Sri Lanka Diary: Elephants and People in the Tree Hut Elephant Corridor

Hello, I’m Kylie Butler, a PhD Candidate from the University of Newcastle, Australia. I’m beginning a fascinating research project to investigate the potential use of beehive fences to mitigate human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. For this project, I will be collaborating with Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) and also Save the Elephants. My background is in Ecology/Environmental Science and I have previously worked on elephant projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Thailand.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 – I’ve spent the last 5 weeks at the SLWCS Field House and in this time have had many incredible experiences observing elephants, monitoring community areas for elephant footprints and dung, and visiting nearby villages to learn about the challenges of co-existing alongside these giant animals that so captivate me. I’m beginning my PhD project (at the University of Newcastle, Australia) and am working in collaboration with SLWCS and Save the Elephants, to trial a human-elephant conflict mitigation measure brand new to Asia – beehive fences (many more details to come!)

I feel extremely fortunate that my field site with SLWCS is one of the most picturesque locations in the world and every day brings with it eye-opening experiences and stories, as I begin to delve further into the complex relationships between humans and elephants. Tuesday was no different. As we rattled in the old Land Rover (which is probably older than me by decades) down the elephant corridor towards the tree hut – where we go most afternoons to observe elephants and people – I spotted two elephants, and we then found another further up the dirt road. We can never bypass elephants and suspected that more were hanging about under the forest cover, so we stopped the Land Rover on the road to wait and watch. On one side of the road elephant grass and forest cover invite the elephants to feed and on the other side of the road is the Weheragala tank (reservoir), which is used frequently by elephants, fishermen and local people bathing and washing their clothes.

Over the next hour and a half, as the sun began to set casting the tank and surrounding forest in its warm glow, one elephant turned into three, then seven, then fifteen until eventually over 30 elephants emerged from the forest. We watched a handsome bull, tall and proud among the smaller females until he wandered a distance away; a calm matriarch casting her watchful eye over both us and her family; and the calves, juveniles and sub-adults rhythmically ripping up grass, swishing it from side to side to disturb the insects and dirt, and placing it in their large ‘smiling’ mouths.

Most interesting was watching the elephant responses to the humans that bypassed them. To us, they interrupted their feeding to stop and look, before deciding that our presence was acceptable and resuming their afternoon meal. To a truck and tuk-tuk, the adults raised their heads and looked alert, one slapping it’s trunk into the dusty earth. They then bunched together and retreated back towards the forest cover until only the biggest individuals could be seen. They remained seemingly oblivious to some pedestrians and cyclists. The people’s responses were also fascinating. I personally was in awe of the elephants, fascinated by their every move and reaction whereas the faces of the locals expressed emotions ranging from startled fear, to excitement, to complete nonchalance.

As the sun dipped further, the elephants moved further from the Land Rover and prepared to cross the road at the bund and visit the tank. We followed quietly on foot and watched as their grey bulk formed a line and they crossed in a semi-orderly fashion grouping together on the tank side. The fishermen by the tank realised what was happening and shouted to scare the elephants, who reacted with fright and ran as a group back across the bund, squeaking and rumbling.

I feel so privileged that the elephants allowed us to share this afternoon with them, seeming to recognise that we meant no harm or disturbance. It’s always an honour to be in their presence and observations like this are a timely reminder of why the work of SLWCS is so important in facilitating a future where people and elephants can live together more peacefully.

Kylie observing elephants in the corridor

Kylie observing elephants in the corridor

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