Rickshaw elephant

News from Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka

Greetings from Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka! We have had the most extraordinarily interesting few days in Sri Lanka since arriving last saturday. We spent the weekend exploring Colombo, visiting some vibrant parts of the city, including the city beach of Mount Lavinia which was really lovely and full of sunday families enjoying the sea and stunning weather.

On Monday our colleague and one of the donors for our Elephants and Bees Project, Andrea Crosta from Elephant Action League, joined us in Colombo and we headed off through the manic traffic to our first meeting with Practical Action. We met their team of Sri Lankan officers who are dealing with disaster relief and post-tsunami development for the country. They have been trying to complete new agricultural projects but keep coming across the problem of elephants crop-raiding the fields and destroying all their hard work with the communities. Two years ago they initiated a Palmyra Fence growing project which is a prickly type of palm tree which has spikey, rough leaves that do not fall off the trunk as the tree grows. It is being used traditionally as a fencing system in the north where the war has been raging for 3 decades. It seems that this traditional method to keep elephants out of the Tamil areas was not well known down south but now the war has stopped they have ‘re-discovered’ the technique and are starting to implement the idea. The only problem is that it takes 6-8 years for the trees to grow big enough to stop elephants from passing through them, so we discussed the potential of using beehives in the meantime to help keep elephants out of the fields until the trees are large enough to work on their own. If you’re interested to see a video of this do click on this youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bNub2HVa-M

After the meeting with Practical Action, we drove out to the Colombo suburbs to meet Deepani Jayantha, the Country Representative for Born Free, Gabriel Fava, Born Free Sri Lanka Country Director, and the CEO of Born Free, Will Travers. Together we drove 5 hours to Uda Walawe National Park passing through coconut lined valleys and tropical villages, lined back to back with small shops and vendors. Its a most stunning country and we are here in the dry season, so I can’t imagine how lush and tropical it must be during the rains.

We spent two days with the inspiring Born Free Sri Lanka team, visiting the school that Born Free support here in the worst elephant-affected community, then onto 10 of their farmers who are being assisted to grow non-palatable crops that elephants in the area do not like to eat. This includes crop plants such as black pepper, tumeric, ginger, chillies and betel nut which are all worth quite a lot of money in the market and, crucially, elephants do not like to eat them. The project is fairly new but we saw buckets of productivity (literally!) from the farms. This HEC project helps them diversity their income, and also their chances of harvesting something if elephants get inside their farms and cause damage to their normal subsistence crops.

Amazingly, we saw three types of wild Asian bee species in just one day in this community which I found incredibly exciting having only read about Asian honey bees in books before! One massive bee colony was hanging from a single HUGE comb on the branch of a coconut tree and we believe, from a distance, that it was a colony of Apis dorsata known as “The Giant Honeybee”. We saw a few bee colonies inside clay pots to make honey, so were quite enthused that some of the farmers had an interest in beekeeping.

We were also privileged to visit The Elephant Transit Home which is an orphanage for injured, lost, or orphaned baby elephants that are found around the country and brought to Uda Walawe for rescue and care. All the elephants are eventually released back into the park and they have a good success rate considering the difficult conditions. Born free have been supporting this transit home for almost ten years and have vastly helped improve the standards of care and wellbeing of the orphaned elephants there. One of the baby elephants had had its foot blown off by a land mine and the vets and carers had made a prosthetic limb to help it walk. The elephants spend all day inside the national park next to the lake swimming, eating and freely mingling with the wild elephants, only coming into the orphanage to drink milk 4 times a day.

We sat in on two workshops run by Will Travers talking the keepers through situations where care for elephants is poor in sanctuaries and zoos around the world, and also where care is very good for captured or cared for elephants. It was an interesting workshop and the keepers were quite vocal about ideas for how to improve the Elephant Transit Home even further. We were impressed by the standard of care there and happy to know that all the baby elephants are released back into a safe and secure National Park where there are over 1000 elephants that come and go.

Today our friends from Born Free left for Colombo and we met up with Shermin deSilva’s Elephant Research Team. Sameera is the lead elephant researcher and, just like our David in Samburu, he knows ALL the elephants in the reserve by name and ID number. We had a spectacular drive through the park seeing over 16 different groups of elephants – families and bull pairs wandering peacefully around in the bush and next to the lake shore. It was wonderful to see so many Asian elephants in the wild living peaceful lives as they should. In Uda Walawe only the bull elephants crop-raid and the female-calf families remain inside the park only migrating out when they want to travel to other protected areas. Some of the bulls looked pretty big and I can imagine its as scary as it is in Kenya when one of them comes crashing into your farm in the middle of the night.

We are also collecting stories about bees and elephants and so far there don’t seem to be many folklore stories about bees scaring away elephants. We will continue to talk to local farmers and expert researchers during the rest of our two week trip around Sri Lanka and look forward to reporting back on our findings about whether or not it will be worth trying out some beehive fences here. Right now we are keeping our minds open and spending valuable time with experts in the field, learning from their experience and enjoying the Sri Lankan hospitality.

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