Looking back on my time in elephant land

It’s as hot as ever here. I feel like I’m sweating gallons a day—even in the shade with a breeze—and I now intimately understand the warnings everyone in Colombo gave me way back in November: “do you know it’s hot where you’re going?” Even writing this back at Rajarata where I have regular access to air-conditioning, daily power blackouts make me question my sanity. And I’ve been covered in mosquito bites for the past several weeks, though I feel like I’ve gotten better at swatting down annoying insects with the deftness of a merciless ninja. In the evermore challenging environment, the elephants have also been hit-or-miss. We’ve had some of our most exciting elephant encounters during this trip (read more below), but days in a row of low sighting rates can be discouraging. And through all of this, I find myself adapting—maybe thriving—through it all.

This was our last trip to Wasgamuwa for fieldwork. Since December, we’ve come to memorize the park’s winding roads just as you get to know the hallways and shortcuts in a more typical workplace. Park officials have come to know us and our work (even with a big staff turnover a few months ago), and they no longer give me a sideways look when I indicate I should pay the local rate to enter the park. And of course what I’ll miss the most is the elephants we’ve come to know, some since our first week of observations back in December Those are the really special ones, as it seems that most male elephants seem to only spend a week or two in the park before moving on to find greener grass somewhere else.

One of the days during this past trip, our tracker Dhanushka greeted us at the park and told us that he had seen two adult tuskers in the morning. I’ll be honest, I didn’t believe him. Tuskers are rare in Sri Lanka for reasons I’ve explained previously, and we had only seen one in Wasgamuwa (way back in December) and he had been less than 10 years old, too young to be included in our dataset. But then Dhanushka showed us photos and my jaw dropped. I hurried everyone into the vehicle and we set out to find them. Sure enough, we found both tuskers that day: one between 20 and 30 years old, and another between 10 and 15 years old. Sachintha was especially excited with our findings, as he had been asking about tuskers for months. But just as mysteriously as they appeared, they vanished. After two days, we never spotted them again.

The most impressive of any tuskers that we’ve seen in Wasgamuwa, and he only has one tusk (his right tusk is missing). It’s not the best photo, but we never could get close enough for a good one. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The most impressive of any tuskers that we’ve seen in Wasgamuwa, and he only has one tusk (his right tusk is missing). It’s not the best photo, but we never could get close enough for a good one. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The other tusker we saw that day. Much younger, but with impressive tusks still. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The other tusker we saw that day. Much younger, but with impressive tusks still. 26 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

And we’re used to only spotting elephants briefly before they move on from Wasgamuwa. In a relatively small, enclosed park, it’s difficult to remember that these elephants are animals that move around a lot, and sometimes the resources outside the park are much more attractive than the safety the park provides. This, of course, is why human−elephant conflict is so prevalent and why we don’t see elephants jam-packed into the parks. These are big animals that, in unmanaged conditions, require a lot of room to acquire the resources they need. From inside our vehicle, they sometimes seem like little pawns or gamepieces, animate objects that are there for us to find as they move in and out of the forest. But as obvious as it may seem, it’s important to realize that these animals exist outside the operating hours of the park and that they have real-life, 24/7 impacts on the environments where they live. We’re reminded of this whenever a lot of commotion happens, interrupting the usual tranquility of watching elephants. These moments usually happen in the evenings when female groups congregate, and one female gets startled by something (usually, we can’t identify the source of the fright). When a female sends an alarm call, all the nearby females rush over to touch and smell each other, with a few usually urinating in the process. It’s a sight to see, and it’s an important reminder of the physical power these animals possess. Here’s a video of one of these memorable encounters. I highly recommend watching with your device’s sound on:

Wasgamuwa National Park, 25 March 2019
Riding around in our vehicle often gives us the sense that the elephants are smaller than they actually are. This photo with Nimal holding up a stick shows just how tall they actually are (the end of the stick is marked with the red arrow). How do we know this? Many of the trees in Wasgamuwa are conspicuously marked with mud on one side; this is where an elephant has rubbed its muddy covering off on the tree. Nimal is showing where the mud on this tree reaches, meaning this is just a minimum height for this itchy elephant. It’s hard to tell, but it’s likely that this elephant would be tall enough for Nimal to walk underneath its chin, without Nimal having to crouch.

