Across the world, humans and elephants have lived side by side for thousands of years. Today, the relatively peaceful coexistence of man and elephant is being replaced by conflict. The increasing population of humans, coupled with the loss of elephant habitat, is forcing humans and elephants to compete for resources. This has been termed the human-elephant conflict and is, today, one of the major factors threatening the continued existence of the Asian elephant.
Once a highly valued species, symbolic of Asia, the elephant is now viewed by many rural farmers as a pest. In a few short hours, wild elephants can destroy a year of hard work and potentially a farmers livelihood. These conflicts result in the death of hundreds of humans every year. In Sri Lanka alone, the number of human deaths is reported to be around 40-50 each year and rising. In a fight to defend their fields and livelihoods, farmers are killing these unwanted pests, regardless to the fact that the elephant is protected by law throughout Asia. In Sri Lanka it is reported that up to 150 wild elephants are shot, poisoned or electrocuted by farmers every year. The cost to both sides in the human-elephant conflict is immeasurable.
We are working closely with the villagers of Habarana. Habarana is a small village situated between 3 nature reserves. Wild elephants move between these reserves, putting Habarana in what is essentially an elephant corridor. This village is a hotspot for conflicts between elephants and humans in Sri Lanka. We will be working closely with these local villagers and farmers to put strategies in place to help reduce these conflicts.
The MEF has worked with this village for many years, providing then with bells and bee boxes to help keep the elephants away. They have built up a really strong and trusted relationship here. We aim to build upon this relationship, mitigate human-elephant conflicts and help restore the balance that once existed between man and elephant.
On arrival in Habarana we were warmly welcomed into a local family’s home. The MEF has land here, that we plan to clean up and make our base for volunteers and research. But whilst we are working on this, we are staying with a very kind, beautiful family.
Most of the villagers here make their income through agriculture. On our previous day trip to Habarana we were shown around the farm land. This area is so vast, much bigger than we had imagined. The farmland extends from the village, right out to the surrounding jungle. The farmers have constructed tree houses, in which they spend their nights watching and guarding their land from wild elephants. They head out from the village to their tree houses around 5 in the evening, before the elephants start to come out from the jungle, and they stay up in the tree hide outs until morning. They use bells and crackers to scare the elephants of their land.
Our aim is to plant unpalatable crops in a buffer zone between the jungle and the farmland, to discourage the elephants from entering the cropland. Sandith, vice president of the MEF, has explained this idea to the local villages and farmers and they are all very happy. They are happy for our help and happy for volunteers to stay up in the tree houses with them to start to monitor these wild elephants. Through monitoring these elephants we can see an overview of their movements and behaviours, important information that will be used in our strategies. We will get an idea of how many elephants roam this land, we will be able to identify family groups and individuals, and we will be able to determine their main entry points onto the farmland.
After another tasty Sri Lankan meal, we sat down with some local children, introduced ourselves and made friends by and teaching them how to play ‘snap’.
During a delicious breakfast of coconut rice, Sandith arrives and we discussed a game plan. We then jumped in our truck and headed out to the farmland to build our relationships with the locals and lend a helping hand to the farmers.
There are two seasons here in Sri Lanka. The dry season and he wet season,. When the rains arrive in September, farming begins out on the paddy fields, but until then the farmers rely on water from their wells nearer the village, where they grow other crops such as chillis and onions.
This morning the farmers were re-planting their onions. After the men had build the trenches, allowing the water to circulate around the pre-made beds, we jumped in to help the women replant the onions. This was great fun, but back breaking work. These women are very skilled. In the time it took us to replant one shoot, they had already completed an entire row. After a couple hours we had replanted around 50 beds and were shattered. I find it incredible that these women spend their whole day, under the hot sun, doing this back breaking work. They sang to themselves and we were told that they believe if they sing, you don’t get as tired.
