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Projects in Sri Lanka

Catching up with Fulbright Scholar & Elephant Feces Analyst Chase LaDue

Chris Rico

Extracts from his blog Chase received some funding from AES to assist in his Fulbright Study in Sri Lanka. Chase has also attempted to expand his science communication efforts on Twitter, pre-scheduling tidbits from the field to be posted every weekday. Some of the material duplicates what is on his blog, but if you’re interested, you can follow him @ChaseLaDue.

Feb 25, 2019 extract

I’m writing this update from my hotel room in Kochi, India, where I’m attending the South-Central Asia Fulbright Research Conference over the next week... This past trip to elephant land was shorter than last time (in part because I had to make it over here to India), but it still found a way to be filled with highs and lows. The trip also brought with it challenging moments as the elephants continue to engage in crop-raiding just outside of the park boundaries. Our elephant sightings have been inconsistent: we had our lowest number of sightings on a day during this trip, with a single elephant spotted before he ran into an adjacent forest patch, but we also had a few days of sighting 40 or 50 elephants at a time. It can be difficult to stay motivated and engaged without the promise of seeing elephants, but the milestones we’ve reached help to quickly overcome these doubts. The last day of this trip marked our 40th day of fieldwork, with over 200 hours spent searching for and watching elephants. We passed our 200th elephant sighting, with now more than 50 male elephants catalogued in our database.

I’m proud of our progress on the project, but I’m always hoping to accomplish more. When I get back from India, we’ll have another trip or two to Wasgamuwa before switching field sites. It’s still the rainy season in elephant land, so most of the elephants haven’t moved on to our next parks (these areas are still heavily flooded, and there’s no reason for elephants to move away from plentiful food sources at Wasgamuwa).

Mar 6,2019 extract

At the end of this week, I will have been abroad for four months—only five months to go! This past week marked the first time I’ve left the island since arriving back in November, as the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF, the Indian equivalent to the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission [US-SLFC]) hosted the South and Central Asia Fulbright Conference in Kochi, India…

The conference was a time for about 175 student and senior scholars to share the work that we’ve been conducting in the South and Central Asia region, including Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan…

…The conference was full of eye-opening, thought-provoking presentations from around the region. I learned about agriculture, public health, economic development, religion, and even entanglement theory…

At the podium sharing my work Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena

At the podium sharing my work Photo: Sandarshi Gunawardena

… I was a part of [a session], a panel of Fulbrighters discussing the work in the realm of environmental science. I was one of only a couple ecologists at the conference, and so I thought that a talk about elephants in Sri Lanka may not draw attention. But of course, most people cannot resist photos of elephants, and so my talk was fairly well-attended. My presentation was sandwiched between talks about other environmental issues in the region, including in Kazakhstan, India, and Sri Lanka. None of the other panelists were studying wildlife persay, but the issues facing the environment are all intertwined…

Mar 19, 2019 extract

…With the transition from the wet to the dry season, the rains have also mostly subsided, although that hasn’t seemed to have an effect on the humidity levels.

The dryer heat alters the daily movement patterns of the elephants too. We’ve noticed that elephants are almost impossible to spot before 2:00pm now, even in the morning when it’s relatively cool. We think they’re spending the heat of the day under tree cover in the forest where we can’t see them. The vegetation is so thick that most times after moving just a few meters into the forest, we completely lose an elephant. (On a related note, we’ve also noticed that elephants seem much more wary of the vehicle and more apt to move into the forest when approach, a possible result of the recent crop-raiding that has occurred.) So as we’re driving through the park, I’m sure that there are tons of elephants (…literally) that we’re missing just a little bit off the road. We sometimes hear their trumpets and rumbles, but if we can’t see them, there’s not much we can do. Decreased elephant visibility at Wasgamuwa and lowering floodplains in other parts of the island are signs that it’s about time to move to another fieldsite and meet some new elephants. Hopefully we see some old “friends” too.

… Despite the wane in elephant activity around Wasgamuwa over the past month, there remains one fact in life: everyone poops. And in fact, even when it’s hot outside, elephants will poop, and that fact is evident as we drive around the park. In the areas that they frequent, elephant poop is ubiquitous, and it’s important for proper functioning of the ecosystem. Wild adult elephants are estimated to produce over 100 pounds of poop each day, and because they are rather poor at digesting their food, all of this dung returns vital nutrients back to their environment. Whole populations of insects and other invertebrates depend on elephant dung, including some species of the infamous dung beetles in Africa, who lay their eggs in the stuff.