Riding around in our vehicle often gives us the sense that the elephants are smaller than they actually are. This photo with Nimal holding up a stick shows just how tall they actually are (the end of the stick is marked with the red arrow). How do we know this? Many of the trees in Wasgamuwa are conspicuously marked with mud on one side; this is where an elephant has rubbed its muddy covering off on the tree. Nimal is showing where the mud on this tree reaches, meaning this is just a minimum height for this itchy elephant. It’s hard to tell, but it’s likely that this elephant would be tall enough for Nimal to walk underneath its chin, without Nimal having to crouch.

We also saw our first official leopard during this last trip. (I say official because it was the first one that everyone in our vehicle saw. I’d like to believe that I saw a leopard in the forest a few weeks ago, but I’m thinking more and more that it was actually a deer…). But don’t get excited, I don’t have a photo. The sighting happened in a few seconds as the leopard moved deeper in a forest patch. It wasn’t exactly the first leopard that Sachintha or I envisioned, but at least we didn’t leave Wasgamuwa without seeing one. What I could have lived with is not seeing another python. But guess what? We saw one crossing the road. Like our last python sighting, we never saw its head, making the experience even creepier.

Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 March 2019

Our last day in Wasgamuwa was bittersweet, sort of like the last day of high school. I looked around the bungalow after I packed up all of the equipment and my personal belongings, at the same proud of our accomplishments and wondering how we made it. We exchanged last-minute selfies with members of the Premasiri family, promising we’d see each other again soon. I secretly wished Monica would slip me some last-minute roti and curry, my favorite dish that she made for us frequently (okay, maybe that part wasn’t like high school). Moksha, Nimal and Monica’s youngest child and only daughter, was sobbing when we left, apparently distraught that the two guys who store elephant poop in the freezer were leaving. A few days before leaving, we rented a bungalow in the park as a way to thank the Premasiris; everyone was invited to spend the night along the river. Monica, Nimesh, and Moksha never really go into the park, so it was a treat to see what their father and older brother do each day. We had a barbecue that night, eating chicken, sausages (which were really just chicken hot dogs), and sliced bread, and it was delicious. It was nice to wake up that morning and drive back to our own bungalow, spotting elephants along the way.

Siblings Moksha and Nimesh by the river where we stayed in the Wasgamuwa bungalow.

Siblings Moksha and Nimesh by the river where we stayed in the Wasgamuwa bungalow.

Way back in December when I was first searching for a place to live near Wasgamuwa, I did not choose to live with a family. In fact, we even visited a few homestays that I immediately rejected. I didn’t know the bungalow we ended up choosing would also be inhabited by the Premasiri family, and to be honest, I might not have chosen it if I did know. Being so far from what was familiar to me, I was content to have a sort of private space where I could recharge each day after being out in the park.

But I couldn’t be happier that Sachintha and I got to spend almost four months with the Premasiris, and it gave me a different perspective on conservation. The field of conservation biology doesn’t occur in a vacuum, which is easy to forget when you’re worried about collecting data and then watching those data transform to numbers on a computer screen. But families like the Premasiris around Wasgamuwa want everything out of life like all of us. While we were at the bungalow, we saw Nirosh being a normal 21-year-old watching TV while trying his best with the ladies on his cell phone, Nimesh was studying hard for his end-of-year exams that would determine if he went to college, Moksha practiced her dance lessons in the kitchen while her mother Monica cooked dinner, and Nimal was beaming when he told Sachintha and me that Moksha had won her dance competition. If we want to save and protect wildlife around the world, we’ll need to find pragmatic solutions that keep people like the Premasiris in mind. For elephants, that means finding creative ways to sustainably connect elephants with the human communities that live around them.

Soon, we’ll be moving to continue our research in Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks. It’s quite possible that we’ll encounter a few of our Wasgamuwa elephants there, and I look forward to better understanding the difference between the parks in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’m back at Rajarata processing fecal samples and catching up on other work, remembering the elephants (and people) that I now miss.

The sunset driving out of Wasgamuwa on our last day of following elephants. 1 Apr 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

The sunset driving out of Wasgamuwa on our last day of following elephants. 1 Apr 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.