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Born Free USA Global Field Projects

Interview with Deepani Jayantha

Published 08/24/11

More Sri Lanka elephants project images
(Photograph by Born Free Foundation)

(Taken from the Born Free Foundation’s website.)

Having worked at the Elephant Transit Home, Udawalawa in Sri Lanka and studied the released animals there, in 2008 Dr Deepani Jayantha became Born Free’s Country Representative.

How did you become involved in the Elephant Transit Home (ETH)?

It was during my undergraduate time at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, University of Peradeniya. I always wanted to work with wild animals as a vet, so, I took every possible chance to go to the wild with senior vets. I should remind Dr. Nandana Atapattu, former head at the Health and Management Division of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) of Sri Lanka, with honour. He introduced me the orphaned juveniles being rehabilitated at the ETH. Later on, after graduation, I did part of my internship at the ETH, attached to the DWC. I was lucky to work as the acting veterinarian in the absence of the then vet-in-charge, Dr. Suhada Jayawardhane. So, thanks to everybody, I learnt a lot on orphan elephant rehabilitation in Sri Lanka at the ETH!

What is special about the ETH?

ETH is the only state run wild animal rehabilitation centre in Sri Lanka, particularly for orphaned elephants. Each year about 15 juveniles get orphaned around the island for escalating human elephant conflict. The dedicated staff led by the veterinarian care for the rescued elephants around the clock. Work at the ETH is challenging. Calves sometimes arrive with diseases, majority of them come in weak conditions. They easily develop diarrhoea if the man-made milk formula did not agree with them. Apart from the health management of the juvenile elephants, the staff has to consider the social environment of the new arrivals. A new comer takes a substantial time to start bonding with the existing rehabilitating ‘herd’ at the ETH, of course with individual variations.

The rehabilitating juvenile elephants are managed under least human interactions. After weaning and when the juveniles come in to an age to lead an independent life, they are released back to the wild. This unique elephant rehabilitation system has been worked out well; so far 60 plus individuals have been released to the Udawalawa National Park (UNP) since 1998. Several animals were observed post-release to be associated with wild elephants groups in the park. Some females showed long-lasting bonds with wild groups. The management confirmed one female, which was released during the early course, is now a lactating cow! The credit of all these successful stories of rescue and care of orphaned elephant calves should go to the ETH.

How do wild elephants become orphaned?

Elephants need resources in large quantities – space, food, and water. For their needs they come out from their remaining scattered habitats in the country moving between forest patches and also visiting human settlements. Elephants are attracted to palatable agricultural cultivations. Further, with the land pressure their habitats are being encroached by the humans. The ultimate result is humans and wild elephants go into a conflict.

Every year about 150 elephants lose their lives while about 65 human lives are taken by the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. Once a cow with a calf is killed usually an orphan calf is resulted. While female groups trying to escape from farmlands or rushing between forest patches with human settlements in between, juveniles are left behind. Agricultural wells and abandoned gem-mines are death traps for elephant calves and juveniles. Further, they could be victims of poachers’ trap-guns, generally set for other wildlife, and sadly of land mines too. Once they are left behind it is hard to integrate them with their natal groups, primarily because they are injured animals. Then they have to be removed from the wild as orphans and to be cared under veterinary supervision.

When you were studying the release animals did you have a favourite?

It was absolutely interesting to observe every individual of the Batch 2004 in the wild UNP since first day of release. On the same day evening some of them started roaming with a wild elephant group. However, they showed a loose grouping behaviour throughout the study period – making short-term associations with the wild elephants. Some of the released individuals rather preferred to stay with the batch mates not associating with the wild elephants.

I can’t resist myself talking about Mihika, the charming young lady of the Batch 2004. Within three months after release she started associating with an adult female which had a male calf younger to her. The trio made a remarkable association – Mihika is still reported to maintain this association. Usual cow-calf interactions were observed between Mihika and the adult female while juvenile interactions were evident between Mihika and the calf. It was always a very special feeling to observe Mihika in the wild.

Tracking her was truly rewarding, she provided me with a sheets-full of social behaviour data of elephants in the UNP!

What is Born Free doing in Sri Lanka to address the causes of elephant orphans?

Born Free understands the importance of wild elephants in the local eco-systems and how severe is the human – elephant conflict in Sri Lanka which results in elephant calves being orphaned. Born Free also respects the traditional interactions between the wild elephants and local community here. With the theme, keeping wildlife in the wild, Born Free helps supporting elephant conservation activities. Funding into elephant research is one aspect. Just like for my research study at the UNP, an undergraduate project on early alarming system to detect elephant crop raids was funded at the University of Colombo. Finding elephant resistant crops in central Sri Lanka (Laggala-Pallegama) is another trial Born Free is supporting.

Apart from these, I highly appreciate the way Born Free looks at the elephant affected communities around Udawalawa. Harmonious human elephant interaction had been there in the region for generations. The interaction has turned into a conflict since a couple of decades ago following different development schemes and subsequent expansion of human settlements. Still the community tries to continue living with the elephants around while encroaching into their habitats. Finding solutions to this needs preserving available habitats for the elephants and compensating losses at the human side. Supporting the elephant affected communities around UNP would influence the people to not to hate elephants anymore, community is supported with their needs because of the elephants around them.

How does building a school water supply help save elephants?

With this approach Born Free selected a UNP bordering village called Rathambalagama in northern Udawalawa. Not only the farmlands in the village, even the school agriculture exercise is raided by the wild elephants. Villagers are very patient with the elephants; they find it very interesting to see a tusker roaming in the village! However, the village school was in need of many supplies. Born Free started with electricity and clean water supply, desks, and chairs.

It was a great experience to work with the school staff and the construction groups, my scientific background helped only a little in this venture! Supervising every bit of the project ultimately made the school kids very happy. They drink clean water every day after finishing at the school grounds and they are ready to use electricity for their school needs. The message of conservation is transmitted to the happy kids – you have been supported in the name of the eco-system you are live in, and it’s your duty to look after it from your young age. Born Free believes elephants will be included in the eco-system as the kids define it. I should sincerely appreciate the effort of the school staff and the assistance of the parents in this project.

What special role do you think Born Free can play in Sri Lanka?

Addressing human-elephant conflict is the biggest current challenge of elephant conservation in Sri Lanka. Several government and non-government organizations, local and international, try finding solutions at different levels. Some efforts are quite isolated, like discovering techniques in alarming elephant crop raids. The results are not disseminated beyond academic levels. Some conservation groups rewarded with practical field solutions for the conflict working with local communities. Again the information is not shared among the rest of the conservationists and other elephant affected communities. I understand networking all the working groups on the subject and sharing existing knowledge and skills to address the problem as a timely need. Because, the DWC along can’t manage the human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka. Here Born Free can play a very active role in the future in field conservation of wild elephants.

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