Update: Find Out The Latest From The Great Elephant Project In Sri Lanka!

Update: Find Out The Latest From The Great Elephant Project In Sri Lanka!

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on 23rd Feb 2017

Here in England, heavy rains are enough to make anybody want to stay indoors. But over in Sri Lanka, our volunteers refused to be deterred by a little drizzle! One of our partners from The Great Elephant Project, Chinthaka, tells us all about it in today's blog...

'The last week of January commenced with unusually heavy rains, and by mid-week we thought it would never stop! Actually, it was the intensity of the rain that was unusual and not the timing, since we are well into the northeast monsoon season and rain is what’s to be expected. But there had been no rain since October which is generally when the northeast monsoon rains arrive. The lack of rain had become a national concern, with the Meteorological Department issuing a dire warning of an impending prolonged drought that could affect the entire country.

Rain in Sri Lanka

For those of us who live in the dry zone, the forecast of a prolonged drought was a cause for huge concern. It is the northeast monsoons that brings life-giving water to Wasgamuwa, and it is these rains that sustain us during the driest time of the dry season from July to September, relieved by a few inter-monsoonal showers - that might or might not occur. It seems as if the drought had ended and the rain gods were trying to make up for the late start. The heavy rains that started with the beginning of the week continued without let up until the weekend.

For the past week I have been at the field house supervising and managing the SLWCS volunteer program and field operations. I was aptly supported by our volunteers: Lisa, Alba, Victoria, Keiran, Susanne, Louise, Schirelle and Annie.

Susanne, Louise, Schirelle and Annie had been with the program for several weeks and knew the routine well. Lisa, Alba, Victoria and Keiran were new volunteers who had just arrived a week ago. We were a pretty big group, since with 8 volunteers there was also the three field scouts: Sarath, Supun and Dananjaya, and then there was Siriya (our tracker and advance scout in the field) and then lastly me - the person in charge!

Volunteers setting up camera trap

Though the week started with heavy downpours that sometimes confined us to the field house for hours, it turned out to be an exceptionally interesting week. I experience the wilderness often and can chalk up many unusual experiences and this past week turned out to be an amazing week, even with the pouring rain.

Conducting some of the field work in the rain was hard, but it was also fun. When we went to gather data on elephant foraging there was only one dominant bull at the Weheragalagama Tank, and then we saw him again with another bull the following day afternoon at the same place.

Elephant camera trap

The most incredible and exciting data we gathered that week was from the from the Carnivore Project. The Carnivore Project is a new project that the SLWCS established recently in partnership with S.P.E.C.I.E.S (The Society for the Conservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study) an organization headed by Dr. Anthony J. Giordano. Here, we attempt to understand the presence/absence, distribution and behavior of carnivores outside the national park and in human disturbed landscapes in Wasgamuwa. From the data we are collecting, the human pressure on these animals seems tremendous. The forests that we are currently studying have three villages adjacent to them and there is frequent pedestrian traffic through these forests. Villagers from these three villages have a significant impact on these forests mainly in the form of illicit logging, poaching, and encroachment for cultivation. It is imperative to halt these activities by providing the villages with the capacity to use these forests in a sustainable manner.

The cameras we have set up in forest patches between these villages have photo-captured individual leopards with enough frequency to establish sighting patterns. This has proven useful for our research both in documenting the presence of leopards at our study sites and shedding light on their home range sizes and ranging patterns.

Spotted doe camera trap

A Leopard Never Changes its Spots!

There is a lot of truth in the old saying that “a leopard never changes its spots.” It is this character of the leopard that is very helpful to scientists when it comes to identifying them. These spots can be used to accurately identify individuals.

The pattern of spots or rosettes in a leopard’s coat is unique to each individual leopard; similar to human fingerprints. By using these unique physical characteristics, we can identify individual leopards. The photos taken by our camera traps are documented accurately and the data is logged using a standardized method.

This is a particularly exciting exercise since every time we go through a batch of new photos, there is always the tense anticipation and suspense of what would be in them. All the leopard photos we match against the existing database to check whether it is the same individuals or different leopards. The data is also useful in other ways especially since one of our main interests is whether the leopard population outside the national park exhibits different behavioral attributes as a result of their close proximity to human habitations and human activities.

Leopard camera trap

For us, the cameras are like magical windows that allow us to peek into the secretive world of wild animals...about which, we would otherwise never know. With their help we now know the amazing diversity of animals that use the same footpaths and/or terrain in these forests. Photos from just two camera stations show an incredible array of animals including humans traversing along the same paths within short lapses or intervals of time.

These research activities were very interesting, exciting and helpful for providing information on a seldom-researched group of animals. The information the project is gathering is crucial to understanding the ecology of these animals, their conservation status, and to design conservation measures for their long term survival - as well as providing a fun and interesting task to volunteers and interns!'

Many thanks to Chinthaka for her update! To learn more about this exciting project, head here now and find your place on this wonderful volunteer trip.

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