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Projects in Sri Lanka

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.