… And this penchant for poop isn’t due just to it’s environmental importance, nor is it a result of all of the practical uses people have found for it (for those who are curious, you can use elephant dung to make paper products and generate energy, among other things). But it’s what scientists can do with elephant poop (and poop from other species, for that matter) that really sealed the deal for me. We can learn about an animal’s life from its poop, including its diet, genetic composition, microbiome, and other things. For our project, we’re interested in measuring hormones, the body’s chemical messengers that are important regulators of behavior, helping an animal cope with its environment. And yes, we can measure hormone metabolites in elephant poop (side note: we’re measuring the metabolites, not the hormones themselves, because like many other molecules in our body, hormones get broken down so that they don’t have longlasting effects)…

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented four samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

Look how happy our poop team is! Last week, we collected an unprecedented four samples in one day. From L to R: Sachintha, Dhanushka, Nimal (who may not be excited, but is instead questioning his life decisions that led him to hold a piece of elephant dung in his hand), and me.

Field Report from Chase LaDue

Chris Rico

Last year, for the first time AES decided to help fund a field researcher for a 9 month project in Sri Lanka “Musth Variation among Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus): Applications for Conservation and Management”. Chase LaDue is a Fulbright Scholar Researcher, and not only did AES consider this an important project, so did the International Elephant Foundation (IEF) and National Geographic. This is the first in a series of Field Reports following Chase’s experience in Sri Lanka at Rajarata University in the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

January Update from Chase LaDue:

A special moment: Kevin & Chase : Kevin approaches our vehicle and just watches us for a bit. Wasgamuwa National Park, 21 January 2019. Photo Chase Ladue

We have begun data collection at Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka, including recording behavior,acoustics, and collecting fecal samples. While not popular among international tourists, Wasgamuwa is full of elephants, especially during the rainy season that lasts for a few more months. During our first ten days in the field, we photographed and catalogued 27 adult male elephants. We distinguish males by using differences in the elephants’ natural appearances, such as depigmentation patterns, ear shapes, and tail hair lengths. Unlike in other countries, we can’t use differences in tusk lengths for this purpose; due to historical poaching of male elephants for their ivory, only five to ten percent of male elephants in Sri Lanka have tusks. As such, Sri Lankan tuskers are highly valued by local people, but these elephants can be subject to poaching themselves. With generous funds from Asian Elephant Support, we have been able to hire a vehicle and park ranger to accompany us in the field, extendingthe time we can collect data among the elephants.

Even though Sri Lanka has the highest concentration of Asian elephants in the world, that also means that incidents of human–elephant conflict (HEC) are common, with expanding farmlands extending to the borders of protected areas. Additionally, the cessation of the recent civil war that displaced many local people has attracted these people back to their agricultural plots, exacerbating the problem of HEC. Indeed, many of the male elephants we follow in Wasgamuwa are riddled with bullet wounds, evidence of frequent crop-raiding events. Males in musth are especially prone to crop-raiding, as they engage in riskier behavior and are attracted to nutritious crops. Our project seeks to better understand social and environmental factors that lead to variation in musth among male elephants; this understanding will inform HEC mitigation strategies as solutions are sought for sustainable human–elephant coexistence.

Thank you, Asian Elephant Support, for enthusiastically backing our work. In a few months, we will leave Wasgamuwa to follow the elephants to other national parks with the transition to the dry season. In the meantime, we will continue documenting the behavioral and physiological dynamics present among the male elephants of Wasgamuwa.

February Update from Chase LaDue:

We’ve had 1,187 elephant sightings over 186 different sighting events in Wasgamuwa National Park. With all of these sightings, we’ve identified 48 different adult male elephants (often called bulls; females are called cows). We’ve seen 24 of these bulls multiple times.

Here is a snippet from his latest blog:

Collecting (elephant) fecal samples in the field, donning a shirt from another of our generous supporters, Asian Elephant Support. Photo: Wendy Kiso.

