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—

Meet the bull elephants of Wasgamuwa

I spent the past week running all sorts of errands that I can’t finish when I’m in the field. That means this week has consisted of a whirlwind of long-ignored (but not forgotten) emails, ensuring laboratory supplies and equipment are in place for our first batch of extractions to take place next week, and even a two-night trip to Colombo. My modus operandi is to keep busy like this, but I’ve found myself missing the slower pace and the elephants back at Wasgamuwa National Park. To date, we’ve had 1,187 elephant sightings over 186 different sighting events. With all of these sightings, we’ve identified 48 different adult male elephants (often called bulls; females are called cows). We’ve seen 24 of these bulls multiple times.

For this update, I thought I’d share a few of the bulls that we see often enough to be named. Upon being photographed, each bull is given his own three-digit identification number. Occasionally (although much more rarely now), we inadvertantly give a bull two different ID numbers, mistakenly thinking that a subsequent sighting is a new bull. We catch these cases upon careful review of our photographs every few days. In these cases, we combine the sightings for a single bull using his original ID number. His newer, mistaken ID number is retired so that some forgotten record isn’t treated as a different elephant when we analyze data in the months to come. Other times, we’ll review the photographs and realize that we can’t possibly identify that elephant again because the quality of our photos are so poor. Those numbers are retired too. So that means with 48 elephants, we’ve gone from ID numbers 001 to 060. We collate the best identifying photos for each bull into an ID card. We carry the ID cards bound together in the field with us so that we can more easily identify males in the field. This is the part of the job that I’ll never again take for granted when working with zoo elephants: in this regard, it’s much easier to know that your focal animal will be there when you want it, and you’ll know for sure it’s them.

An example of one of the ID cards we use in the field. Red arrows point on distinguishing marks. Age category 3 corresponds to an estimated age of 30-40 years. The date listed is the first date spotted.

An example of one of the ID cards we use in the field. Red arrows point on distinguishing marks. Age category 3 corresponds to an estimated age of 30-40 years. The date listed is the first date spotted.

And there are times when we see particular bulls so often—or they have physical features that are so easily distinguishable—that we give them names that are easier to remember than numbers. Some of these names are pop culture references, and a few come from loved ones or other important people back home. We’ve only named eight bulls so far. Sachintha and I are working on coming up with Sri Lankan names that honor important figures and scientists that come from the island (and, at my request, they have to be easy enough to pronounce and spell that I won’t resort to using the original ID number instead). We only name male elephants because of the scope of my study. Unfortunately, this means that many important female figures are overlooked. I guess I’ll just have to move back to studying female elephants one day so that they’re honored appropriately.

I should also emphasize here that these names (and in fact, even the ID numbers) are purely for our own use and convenience. That means none of these names are official; we don’t run them by any sort of authority, and they’re not recorded anywhere by anyone else. We haven’t named as many elephants recently because we haven’t seen as many new elephants repeatedly, as I discussed in the last post. When I head back into the field this Tuesday, I’m hoping that we begin naming elephants more frequently again.

So, here are some of “our” elephants that we regularly see in Wasgamuwa:

Arnold (001)
First spotted 18 December 2018

Arnold (male 001) in heavy musth. Those reddish patches on the side of his head? Those are temporal gland secretions that communicate his condition to females and other males. Wasgamuwa National Park, 26 Dec 2018.

I’ve written previously about Arnold, as he was the first bull we named (after Arnold Schwarzenegger, for his “toughness”). On our first 10-day trip to Wasgamuwa, we saw Arnold every day, often multiple times each day. He was deep in musth, draining continuously from his temporal glands and dribbling urine constantly (I never said musth or my work was glamorous, okay?). We never observed overt aggression from Arnold, but if another male approached the group of females we was with, almost immediately he would walk towards that male to escort him away—and it always worked. Since that trip, we’ve only seen Arnold once, on 30 January. As expected, he was no longer in musth, but we spent less than a minute with him. The sighting was early in the morning, and he immediately crossed the road we were traveling on to move between forest patches, where we could no longer see him. Maybe musth gave Arnold the confidence to be around us more frequently? Who knows, but I hope we see him again soon. More selfishly, I want to get another fecal sample from him; we got a couple from him when he was in musth, so it would be great to be able to compare the hormones of the same male in and out of musth (something we haven’t yet achieved with any of the other males either).

Maybe he’s born with it, maybe it’s…musth? Wasgamuwa National Park, 26 Dec 2018.


