Elephant Volunteer Research in Wasgamuwa

Elephant Volunteer Research in Wasgamuwa

Posted by Sam Hopkins on 26th Sep 2014

Here at The Great Projects, we love to hear from the project staff out at the projects we work with. This week we have been fortunate to hear from one of our earliest projects - 'The Great Elephant Project' in Wasgamuwa National Park in central Sri Lanka. This week's blog follows volunteer Chris Cheng who travelled to the project in early August in order to conduct some vital elephant conservation research for his dissertation at university. Chris is a student at the University of Kent, majoring in Wildlife Conservation later this academic year.

In August 2014 Chris set off from England to visit Sri Lanka to intern and become a elephant volunteer at the 'Great Elephant Project'. He has now completed his 6 week research internship and has now returned back to balmy England. Prior to visiting Sri Lanka, Chris had worked as an office assistant at a dog shelter and had volunteered at a bird theatre in a theme park in England – like all of us at The Great Projects, it appears that he is completely passionate about wildlife conservation.

After giving much consideration to what animal he would decide to for his dissertation, he had opted to study elephants and subsequently came across the project when he was searching for elephant conservation organizations. After many email discussions with facilitaros Ravi and Chandima Fernando, the ecologist of the project and the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Chris selected to conduct research on elephants consuming human garbage, as it is becoming a rising issue in the area. Below is an account of Chris' experience studying the garbage eating behaviour of the elephants in Wasgamuwa National Park:

"I met Chintaka after a 7 hour journey traveling from Colombo to Kandy and finally to Wasgamuwa. Before we went to the field house, we went to the Naminioya tank, where the garbage dump is located to wait for elephants to go to the tank to drink. We waited for roughly an hour before I noticed movement amongst the bushes but I was not sure whether or not it is an elephant. When I pointed this out to Sampath and Chinthaka, they walked a short distance in that direction to get a better look and to be sure it was an elephant. To my surprise, there really was an elephant consuming garbage at the dumpsite. That was an amazing experience and what made it even more special was that the people told me that before I came, they have not seen any elephants for a whole week.

Chandima, the ecologist for this organization, spoke with me regarding my dissertation and he offered great advice as to how to carry out my research and helped to select the areas to do my transects. The Transects are done every morning in different areas and our main aim is to find elephant dung and analyze the contents of it. We were looking to see if we could find anything in the dung that would have come from the garbage dump and provide proof that elephants have been eating at the dumpsite. We found elephant dung that contained polythene bags, bottle caps, plastic wraps and even broken glass in them! Not good for the elephants...

Throughout my 6 weeks here, I have seen well over 100 elephants in total but I realized that as an ecologist, you always have to be prepared for disappointments because sometimes, for a whole week I have not seeing any elephants whilst in other periods, I see elephants nearly every day.

I witnessed my first proper herd of elephants when I was at the Naminioya tank. The thrill of seeing that many elephants outside the safety of the jeep was absolutely indescribable, something I always wanted to do but never thought I would have the chance. However, the highlight of my trip was when I went to Weheragala tank and witnessed a herd of 44 elephants bathing, drinking, playing and bonding. We were within 25 meters of them, surrounded by their noises and simply amazed by what was right in front of our eyes. It was also a joy telling other people at the field house about our experience since they weren't so fortunate to be able to witness such an event.

During my final week, I was able to feel the thrill of being surrounded by elephants, as we remained at the Weheragala tank after dusk. The elephants were much more active and it was the closest I have ever been to the elephants during my time here. They were getting stressed at our presence and at one instance I actually thought that the matriarch was going to charge at us. That is another unique experience I will always remember.

I would like to thank each and every member of the project - Ravi, Chintaka, Chandima, Siriya, Sampath, Leelawathi and particularly the two Field Scouts, Supun and Sarath. All of them assisted me with my research, made my stay comfortable and also provided me with an experience that my friends and relatives can only ever dream about. I have also made so many new friends with other volunteers and I have absolutely no regrets coming here. Now, I will work hard in my final year and complete my dissertation successfully, so that I will not waste everyone's efforts in this research.

Few words can describe how I feel right now after 6 weeks at the project site. I came to Wasgamuwa for my dissertation project, but I never expected to meet so many wonderful people. Saying goodbye to them were some of the hardest I've ever had to make. I will work hard on my final year project thesis and I will not let anyone down!"

We wish Chris all the very best and good luck in his future endeavours and in completing his final year dissertation, of which we look forward eagerly to receiving a copy. If you would like to join Chris and conduct vital elephant conservation research and understand the behaviour of Sri Lankan elephants, please don't hesitate to get in contact with us via the 'Enquire or Book Now' button on our website page. Alternatively, if you have any questions about the project or the project site, please don't hesitate to get in contact with us via email ([email protected]) or phone (+44(0)208 885 4987) – TGP Team.


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