Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sri Lanka seeks harmony between elephants and humans

As part of my expanding Wild Orphans Part 2 project which will focus on Asian elephant issues and domestication across the whole of SE Asia and India I see a regular feed of articles and research from the region - occasionally I'll post those here in part or entirely. Sharing this post from writer Mel Gunasekera of Agence France-Presse - in its entirety.


LUNUGAMWEHERA, May 17 - In the early hours of a hot dry day, four orphaned elephants begin a bumpy truck ride back to the jungles of southern Sri Lanka where they had been rescued from near certain death.

The four baby jumbos -- now aged five and six -- are ready to leave the Elephant Transit Home where they have been treated and cared for since they were less than a year old.

The state-run home is refuge for dozens of baby elephants who are separated from their herds, fall into wells or ditches or are shot at by angry farmers as they raid banana, rice and sugarcane farms for food.

A one-hour drive takes Ollie, Toledo, Zicasso and Rani to the release site deep inside the Lunugamwehera national park. To rid them of human odour, they are hosed with elephant dung mixed in water.

The wildlife department staff clasp their hands in prayer while a saffron-robed Buddhist monk chants blessings for the elephants' future.

At first they seem surprised by the lack of fences, but soon lumber off into the undergrowth.

The release is a special day for the carers and conservationists, who hail the programme as a successful method of re-integrating animals into the wild and saving Sri Lanka's dwindling elephant population.

"They look cute and cuddly, but their survival is under threat," Wildlife Department director general Ananda Wijesooriya told AFP as he watched his former patients disappear.

Over the next few months, satellite radio collars will hopefully show female Rani integrating into a herd and the three males establishing their individual roaming areas, said project veterinary surgeon Neshma Kumudhini.

"It is our small effort to grow the elephant population, which is under threat due to the human-elephant conflict," she said.

The number of elephants in the country is estimated to have dropped from 12,000 in 1900 to just 4,000 now. Two-thirds live outside protected parks in shrinking habitats, and constantly come into conflict with humans.

Hundreds of elephants are killed annually by villagers, while marauding herds also trample locals to death.

In 2009, the conflict claimed the lives of 50 people and 228 elephants, the highest toll in recent times, said Wijesooriya.

"Their aggressive behaviour has instilled fear and animosity among villagers when they roam in search of food and water," he explained.

Elephants have long been an integral part of Sri Lankan culture, and are a religious symbol for both the majority Buddhist and minority Hindu communities.

But they also clash with humans, said specialist elephant biologist Manori Gunawardena.

"It's like having a really bad next-door neighbour," said Gunawardena, who knew a farmer killed last year by a lone elephant.

Finding solutions to the problem in Sri Lanka, which finally ended a decades-long ethnic conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels a year ago, has been virtually impossible for conservationists.

For decades, efforts to move the elephants away from villages using loudhailers and firecrackers have failed. Most relocated elephants try to return to their original territory.

Between 2005 and 2006, the government spent 1.5 million dollars to drive elephants from the island's far south towards a national park in the southwest.

Officials moved some 250 elephants -- mostly herds of females, babies and juveniles -- but more than 300, including the adult males, escaped the operation.

"Elephants are very intelligent, they are very attached to their original home ranges and most often always try to come back," said Prithiviraj Fernando, who heads the Sri Lankan Centre for Conservation and Research.

Fernando, who has been tracking elephants for nearly 15 years using radio collars, says Sri Lankans must learn to live alongside elephants.

The government increasingly works with private conservationists to protect villages with electric fences.

Under a proposed 20 million dollar World Bank loan, the new model will be tested in the island's south, where a slew of infrastructure projects including a new international airport, port and a cricket stadium are being built.

"We must accept that the human-elephant conflict will never be solved. For that to happen, either the humans or the elephants must be eliminated," said World Bank lead environmental specialist Sumith Pilapitiya.

The model has been in operation for the past three years in the southern area of Thammannawa, where an electric fence has been erected around village perimeters.

"The locals' crops are safe, their lives are safe, the elephants live. That's the model we want to encourage," said Fernando.

Article Copyright © 2010 AFP. Photo Copyright © 2010 Gerry Ellis. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 22, 2010

R-e-s-p-e-c-t... all life, that's what you mean to me

One would think 'sense and reason' should be the rule by which we travel through our lives, across the Earth, but sadly it's not always the route we humans choose, rather the road less traveled.

Today the folks representing how we treat all things but ourselves met in Doha to play god for another few years - elephants lucked out. Although not everyone was tickled pink, "We do not think our sovereignty has been respected," the Zambia's Tourism Minister Catherine Namugala said. "Respected", interesting word Ms Namugala, apparently that sovereignty doesn't extend to all life? No comment yet from the elephants who's sovereignty (and tusks) may have been spared.

Finally, perhaps, we have looked down that respect road, strewn with life other than our own, and decided they too have a place on earth. If that's the case it is somewhat ironic timing since this weekend in several countries the new BBC/Discovery Channel series LIFE took to the airwaves. Elephants, maybe more specifically African elephants have been given a short reprieve by a group with the highly ironic title the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - yes, I know you are scratching your head and saying, how can one "Trade" something that is labeled as "Endangered", if by the very meaning Endangered you are saying this thing is near disappearing, poof, gone! - doesn't that seem counter-intuitive? Oh well, I did say there were two roads and most of the time...

