Fulbright

A short week in India

I haven’t seen any elephants again since my last update, but I’ve been busy handling all of the things I can get away with ignoring in the field. The life of a graduate student isn’t put on hold just because there’s no internet access: there are still grant deadlines to meet, university paperwork to file, and of course, I’ve already begun planning for my return to the US in August. At the end of this week, I will have been abroad for four months—only five months to go! This past week marked the first time I’ve left the island since arriving back in November, as the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF, the Indian equivalent to the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission [US-SLFC]) hosted the South and Central Asia Fulbright Conference in Kochi, India. (The city is also widely known as Cochin, the name given by the British.)

The conference was a time for about 175 student and senior scholars to share the work that we’ve been conducting in the South and Central Asia region, including Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. By far, the most attendees were completing Fulbright grants in India—of the 101 presentations at the conference, 85 came from scholars in India. But India also awards the most grants in the region (for comparison, Sri Lanka awarded three student research grants for 2018-19; India awarded 65). Sri Lanka and Nepal have the next largest programs, as the only two other countries to have in-country commissions in the region. Because of its large program, USIEF hosts the Fulbright conference in India every year (the equivalent conference for Fulbright English teaching assistants is alternated between Sri Lanka and Nepal each year).

A shot of the South and Central Asia Fulbrighters, taken on the first morning of the conference. Photo by USIEF.

A shot of the South and Central Asia Fulbrighters, taken on the first morning of the conference. Photo by USIEF.

But I was happy to visit India, a country to which I’ve never been. At over 45 times the size of Sri Lanka, India has the largest population of Asian elephants in the world, between 25,000 and 30,000 elephants. And the country’s close relationship with elephants is always evident. I stepped off the short 50-min flight from Colombo to Kochi and started to walk towards customs when I saw a life-size elephant statue in the middle of the walkway. Unfortunately, this would be the closest thing to a real elephant that I would see on my short five-day trip to India. I guess that means I’ll just have to come back again.

The whole Sri Lankan cohort (students, scholars, and our fearless leader, Sandarshi) were on the same flight, and we arrived just before lunchtime the day before the official start of the conference at our Le Méridien Hotel, the conference venue. Compared to the conditions I’m used to in elephant land, I felt like royalty at the hotel: hot water, air conditioning, and free WiFi…what more could you want? And on top of all of this, my hotel room (along with a bunch of the other Fulbrighters’ rooms) was only accessible by boat from the main building of the hotel. That’s right: to get to my hotel room from elephant land, I had taken a van, a tuk-tuk, a train, a couple of cars, a plane, another van, and then a BOAT. Sure, it was only a three-minute single-motor boat ride across a river, but even at the end of the conference, there was a certain amount of charm to the experience.

A view from the ritualized boat ride to the main conference venue one morning in Kochi at Le Méridien.

A view from the ritualized boat ride to the main conference venue one morning in Kochi at Le Méridien.

We were some of the first to arrive at the hotel, as others from the region had much further distances to travel. Still, we had a delicious lunch (I miss Indian food here in Sri Lanka), and most of us decided to take advantage of the free time before dinner to explore our surroundings. Nearby Fort Kochi is a popular tourist spot, full of shops, restaurants, and various attractions. So we hopped in an Uber and drove about 20 minutes to be dropped off in the middle of it all. Kochi si right on the coast of the Arabian Sea, so we headed straight for the shoreline to look around (okay, make it wasn’t straight there…we didn’t really have an idea of where we were going). One of the popular attractions for tourists in Fort Kochi is the Chinese fishing nets, a series of stationary nets where small amounts of fish are freshly caught, sold to people walking by, and then cooked by nearby vendors. We didn’t get to see the nets in action, but we did get a few cool photos.

One of the Chinese fishing nets from the back. The net is perfectly balanced, so that a person walks along the length of the beam to dip the net into the water, and then after a bit, a team of fishermen use ropes to bring in the catch.

