An elephant in the garden, and other stories from the field

I’m writing this update from my hotel room in Kochi, India, where I’m attending the South-Central Asia Fulbright Research Conference over the next week. I’ll provide an update on this for my next post. It’s been a whirlwind past couple of weeks as I continually try to balance the demands of fieldwork with ongoing work commitments back home (I’ve quickly learned as a graduate student that grant writing will never stop). This past trip to elephant land was shorter than last time (in part because I had to make it over here to India), but it still found a way to be filled with highs and lows. The trip also brought with it challenging moments as the elephants continue to engage in crop-raiding just outside of the park boundaries. Our elephant sightings have been inconsistent: we had our lowest number of sightings on a day during this trip, with a single elephant spotted before he ran into an adjacent forest patch, but we also had a few days of sighting 40 or 50 elephants at a time. It can be difficult to stay motivated and engaged without the promise of seeing elephants, but the milestones we’ve reached help to quickly overcome these doubts. The last day of this trip marked our 40th day of fieldwork, with over 200 hours spent searching for and watching elephants. We passed our 200th elephant sighting, with now more than 50 male elephants catalogued in our database.

I’m proud of our progress on the project, but I’m always hoping to accomplish more. When I get back from India, we’ll have another trip or two to Wasgamuwa before switching field sites. It’s still the rainy season in elephant land, so most of the elephants haven’t moved on to our next parks (these areas are still heavily flooded, and there’s no reason for elephants to move away from plentiful food sources at Wasgamuwa). While traveling these past couple of days, I’ve tried to think of a narrative to weave together my experiences over the past couple of weeks, but I’ve settled on presenting a few of the most memorable moments as discrete stories. It’s not as creative or introspective as I usually get in these updates, but hopefully you enjoy it just the same.

A muddy female elephant we had a close encounter with on one of our slow days in elephant land. Wasgamuwa National Park, 19 Feb 2019.

A muddy female elephant we had a close encounter with on one of our slow days in elephant land. Wasgamuwa National Park, 19 Feb 2019.

The first story that comes to mind happened on our first night back to the bungalow. We had just spent our first afternoon and evening back in the park searching for elephants, seeing only a couple of our catalogued males while adding a couple more new ones to the database. The first day back is always the toughest: we have to catch up on what’s been going on since we left, readjust to less-than-ideal field conditions, and work just as hard to get as much data as we can. So that also means that the first night is when I sleep the deepest. So it’s no surprise that it took a few minutes of constant knocks on my door to wake up to even the most urgent situations. I remember hearing light taps on the door and thinking, “It’s probably a rodent climbing in the ceiling, I hope it goes away soon.” But then the sounds got louder and more desperate, as I heard a quiet voice murmuring, “Sir, elephant outside.” As my family and friends will tell you, the word “elephant” always makes me perk up, so I sat up in bed to better assess the situation. I quickly determined that a giant rat wasn’t knocking on my door. It was Nirosh, the son of the Nimal, who manages our bungalow. Nimal and Nirosh regularly stay overnight at our bungalow (they lightheartedly qualify themselves as our security), sleeping underneath mosquito nets on cots on the front porch. We’ve been at the bungalow when elephants have come closeby once before, so I told Nimal that if that ever happens again, to wake me up. Well, this was one of those moments I had been waiting for.

Like I’ve written before, the elephants in Wasgamuwa regularly “visit” the farmlands surrounding the park, and our bungalow is surrounded by a lot of this agriculture. The elephants that have been nearby before haven’t been visible from our property, but this time was different. Still in a sleepy haze, I followed Nirosh outside in my pajamas, where Nimal had his flashight shining on a large shape just 30 feet away in the “garden” space of our bungalow (there’s not a proper garden at our bungalow, but I had to have a catchy title for this post, okay?). I rubbed my eyes and quickly realized that the large shape was an elephant, catching up mentally to connect Nirosh’s wake-up call with what I was seeing just in front of me. In my defense, the experience was disorienting. I was outside late at night still barefoot, balancing the sight right in front of me with chaos going on around me. You see, while I was excited to see an elephant in a place I had never seen one before, all of our neighbors were not quite as pleased. Armed with firecrackers provided by the Wildlife Department, they were firing deterrents all around us, with flashes and loud noises ruining any sort of romantic version of an elephant sighting.

The experience was over in a flash, with the bull elephant quickly running to refuge to escape the firecrackers. I stood there with Nimal, Nirosh, and Sachintha for a few more moments, sort of wondering and piece together what had just happened. This was the closest thing I had experienced to the realities of human-elephant conflict. Sure, I regularly see the damage that elephants leave behind, but I’ve never really understood the personal experiences of the farmers who must be simultaneously angry at an encroaching elephant and terrified for their personal safety and livelihood (although I felt neither of these). The reality is that living alongside elephants is challenging, and the problem isn’t going to get easier with expanding human development. But, the next time I talk with people about my work or write in our next few grant proposals about why solutions to this conflict are so important, I have a renewed perspective about the real-life experiences of the local communities who face the real-life consequences of elephants. Our “elephant in the garden,” while a sort of charming novelty, gave me something much more important to reflect upon.

