Supun: Sri Lanka Elephants and Bees Project’s Unsung Hero
Supun: Sri Lanka Elephants and Bees Project’s Unsung Hero
Every successful project is made up of unsung heroes whose behind-the-scenes work is vital for the project’s continuation. A shining example of an unsung hero is 23-year old Supun Herath, the Research Assistant at the Elephants and Bees Project’s Sri Lankan study site. Armed with his Tuk-Tuk, handyman skills, and ever-growing knowledge of beekeeping with Asian honeybees, Supun is perfectly suited for his job of ensuring that the groundwork for the project is performed at a high standard. However, Supun has not always been the biggest fan of Asian elephants and honeybees, and the man that you will meet today has very different views from the child and teenager growing up. Below is the story of how he became the backbone of the Sri Lankan Elephants and Bees Project.
Supun was born in the small village of Pussellayaya, within Sri Lanka’s Central Province. He went to school at Naminioya Central College (Hettipola). However, Supun grew up as a child who was both nervous of and angry with elephants. When he was 6-years old, his home was raided by 2 elephants. The elephants stole rice bags from his house and Supun remembers his father having to run across to save the family. It would be fair to say that Supun’s feelings towards elephants were justified and that he never imagined himself working on an elephant research project one day. This all changed though in the year 2014 when Supun was 19-years old. He started helping with projects at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS), an organisation he had been exposed to as a child at school. It was at this time that Supun witnessed the shooting of an elephant that was raiding a field of rice. This event left him very emotional and started to change his views on elephants. Supun was then contacted by Chandima Fernando (resident elephant researcher at SLWCS) to become involved with the Elephants and Bees Project to assist PhD candidate, Kylie Butler, with her research on using Asian honeybees to protect farms from elephants.
Working for the Elephants and Bees Project
Supun had never heard of Dr Lucy King’s research in Kenya and was nervous about the idea of working with honeybees, as anyone would be who has had no experience in beekeeping! With a laugh he exclaims “I used to slap at the bees when they flew near me!” He was also intimidated at the prospect of working with Kylie, an international scientist and someone new to him. One of his first tasks included the building of the beehive fences around the farms. Supun described the building process as “Tough work! But I had a good farming background growing up so I coped fine”.
The work which Supun actually feared most though was interviewing the farmers. Whilst he could speak English, Supun worried about continuously translating between English and Sinhalese and thereby ensuring that the answers by the farmers made sense to the questions being asked by Kylie. However, with the help of both Kylie and Chandima, Supun’s English rapidly improved, and further practice came from interacting with overseas volunteers and interns visiting SLWCS.
Supun has also learnt valuable beekeeping skills through workshops organised by the Elephants and Bees Project for the farmers. Through these workshops, Supun has been able to gain confidence with handling honeybees, as well as learning about honeybee biology. When opening up his first active beehive, Supun was both “nervous and excited”, but was grateful for the advice given to him by the various beekeeping experts. He is now an expert in his own right at opening up an active beehive, and even though he has had his fair share of bee-stings, he is very calm and confident now when the bees are flying around him.
Supun also enjoys working with the farmers – “The farmers have been very supportive of me and work well with me”. He explains how the farmers really trust the beehive fences around their gardens, with one farmer feeling secure enough to even visit his family in another village during the week with enough trust that his house is now safe from lurking elephants.
Supun’s working experience with the Elephants and Bees Project, as well as with SLWCS, has also taught him a lot about elephant behaviour. He is particularly fond of visits to the nearby Wasgamuwa National Park and the Weheragala Tank, where elephant sightings are plentiful. He now has a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding human-elephant conflict, having experience from both the human and elephant conservation angles. He is therefore thankful to be a part of a project involved in mitigating such conflicts.
Supun’s views on both elephants and honeybees have changed dramatically since his involvement with the project, expressing fascination and affection for both species. He has also enjoyed working with researchers from various countries, including Australia, the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa. In Supun’s eyes, the project has been a resounding success, with the honeybees offering the farmers protection against elephants, as well as valuable pollination services and honey production.
He is extremely proud to be a part of this project in Sri Lanka, and his work ethic in the field is evident of his feelings. However, Supun humbly says that he would not be here without the support of all of those around him. In particular, he would like to thank his mentors, Kylie Butler and Chandima Fernando, Ravi Corea, and Chinthaka Weerasinghe for all of their help and guidance through the years. Then to the Elephants and Bees Project, particularly Dr Lucy King, Zaineb Akbarally, Jessica Van Fleteren, Rebecca Sargent, and Robin Cook, as well as to everyone from SLWCS, especially Sarath Kumara, Dananja Kumara (DJ), and Indika Sampath.
The future of the Elephants and Bees Project’s Sri Lankan site looks safe in Supun’s hands, as he continues to take visiting researchers out in his Tuk-Tuk and ensure that the beehive fences are kept in top-notch condition. We thank you for all of your hard work Supun!
Thanks to our Project Officer, Robin Cook, for interviewing Supun for this report