One of the Chinese fishing nets from the back. The net is perfectly balanced, so that a person walks along the length of the beam to dip the net into the water, and then after a bit, a team of fishermen use ropes to bring in the catch.

Another shot, this time of a row of fishing nets during sunset.

Another shot, this time of a row of fishing nets during sunset.

We spent the rest of our time wandering around Fort Kochi. We peeked into souvenir and clothing shops and enjoyed walking around the area. We even stumbled upon a temporary art exhibition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which happens every two years, as the name suggests. Featuring work from all around the world, the exhibit brings light to many of the issues facing marginalized groups of people. Forms included paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos, and others. We arrived just a few hours before closing, but you could have easily spent the whole day looking around (there were other satellite exhibits associated with the Biennale all over Kochi too). And by the looks of it, it’s a very successful exhibit; we saw many families exploring the grounds. We had to get back to the hotel for dinner, but a few of us had time later in the week on a free afternoon to explore other parts of Fort Kochi, including the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth, the Dutch Palace, and a Jain temple. Sure, there were no elephants involved, but I enjoyed taking a break to absorb a new culture with an outsider’s perspective.

Colorful dye powders on sale at one of the shops in Fort Kochi.

Colorful dye powders on sale at one of the shops in Fort Kochi.

A view of the shore from the Biennale exhibit in Fort Kochi. Our hotel is somewhere over there.

A view of the shore from the Biennale exhibit in Fort Kochi. Our hotel is somewhere over there.

Spotted another elephant on the gates to the Jain temple in Fort Kochi. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to actually enter the temple.

Spotted another elephant on the gates to the Jain temple in Fort Kochi. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to actually enter the temple.

But of course, the purpose of our visit to India was not for sight-seeing. The conference was full of eye-opening, thought-provoking presentations from around the region. I learned about agriculture, public health, economic development, religion, and even entanglement theory (if you want to know more about that, don’t ask me). At first it was intimidating to be surrounded by so many intelligent, accomplished people (that was immediately apparent on the first day when another Fulbrighter turned to me and asked if using the term ‘discourse theory’ was inappropriate as he was writing some sort of proposal…I had to admit I had no idea what he was talking about). We listened to government officials from the US and India talk about the importance of continued collaboration between our two countries, including former Ambassador Nirupama Rao. How could my work possibly compare to that of those around me, some of which had been at the top of their fields for decades?

And so that was my attitude as I approached the session I was a part of, a panel of Fulbrighters discussing the work in the realm of environmental science. I was one of only a couple ecologists at the conference, and so I thought that a talk about elephants in Sri Lanka may not draw attention. But of course, most people cannot resist photos of elephants, and so my talk was fairly well-attended. My presentation was sandwiched between talks about other environmental issues in the region, including in Kazakhstan, India, and Sri Lanka. None of the other panelists were studying wildlife persay, but the issues facing the environment are all intertwined. Gaining a bit of confidence after my talk, I participated in the rest of the conference with a new sense of clarity. No longer was I intimidated, but inspired.

At the podium sharing my work. Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena.

At the podium sharing my work. Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena.

With the rest of the environmental science panelists during the question session. I look like I’m making some sort of point here; I can’t remember if that’s true or not. Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena.

With the rest of the environmental science panelists during the question session. I look like I’m making some sort of point here; I can’t remember if that’s true or not. Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena.

And so I felt more at ease during the rest of the conference (to be honest, I could have been feeling more tense beforehand with the looming presence of my own presentation). We watched cultural performances from dancers and musicians, listened to more of the amazing work being down in the region by Fulbrighters, and enjoyed having our minds stretched to think about seemingly unrelated issues suddenly become inextricable. And of course, I was constantly enjoying the food. Each meal was amazing. Over one lunch, we even had a more traditional Indian meal, served on a banana leaf. And as in Sri Lanka, it was meant to be eaten with your hands (I still haven’t gotten used to that practice here, so I wimped out and ate mine with a spoon). Possibly a few pounds heavier, I left India wanting to see and learn more from the country.