The women were so thankful for our help and repaid us with a much needed cup of tea. I have always said that tea tastes better outside, but it tastes even better shared with a group of friendly Sri Lankan ladies, under a tree, surrounded by astounding scenery, after a hard mornings work.
Driving back from the centre of Habarana to the small village on the outskirts were we are working, Werageila, we stopped on an area of road where the bush had been cut back. This is one of the main elephant crossing points in the village where two people have lost their lives to rogue elephants. Cutting back the bush keeps this dangerous crossing point safer, as villagers are able to see the elephants sooner.
Back at the house we were greeted by of beautiful smiles. The children of the village had stopped by for an English lesson. With no forward planning and no materials. We had great fun inventing a lesson and some games. We taught them number, abc’s, emotions, and colours, then finished off with us dancing around imitating animals for them to guess.
We ended our day with a bathe in the local lake, one of the most stunning places I have seen here.
We started our day by visiting the farmer who lives opposite where we are staying. On our last day trip here, this farmer, Sirisena, was kind enough to show us his garden of chilli plants. He was excited today to show us the new well that he had made.
Today, him, his wife and his wife’s mother, are harvesting their chillis. They do this all in one day. They started at 5:30am and aim to finish by lunch, in time to take their harvest to Dambulla to sell.
Sirisena also works on the paddy fields when the rains come in September. They lant the rice once a year and the income from this harvest is enough for the year, providing there is no damage from wild elephants. Sirisena has a tree house from where he sits and guards his fields from elephant raiding.
Until work can begin on the paddy fields, they grow chillis in their garden. They get a good price for chiilis, so only do this one harvest a year, in June. When selling their harvest in Dambulla, they get 250R per kilo. This morning, we helped pick 72 kilos. It wasn’t easy work, as the sun was glaring down on us, but it was very enjoyable, sat amongst the rows of chilli plants, with a good group of volunteers, working peacefully alongside this family.
For this family, their entire income comes from farming. Sirisena has two daughters, and his wife spends her time caring for them. This is a perfect example of a living that is seriously threatened by wild elephants.
Our neighbour here, Mahinda, who is head of this village and is also to be our translator, took us to see his tree house. Walking out through empty fields that had previously been harvested for tala, surrounded by wild jungle but only minutes walk from the main village, we reached a huge tree with a watch spot hidden within. Tala is a crop that elephants don’t like. As this is what these fields are used to grow this time of year, there are rarely elephants spotted here. Although, this soon changes come the September rains, when rice will be grown here.
Back at the house, the village children were sat bright eyed and eager, waiting for another English lesson. After going through what they could remember from the day before, we taught them some more animals, directions and parts of the body with a sing song of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’.
A couple of the girls of the girls wanted to show us a dance that they had made up, so they took to the stage and blew us all away, it was the most adorable thing ever. We all decided we wanted to see Wayne dance and the girls were delighted to teach him. Hilarious! We then ended with a dance lesson, and taught them all how to dance the Macarena. After a good two hours, they still has so much energy, so a good old game of hide and seek was much needed. It is was great fun trying to seek these hiding children, but the best moment was when they were trying to find us. Wayne had hidden underneath an upturned bathtub, definitely too small for his lanky limbs. After finding the rest of us, the kids had no idea where Wayne could be hiding. After a hint from me, they were all so surprised to find Wayne curled up in the bathtub. We finished up with a demand for ‘magic boy’ Jesper, who put on a fantastic magic show for all of us.
For tea we ate manioc, an interesting vegetable that had been brought over by Sirisena as a thank you for us helping him with his chilli harvest.
News reached us that one of the local farmers had spotted elephants from his tree house. At this news, we all pilled into the trunk and Podi took us to the most stunning spot overlooking the lake, a spot where wild elephants come to drink. We all sat silently, eagerly awaiting and wondering if we would be so lucky as to see some of these majestic creatures out in the wild. Time soon passed, and dusk turned to dark, time to head back guided by the light of the moon. Not this time, but maybe next time. As disappointed as we were, it was a good thing to not see elephants here, as this close to the village and farmland, they are dangerous.
