Camera Trapping Elephants in Agricultural Areas

In partnership with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand, we’re excited to share this picture diary from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


Written by Brooke Friswold

It has been another busy month in Ruam Thai Village! We have erected ten camera traps on pineapple farms with the consent of local farmers in areas with reported high frequency of visitation and five on lemongrass farmland rented by Bring the Elephant Home.

In speaking with the farmers they were very excited and enthusiastic to share their experience: some of the farmers say that the elephants are coming most nights to their land, while others say it can be weekly or also come in waves, with times of high visitation followed by lapses in appearance. The farmers were very eager and interested to share and discuss where the best placement would be for the camera traps, the trails the elephants use to enter, and the recent visitations they had.

One farmer told us how an elephant came through her farm the night before bleeding and showed us the blood trail – this information was passed on to the local rangers to look out for an injured elephant, highlighting another important use of the camera traps.

For erecting the camera traps we developed a camera trapping apparatus of cementing a steel pole into a tire and then securing the camera traps into specially made metal boxes and then securing them with a lock. 

The process involved using multiple people to carry the (very) heavy poles to an area where the farm plots could be clearly seen and often oriented to face the most likely area of entry – as dictated by the farmers.   

Many of the farms had one or two nearby elephant routes they take to enter and exit the farms. The elephants almost exclusively enter the farms at night from the nearby Kui Buri National Park which borders the village. Kui Buri National Park is also only one of two areas where you can join safaris to see elephants in the wild – making Ruam Thai an interesting area, in that the local community experiences benefits of elephant ecotourism but also challenges regarding crop raiding elephants. 

The first recording of elephant footage for this research was what looked like an adult bull who passed along a pineapple farm using an elephant pathway that the farmer had identified to us, which is also a small dirt road.

The cameras will stay up for another two months continuously during this rainy season and then for another two months in the dry season and we are very excited to see what else we are able to capture! 

Getting past COVID in Udawalawe 

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.

Udawalawe National Park – roads levelled and clean with no visible litter.

The Landscape
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.

Expansion of a reservoir, removing silt. Animals benefit from this upkeep.


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!).

Calf resting after what probably was a tiresome day of exploring!
Another pudgy calf scratches itself against a handy trunk.

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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Baby tantrums

We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!

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August 22 2012

Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…

Continue reading

Can Incense Sticks Help Protect Crops from Elephants?

By Salik Ansar

Pradeep’s father along with Pradeep’s wife and daughter, welcoming us to their farm.

Almost every other day we read about some “human-elephant” conflict in the local Sri Lankan newspapers. Some claimed that 2019 has seen the most deaths of elephants, due to human elephant conflicts. The government resorted to the dubious strategy of handing out guns to the Civil Defense Force and wildlife officers in order to control the problem. Through-out the passage of time, humanity has never been great at making moral judgements. Lack of government regulations, rightful laws, proper economical structure and even cultural knowledge, the humans and elephants become victims of this shortfall. Sadly, without proper regulations and monitoring, the human-elephant conflict will only increase in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile conservationists are also busy finding ways to reduce the suffering from either of the two sides – the Elephants or the Humans. Continue reading

Monsoon Days

October brings welcome rain for the people and the wildlife. This year the monsoon started as early as August, so by now everything is a luxurious green. The elephants are having an easier time because it has been wetter than usual. Perhaps for this reason, there have been a lot of babies born this year.

The rains follow a typical pattern over the course of the day – sunny and hot in the morning, showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Udawalawe sits at the intersection of two climate zones, which makes for strange and beautiful cloud formations with at times surreal atmospheric conditions. In the park we play games of cat and mouse with the rain clouds, trying to dodge the hyper-local downpours that are visibly framed against the brilliant sunlight. Pro tip – elephant viewing is best when there is a little bit of drizzle to cool us all off. Continue reading

The Brief Life of [T212]

By SdS & USW

All looks peaceful…

 

…until you look closer.

He looked as though he were sitting down, surrounded by grass and reeds, his back against the intense blue sky, reflected in the mirror of the reservoir. Countless people had passed by, assuming he was just resting as he ate. You could see him easily from the road, just a few tens of meters from the electric fence along park boundary, close to the spillway.

But hours later, when he still hadn’t moved, someone realized something was wrong. Continue reading

Sumedha’s Epic Musth

Sumedha shows all signs of musth as he consorts with Indika (Sandamali) in 2011, which include secretions from the temporal glands on the sides of his head and urine dribbling.

Of all the iconic tuskers that have passed through Udawalawe over the years, Sumedha is the one I’ve known longest. All tuskers are distinctive, because they’re so rare in Udawalawe, but Sumedha additionally had a nice big hole in his left ear and an awkward  tail with no hair. He wasn’t as regal as my beloved Raja, nor as old and wise as the Kalthota tusker, both of whom would have been easily dominant over him in the early years. But he was younger than either of them, and built like a tank. So if he survived, eventually his time would come. Continue reading

Changing Shades of Green

by DJ and USW

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Picture taken in 2011 shows scattered trees and grass species in between

If your garden is left unattended it grows wild after several seasons. Eventually, there will be a mini-forest of a few species carefully chosen by a natural process. This is an ecological succession. The same takes place in the wild. Once a habitat is disturbed but then left undisturbed by humans, it goes through a series of structural changes in the vegetation with time. Continue reading

Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods. Continue reading

Ethimali Finds Her “Forever Home” In The Wild

by DJ, USW, and SdS (Photos by DJ &UWERP)

The female orphaned elephant calf found in Ethimale, Southern Sri Lanka rescued and brought to Elephant Transit Home (ETH), Udawalawa was later named Ethimali. After several years of rehabilitation, she was released to Uda Walawe National Park in March 2004, when she was about 4 years old, with another 10 rehabilitated juveniles.

Some young females at the ETH show an array of maternal or allomothering characters from an early age, despite being orphans themselves. They seem to select calves out of new arrivals and try to be as attentive to them as possible. She frequently checks whether her orphan is alright and will be the first to respond if the orphan screams or is attacked by another calf. She keeps continuous company for the orphan and with time, it starts to follow her most of the day. When the orphan seeks comfort she allows it to suck on her – in the absence of real milk, even the tip of an ear will do!

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf.

Ethimali (wearing a belt around the neck) with Mahee, a wild adult female and her calf in 2004.

Continue reading