Sri Lanka

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.

The scoop on (elephant) poop

My daily life here in Sri Lanka is becoming less deliberate and more routine. I regularly count the frogs that have joined me in the shower, I have a go-to soundtrack that I listen to on the drives from Rajarata to Wasgamuwa and back, and I depend on the nearby chants of the Buddhist monks to act as an alarm clock (I wish those wake-up calls weren’t at 4:45am each morning, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers…). The temperatures outside have quickly risen, and these routines help me cope with the heat. The heat also makes the whole no-hot-water situation easier to deal with too. With the transition from the wet to the dry season, the rains have also mostly subsided, although that hasn’t seemed to have an effect on the humidity levels.

The dryer heat alters the daily movement patterns of the elephants too. We’ve noticed that elephants are almost impossible to spot before 2:00pm now, even in the morning when it’s relatively cool. We think they’re spending the heat of the day under tree cover in the forest where we can’t see them. The vegetation is so thick that most times after moving just a few meters into the forest, we completely lose an elephant. (On a related note, we’ve also noticed that elephants seem much more wary of the vehicle and more apt to move into the forest when approach, a possible result of the recent crop-raiding that has occurred.) So as we’re driving through the park, I’m sure that there are tons of elephants (…literally) that we’re missing just a little bit off the road. We sometimes hear their trumpets and rumbles, but if we can’t see them, there’s not much we can do. Decreased elephant visibility at Wasgamuwa and lowering floodplains in other parts of the island are signs that it’s about time to move to another fieldsite and meet some new elephants. Hopefully we see some old “friends” too.

Encounters with elephants out in the open are increasingly rare with the high temperatures. Male 012, 12 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

Encounters with elephants out in the open are increasingly rare with the high temperatures. Male 012, 12 March 2019, Wasgamuwa National Park.

So I’ll cherish our last few weeks in Wasgamuwa, a place that I’ll always remember as being my first “real” start to fieldwork on my own. I’ll admit it: the adjustment to rugged field conditions was tough to me, as I think they would be to most millennials who suddenly find themselves without reliable internet for weeks at a time. But since then, I’ve embraced the experience and I now enjoy being able to put off emails and other responsibilities that rely on being tied to a computer (the catching up with all that stuff at the other end of the trip is another story though). I’m fortunate to surround myself with friends, family, and colleagues who are patient enough to deal with all of this, on top of my propensity to keep to myself even when I have no other excuse.


Despite the wane in elephant activity around Wasgamuwa over the past month, there remains one fact in life: everyone poops. And in fact, even when it’s hot outside, elephants will poop, and that fact is evident as we drive around the park. In the areas that they frequent, elephant poop is ubiquitous, and it’s important for proper functioning of the ecosystem. Wild adult elephants are estimated to produce over 100 pounds of poop each day, and because they are rather poor at digesting their food, all of this dung returns vital nutrients back to their enviornment. Whole populations of insects and other invertebrates depend on elephant dung, including some species of the infamous dung beetles in Africa, who lay their eggs in the stuff.

I’m especially proud of this photo I got at a zoo a few months before I left for Sri Lanka. I’ve concealed the elephant’s identity for his own modesty. And yes, I got strange looks from the zoo visitors who were around me.

I’m especially proud of this photo I got at a zoo a few months before I left for Sri Lanka. I’ve concealed the elephant’s identity for his own modesty. And yes, I got strange looks from the zoo visitors who were around me.

And most of my friends and family know of my fondness for (elephant) feces. And this penchant for poop isn’t due just to it’s environmental importance, nor is it a result of all of the practical uses people have found for it (for those who are curious, you can use elephant dung to make paper products and generate energy, among other things). But it’s what scientists can do with elephant poop (and poop from other species, for that matter) that really sealed the deal for me. We can learn about an animal’s life from its poop, including its diet, genetic composition, microbiome, and other things. For our project, we’re interested in measuring hormones, the body’s chemical messengers that are important regulators of behavior, helping an animal cope with its environment. And yes, we can measure hormone metabolites in elephant poop (side note: we’re measuring the metabolites, not the hormones themselves, because like many other molecules in our body, hormones get broken down so that they don’t have longlasting effects).