Male 065 in musth on 19 Feb 2019 in Wasgamuwa National Park. He wasn’t the one who visited our garden, but he’s one of the elephants who we’ve since named. Meet “Nalagiri.” As Sachintha taught me, Buddhist teachings describe a man-killing elephant named Nalagiri who was sent to kill Buddha (spoiler alert: Buddha’s kindness and grace calmed the elephant before he could commit the act). We named him Nalagiri out of respect for the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and because Nalagiri has some of the most bullet wounds of any of our elephants, a sure sign he’s had not-so-pleasant encounters with humans (like the Nalagiri of Buddhist legend).

Male 065 in musth on 19 Feb 2019 in Wasgamuwa National Park. He wasn’t the one who visited our garden, but he’s one of the elephants who we’ve since named. Meet “Nalagiri.” As Sachintha taught me, Buddhist teachings describe a man-killing elephant named Nalagiri who was sent to kill Buddha (spoiler alert: Buddha’s kindness and grace calmed the elephant before he could commit the act). We named him Nalagiri out of respect for the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and because Nalagiri has some of the most bullet wounds of any of our elephants, a sure sign he’s had not-so-pleasant encounters with humans (like the Nalagiri of Buddhist legend).

I promised much less introspection for this post, so here’s a story that’s just neat. We were having another slow day in the park, checking all of our regular spots for elephant sightings without much (any) luck. Near the end of the morning, we spotted a lot of peacock tail feathers at the side of the road. This isn’t inherently unusual, but we typically see these feathers still attached to a bird that’s moving out of the way of our approaching vehicle. At first we passed the feathers completely, but after 20 feet, Nimal backed the vehicle up to see what was going on. What we saw terrified me.

Before I continue, I’ll inform you that my favorite movie hero is Indiana Jones. As a developing academic, I like to see myself in him, probably the most well-known (fictional) professor in popular culture. Unfortunately, probably the only thing we have in common is our fear of snakes. Don’t get me wrong, I know that snakes are hugely important to the ecosystems they inhabit, and I’m glad they exist and that there are people who study and protect them. But I’m not one of those people. So when we found the source of these detached peacock feathers just to the side of the road, I started to sweat. Just underneath some tall grass was a 10-foot long python in the process of slowly constricting its latest catch. Everyone in the vehicle thought this was the coolest sighting ever…except of course me. We stopped the vehicle and they immediately hopped out to investigate further…except of course me. They were in no real danger of getting as close as they did; the python was busy squeezing, so they were free to push a few pieces of grass aside to get a closer look. We never got a good look at the snake’s head, but even still, I stayed in the back of the car, satisfied to take photos with my phone to share here. This was the first large snake we have seen in Wasgamuwa (a few weeks earlier, we saw a tiny, non-venomous snake cross the road quickly in front of our vehicle). Needless to say, I’ll be a bit more cautious proceeding on foot to collect fecal samples in tall grasses from now on.

The peacock feather carnage we observed on the side of the road…

The peacock feather carnage we observed on the side of the road…

…and what we discovered upon closer inspection. That’s Nimal pointing at the snake, with an arrow added by me to help drive home the point. I know it’s a bad picture, but I wasn’t getting out of the car to get a better one, sorry. Still, you can make out the pattern of the python’s scales as it is wrapped around the unfortunate peacock.

…and what we discovered upon closer inspection. That’s Nimal pointing at the snake, with an arrow added by me to help drive home the point. I know it’s a bad picture, but I wasn’t getting out of the car to get a better one, sorry. Still, you can make out the pattern of the python’s scales as it is wrapped around the unfortunate peacock.

In my continuing series of fieldwork fails (#fieldworkfail), we had our share of vehicle problems this trip too. Early on in the trip, it rained continuously for a couple of days. This made road conditions tricky in some parts of the park. One morning, we came upon a truck full of gravel that had dug itself into the mud, unable to move. Eventually, it was rescued, having to dump a large portion of its load in order to facilitate this. We came upon the aftermath the next day, a huge pile of gravel sitting in the middle of the road on the way to one of our favorite elephant spots. We would have normally acknowledged this barrier by taking a different route, not wanting to risk getting stuck (again). But Nirosh, full of dedication and wanting to see more elephants, decided to test the vehicle’s limits and try to drive over it Land Rover style. As you can probably guess, this didn’t end well for us, and after a few minutes of weaseling our way over the gravel pile, we settled on the fact that we weren’t getting out soon. We spend the next 45 minutes digging ourselves out by hand without a shovel, resorting to using steel rods to move the gravel after our hands got tired. Still, we made it out, and I added another way to get the vehicle stuck to our growing list.