James (male 007) showing his distinctive coloration. Wasgamuwa National Park, 19 Dec 2018.

James (007)
First spotted 19 December 2018

James was named purely as a joke (his ID number is 007…get it?), but we’ve since seen him so often that I’m sure we would’ve named him anyway. James tends to exhibit more aggressive behavior than the other males, even before he recently came into musth (on our second-ever day in the field, he charged our vehicle from a short distance). He’s an easily distinguishable male, with depigmentation on his ears and “collar.” He’s also missing the last third of his tail, a not-so-uncommon occurrence. We’re never sure how elephants lose bits of their tails, but most likely, it’s due to an unpleasant interaction with another elephant. Did I not mention that elephants aren’t always the peaceful creatures we like to watch on television and in the movies?


Kevin (018)
First spotted 20 December 2018

Kevin (male 018) on a day he was particularly interested in our vehicle. Wasgamuwa National Park, 23 Dec 2018.

Kevin is probably our most spotted bull, and he’s easily become my favorite. His name has a personal connection to me. Less than two weeks before I left for Sri Lanka, my Uncle Kevin died, mostly unexpectedly. My uncle often served as my respite at family functions; we often exchanged glances from across the room in response to something crazy one of our (beloved) family members just said. He was also one of my godparents. I was fortunate to be home in Dallas when he passed so that I could say goodbye and be with family during the week’s events, but I think of him often here, having left to go overseas while I was still processing everything. I consider it an honor to name an elephant after a person, and so this was my way of honoring my uncle. For what it’s worth, I waited as long as I could before finding an elephant to name “Kevin,” waiting to observe something that reminded me of the human Kevin. Our elephant Kevin interacts calmly with other elephants, quietly moving between males and females, much like my uncle did with our family during holiday events. And I’d be lying if I said that the bulky stature of elephant Kevin wasn’t reminiscent of my uncle. So I smile every time we get to see Kevin, and he’s even approached our vehicle a few times, just standing there, seemingly watching us as we watch him. We last saw Kevin a few weeks ago, when he had just gone into musth.

For over a week, we thought Kevin’s depigmentation was limited to his ears. Then one day it rained, washing all of the mud and dirt that had covered his face. Boy, were we wrong. It turns out he has this beautiful pink pattern that covers much of his face. Wasgamuwa National Park, 27 Dec 2018.

A special moment: Kevin approaches our vehicle and just watches us for a bit. Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 January 2019.

A special moment: Kevin approaches our vehicle and just watches us for a bit. Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 January 2019.


Mason (023)
First spotted 24 December 2018

Mason (male 023) walking towards our vehicle. Notice the pink splotches of depigmentation that are isolated to the tips of his ears. Wasgamuwa National Park, 11 Jan 2019.

Mason is a young elephant (I estimate him to be about 10 years old), and we’ve seen him interact with a few bulls around his age. He’s easily spotted because of the unique pink patterns present just on the tips of his ears. He was named after my home university, George Mason University, when Elizabeth and Wendy came to Sri Lanka for their visit; both Elizabeth and Wendy earned their PhDs at GMU in the same program in which I’m currently enrolled, and Elizabeth is a tenured Associated Professor in GMU’s School of Integrative Studies. I appreciate the support I’ve received while at GMU, so it was only appropriate that an elephant be named in honor of all the people who make the university great. The real George Mason, after which GMU was named, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was the basis for the US Bill of Rights. So I guess add having an elephant named after him to George Mason’s list of accomplishments.

Mason (male 023; right) socializing with a female. Wasgamuwa National Park, 24 Dec 2019.

Mason (male 023; right) socializing with a female. Wasgamuwa National Park, 24 Dec 2019.


Gimpy (038)
First spotted 11 January 2019

Gimpy (male 038) not looking so gimpy. Wasgamuwa National Park, 20 Jan 2019.

Gimpy was named based on his appearance, not in any sort of effort to be offensive. We first encountered Gimpy and thought he was dead or dying because he was laying down out in the open, something we knew was very unusual for an adult elephant to do in the middle of the day. After about 10 minutes of us worrying, Gimpy stood up, revealing the cause of his unusual behavior: his right wrist was very swollen and he was unable to bend his foot forward. It seems that a gunshot caused the injury, although we’re not sure. We made sure to tell our tracker to tell the authorities at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, but they were already aware, having scheduled a veterinarian to assess his situation the next day. We’ve seen Gimpy a few more times after that day, his ankle much less swollen than previously. It appears that the vet’s attention did him some good.