One night, we were enthralled with an outdoor  Kuchipudi  dance performance by Fulbright alumna Lalitha Sindhuri.

One night, we were enthralled with an outdoor Kuchipudi dance performance by Fulbright alumna Lalitha Sindhuri.

A traditional Indian meal served during one of our lunches.

A traditional Indian meal served during one of our lunches.

Quick break for a selfie during the last day of the conference with Meghana Nallajerla (another Sri Lanka Fulbright student) and Sandarshi Gunawardena (Executive Director of US-SLFC).

Quick break for a selfie during the last day of the conference with Meghana Nallajerla (another Sri Lanka Fulbright student) and Sandarshi Gunawardena (Executive Director of US-SLFC).

Most of the US-SLFC contingent who attended the conference in Kochi (from L to R: Chase LaDue, Prema Arasu, Sandarshi Gunawardena, Meghana Nallajerla, and Katie Conlon). Missing from this photo are Dave and Dixie Damrel, who are also  blogging  about their Fulbright experience during their time in Kandy.

Most of the US-SLFC contingent who attended the conference in Kochi (from L to R: Chase LaDue, Prema Arasu, Sandarshi Gunawardena, Meghana Nallajerla, and Katie Conlon). Missing from this photo are Dave and Dixie Damrel, who are also blogging about their Fulbright experience during their time in Kandy.

And so most of the Sri Lanka Fulbrighters left Kochi on Thursday afternoon. I didn’t get to see my elephants (the closest one was a 2.5-hr drive away, I checked), but I’m sure I’ll be back. And this time at the airport, a “herd” of 15 life-sized elephant statues bid farewell at the airline check-in counter as I headed back to customs. We got a happy surprise on this flight though: all of us were upgraded to business class at no charge to us. It seemed to be such a waste on a 50-min flight, but I wasn’t complaining as I reclined in my seat and even ate a meal in comfort. It was enough time to watch two episodes of “Modern Family” before landing back in Colombo. And I was pleased to feel like the trip back was a sort of homecoming. India and Sri Lanka are similar in a lot of ways, but Sri Lanka is unique, having developed its own culture and way of life as an isolated island. I enjoyed my short time in India, but I’m happy to be back. I spent a few days in Colombo to catch up on work (it was another national holiday on Monday, so there was no point in rushing back to the University on a Friday), and I’ll be here in Mihintale before heading out again to elephant land at the end of the week.

The procession of life-like elephant statues at the entrance of the Kochi airport. I have never felt like more of a tourist than when I was getting a shot of these from every angle with my iPhone camera.

The procession of life-like elephant statues at the entrance of the Kochi airport. I have never felt like more of a tourist than when I was getting a shot of these from every angle with my iPhone camera.

A view of Colombo from the window of my hotel room.

A view of Colombo from the window of my hotel room.

I’ll only be at Wasgamuwa for a bit longer as the rainy season subsides (there are still virtually no elephants at my other field sites though), so hopefully my posting will become more frequent when I have better internet access. In the meantime, I’ve made an effort to expand my science communication efforts on Twitter, pre-scheduling tidbits from the field to be posted every weekday. Some of the material duplicates what is on this blog, but if you’re interested, you can follow me @ChaseLaDue.

Until next time—

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—

Reflections on change

One of the last things Elizabeth said to me as she and Wendy departed a few weeks ago was: “You won’t be the same after this experience.” Of course, her words seemed obvious at the time she said them; we’re all constantly changing in response to people we meet, places we visit, and lessons we learn. And ever since I received the news last April that I would be spending nine whole months of my life in Sri Lanka, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for major changes in my lifestyle. Though there were moments during my preparations that were more challenging than others, I wasn’t particularly worried about my ability to challenge myself. After all, one of my Fulbright application essays was centered around my ability to adapt to less-than-ideal situations (this was a necessary asset for any Fulbrighter in Sri Lanka, according to the original posting on Fulbright’s website). I’m a planner by nature, taking comfort in setting myself up for success by mapping out all possible contingencies. As long as I have a certain degree of control, I’ve found that I can press through just about anything I’ve committed to.