Over our 17 days this past trip, we’ve observed elephants we haven’t spotted since December, and of course we’ve seen new elephants too. But our sightings have decreased in frequency compared to when we started. During our visit to Nimal’s village, we were told that elephants from the park would soon be crossing the fence to start raiding the paddy fields. And based also on the increased amount firecrackers we’ve been hearing at night, the lack of elephants in the park indicates that this has happened. Nimal says this is temporary, and that this movement happens about the same time every year in the rainy season, and it will only last two weeks. I’m hopeful that our trip back to Wasgamuwa next week will be more fruitful in terms of elephant sightings. With the end of the rainy season looming, the elephants will begin to move out of the forests to find more food, making them easier for us to see. We’re also excited at the prospects of seeing other species, including leopards (I’m convinced I caught a fleeting glimpse of one running through the forest during an early morning drive last week) and sloth bears.

Today (February 4) is National Day in Sri Lanka, the equivalent to Independence Day in the US. It’s pouring outside as I write this update, and I’ll spend the rest of the day answering emails and attending to matters I’ve had the excuse to ignore while in elephant land without WiFi. Tomorrow at the university I’ll begin processing the fecal samples we collected before heading to Colombo on Wednesday.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what a Fulbright scholar studying musth in Sri Lanka actually does, you can read more details on his blog.

Or check AES website for updates regarding Chase’s research & other AES-sponsored projects. There’ll be some catching up to do on our website for Chase’s project but AES wants you to see & be part of the experience that you have helped to support.

EleFriendly Bus Update

Chris Rico

Happy 1st Birthday!

We are proud to announce that the EleFriendly bus held its first birthday celebration event on September 9, 2017 in the Wasgamuwa National park region.  The EleFriendly bus has been helping to mitigate human elephant conflict along one of the oldest and busiest elephant corridors.  This bus has been able to change local villagers' attitudes toward elephants by providing safe transportation for children to and from school free of charge while adults pay a nominal fee for travel.

The EleFriendly bus celebration included an art competition in which submissions showed the changing views of the villagers in the form of elephants and humans living happily together, all thanks to the bus. People's lives in this area have changed for the better as well: children are able to attend schools more frequently and hardly miss a day, and the adult villagers are able to travel to work without the risk of elephants.

Human-elephant conflict has decreased over 80% since the bus’s introduction to the area. We are proud to continue supporting this innovative project by SLWCS that is assisting in reducing the human-elephant conflict, promoting conservation of the species, and helping the local villagers live happily among these giants. 


Sri Lanka School Awareness Program Photos

Chris Rico

The following are a few photos of classrooms jam packed with students attending the School Awareness Programs in Sri Lanka.  Mr. Jayantha Jayewardene, who runs the program, tells us the current program is still in session and will be concluded soon.  It is through teaching school children the importance of keeping both elephants and people safe that we hope to better mitigate the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka.  We look forward to hearing more about this past semester!

School Awareness Program a Success

Chris Rico

The Biodiversity Elephant Conservation Trust (BECT) in Sri Lanka is a non-profit NGO that focuses on studying elephants and teaching school children about human-elephant conflict (HEC).  AES has been funding their school programs for a few years now and we are happy to hear from Mr. Jayantha Jayewardene that their 2016 curriculum was a success.  45 schools participated in their School Awareness Programs over 6 districts throughout the island.  An average of 151 pupils and 9 teachers were in attendance.  The programs are specifically located in rural areas so that children can be made aware of the difficulties surrounding HEC and how they can help their communities mitigate the issues of coexisting with elephants.  Elephant biology, ecology, and religious symbolism are all taught in the half day course at each school.  Being able to empower the next generation with knowledge and respect for elephants will certainly make sure that their survival in the limited space within Sri Lanka is guaranteed.  We at AES look forward to our continued work with Mr. Jayewardene and the BECT.  

Elephant Transit Home Update

Vanessa Gagne

This past July, four elephants were released from the Elephant Transit Home to the Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka.  The plan is to release a total of nine elephants this year; the other five have yet to be released.  They have been collared to monitor their progress and whereabouts as they integrate into their new home.  Thank you, Mr. Vijitha Perera for the update and we look forward to hearing more as other elephants are ready to be released!

Elephant Transit Home

Vanessa Gagne

Celebrating 20 years returning elephants to the wild

Over the past two decades the ETH has been able to release 99 elephant orphans.  They are released in groups of 4-8 after rehabilitation and integration into the EHT herd.  From those 99 releases only 7 have died and 15 babies have been born.  So how does an elephant become an orphan?  Unfortunately the answer lies with human-elephant conflict.  Mothers are killed for crop raiding or are killed by accident in electrocutions and train accidents.  Almost all of the orphans arrive in very poor condition with ailments ranging from dehydration to severe parasitic infestation and even congenital defects.  That being said there have been many losses over the years.   

