First field report from "elephant land"

I’m back! A few weeks ago, I left for a place I fondly call “elephant land,” where I’ll be conducting my fieldwork for the next few months. Specifically, I’m located just outside the gates of Wasgamuwa National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s largest national parks. The park is particularly interesting to me because of its relevance to my research: it supports a large population of resident and transient Asian elephants (some estimate it to be 150-200 elephants, but I have a feeling that the true number is actually larger), it can support elephants during the rainy and dry seasons, and because there are a lot of farmlands surrounding the park, the prevalence of human−elephant conflict (HEC) is relatively high. HEC is a major conservation threat to Asian elephants with increasing human populations and correspondingly decreasing land availability. My project centers on better understanding how male elephants respond to the environment and other elephants around a unique reproductive period called musth. Because male elephants are disproportionately involved in HEC (especially during musth), I think this research is timely and important to help inform HEC mitigation strategies. It’s still the rainy season here in the dry zone of Sri Lanka (despite its name, it’s not always dry), and because my other two field sites are still mostly under water, I’ll be almost exclusively at Wasgamuwa until the dry season arrives.

But I’m writing this post now back at Rajarata University, where I’ve been headquartered at the Ringling Bros. Center for the Study and Conservation of the Asian Elephant. In fact, it’s because I’m here that I can actually write this post. Although relatively popular among Sri Lankans that live in the area for tourism and camping, Wasgamuwa is relatively unaccessible to most international tourists; there are parks where you can see elephants closer to more popular tourist sites, so Wasgamuwa doesn’t receive much traffic during most of the year. That means cell phone reception is very poor and WiFi is almost nonexistent. At the bungalow where I’m staying, I can get two bars of 3G if I stand in the right spot and it’s not raining (sometimes a big ask for any given day in the rainy season), so I’ve been able to stay in touch with family and friends periodically. But I also brought my pocket 4G router with me to Wasgamuwa in the hopes that I would be able to access email…no luck. There’s one tower in the park I’ve learned to climb so that I can upload my data to the cloud; that spot will give me full 3G coverage, and if I hold my device up in the air with my tongue out just right, I may be able to get a few bars of 4G. The lack of connection can be freeing sometimes, and other times it’s anxiety-inducing to a millennial like me. Moreover, the park is about two hours from the closest “major” town (Dambulla), meaning there’s not much to do during down time. I’m still learning how to best cope with the isolation and recurring boredom, but I suppose I can’t complain when I get to live in “elephant land.” More than anything though, I’m excited and proud to have begun fieldwork, an activity that’s been in the planning stage since I started my PhD in August 2016. And I get to see baby elephants every day. Five-year-old Chase would be overjoyed with where 27-year-old Chase has ended up.

Baby photo #1: Male elephant calf, Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka (25 Dec 2018). Photo by Chase LaDue.

I left with Rajnish and my new research assistant, Sachintha, two weeks ago for elephant land. With all of my belongings and equipment in tow (I’m a chronic over-packer, okay?) we rented a minivan to drive us to my bungalow. I think it’s weird to call my living space a bungalow because it brings up ideas of a thatched-roof cabana overlooking a white-sand beach somewhere in the Caribbean, but that’s what everyone else calls it. I’m lucky to be able to rent the whole bungalow for my assistant and myself, so we have three bedrooms, an “indoor” living space, a large covered patio, and a kitchen to ourselves. There’s no air conditioning or hot water, and we sleep underneath mosquito nets and night because there are no truly indoor rooms in the bungalow. But we’re well taken care of by the family who manages the property, including being driven around the park during fieldwork by the father or his son, and having each meal prepared ready for us at the same time each day. I feel like I’ve become a curry connoisseur already, but I’ve been told there’s much Sri Lankan food left to try. Sachintha helps me immensely in the field; he’s a recent Zoology and Chemistry graduate from the University of Peradeniya, and as a previous travel guide for international tourists, he knows when to step in to communicate what I need and when to temper my unrealistic expectations. Because no one in the area speaks English, Sachintha is also my trusty translator, truly my only link to those around me. He’s also very interested in learning about the elephants we see each day, and so I’m happy he’s being generously supported by funds from the Elephant Managers Association and the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute.

Sachintha recording the vocalizations of a male in musth (Elephant 001, “Arnold”). Photo: Chase LaDue.

Sachintha recording the vocalizations of a male in musth (Elephant 001, “Arnold”). Photo: Chase LaDue.

