First elephant sighting + House Hunters Sri Lanka

For those of you following this adventure of mine, I continue to be amazed by the good fortune that has led me to Sri Lanka. I think I’ve moved past the “tourist phase” as certain parts of my life here have become routine: I have a regular route at the local grocery store, I have an established workspace at the university, and even the people at the lunch restaurant close by know what to expect when I walk in (that is to say, they know Rajnish will do the talking in Sinhala, followed by an English “thank you” from me that I’m not sure is actually understood).

But just as I begin to take comfort in the routine, things will change soon, and for the better. Along with my wonderful committee members, I’ve started to solidify my research plans for my remaining eight months in Sri Lanka (that’s right, by this Monday, I will have left the US a month ago). My close friends and family can attest: I’m the sort of person who doesn’t often veer from what’s comfortable to risk something, even if that other thing is a sure-thing. But it’s not like I haven’t been constantly changing since I started my PhD (there are months at I time when I wake up in some strange place not knowing where I am during field trips ), and these changes will help me achieve what I came to Sri Lanka for: spend as much time around elephants as possible.

A lot of you have sent me encouraging messages asking me (1) how it is in Sri Lanka, and (2) how many elephants I’ve seen. The answer to the first question is that I’m doing great, having a great support system that minimizes anxiety-inducing events, and the answer to the second question has been none. At least, until yesterday. Remember, although theoretically elephants can wander right through campus (and one actually did a few months ago, see below), I’m technically living outside of “elephant country,” much to my dismay. That means that the first few months of my fieldwork will take place a few hours away where there are elephants, at Wasgamuwa National Park. And the reason it has taken me so long to see an elephant is that I’ve spent my time so far in Sri Lanka coordinating the many logistics needed to move closer to Wasgamuwa, where conditions will be more rustic.

A few weeks before I arrived in Sri Lanka, a wild male elephant wandered down the road where the university is located. I was told many of the locals weren’t sure if this was someone’s elephant who had gotten loose, and a few of the biology professors had to warn everyone to keep their distance. The elephant was led to a safer area further away. Photo courtesy of Chamika, one of the lecturers at Rajarata University.

On Thursday, Rajnish and I headed towards Wasgamuwa early in the morning to get to the area around 9:00am. Even though Sri Lanka is smaller in area than the state of South Carolina (for a comparison to Texas, click here…over 10 Sri Lankas can fit in the state), there aren’t many highways, and there are very few straight paths. Visiting Sri Lanka for an extended period means that you just have to get used to spending a lot of time in the car (or bus or train or tuk-tuk). I’ve gotten used to it and still enjoy watching scenes of Sri Lankan daily life pass by. This morning, the rain didn’t ruin the drive (driving over the hills with the mist made me feel like I was in the movie Gorillas in the Mist), and we stopped for breakfast at a bakery about halfway through…I found kolaches!

Rajnish and I discussed the plans for the day eariler in the week, knowing (hoping) that the safari guide who agreed to drive me through the park for fieldwork also had a house where he has previously hosted foreign students. What I didn’t expect was to show up to my own version of House Hunters International. The guide drove Rajnish and I to about five different places to look for a suitable home for the next few months, including typical guesthouses and family homes with vacant rooms. All of the places were close to each other, so the whole ordeal wasn’t that tedious, just unexpected. And they were all very cheap compared to US standards. We finally settled on the guide’s own property, a bungalow that I’ll have all to myself complete with three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a full-service kitchen. I’ll have three meals made for me each day, and the guide will pick me up each morning of fieldwork to spend the day in Wasgamuwa (the bungalow is less than five minutes from the park entrance). And how much will this all cost? A whopping 155,000 Sri Lankan rupees each month. That’s $867. These low prices in Sri Lanka are really not preparing me to go back to live outside DC…

A typical lunch for me in Sri Lanka: rice, chicken, a few curries, and some sort of bread. All of this is made fresh, and costs 280 rupees, or $1.57.

A typical lunch for me in Sri Lanka: rice, chicken, a few curries, and some sort of bread. All of this is made fresh, and costs 280 rupees, or $1.57.

My trusty steed during fieldwork, parked outside the bungalow where I’ll be staying: a 4x4 vehicle that easily traverses the rough terrain that’s sometimes present in Wasgamuwa.

My trusty steed during fieldwork, parked outside the bungalow where I’ll be staying: a 4x4 vehicle that easily traverses the rough terrain that’s sometimes present in Wasgamuwa.