Mother receiving fluids with calf at her side

Mother receiving fluids with calf at her side

Group play activities

Group play activities

When the orphans first arrive they are immediately given medical treatment to assess their condition.  They are given milk and whatever other nutrition they require to be brought back to homeostasis.  From there the new herd members are introduced to the already established herd and begin to participate in activities with the other kiddos such as swimming, grazing, and mud wallowing.     What is very special about this program is it is the only one of its kind with years of data to track their successes in an Asian elephant range country.  The number of elephants in Sri Lanka is just over 6,000, with about 250 living in human care.   The EHT has seen and experienced so much over the years and will continue to work to save orphan elephants.  

Calves receiving milk

Calves receiving milk

Post release

Post release

We at AES look forward to the continued success of the EHT and are very thankful to have the opportunity to support such a dedicated group of people.  Thank you, Dr. B. Vijitha Perera, Suhada Jayawardena, Neshma Kumudini, Tharaka Prasad, Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri Lanka, et. al. for the amazing work you are doing in Sri Lanka.  


Elefriendly Bus Update

Vanessa Gagne

The Elefriendly Bus in Sri Lanka is already up and running and changing the lives of humans and elephants in a village near Wasgamuwa National Park.  The first rides were given this past May 23rd and the route is now used daily by school children, farmers, pedestrians, and cyclists.  We are so happy that we could be a part of helping people coexist peacefully alongside elephants.  If you would like to learn more have a look at this video:

School Awareness Program Update

Vanessa Gagne

Do you ever wonder if your donation actually makes a difference for elephants?
The answer to that question is very simple, YES!

In 2015, AES was able to donate $4000 to the Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust’s Schools Awareness Program. This program helps educate children in 150 schools per year on the urgent need to conserve Sri Lanka’s wild elephant population. The following is a portion of a report from Jayantha Jayewardene, Managing Trustee of BECT.

Report on Schools Awareness Program 2015

The program has been designed with a view to giving students a better idea of the habits, ecology, social behavior, and basic biology of elephants, as well as presenting ways to minimize human-elephant conflicts and damage.

Progress of Program

In 2015 we carried out Schools Awareness Programs in 40 schools on behalf of the Asian Elephant Support.  These schools were from six (6) districts around the island. On an average there were 143 children and 7 teachers present at each of these programs. The principals of these schools have recorded their appreciation of our programs in a Record Book, which we maintain. A map showing the districts where the programs were carried out is at the end of this report.

The cost of carrying out this program per school is $ 100. This includes fees for lecturers, transport, accommodation, food and books for the school library. The program was carried out in 40 schools on behalf of Asian Elephant Support, whose grant was $ 4,000.

With the knowledge that is imparted to the children, they will have a better understanding and appreciation of the problem of human-elephant conflicts and know in greater detail about the natural and socio-cultural history of the elephants. This will reduce the negative attitude towards the elephant by the local communities, especially among the younger generations so that they can then be persuaded to take a more positive role in the conservation of elephants in the future.

Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust

Vanessa Gagne

Sometimes funding takes a detour and finds yet another great destination!


Last year we agreed to fund participation at a symposium on elephants for the program coordinator at the Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust.  Agreements were reached, funds were transferred….and then the symposium was cancelled.  Initially, it was expected that the meeting would be rescheduled.  But as the months passed with no further announcements, what to do with the funds?

The Biodiversity & Elephant Conservation Trust teaches awareness programs in poor rural schools.  The programs are carried out in areas where there are conflicts between humans and wild elephants, where both humans and elephants die and where there is much crop and property damage.

The school programs are very useful as they show the children the reasons for the need to conserve elephants and how this can be done.  These programs introduce the children to all aspects of the elephant including its physiology, biology, reproduction, home ranges, family life, etc.  The programs give examples of how they can implement effective elephant conservation strategies.

Naturally, helping to fund these outreach classes seemed a most logical use of the funds already received, but unable to be used toward their initial purpose.  From education one, which would have been a good use of our resources, the pictures show our funds are able to reach a much larger audience and a young audience….the next generation into whose hands the future of the Asian elephant will then be placed.

We appreciate our donors support that allows us to help make such education happen and if you think this is a good  use of funding, please consider a donation at this time.  Thank you.