After dropping volunteers back at the house, Wayne and I went with Podi to the centre of Habarana to pick up another volunteer. On route back, on the side of the main road, stood three elephant bums, so perfectly positioned that I thought at first they were statues. We turned around straight away and headed back to observe them, but they had vanished back into the jungle. As amazing as it was for us to see them, it was scary and sad to see how close to the main road, house and people they were, reiterating how very real the human-elephant conflict is here.
This morning we headed over to the MEF land, where a gardener had been working hard to clear the grounds. The MEF have a house here, that with a little work, will be a fully functioning research station. We spent the morning helping the gardener, Aghit, cut back the overgrown bush. After a few hours we had really made progress and around the house was looking a lot tidier.
After lunch, Podi took us to Minneriya National Park. Seeing elephants in the wild, is one of my life dreams, but the experience was more than I ever could have dreamed of. I can not even describe my feelings inside when the first herd of elephants came into view.
My eyes overflowed with tears, it was so overwhelming. We sat and watched over 100 elephants head down to the water for a drink and a wash. We spent around 3 hours (that felt about 2 minutes) just being there observing these incredible creatures. I could have stayed and watched them forever, they are mesmerising.
For such enormous animals, they move so gracefully. The way that they keep together and interact with one another is so moving. Looking around in every direction, this land is too beautiful for words. I wonder if these elephants know how lucky they are to live in the wild. I wished for a long moment that I could be one of them, but then realised how happy I was to be part of their conservation. It will be a sad sad day, if all elephants are lost from the wild, due to our continuous destruction of the planet.
Today we headed back to the onion fields. The farmers were happy to see us and welcomed us over to help them. We spread ourselves out, with some volunteers helping the women and children to pull up the onions from their old beds, whilst other helped the rest of the women replant them in their new beds.
Wayne, Andrew and Jesper helped the men dig more beds, rake the soil and construct the irrigation channels. Working out on the farmlands was every volunteers favourite part of the day.
We, through our translator Mahinda, got talking to a family about their livelihoods and asked them for a family photograph. Seeing this, many of the other women working the fields also wanted their photo taken. We got everyone there, working together on the farmland to pose for group photo. To me, this is one of the best photos I have on my camera. We promised to get enough copies printed for each of them.
We enjoyed a tasty picnic of tea and coconut rice cake under a tree, surrounded by laughing children. We are all beginning to understand how the simplest lives are often the happiest. Sri Lanka and its people have truly inspired us all.
That evening, we met Siripala, a local farmer who owns a tree house overlooking the lake where we had sat on our elephant spotting evening the day before last.
This lake separates his farmland from elephant territory. He sits on a rock overlooking the lake every night guarding his crops from these giant pests. He said that he sees elephants most nights and throws stones in their direction to scare them away. He explained that if he was to fall asleep, the elephants know this and creep past, silently. Right now he is growing flour, but again when the rains come he will plant rice. If elephants were to raid his crops, he would be set back for the whole year. He showed us a tree, our side of the lake, that had dried mud inset in the grooves of the rough bark. This is from where elephants rub the mud off their backs after crossing the lake. He also pointed out a bank that they had to rebuild with sandbags after elephants had collapsed it. He was kind enough to offer us his tree house to sleep in.
As evening drew near, we all pack our bags with supplies for the night, as we were to sleep out on Siripala’s rock on elephant watch. After a tasty picnic of rotties cooked on an open fire, we all patiently waited, enjoying being out in the wild. Time passed and no elephants had approached. We, unlike the farmers, are not used to staying awake all night, so finally gave in to sleep. Siripala offered us his tree house, and after following him through his fields, we came across a tree with a creekly old ladder, that we thought we wouldn’t be able to climb, especially in the dark! We clambered up into the treetop and were overwhelmed with how this tree house was constructed with all natural materials. Wood from the tree for the frame and ladder, leaves for the roof and walls and even vine to tie it all together. Trying to stay awake on elephant guard was not easy, and sleep finally took over. With the wind waking us occasionally, we sat up and scouted the darkness for movement. This is by far, the best place we have ever woken up. Climbing the tree at night, we had no idea of our surroundings. Waking up to the sun rising over the treetops of vast jungle, and a lotus flower lake below, was more than incredible.