Still, close family and friends wouldn’t describe me as someone drawn to the sort of change that Elizabeth alluded to. My distaste for change has produced some funny anecdotes that my family will eagerly share with anyone who is unfamiliar. There’s my commitment to always getting my hair cut by the same person (see one of my last blog posts), and my insistence from a very young age to sticking with planned family dinner outings at the agreed-upon times (nothing annoyed me more than a surprise announcement that we were getting Italian food after I had spent hours preparing myself to eat Mexican food). And of course, there’s the fact that since the age of three, I’ve remained committed to thinking about and being around elephants as much as possible. Unsurprisingly, these childhood habits haven’t disappeared. In each city where I end up living for school, I slowly and methodically condition local restaurant workers to recognize my usual order and takeout schedules to discourage as many forced, awkward interactions as possible. During the first semester of my PhD, I ran a failed experiment of trying to plan out my weekly schedule down to 15-minute increments, posting the schedule above my desk, lest I forget. (That practice, by the way, ended up driving me crazy after two months, and I quickly abandoned it, even though it shortened the time that local restaurants became acquainted with my eating habits.) A trained therapist may disagree, but I don’t see these efforts as neurotic. I just feel comfortable being able to predict what’s going on around me.

And so in the days after Elizabeth and Wendy returned to the US and I got back to my “routine” that I’ve established in Sri Lanka, I’ve been reflecting a lot upon the ways in which I’ll be changed when I leave this little island in August. I’ve settled on the fact that these changes are inherently unpredictable, and they’ll occur so gradually that I probably won’t even notice them. Already, I’ve largely forgotten the isolation I used to feel a few months ago when I didn’t have a cellular signal or when I couldn’t understand the conversations in Sinhala that occur continuously around me. Work that’s worthwhile almost always requires change, and so I’m embracing the rest of the relatively short time I’m here in Sri Lanka.

Female elephant smells our car as she walks by. Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 January 2019.

Female elephant smells our car as she walks by. Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 January 2019.

One of a pair of golden jackals we followed through Wasgamuwa for a short bit one day. 26 January 2019.

One of a pair of golden jackals we followed through Wasgamuwa for a short bit one day. 26 January 2019.

While I’m in elephant land, I’ve already begun to cherish the few predictable moments that happen almost every day. At 5:00am every morning (and again at 7:00am, 12:00pm, and 6:30pm), the Buddhist monk at the temple across the street from our bungalow gets on a loud speaker to lead hour-long chants, even though I’m almost certain no local people join in. Okay, so maybe cherish is a strong word. But still, I enjoy sitting on the porch during afternoon rainstorms, and I like falling asleep underneath my mosquito net that makes my otherwise unremarkable mattress feel like a grand four-poster bed. And nothing makes he happier than seeing elephants every time we drive into the park that’s only two minutes away, a privilege I’ll surely miss almost as soon as I get on the plane back to the US.

I keep a watchful eye on two bull elephants in the distance as I collect a fecal sample left behind by one of them. Note: This work was conducted with the permission of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, and under the supervision of wildlife rangers at Wasgamuwa National Park. Photo: Sachintha Samaraweera.

I keep a watchful eye on two bull elephants in the distance as I collect a fecal sample left behind by one of them. Note: This work was conducted with the permission of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, and under the supervision of wildlife rangers at Wasgamuwa National Park. Photo: Sachintha Samaraweera.

A male calf nurses from his mother. Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 January 2019.

A male calf nurses from his mother. Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 January 2019.