I’ve shared this enthusiasm for elephant excrement with Sachintha and the rest of our field team too (poop pride is infectious, I guess, but in a good way). Any day that we get a fecal sample, we blast celebratory music from my phone as we leave the park for the bungalow. Recently, it’s been Queen’s greatest hits (both Sachintha and I watched Bohemian Rhapsody recently…we highly recommend it). So far, we’ve collected 29 fecal samples at Wasgamuwa, with everyone in the vehicle emitting silent cheers and exchanging excited looks whenever we see an elephant do his business. 29 samples may not seem like a lot for almost three months of work, but the stars have to align for us to collect a sample. First, for our project, the elephant has to be male and over ten years old, and we have to see the elephant poop himself—there are critical things we need to know about the pooper for our project (including age, body condition, and musth status), so we pass so many dung piles in the park that it crushes me to do so. Musth males also seem to poop less often, as they appear to be eating less during the day. Next, the act has to have been done in a place that we can get to it safely. That means poops in lakes or ponds are a no-go (the water would ruin the sample anyway), as are poops deep in the forest (it’s difficult to see or hear nearby elephants, and our escape routes are severely limited in the trees). And the elephants have to move away from the poop so that we can get it. Sometimes this is relatively easy, and other times we mark the GPS location of the poop and come back later (although we only have a six- to eight-hour window to do this…coming back the next day is not an option). And if we can have all these factors go in our favor, we can get a sample. We’re safe as we can be when we exit the vehicle, having special permission from Department of Wildlife Conservation officials to do so and having a park tracker with us at all times. But the work has its inherent dangers—recently we got within 10 m of a crocodile (don’t worry Mom, this species hasn’t ever killed a human), and I can’t seem to forget the giant python we saw on the side of the road last month in the park. The open plains can be deceptive too. On our last trip, we trekked through a seemingly flat plain over 150 m to get a sample, not realizing the field was a metaphorical and literal minefield of ditches created by large groups of elephants walking through mud. The short excursion resulted in me falling on my butt in the mud, our driver laughing as he navigated the landscape easily in a sarong and flip-flops.

Nimal and I after our trek through the elephant-print minefield. Not pictured: my butt covered in mud from my fall.

Nimal and I after our trek through the elephant-print minefield. Not pictured: my butt covered in mud from my fall.

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented   four   samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented four samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

And the story doesn’t end with collecting the poop on the ground, as there hasn’t yet been an invention of an easy-to-use hormone gauge that you can stick into a piece of poop to know the concentration of testosterone in that sample. For long-term storage in the field, samples have to be kept frozen, which means I had to buy a freezer for our samples (just imagine the looks I got when I told Nimal that this freezer was just for poop). Power outages are relatively common and unpredictable, and with too many thawings the hormone metabolites in the poop degrades, so we keep bags of ice around the samples at all times, even when they’re in the freezer. On the day we drive back to Rajarata each trip, I pack a cooler with the fecal samples, never having told our driver what’s in the cooler (I keep it in the back of the van in case he asks for a drink from it). The samples are then put in a freezer in my kitchen until they’re processed. This has been a hallmark of my kitchen freezers over the past few years…you never know when you reach in whether you’ll get a bag full of elephant poop or a frozen breakfast sandwich.

Recently, we found a grain of rice in one of the fecal samples we collected (that’s what the red arrow is pointing to). This is evidence that this elephant exited the park to forage on crops from nearby farmers.

Recently, we found a grain of rice in one of the fecal samples we collected (that’s what the red arrow is pointing to). This is evidence that this elephant exited the park to forage on crops from nearby farmers.

And then the elaborate processing step begins. For five or six days, the samples are “baked” in individual paper bags at a low temperature (about 130ºF). Don’t worry, I don’t use my own kitchen oven for this…they make lab ovens for things like this. After the samples are sufficiently dried and there’s no more water left, each of the samples is ground into a fine powder using a sifter or coffee grinder (I’ve realized there’s a lot of kitchen−lab overlap after writing this…I’m always careful with labeling my equipment). This step helps remove any of the vegetation that’s in the dung, while increasing the surface area for the extraction step. During grinding, I have to be careful to wear a mask so that I don’t inhale dung dust. Despite the protective equipment, I still seem to develop a persistent cough shortly after grinding samples. I try not to think about it too much.

After carefully weighing each sample—now sufficiently pulverized into a powder—and putting it in a test tube, we add methanol to each sample and spin the tubes in a centrifuge for about 15 min. The hormone metabolites are drawn to the methanol near the top of the tube and all of the solid material collects at the bottom of the tube. We separate the liquid part from the solid in another tube, and voilà, we have fecal extract that we can analyze for hormone metabolites using a process called enzyme immunoassay (I’ll save that process for another post).

And so that’s from where my poop passion stems; it’s not some weird quirk, but an appreciation for the utility of the stuff. So next time you see an elephant poop (or any other animal, for that matter), don’t think “gross,” but instead, “science!”

Here’s a photo of a baby elephant. You earned it for putting up with the turd talk  (okay, last poop alliteration, I swear) . Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 Jan 2019.

Here’s a photo of a baby elephant. You earned it for putting up with the turd talk (okay, last poop alliteration, I swear). Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 Jan 2019.

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—