As we knew we would be leaving and heading back to MEF today, we stopped in town and bought a giant cake to thank the local family we had spent the week with. They were an amazing family, who had welcomed us warmly and cared for us throughout our stay. The children, Sandun, Sanduni and Sandeli are our new best friends. We already can not wait to return. We all sat together and drank tea and ate cake, it was a wonderful afternoon. As we piled into the truck to leave, goodbyes were difficult and even some tears were shed. This is an incredible family, incredible village and incredible project that we are so thankful to be a part of.
Week 2 – 18th – 22nd July
We arrived in Habarana monday afternoon, and headed out to the small village of Werageila, where we are working. We were warmly welcomed by Deepika, the lady who is hosting us. She and her children, Sandu, Sanduni and Sandeli were very happy to see us again. As she welcomed us in with a cup of tea, Podi explained that the whole village was happy that we were back. It really drummed in how much good we can do here and much difference we can make to the lives of these incredible people. During our last stay here, we photographed this family, and it was an incredible feeling to see how happy Deepika was to be given a large printed copy of her family portrait.
We spent the evening catching up with everybody and enjoyed many games of snap with the children.
Alongside helping out on the farmland and teaching the local children English, our goal this week was to talk to farmers and find out more about their livelihoods. I did not realise how interesting this was to turn out to be.
Up early, we walked down to the MEF house to see the progress of the building work being done. A couple of local villagers had been helping build an extension onto the office, which was almost completed. We helped them bring water up from the well to make the cement and helped carry the bricks nearer to where they were working.
We then decided to walk to the local temple high up on the hill. This place is stunning, overlooking the village one side and jungle the other. A small group of locals offered us some delicious sweet treats. Not a word was exchanged, but the mutual understanding and appreciation of the beauty surrounding us was enough.
After lunch, the children started streaming into the garden. My favourite part of the week. They were all so happy to see us again and curious about the new volunteers with us. We started with a recap of everything we had previous taught them, and we was so surprised to find that most of it was all remembered. They were very fast learners. They even then requested some of the educational games and songs that we had previously taught them. So one again we had a sing song of head, shoulders, knees and toes, lead by the children. We then all sat in a circle and played a memory game suggested by Grant, one of our volunteers, known to us as ‘I went on holiday and in my suitcase I packed’. Going around the circle we all had to say a word starting with, first, the letter ‘a’, and then the next child had to repeat this word and add something beginning with ‘b’. By the end of the game, which the children were brilliant at, we were all struggling to remember and repeat ‘apple, banana, car, dog, elephant, frog, giraffe, house, icecream, jeep, kite, lion, mouse, nose, orange, pig, queen, rabbit, snake, teacher, umbrella, van, white, xray, yellow, zebra’!
We had been invited to attend a special ceremony in the village that evening. A women had passed away 3 months ago, and that night a monk was to visit the house and prey for the family. The whole village comes to pay their respects and we were honoured to be a part of this unique cultural experience. We were welcomed into a local’s home to watch the drummers prepare themselves. This role of traditional drumming is passed down through generations.
Once the monk starting his chanting, I didn’t think I had ever heard anything so beautiful. 2 hours, and 6 numb bums later, we were all lost in a trance like state, and I couldn’t believe that his voice was still as perfect as when he first started. Unbelievable.
Sitting in this house crowed full of local people, it was so nice to recognise so many faces, many of whom were farmers that we had helped on their land and children we had taught English.