The other “routine” I’m getting use to is the barrage of challenges that fieldwork brings. I lovingly refer to these as “fieldwork fails.” With my project, the biggest challenge is managing the vehicles, drivers, and trackers that we need to observe elephants. During the first 13 days in the field, we got our vehicle stuck in the mud four or five times, and we completely broke a vehicle once (don’t worry, it’s fixed now…but if you want to read about the story, check it out here). During this last trip, consisting of 17 days of fieldwork, I thought we had broken the curse of vehicle problems, because we hadn’t even gotten stuck in the mud once. On the second-to-last day of fieldwork, while we were driving through the park, I even turned to Sachintha (my field assistant) and commented how lucky we had been. Big mistake. During the last hour of our last day in the park, we were driving along a dirt path through a field when our vehicle lurched forward. The four of us (the driver, tracker, Sachintha, and me) got out to assess the situation. We were stuck in the mud. No problem, we thought, we’ve dealt with this before. Then it started to pour. We hadn’t seen this sort of rain before. While we were out searching for sticks to prop under the rear tires, the four of us were drenched, and even worse, the downpour forced our vehicle even deeper in the mud. Our driver tried wedging a combination of logs and jacks under the rear of the vehicle, to no avail. After almost an hour of trying all our old tricks, we resigned to calling another vehicle for help. The only problem: it was a holiday weekend, and every local vehicle had been booked for tourist safaris. It took about another fifteen minutes, but we were lucky to flag down a pair of jeeps passing by. A familiar situation unfolded: chains came out and we were pulled from the mud, ironically by the same vehicle who towed us out the last time (and the same vehicle we got stuck in the mud the time before). Of course I felt stupid because our tow vehicle was filled with a bunch of Sri Lankan tourists. But I guess what would a last day in the park be without a good story?

Our stuck vehicle. The rain has just started. Our tracker (Nawa) is worried about his hair getting wet. The solution? Plastic bag on the head.

Our stuck vehicle. The rain has just started. Our tracker (Nawa) is worried about his hair getting wet. The solution? Plastic bag on the head.

After the rain subsists, we tried stuffing sticks and even logs under the rear tires. No dice.

After the rain subsists, we tried stuffing sticks and even logs under the rear tires. No dice.

Waiting for our rescue vehicle to come. Not sure if Sachintha thinks he’s using some sort of force field to will the car out of the mud hole.

Waiting for our rescue vehicle to come. Not sure if Sachintha thinks he’s using some sort of force field to will the car out of the mud hole.

Our vehicle in the front is now chained to the tow vehicle, full of Sri Lankan tourists who think I’m the biggest idiot they’ve ever seen.

Our vehicle in the front is now chained to the tow vehicle, full of Sri Lankan tourists who think I’m the biggest idiot they’ve ever seen.

I’m back at Rajarata University this week, having just completed our 30th day in the field observing elephants. This last trip was a marathon 17-day, no-days-off effort. I’ve got a few things to take care of that require being back in “civilization,” or else we would’ve probably been there a bit longer. I’m lucky that Sachintha, drivers, and trackers steadfastly agree to being in the field that often for that long; it’s certainly a change from the three-hour safaris and one-night stays that most tourists spend in Wasgamuwa. But we’ve got less than two months in Wasgamuwa before we move onto other parks to observe elephants, and I want to make the most of our time. We’ve now sighted 1,184 elephants in 183 separate events over 30 days (most of these are repeated sightings, probably), and we’ve successfully identified 48 adult male elephants in the park; we’ve seen about half of these males at least twice. We’ve collected almost 20 fecal samples, and I’m proud that I’ve instilled the poop-collecting excitement in our drivers too, even though they probably have no idea why they’re cheering every time an elephant poops and walks away.

