News from the Sri Lankan Field
Report written by Sri Lankan Intern, Ramona Stephen
I still can recall the uncertainty I carried on my shoulders along with my belongings in a rucksack when I first came to Wasgamuwa. It hadn’t even been a year since I left California, and was just getting used to the perks and comforts of being at home.
It was during my short tenure at the Women’s Development Center (WDC), where I bumped into Sally, (a volunteer working closely with the WDC and an acquaintance of Zaineb – an Elephants and Bees project officer) who briefed me about a project that aimed to reduce the human-elephant conflict by using beehive fences to thwart off crop raiding elephants. This was ground-breaking research that struck a chord with my conservationist side, and I decided that I wanted to play a part in it.
After a couple of weeks of reading up on the project, several e-mails and phone calls, I found myself on my way to the Elephants and Bees Sri Lanka project site in Wasgamuwa. I was greeted by the lush forests, the sweet fragrance of fresh air, and the equally sweet Brianna (Bri), the current project officer of Elephants and Bees Sri Lanka. It was Bri who patiently showed me the ropes, briefed me on the details and the scope of the project being carried out by Dr. Lucy and Dr. Kylie to effectively use beehive fences as a deterrent against crop raiding elephants. During my first day in the field, we went over the agenda for the week where I was also introduced to Supun, who guided me through the technicalities of bee keeping and information regarding the beehive fences in Devagiriya village.
Days at Wasgamuwa seemed unnaturally short, or the realm of time had no hold here. From the kittens that woke me up in time for sunrise, to the winding down sessions during sunset on the rock, I hadn’t notice the week zip by. My first week there was spent doing maintenance and occupancy checks on the existing hives to ensure a habitable environment for our bee colonies. A typical work day would begin work at 8.30 AM where we would drive though the flourishing green paddy fields in our tuk tuk jamming to some of Supun’s favorite tunes. We would continue our work till noon after which we would return to the SLWCS field office and update any information pertaining to the camera traps which have been strategically set up to catch any elephant activity, recent occupations, condition of the bee boxes, and plan activities for the following week.
During the second week we had the opportunity to personally meet the occupants of the area surrounding our site and converse with them regarding matters of elephant activity and any challenges they had to endure. We visited and interviewed members of 40 households. During the course of the project it was easy to dissociate myself from everything happening around me, but it was during these one on one sessions with the inhabitants of Devagiriya that I truly began to understand the magnitude of the situation, along with the daily struggle for these families juggling their livelihood while protecting themselves from the elephants. With the majority of households not having experienced recent elephant activity in the past two weeks we had a handful of residents that had elephants encroach into their properties, trampling portions of their paddy fields. During this early stage of the growing season, with little or nothing for the elephants to eat, the farmers would scare off elephants with 15-20 firecrackers that they would have in their possession.
Over the weekend, Zaineb visited us and we were able to conduct this season’s first honey harvest which I had not expected would happen during my placement. With the help of the farmers we were able to harvest 4 medium sized combs and a small comb from Sobana’s beehive fence.
With official Elephants and Bees data collection coming to a close in Wasgamuwa in the near future, we are currently in the process of educating and preparing our beehive fence farmers to independently manage and actively take care of their beehive fences. We were able to visit one of the local schools along with the SLWCS and talk about our beehive fences. We handed out some calendars for the grade five students at the Weheragala Primary School that contained colorful illustrations and useful details pertaining to the HEC to show that the peaceful coexistence of humans among these elephants are a possibility.
My experience with the Elephants and Bees project in Wasgamuwa has exceeded every one of my expectations and I feel privileged to be a part of the project, to play an active role in protecting our Sri Lankan elephants and their shrinking habitat to enable those that live with these glorious beasts to understand the importance of coexistence without conflict. The work I have been involved with has provided me with invaluable skills and enabled me to look deeper into the complexities of the HEC in Sri Lanka that remain unseen.