First impressions – Wasgamuwa

Sri Lankan Report by International Intern, Becca Sargent 

When I first arrived in Wasgamuwa to act as project coordinator for the Elephants & Bees Sri Lanka site, I wasn’t sure I would survive! Although I am used to a warm climate having lived in Kenya, I was not prepared for the sheer heat and humidity of Sri Lanka. Every day was a struggle, particularly on days where we needed to wear bee suits.  I quickly learned that just taking one water bottle to the field was not even close to enough! Having grown (slightly) acclimatised now, I thought it would be a good time to look back over my first few weeks and discuss the many things that struck me on my arrival here.

Hanging new beehives with some of our farmers in partnership with the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS). Photo Zaineb Akbarally.

During my first week here I saw my first Asian elephants on a trip to the National Park. A cousin to the African elephant, it is believed that Asian elephants are actually more closely related to mammoths than they are to their African counterparts (although there is much debate on this issue). And once you see them you realise that the two living species actually resemble each other only on a very superficial level. Asian elephants are much smaller than the Samburu elephants I’m used to and have a distinctive domed forehead and hunched back. I liked to consider myself a bit of an elephant identification expert. Having spent a lot of time working with Save the Elephants’ monitoring project in Samburu, Kenya I had become adept at spotting differences between individuals and identifying family members.

My first Asian elephant, exhibiting some distinctive skin pigmentation

It was immediately clear that this would be much more difficult with Asian elephants, not simply because they are often well hidden in the grass! With their small, floppy ears and lack of tusks, a lot of the identification relies on their unique pigmentation patterns and other lumps and bumps on their body. Not quite so simple as spotting notches in the large ears of the African elephants and their easily noticeable differences in tusk shape. The Asian elephants’ lack of tusks means that they do not suffer poaching to the same extent as their African counterparts. Here in Sri Lanka, and the rest of the continent, the main threat to Asian elephant populations is habitat loss and human wildlife conflict. Which leads us on to beehive fences…

vs a Samburu elephant with very obvious ear notches!

Here in Wasgamuwa there were initially 10 farms with beehive fences which are being used to test the effectiveness of this design for deterring Asian elephants. One thing I was surprised to discover was that there was huge variation in the commitment and motivation of the beehive fence farmers. From an outside perspective this looks like a win-win situation. Who wouldn’t want a beehive fence!? Not only does it protect your farm but you get additional pollination services from the bees, as well as honey to either keep or sell. But in fact it is not so simple.

Beehive fence in Dewagiriya village close to Wasgamuwa National Park.

The fences require a lot of maintenance work to keep the hives clean and everything hanging correctly. For a lot of the community here they are busy working hard to make ends meet and cannot always spare the time to do fence upkeep. In addition, Sri Lanka has recently suffered a drought, meaning bee colonies have struggled and a lot of fences have lost their active hives. With farmers unable to see immediate benefits it can sometimes be difficult to stimulate enthusiasm about the project. In other cases the farmers are simply afraid of the bees! On the other hand, however, there are some farmers who are incredibly eager to have fences and are becoming experts at caring for their bees. In addition, we have been stopped on the road by people asking how they can get fences for their own farms. So although it can be disappointing when one fence location isn’t successful, it is still very useful data to help us to understand why certain fences don’t work and why some farmers are so much more motivated and interested.

Our night-watchman, Māmā, after his house had been raided by elephants.

The key thing which I noticed on my arrival was that the fence set-up here was different to the set-up in Kenya. In Kenya the fences surround the crop fields, which the elephants raid and cause massive destruction to farmers’ livelihoods. However, in Sri Lanka the fences surround the farmers’ homes and gardens. Why is this? My first thought was that this doesn’t make sense; surely the elephants are coming to the fields to eat, not approaching the houses? The problem with having beehives around the crops is that the system of farming here uses paddy fields, flooded sections of land used for growing rice. These fields are simply too large and inaccessible to permit us to build fences around them. And in actual fact the elephants DO visit the farmers’ houses and gardens. During one of my first weeks here I was witness to this when our night-watchman’s kitchen was broken into. An entire wall had been knocked down and elephants had eaten 3 sacks of rice that were being stored inside. Only last week, one of the farmhouses in our study village had also been partially destroyed by an elephant. So while it’s less frequent than elephants visiting the paddy fields, having elephants approach the houses is definitely still a problem. Hence, for the safety of themselves and their families, farmers are keen to protect their houses as well as their crops.

Another house that has suffered a late night elephant visit

The amount of human-elephant conflict in this area is staggering. Elephants visit these villages almost daily at certain times of year. The Elephants and Bees project operates in a village called Dewagiriya in partnership with SLWCS who have been based in the area assisting communities for over a decade. Monitoring has shown that since 2014 more than 350 elephant incidents have been reported here, with damage occurring approximately 70% of the time. As recently as 40 years ago, this area was extensively forested and mostly uninhabited by humans. When the government began to offer free land for settlement in this area, the human population rapidly expanded and large tracts of forest were cleared to make way for irrigated agriculture. The area is now a mosaic of settlements, agriculture and small forest patches and human-elephant conflict has an overbearing influence on people’s daily lives (for more info check out Fernando et al. 2005).  Elephants take refuge in small forest patches during the day and emerge at night to feed on agricultural lands. Several mitigation techniques are being trialled in this area by SLWCS and local farmers; along with beehive fences there are also projects using solar powered electric fences, planting unpalatable plants as barriers and encouraging informed land use planning. I look forward to learning more about these techniques and their efficacy during my time here, as well as attempting to become a competent beekeeper! More updates will follow soon!

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