Linda Reifschneider, March 2006 Volunteer on Sri Lanka's Elephants and Elusive Leopards and veteran of 8 other expeditions
Please note - the expedition referenced is no longer running.
Had anyone told me in October 2004 that a trip to Sri Lanka was in my future, I would have just grinned, shook my head and said, "don't think so."
However, a month later during a conversation with Mary Rowe at Earthwatch, I mentioned that Earthwatch really needed to be funding at least one Asian elephant project in view of how dramatically this species' population is dropping in numbers. I was both surprised and delighted when she responded that one was in the pipeline in Sri Lanka. Then in December, I met Ravi Corea, the PI of this proposed project, at an International Elephant Foundation symposium in Texas.
When the project was finally announced in July 2005, I made sure I was the first to sign up for his first team. Since I have participated in several Earthwatch projects, I figured I might be able to offer some constructive advice on the first team. I have been laughing at myself for that thought since Day One of Sri Lanka's Elephants and Elusive Leopards because this is a well-organized project with excellent staff.
The rendezvous location at Ranweli Holiday Village is worth a couple of days' stay on the excuse of needing to recuperate from the international flights. This is an eco-friendly resort offering many activities and excellent meals with a wonderful ocean backdrop (Just don't expect much luck in getting an Internet connection!). The drive from Ranweli to our research camp at Wasgamuwa provided an excellent opportunity to become familiar with the countryside in which we would be working.
With an elephant population of around 4,000 to 5,000 and a human population now over 21,000,000 in a country the size of West Virginia, it is easy to see how human/elephant conflict is becoming an ever more serious issue, for both the elephants and the people. On this expedition, we helped monitor the electric fences installed around two villages to keep elephants out of the villagers' paddies as well as homes. We also visited with people who had recently experienced crop or home damage by raiding elephants and did transects to establish use of areas by elephants, among other activities. While always on the lookout for signs of leopard presence when out in the field, our most direct leopard activity was helping to set up and monitor a camera trap, which is a vital tool when dealing with these very elusive creatures.
The camp was quite comfortable and I personally give a 6-star rating to any place I stay that offers open-to-the-stars showers! A nice diversity of trees allowed us to improve our flora knowledge as well as see the source of some of the fresh ingredients in our meals, which were simply delightful. Sri Lankan cuisine is wonderful. With teammates from several different countries, you know the food is good when everyone eats heartily! I am still trying to figure out some of the card games I participated in after dinner. All I know for sure is we had a very good time.
A typical day would begin with breakfast, offering both traditional and western foods, and by 7:30 a.m. we would be off in small groups of three or four volunteers with two or more staff members to do our particular activity for that day. One day we would monitor the electric fence, checking for any down posts or broken wires or places where brush needed clearing. These were always good walks, usually offering chances to get our feet wet and to see the rural people at work in their paddies and the children returning home from school.
Another day our monitoring session ended with the path coming to a big round log "bridge" that the staff people nonchalantly crossed. We had a choice: walk the log, which was about 8 feet above the ground, or traipse down the hill, wade across the creek, and climb up the other side. Was it the feeling of one foot on the rounded log or the fact that a group of some dozen or so people was gathered at the bus stop nearby watching, that made me opt to traipse, wade, and climb? Somehow, I just could not bear the thought of possibly ending up crawling across that log to such an audience. I am sure they would have laughed with, not at, me...but I also feared at that point, I would have giggled myself right off the log!
On other days, we would either bike or drive to local villages where visitors would show us crops damaged by raiding elephants the night before. This was a true learning experience, as even when the damage was minimal (to us) we had to realize that the loss of just a few plants meant less dinner on the table for that family.
I totally flunked my first late afternoon birding expedition when two elephants crossed the road just before the lake and then settled in with two more elephants on the far side of the lake for their evening bath. While I did spot one feathered beauty for the group, the elephants bobbing and spraying in the water kept demanding my attention.
On our day off, small groups fanned out to visit various nearby sites. I headed for Kandy and a beautiful drive through the Knuckles Mountains. Those who may want to see more of Sri Lanka while there should definitely get in contact with Escape Tourism, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society's travel arm. They put together an itinerary perfect for my interests and budget.
We each spent two nights in the tree platform, high up out of the reach of any elephant trunk. This is how the farmers spend many nights guarding their crops from raiding elephants. Although the harvest was over and no elephants came our way, waking to see the young children heading down the road to school--the same road the elephants crossed the afternoon of my first biodiversity outing--brought home just how important it is that safe ways of living together must be found, for people and elephants.
Our road transects in Wasgamuwa National Park turned us into elephant poop experts. We counted and aged dung piles in an effort to track the movement of the elephants through the park. This also was a day of real 'safari' as we stayed alert for sightings of leopard, sloth bear, spotted deer, and other inhabitants as well as the Asian elephants. A packed lunch at the river with a chance to enjoy the cool water made this a really fun workday.
When I think of Sri Lanka, I will always remember the rice harvest, which was just finishing as we arrived. Rice farming depends largely on irrigation and the rural people use these irrigation waterways for bathing as well. As we'd be heading home from a long day and anticipating that wonderful shower under the stars (or maybe still the sunshine!), our neighbors would be finishing their bathing, already be free of the day's sweat and grime and the children would wave and send splashes our way.
Elephant conservation is what drives my travel destinations. However, I always come home counting the blessings of new friends and an understanding of a culture and way of life I possibly would otherwise have never been introduced to. Through the Earthwatch projects I participate in, I am learning just how big and wonderful this world is. Sri Lanka is truly a jewel: a beautiful country, lovely and friendly people, and an exciting diversity of wildlife with a healthy and easily visible elephant population.