Today we went to help Mahinda on his farmland. The week before we had helped him and his family replant onions. He has to water his fields of onions every 4 days. Luckily for Mahinda, he has a well and an engine to pump up the water through a giant hose. Using this, the water fills up the trenches around each onion bed. Once a month, he needs to weed these beds, and this is what we had come to help him do. Between the rows of sprouting onions were the spreading leaves of grasses. We worked with Mahinda all morning searching through the onions and pulling up the roots of these intruders. He then invited us all to his farmland hut in the middle of his fields, where his wife had made us all a very sweet cup of tea over an open fire.
Walking back from the fields, Mahinda pointed out the homes of the farmers that were in the group photograph that we took last week and had printed many copies to give to each of them. It was lovely to be thanked and to have such a small gesture so highly appreciated.
After lunch, Podi took us to see an elephant corridor. Heading into this village, just off the main road, was another elephant crossing point. It was here that one local farmer, Nimal, was attacked by a rogue elephant 8 years ago.
We heard news that Sirisena, the farmer who we had helped with his chilli harvest during our last visit, had come off of his bike and injured his leg. Podi told us that he was sad to be unable to come and visit us at the house we were staying at, so we decided to go and pay him a visit. He was very grateful to see us. He explained that he had fallen off his bike after dropping his children to school. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad, and he sad he would be able to walk again soon. Sirisena is a local farmer here in Werageila. This time of year he grows chilli in his garden, and come September, when the rains come, he works out in the paddy fields growing rice. He explained that he served 22 years in the Sri Lankan army and is lucky now to receive a pension, which along with his income from farming, gives him a very comfortable living. He has recently had a well constructed on his land behind his house. Which will make his life a lot easier.
At the ceremony the evening before, we had met A.P. Simon, a retired mahout from Kegalle. Being based in Kegalle and working amongst many mahouts, we were all very interested to learn more about A.P. Simon, so he had invited us to his house this evening. He explained that he had been a mahout for 25 years, and had moved from Kegalle to Habarana in 1965 when his elephant was moved to work in logging, transporting timber from the jungle. Logging is a very hard life for an elephant and mahout. Nowadays, this work has been replaced by machinery, so it is a less common job. We asked if this was why he retired as a mahout and became a farmer, but he was happy to say that he retired as a mahout when he got married. Life as a mahout is not an easy life, as we see everyday with the mahouts at the MEF. There is never a day off and work with your elephant lasts all day. When we asked about whether he gets wild elephants on his farm land, he was proud to tell us that he can use his mahout commands and the elephants leave. Whether this is true or whether they leave due to the shouting, it is his belief in this that is important.
Back at our host house, Nimal was waiting for us. He took us over to his home next door and his lovely wife Mala made us all a cup of tea whilst he started to tell us about his elephant encounter. Nimal works in the post office, about 22 kilometers from his house. One evening after work, walking back from the bus stop, he came across a rogue elephant. He explained that the elephant followed him and then chased and attacked him. He said he was very lucky to fall over a bank and into bush, so he was hidden from the elephant and so managed to escape with his life. This elephant had previously killed 3 people around this area. He told us that this elephant was angry and came to the village to attack people, as someone, somewhere had previously shot at him or angered him. The government captured this dangerous rogue elephant and translocated him to a national park. Nimal spent one and a half months in hospital and suffered from 5 broken ribs and an injured leg. But still, although weary of elephants, he loves and respects them.
After a scrumptious Sri Lankan breakfast, we walked over to the MEF house to see how the extension was coming along and ask if we could lend a hand. The four walls were up. Next, the roof will need replacing. We got talking to to the 3 local men, Weerasekara, Ajith and Karunatilaka, who were working on the house for us. Karunatilaka is a mason, Ajith is his assistant, and Weerasekara is a farmer lending a helping hand. Getting into conversation with these three local men about their livelihoods and families, we found out that all three of these men had wives that worked overseas. They had gone to work in Kuwait as housemaids, as their simply wasn’t the jobs or money here in this village. They leave for 2 years at a time. Ajith’s wife was due back in 2 months, so he was very excited to see her soon. When she returns she will stay for good. Weerasekara and his wife have been saving up to build a well, so they will be able to earn an income from farming when she returns. They told us that they speak on the phone every day, but it is so sad that these women are forced to leave their husbands and children to work overseas.