Our vehicle bottomed out on the pile of gravel, with Nirosh (left) using a stick to move away some of the gravel, and Dhanushka (right), our tracker for the day wishing he hadn’t agreed to ride with us.

Our vehicle bottomed out on the pile of gravel, with Nirosh (left) using a stick to move away some of the gravel, and Dhanushka (right), our tracker for the day wishing he hadn’t agreed to ride with us.

Alone, this incident wouldn’t have been remarkable enough to include as a story here. But the next morning, when we came upon the gravel pile again in the middle of the road, it still had our tire marks on it; apparently, we were the only ones stupid enough to try going over it. Nimal was our driver for the day, so when we approached the pile, we warned him not to try it, mentioning that we had gotten stuck for a while the day before. But, like father, like son, Nimal gunned it as we lurched to the top of the pile. This time though, our fate was immediately sealed: there was no way we were weaseling out of this one again. For two hours, we sat there trying to dig ourselves out of the gravel, but we were in deep. We resigned and called for help, getting pulled from the pile by the same truck who got stuck and dumped the pile there in the first place. The rain had prevented the park officials from clearning the pile in the first place, but luckily for us, by the next day, the pile was gone. And we didn’t have to worry about overeager drivers trying to climb the gravel again.

Nimal resigning to making a phone call for rescue after getting stuck on top of the gravel pile…again.

Nimal resigning to making a phone call for rescue after getting stuck on top of the gravel pile…again.

Bored wainting for our rescue vehicle, I took an opportunity to explore what was directly surrounding our vehicle. We see elephant footprints around the park all the time (they even fill with water after rain to provide drinking sources for other species), and you can make out the elephant’s nails at the top of the print.

Bored wainting for our rescue vehicle, I took an opportunity to explore what was directly surrounding our vehicle. We see elephant footprints around the park all the time (they even fill with water after rain to provide drinking sources for other species), and you can make out the elephant’s nails at the top of the print.

After this last trip, I got the chance to meet Rajnish at his primate research station in Dambulla, the closest “city” to my fieldsite in Wasgamuwa. He’s been studying the same groups of langurs at a nearby forest reserve for years, growing a behavioral and ecological database that becomes more valuable with time. It seemed like his station ran like a well-oiled machine, with a small team of field assistants fastidiously following monkeys in the forest to collect data. Rajnish also has international collaborators regularly visit the station (one from the US was there when I arrived).

The field station for the Primate Conservation and Research Project, Sri Lanka, located in Dambulla. Inside this house, samples are processed, data are stored, and field assistants live. The jeep is Rajnish’s field vehicle

The field station for the Primate Conservation and Research Project, Sri Lanka, located in Dambulla. Inside this house, samples are processed, data are stored, and field assistants live. The jeep is Rajnish’s field vehicle

Besides visiting the physical field station, I got to follow Rajnish into the forest to visit his fieldsite and field assistants (and of course, the monkeys). Unlike our elephant research, the primate project doesn’t take place in a national park, but in a forest reserve. The reserve also houses ancient Buddhist religious sites, reminding me of some of the structures I see in Mihintale. Our short jaunt into the forest reminded me of my first real field experience, which took place in South Africa while I was still an undergraduate student. Like Rajnish’s team now, I was also following monkeys in Africa, constantly craning my neck and looking through binoculars to catch glimpses of monkeys. It’s a much different experience than casually watching an elephant approach out in the open. So while the work Rajnish and his team are doing is important and valuable and rewarding, I remember why I didn’t become a primatologist. It’s also much more difficult to tell monkeys apart from each other. Rajnish’s assistants follow the monkeys from about 6:00am when they begin to wake up until 6:00pm when they settle into their sleeping sites (this makes it easier to find the monkeys the next morning). They collect behavioral data, record monkey vocalizations, and measure the physical features of plants that the monkeys eat. Over time, these data accumulate and allow researchers to ask questions dealing with long-term changes in the environment and the life histories of these animals (birth rates, death rates, etc.). In fact, the lack of long-term studies on Asian elephants limits the sort of questions we can ask.

A dagaba (stupa) in the forest reserve where the primate project takes place.

A dagaba (stupa) in the forest reserve where the primate project takes place.

Rajnish downloading the data from the weather station at his field site.

Rajnish downloading the data from the weather station at his field site.

A view from the clearing in the forest where the primate project takes place. I mean, it doesn’t have elephants, but I guess it’s pretty.

A view from the clearing in the forest where the primate project takes place. I mean, it doesn’t have elephants, but I guess it’s pretty.

I’m planning on visiting the field site again (maybe even when I get back from India), hopefully for longer. It’s nice to meet other researchers and field assistants to take away different perspectives on wildlife research. Plus, it’s always nice to interact with other people after being with the same four people in elephant land for two weeks at a time.

Until next time—