On this first trip, we spent ten days sampling elephants in Wasgamuwa. During those ten days, we had 65 elephant sightings comprised of 511 elephants (but who’s counting, right?). Most of those 511 elephants were repeated sightings. I don’t think the park or its surrounding private land could support that many elephants. Currently, we have 27 adult male elephants identified in our sample population with confirmed photo identifications; we consider an adult male to be any male that is over 10 years old, even though most elephants haven’t reach sexual and/or social maturity by then. Two of these males have been in musth, and we see one of those elephants almost every day in the field. Each confirmed male elephant is given an identification number (starting with 001, 002, 003, and so on), and if we see a male enough times, we give him a name that’s easy for us to remember. Elephant 001 is our often-seen musth male, so we’ve named him “Arnold.” There’s no particular reason for the name, other than it begins with the first letter of the alphabet and Arnold was the first elephant we saw. Sachintha thought “Arnold” was better than my first suggestion of “Artie,” as a tough musth male shouldn’t be given such a juvenile name. I still don’t necessarily agree, but Arnold stuck. Males in musth are notorious for being aggressive, and while we’re very safe in our vehicle at all times, that’s not necessarily what we’ve observed. We often see musth males socializing tenderly with female elephants and their calves, and we’ve spent much time in close proximity to Arnold. Only one other elephant has earned a name so far, and he’s special to me, so I’ll save him for another post coming soon.

Arnold during one of the many bathing sessions we’ve observed, Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 December 2018. Photo: Chase LaDue.

Arnold feeding in the central floodplain, Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 December 2018. Photo: Chase LaDue.

It can be daunting to an untrained observer to distinguish elephants from one another, but especially for Asian elephants, it is easier than you’d expect. I often say that I can tell the differences between elephants much easier than between most people (that may or may not be true, who actually knows…). Mature male elephants are super easy: they all have different patterns of depigmentation on their faces, bodies, and ears (those are the pink areas you can see in the photos of Arnold), they have different ear, head, and body shapes, some have longer/fewer tusks than others (although tuskers in Sri Lanka are exceedingly rare), and they all have different shapes to/lengths of/hair cover on their tails. In this population, unfortunately, it’s also easy to distinguish male elephants based on the patterns of gunshot wounds on their bodies (Arnold, for instance, has two large scars adjacent to his right armpit). Like I mentioned, HEC is relatively common here, and farmers sometimes deter elephants with gunshots: most often above the heads of elephants, but maybe directly towards particularly persistent elephants. The offices at the front of the park supply farmers with less lethal firecrackers to help deter elephants, and we would hear these firecrackers go off close by each night. It’s difficult for us westerners to imagine living among elephants and/or having such an antagonistic relationship with them. But we must also realize that these farmers depend on their crops for their families’ livelihoods; a group of elephants can completely deplete a year’s crops in a single night, so there’s a lot of motivation to find solutions to these problems. With animals that are as large and intelligent as elephants, these solutions aren’t easy to come by, but in the meantime, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge those that must live with the negative repercussions of HEC. I don’t want to see elephants persecuted or killed, but a truly sustainable solution will take into account all the stakeholders. If it’s any consolation, most of the folks we’ve met around Wasgamuwa are extremely proud of the elephants they live with and don’t want to see any harm come to them either.

Baby photo #2: Elephant calf, Wasgamuwa National Park, 28 December 2018. Photo: Chase LaDue.

Our days in the field are punctuated by frenzied activity. Most of our time is spent driving around the park finding elephants. It’s amazing how quickly and quietly they disappear into the forests, so most of our sightings take place in the scrublands or grasslands that separate smaller patches of forests. When we find elephants, we mark our location with a GPS unit, record the weather condition and ambient temperature, and note the group size and composition. If males are present, we begin to more intensively collect behavioral data, which includes live observations and acoustic recording. We photograph each male elephant from as many angles as possible to help with identification; most of the time we are able to tell if we’ve seen a male elephant before while we’re in the field, but sometimes we treat him as a new elephant and have to go back and change the data once we’ve confirmed identification back at the bungalow. The behavioral data will help us understand what these elephants are doing in a variety of landscapes and environmental and social conditions. We’re also interested in cataloguing male Asian elephant vocalizations in and out of musth (a topic that hasn’t garnered much attention), so that’s why we’re recording acoustics. But there’s another type of data we’re collecting: we want to measure the concentrations of a variety of hormones from male elephants in and out of musth to better undertsand how male elephants physiologically respond to their environments. But you can’t just walk up to a male elephant and ask for a blood sample, so we collect poop.

