among the population, and observing their day-to-day behavior. All of this regular contact also maintains a good relationship with the park authorities. During the lockdown, however, this work was impossible to carry on and our visits occurred in fits and starts, on again off again every few months.
On top of that, our work with the local community had also come to a halt with the island-wide lockdowns. District boundaries, which ordinarily one could cross without the slightest thought, turned into checkpoints that harked back to the civil war. Udawalawe National Park in fact straddles two, and suddenly our field team, based in one district to the West side of the park, could not cross over to visit the communities we had been working with in the East. They nevertheless kept in touch by phone to ensure we can resume our work on the Coexistence Project when the lockdown is lifted.
On October 2nd 2021, there was a silver lining. The government decided to open the national park, not for tourists, but for conservationists and other relevant authorities. Our field team managed to get permission to visit the park due to the goodwill from years of working in the region. Sameera, Kumara and Janaka visited the park after four long months. They were to be actively working again and were keen to get a status check of the Udawalawe National Park.
The field team visited the park five times in the first week. The first noticeable change was that the park looked lush, with more trees – the lack of human intervention has allowed nature to grow freely. The lack of tourists also meant the park was free of garbage and litter. The break had also allowed park managers to maintain and expand of the reservoirs inside the park, making them more accessible to animals.
While nature taking its course resulted in positive changes inside the park, the same can’t be said about the farming community. During the months of lockdown, Sri Lanka experienced some erratic weather patterns. The farmers were at their wits’ end with the scorching hot daytime and heavy rainfalls throughout the night. Those that were allowed to cultivate land during the lockdown faced some difficulties due to the climate. However, the heavy rains have also contributed to the filling up of Udawalawe’s primary and secondary reservoirs. In the upcoming dry season, the water reservoir will give the ecosystem inside the park much-needed moisture and nourishment.
Elephants in the park
Kumara was most excited about the elephants and all the new developments in their world. The lapse of a few months in field visits created a gap in record-keeping and makes tracking new changes a lot harder. For Kumara and Janaka, it meant rendering void all their hard work in record-keeping from the beginning of the year. A lot can happen in the span of four months – migration of elephants to and from the national park, elephant deaths, physical injuries, birth of new calves and behavioral changes. Nevertheless, Kumara and Janaka were anything but discouraged and ventured on to observe new developments.
Over the five days spent in the park, they came across several new calves and assigned names (or numbers). Eight calves were spotted in the five-day period, five males and three females. As usual, these calves were often spotted with their mother or in a herd. Monitoring these calves allows us to see behaviour changes and monitor their movements inside the park. Kumara and Janaka will keep track of these baby elephants and observe how they grow (hopefully, some of them will be up for adoption next year!).
The calves were cute, but the most interesting was the spotting of two male elephants. It is known that male elephants go through a “Musth” season. Musth indicates an increase in reproductive hormones and often is characterized by aggressive behavior among males that are of similar size (though not always) and simultaneously undergoing the same state. During their visits, Kumara and Janaka spotted two male elephants, identified as M355 and M076, both in their musth season. One was seen trying to approach a female herd, while the other was running towards another elephant in an aggressive manner. Being passionate about elephants and their well-being, watching how they behave, especially in musth, never gets old for Kumara despite many years on the job.
Because of the unpredictability of Covid-19 and lockdowns, the field team wanted to maximize the time spent in the park and avoid periods of non-observation in the future. Therefore, Sameera and the rest have been working to set up camera traps surrounding the park. This will help to monitor their movements, especially at well-known entry points and common footpaths.
As long as we are still able to access the park in the coming weeks (fingers crossed!), we will continue to share more stories and notes from the park. Till then… stay tuned!
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