How we first first came upon Gimpy (male 038). We feared for the worst. Wasgamuwa National Park, 11 Jan 2019.

…but then he got up as if to say, “What? Nothing’s wrong over here.” Those white marks though? Bird poop from the egrets sunning on his body when he was recumbent. It’s difficult to tell in this photo, but his right ankle is also very swollen. Wasgamuwa National Park, 11 Jan 2019.


Jack (046)
First spotted 19 January 2019

Jack, male 046. Notice the little bit of drainage at his temporal gland. This is a sign Jack has started his musth cycle. Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 January 2019.

Jack, male 046. Notice the little bit of drainage at his temporal gland. This is a sign Jack has started his musth cycle. Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 January 2019.

Jack was also named for a personal connection, as we saw him associate with Kevin almost exclusively over a three-day period, both of them in musth. The human Kevin has a father, brother, son, and nephew named Jack, so we thought it only appropriate to name this elephant Jack. One morning, we spent a few hours with Kevin and Jack as they were sizing each other up, often standing head-to-head with a tree between them. We observed Jack breaking down trees with his head and trunk in an apparent attempt to intimidate his rival. Both Jack and Kevin are relatively young, and it’s unlikely that we would see such a close association over a prolonged period with older bulls. We haven’t again seen Jack since those three days, but we did get his poop!

Jack (left) and Kevin (right) during one of their stand-offs. Jack is using the weight of his head to push the tree down towards Kevin, maybe in an attempt to show his strength. Elephants are nothing like people, right? Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 Jan 2019.

Jack (left) and Kevin (right) during one of their stand-offs. Jack is using the weight of his head to push the tree down towards Kevin, maybe in an attempt to show his strength. Elephants are nothing like people, right? Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 Jan 2019.


Shortie (050)
First spotted 22 January 2019

Nope, that’s not Photoshop. That’s actually how long Shortie’s trunk is. Wasgamuwa National Park, 22 Jan 2019.

We named Shortie for obvious tongue-in-cheek reasons: he’s missing about half of his trunk! An elephant’s trunk is its connection to environment, using it to eat, drink, investigate objects, and interact with other elephants. While I’ve seen other elephants in places outside of Sri Lanka with exceedingly short trunks, it’s rare. An elephant with a trunk like Shortie’s must live a tough life, having to adapt to a lifestyle totally different than their conspecifics. Besides his trunk, Shortie also looks completely different than other elephants: he’s got relatively long tusks, his ears are a weird shape, and his head naturally hangs low (probably a result of him having to lower his head constantly to feed and drink). So why does Shortie have a short trunk? We’re not sure, but it’s probably the result of a snare put out by poachers to catch bushmeat. Hunting is illegal in the national parks here in Sri Lanka, but we’re not sure that’s where Shortie encountered the assumed snare—remember, elephants routinely wander outside the park boundaries. And we’re pretty sure whoever put out the snare didn’t mean to do harm to elephants; they’re usually after deer meet. That doesn’t make the practice any worse though. Sustainable solutions will involve making access to other food sources easier to reduce the motivation to hunt animals indiscriminantly with snares.

A full body shot of “Shortie” (Male 050), easily distinguishable with his short trunk. Wasgamuwa National Park, 22 Jan 2019.

A full body shot of “Shortie” (Male 050), easily distinguishable with his short trunk. Wasgamuwa National Park, 22 Jan 2019.


Dumbo (052)
First spotted 23 January 2019

I mean, look at those things. Male 052 “Dumbo,” Wasgamuwa National Park, 28 Jan 2019.

Okay, I get it, I wasn’t creative with this one, but our Dumbo has enormous ears that make him easy to pick out from the crowd. Asian elephants have much smaller ears than their African savanna counterparts, but this bull rivals them. We’re pretty sure he won’t be using his ears to take off into the air anytime soon, but I still smile each time we’ve seen Dumbo. Dumbo was one of my favorite movies growing up as a kid (for obvious reasons), and I look foward (skeptically) to the remake coming out next month.


So those are the bulls we’ve named so far in Wasgamuwa. But one thing to realize is that we see many more male elephants than we can name; about half of our study’s bulls are only sighted once! That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable to the dataset—we’ve watched a few of these unnamed males for a few hours, recording their interactions with their environment and other elephants, recording the noises they make, and yes, even collecting their poop. I’ve included some photos of just some of these memorable males below—they all look different, so see if you can spot the features we use to differentiate them from each other. Click on the photos to expand.

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.