Weerasekara, also earns an extra income from collecting and selling honey from the jungle. He wanted to show us how they get the honey out of the bee hive, so lead us to his friends garden nearby where up in the tree was a football sized hive covered in bees. Pulling down on the branches to bring the hive within reach, he used leaves to carefully brush off all of the bees. After a good few minutes most of the bees decided to abandon ship and Weerasekara cut the hive out of the tree. Once in his hands, the honey started oozing out. He squeezed some into each of our palms to taste. I don’t know whether it was knowing that we had just seen him get this honey fresh out of the bee hive and that we were stood with a group of friendly local Sri Lankans under a shaded tree on a beautiful day, that made the honey taste so good, but it was unbelievably delicious. Weerasekara ripped apart the honeycomb and dished out a portion each. Eating this fresh honey whilst bees were still buzzing around us will be an experience not to forget.
That afternoon, some of the volunteers wanted to visit Minneriya National Park. As a thank you to Deepika for caring for us this week, we asked if her children Sandu, Sanduni and Sandeli would like to come with us to see wild elephants. Most of the people in this village have never been to a national park, and she was over the moon to tell her children that we would take them. Mahinda, our translator, said that his eldest Nuan, would love to join, so we pilled into the safari jeep, kids on laps. When the first group of elephants came into view, the look on their faces is something we will always treasure. “Aliya, aliya, aliya” they said to each other excitedly. In this poor village, elephants destroy crops and damage houses, so are feared and rightfully so. So for these children to safely observe these graceful giants at peace, must have been a whole new experience for them. We plan to take a couple of the local children with us each trip that volunteers make to the reserve. One could argue that giving them all the opportunity to experience these creatures here, will restore their pride in these native animals, however, even though elephants are considered pests and feared here in rural Sri Lanka, everybody that we have spoke to, still views the elephant as respected national treasure. They all love elephants, just not on their land.
Weerasekara, the honey gatherer, had offered to take us out into the jungle to show us how they find the wild bee hives. The bee man, as we like to refer to him, led us out of his house and into the jungle behind. He had been watching the bee’s all year to see which trees they were colonizing, so that when august arrives he knows exactly where to find the honey.
First job was to make a hole in the tree using an axe large enough for the other man, with long thin arms, to reach in to collect the honey combs. After about half an hour of hacking away at the tree, the man reached up into the trunk and without being stung, harvested a bucket full of the freshest honeycombs. Bee man took the honeycombs and squeezed the golden honey into a bottle and the job was done, tree to tasty in just 10 Sri Lankan minutes!
On our last day here, we wanted an afternoon teaching all the children again, as it is their wide eyed smiles that make our week. We had some big posters that had been found during a tidy up back at the MEF, with pictures of many different types of fruit and animals. We taught them some new words, and learn some new exotic fruits ourselves, then we explained which of these fruits and animals we find in England, then asked them to tell us what you can find here in Sri Lanka. After another recap lesson and another memory game, we taught them a new game, where they had to creep up on one person and freeze every time they turned around. They loved it and played it for a good hour.
After our English lessons they have so much energy and love a good hour of games, we sometimes find it hard to keep up! A Previous volunteer had donated a box of toothbrushes which we were told we could bring for the children up here, so after they had told us the English word for toothbrush and told us in English which colour they wanted, they all left happily, new toothbrush in hand.
Pilling into the van, and waving out of the window was even more difficult this time. We are so happy to know that we will be returning soon.
Halina Pokoj and Wayne Beaumont