Poop is so informative! Scientists have been using elephant fecal samples for a long time to research diet, physiology, and other aspects of elephant biology. But you can also measure hormone metabolites in poop, so I’m constantly on the look-out for poop. There’s plenty around the park; an elephant that eats about 200 lbs. of food in a day will produce 120 lbs of poop daily. But because we want to understand how hormone concentrations vary with musth in male elephants, we actually need to observe the elephants defecate, and then to collect the sample, we need to make sure we can access it in a safe manner. We’ve earned permits from Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation to exit our vehicle and remove samples from the park, but making sure it’s safe for us to do so is another matter: we have to be absolutely sure that any nearby elephants are far enough away and that there aren’t any unseen elephants in a nearby forest patch. So far during our ten days in the field, the stars have aligned five times. I’m hoping many more fecal collection opportunities will occur in the future, especially as we get better at finding elephants. I shared my excitement at collecting my first fecal sample with my advisors in the US, who in turn shared it with the International Society of Wildlife Endocrinology. They shared it through their social media channels, as shown in Twitter below:

This first foray in Wasgamuwa was made more challenging for me in that it took place over Christmas, my favorite holiday. I love the smell of gingerbread, driving around to look at (critique) neighbors’ Christmas light displays, and listening to corny Christmas music (but only starting on the day after Thanksgiving and immediately ending at 12:00am on December 26). This was the first time I was away from home for the holiday, and I think I had always taken the ability to be with family for granted. Still, I made arrangements for a tuk driver to drive me twenty minutes down the road away from the park where I had noticed a weak spot of 4G signal before so that I could call my family on Christmas morning (it was late in the evening on Christmas Eve for them). I was so happy to be able to speak with them, and I’ll admit I had to hold back a few tears to be able to make it through the calls. It helped that there was a particularly persistent peacock squawking nearby to help mask the slight quiver in my voice. On Christmas afternoon, my gift was getting to be around the elephants I’ve come to know, including Arnold and a few others (although I didn’t get the gift of elephant poop I was hoping for that day).

Elephant 023 approaches our vehicle on Christmas Eve, maybe looking for a candy cane, Wasgamuwa National Park, 24 December 2018. Photo: Chase LaDue.

Baby photo #3: Elephant calf sticks close to mom as he nervously eyes a nearby cattle egret, Wasgamuwa National Park, 19 December 2018. Photo: Chase LaDue.

If it wasn’t for the people supporting me here and back home, this fieldwork experience would be even more challenging. I’ve previously enjoyed my time in remote places around the world, but unexpectedly, I’ve found it frustrating here not being able to communicate with many people or share my experience with family or friends firsthand. Like back home, stretches of good days are interrupted by the bad ones, when things just don’t seem to be going to plan (isn’t that the lesson I’m supposed to be learning here?). Add to that the usual dose of impostor syndrome, a dash of graduate school stress, and a pinch of culture shock, and that’s the recipe for a minor existential crisis.

All of this came to fruition during my last few days in the field, and I wasn’t feeling the excitement that I should have been feeling. On our last afternoon, we hadn’t seen many elephants; Arnold hadn’t yet appeared, and the park seemed empty with all of the holiday tourists gone. We heard what we thought was a small group of elephants, so we pulled the vehicle onto an offroad path and started counting elephants. Then, Arnold appeared to our left out of the adjacent forest, and we soon realized that there were many more elephants here than we thought. Arnold’s presence, combined with his musth status, must have made the female elephants excited, as we were suddenly surrounded by a barrage of sound and elephants. There was loud trumpeting, roaring, and rumbling all around the vehicle, as elephants appeared out of the brush and passed mere inches from me. Smaller groups of females began clustering together as they nervously touched each other’s faces and rumbled. This wasn’t an instant moment: this activity continued for about 30 minutes as I energetically began collecting as much data as I could. This was a special event, one that I’ll remember for a long time. It was something I needed to experience to reaffirm why I’m in Sri Lanka, and why it’s important to persist even through the tough days that don’t seem to make sense. Near the end of the whole ordeal, one female group approached our group as they socialized with each other, and I caught the end of the interaction on video with my phone. I shared it on my Instagram yesterday, but I’ll share it here too (make sure to watch it with the sound on):

Filmed by Chase LaDue on 28 December 2018

So for those who have reached out to me over the past few months, thank you, and I’m happy to share that I’m doing great here in Sri Lanka, even on the days when I doubt myself. I’m here at Rajarata for the next week, enjoying access to air conditioning and WiFi before my advisors from the US come next week to check in on the project. I’ll head back out to Wasgamuwa with them so they can see the field site, and then I’ll be there for two or three more weeks. I won’t have internet access then, but I’ll be back to my spot each day to receive messages from home. If I get a good elephant photo, I try to post it to Instagram that day (but again, that depends on even more stars aligning for a good signal), so it’s best to follow real-time updates there.