From a web article on BBC online:

"The UN's wildlife trade organisation has turned down Tanzania's and Zambia's requests to sell ivory, amid concern about elephant poaching.

The countries asked the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting to permit one-off sales from government stockpiles."

An overview article on the CITES vote and who's involved can be found in BBC Enviro corespondent Richard Black's article:

Ivory bids fall on poaching fears

And from the Washington Post: Elephant trade ban reaffirmed for Tanzania, Zambia

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Forest Elephants heard not seen

This month, scientists have published an acoustic survey of elephant numbers in the Kakum Conservation Area in Ghana, west Africa. The elephant numbers there have been a mystery due to the density of the forest - you simply can't see them - yes, even something the size of an elephant!

The survey found around 300 elephants live in the conservation area's forests, but most remarkable it did so using sound not sight - the same way the elephants communicate. The survey is the first to evaluate elephant numbers in the wild by using acoustics - listening to them, instead of seeing them.

Watch the video and learn more on the BBC Earth News - click here

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Elephant Trunk Tricks

One of the most important lessons I learned over the few years I spent with the Wild Orphans was to never assume I knew anything definitive about elephants. It's at that very moment they seem to know they have you, and presto! the come at you from a perspective you never imagined.

For the new elephant project in Asia I am digging through and surfing into mountains of elephant research, over the coming months as that research expands I'll try and share as much information and links here as I can. This first one is a favorite for it involves elephant trunks - which I am certain are separate creatures from the beasts they are attached to - or at least there is a symbiotic co-dependency relationship. Seriously, watch that trunk for a few minutes and it seems to be doing a whole range of things independent from its host. Trunks are brilliant!

BBC camerman Mike Holding commented,
"I have spent countless days in the company of elephants, and I believe this was a timely reminder that however much we think we know about elephants, they always surprise us with some new and intelligent piece of behaviour."

Watching Wild Orphans from a distance

During the early months of filming at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust I learned my plan, my ideas, were my own - the baby elephants and circumstances of their survival were the true dictators of what would be ultimately accomplish. Sometimes that was extremely frustrating, and painful, especially when it involved the death of an orphan. But ultimately I was a guest, an outsider. As a photographer and writer that's my job - view from the outside, try to understand the view from the inside - the people, places and creatures that live it every day, and then shed light on both with camera and pen. And if it works, you, the reader and viewer see how those two world mix, match, conflict and co-exist.

At the core of this profession is constantly reminding myself to remain open to change, flexible in plans, and receptive to new perspectives. That was critical to the final success of the Wild Orphans project in that first phase, so it seems is the case in Wild Orphans part II.

The orphanage over the past decade has become a mecca for anyone wanting to tell a heart-warming tale of little elies. That attention is partly due to the Wild Orphans book - I know by the number of producers from around the world who have emailed or called me for copies of the book as they prepare to explore the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and baby elephants for their own programming. In that sense what was created a decade ago was more than a book - and I delighted Daphne Sheldrick and the dedicated people of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust have benefited from all the support they gave the Wild Orphans project. As a consequence the Trust and folks that have to keep orphaned baby elephants and rhinos as their first priority have been inundated with requests to access and use the babies as celebrities. In the past 60 Minutes, BBC, and many others have come to tell the Wild Orphan story. Currently National Geographic and IMAX both have projects in the works. (As soon as those two productions are available I'll post them here on the blog.)

Sadly, with so much going on, I won't be returning in the near future to pick up Natumi's story and bridge a decade of being wild in the bush of Tsavo East NP. Instead I'll watch from a distance and continue updates and links here to the Trust's work and the babies, especially Natumi, who I annually adopt. (if you would like to foster and support a Wild Orphan baby or any of the others please link here to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust site.) Instead, I will be focusing my efforts and this blog on another elephant project in SE Asia and India that looks at domesticated elephants and elephant-human conflict issues. The first blog post of that project will be coming shortly linked to a recent visit to India's Kaziranga National Park.

Again, if you have not donated to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust I urge you to do so, and receive their email newsletter updates.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Elephant Gala Fundraiser
February 25th - SoHo, New York City

Looking for an opportunity to help the orphans? Please join U.S. Friends of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for a special evening on February 25, 2010 to support the orphaned elephants and rhinos of Kenya. More Gala information and sign up.

to benefit
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Thursday, 6:30 to 9:30 pm
at The Wild Horses of Sable Island Gallery
Attire is cocktail or dressed business

RSVP/Purchase Tickets Information: Tickets are limited for this event and are thus available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Tickets will not be sold at the door the night of the event.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Helping Wild Orphans in Kenya

Many of you have asked about helping at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, beyond the always needed donation and adopting of an orphan. As I mention at my speaking presentations it's very difficult to work directly with the orphaned elephants and rhinos for a number of reasons. The primary concern is time, most visitors have only a few weeks to a couple months to volunteer and that creates separation issues - in becoming orphans the babies have already lost one life connection, to attach to a volunteer and that person leave would be potentially devastating. Something Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick (photo above) is dedicated to not let happen twice.

If you are going to be in Kenya for a year or longer docents are often considered for meeting with the visiting public and school children each day. For that opportunity you would need to contact the Trust directly and explain your offer. To do so contact them via their contact webpage