I mentioned that conditions will be rustic, and that’s true. I’ll be sleeping underneath a mosquito net, the cellular signal is generally week, my activity will be dictated by when the sun rises and sets, and virtually no one speaks English. But this is the adventure I signed up for, and I’ll find ways to thrive. Over the next week, Rajnish and I will identify a research assistant who will live in the bungalow with me, help collect my data, and act as a translator. I’ll also be coming back to Rajarata for about a week each month to process my samples and reconnect with the world I’ve come to know over the past month. And I’ll be so busy that time will fly by. Oh yeah, and of course there will be elephants.

We couldn’t be this close to elephants without at least trying to see one. I told Rajnish earlier in the week that I was about to go crazy having been in Sri Lanka for a month without elephants, so we agreed to take a quick safari through the park to try and find a few. By the time we finished lunch to head into the park, it was about 1:00pm: not good time for elephant-spotting. Here in Sri Lanka, elephants are typically most active and visible early in the morning and in the late afternoon before sun sets. The rest of the time, they forage deep into the forests where they’re difficult to see. That means that even though I’ll spend most of each day of fieldwork in Wasgamuwa, I probably won’t be busy collecting data except for those times when elephants are best viewed. That means our impromptu safari was also mostly uneventful. We spent a couple of hours driving around without seeing much (and even though I remembered to charge my camera battery the night before, I forgot to actually put the battery in the camera). Still, I got a few shots of some wildlife with my iPhone.

A male peacock displaying to a female peahen close to the entrance of Wasgamuwa. Fun animal fact for the day: just like in chickens, male peafowl are called peacocks, and female peafowl are called peahens. The more you know.

A male peacock displaying to a female peahen close to the entrance of Wasgamuwa. Fun animal fact for the day: just like in chickens, male peafowl are called peacocks, and female peafowl are called peahens. The more you know.

A young water monitor we observed traversing one of the roads in Wasgamuwa. These lizards can get fairly large (the largest ever recorded in Sri Lanka was 10.5 feet long), but are usually harmless to humans.

A young water monitor we observed traversing one of the roads in Wasgamuwa. These lizards can get fairly large (the largest ever recorded in Sri Lanka was 10.5 feet long), but are usually harmless to humans.

It was exciting to be out in the field searching for elephants, but we weren’t getting lucky, which was discouraging. Even though the bird life around us was enchanting, I really needed to see my elephant. The first few hours passed, and big rocks and dead trees started to look like elephants from a distance. Finally, in our last 15 minutes, we came upon my first elephant of the trip. And he was a big one (that’s a friendly way of saying, “Boy, was he fat!”). The elephants in the park are known to break down the surrounding electric fencing to raid crops in nearby farms. Obviously, this is a huge problem (it’s even got its own name: “human−elephant conflict” or HEC), and this problem threatens Asian elephants across virtually their whole range. I suspect this elephant in front of us was a crop raider because he didn’t seem to be struggling to find food. He was also a makhna, or a tuskless male. Usually, male Asian elephants have tusks, but in Sri Lanka, only about 8% have them. It’s thought that during colonial times, most of the tuskers were hunted for their ivory, so the population evolved with mostly makhnas. That can make telling males from females a little tricky, but astute observers can tell the difference based on, um, other “things.”

My first elephant sighting for this trip to Sri Lanka: a rotund  makhna . We stayed and watched this guy eat for about twenty minutes before moving on.

My first elephant sighting for this trip to Sri Lanka: a rotund makhna. We stayed and watched this guy eat for about twenty minutes before moving on.

Seeing my first elephant really brightened my day (even Rajnish commented on the change in my overall demeanor), and it reminded me the value of being here. I’m excited to see hundreds of more elephants over the rest of my time here (knock on wood), and I’m sure my time in the field will be enlightening, inspiring, frustrating, and self-affirming. I’ve still got about a week and a half here at Rajarata before I head into the field with my assistant in tow. I’ll be sure to post another update before I leave, but after that, my writing may be more sporadic. I’ll be in touch regularly with close family and friends, so unless you hear differently, I’m just fine. I appreciate everyone’s who’s reached out to check in and ask about my time here. Those moments help during these times when I’m jumping into the unknown. Know that I miss you all terribly (but not necessarily the cold weather), and sharing my stories with you helps with that.