And our time at the bungalow just outside the park’s boundary is becoming routine. Sachintha and I hardly exchange words in the hour after we return from the field. We both know each other’s roles, and we’re familiar with how our own activities depend on the other person’s. And like two folks at a retirement home, we spend our off-time reading (why didn’t anyone tell me that Harry Potter was so good?), huddling in front of the television watching murder mysteries together, and engaging in an ongoing tournament of gin rummy (right now, I’m ahead ten games to Sachintha’s five). Early on during our last trip, the bungalow manager and our regular driver, Nimal, invited us to his house about fifteen minutes away. When we’re staying at the bungalow, Nimal’s family is almost always there with us too. Monica, his wife, cooks all of our meals, and his son, Nirosh, is often our driver. Nimal’s other two children are still young and in school, but they are often sitting near the kitchen trying to complete their homework as the nearby monk blares his chants over the loudspeaker nearby. Like many others near Wasgamuwa, Nimal built his own house that he and his family lives in. He was proud to show me around, and for good reason. His property is surrounded by trees on one side and an open field on the other. He says it’s great for wildlife watching, and elephants often graze nearby, leaving the safety of the park (the grass is always greener, right?). I rode a bicycle around his village, waving at wide-eyed people who had never seen someone like me around their homes. Nimal and Sachintha told me I was the first American to ever visit the village, and while I doubt that to be true, it’s nice to think that there are always new places to explore. A few neighbor children came by as we were sitting on Nimal’s porch, sheepishly holding their cell phones by their side as they clung shyly to door frames. “They want a selfie with you,” Sachintha told me. And so I agreed to take photos, experiencing my fifteen minutes of Sri Lankan fame.

I pose for a selfie with a girl from Nimal’s village. Nimal is also posing for the photo…he never passes up an opportunity for that. Note: Sachintha took this photo with the intent of posting it on social media to embarrass me. I figure that if I do it first, I take away his power to do that. Photo: Sachintha Samaraweera.

I pose for a selfie with a girl from Nimal’s village. Nimal is also posing for the photo…he never passes up an opportunity for that. Note: Sachintha took this photo with the intent of posting it on social media to embarrass me. I figure that if I do it first, I take away his power to do that. Photo: Sachintha Samaraweera.

Over our 17 days this past trip, we’ve observed elephants we haven’t spotted since December, and of course we’ve seen new elephants too. But our sightings have decreased in frequency compared to when we started. During our visit to Nimal’s village, we were told that elephants from the park would soon be crossing the fence to start raiding the paddy fields. And based also on the increased amount firecrackers we’ve been hearing at night, the lack of elephants in the park indicates that this has happened. Nimal says this is temporary, and that this movement happens about the same time every year in the rainy season, and it will only last two weeks. I’m hopeful that our trip back to Wasgamuwa next week will be more fruitful in terms of elephant sightings. With the end of the rainy season looming, the elephants will begin to move out of the forests to find more food, making them easier for us to see. We’re also excited at the prospects of seeing other species, including leopards (I’m convinced I caught a fleeting glimpse of one running through the forest during an early morning drive last week) and sloth bears.

Sachinthat recording a musth male elephant (Bull 056) that approached our vehicle during our observation. Wasgamuwa National Park, 27 Jan 2019.

Sachinthat recording a musth male elephant (Bull 056) that approached our vehicle during our observation. Wasgamuwa National Park, 27 Jan 2019.

Today (February 4) is National Day in Sri Lanka, the equivalent to Independence Day in the US. It’s pouring outside as I write this update, and I’ll spend the rest of the day answering emails and attending to matters I’ve had the excuse to ignore while in elephant land without WiFi. Tomorrow at the university I’ll begin processing the fecal samples we collected before heading to Colombo on Wednesday. I’ll be going to India in a few weeks to attend the Fulbright South and Central Asia Conference, so I need to get my visa from the India High Commission and get presentable clothes to wear (even though they’re perfectly acceptable at the conferences I usually attend, jeans and a plaid shirt won’t fly at this event). The conference is an opportunity from Fulbright researchers from India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to share their work with each other. Plus, I get to add another new country to my list of places I’ve travelled (although I hope to visit India again in a few months to see more elephants and rhinos in the north). On Monday, the Executive Director of the US-SLFC will be visiting Rajarata to check in, and then I’m headed back to Wasgamuwa on Tuesday for a shorter trip this time just before leaving for India.