Category Archives: 3. Fields News Sri Lanka

Appeal for support related to our Sri Lanka project

As we continue to plan for the next phase of our Minneriya-Kaudulla Elephant Project, we have been following the dramatic situation in Sri Lanka along with the rest of the world. We look forward to a peaceful future for all Sri Lankans!

It is more critical than ever to ensure the reduction of conflict between elephants and people – a goal at the core of our project. Marketing of beautiful Sri Lanka including Minneriya’s and Kaudulla’s elephants could in itself contribute toward a new era – from all perspectives sustainable tourism will be important for people AND for the conservation of wildlife.

Manori GunawardenaOur Sri Lankan colleague, Manori Gunawardena, will be visiting us from 15th to 25 June. With new developments we have lots of planning issues to deal with as well as adding some 300 individual elephants into the project’s elephant ID database on our high-speed internet connection. Prior to Manori’s working visit with us, she will attend a GIS course at Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC to learn mapping techniques that are an integral part of the project. The cost for the course is covered by Smithsonian Institute.

The remainder of the budget for Manori’s travel from 30th May to 25 June is:

Flights: Colombo – UK – Washington – UK – Norway – Colombo, $1626
Lodging Washington: $1120
Visa UK and Norway, and airport transfer DC: $240

ElephantVoices is committed to cover the total cost of $2986, and in the current financial climate any contribution is highly welcome!

Cheers, Petter and Joyce

Elephants seen in Minneriya and Kaudulla

During the Monsoon the two reservoirs, or tanks, that are the focal points for the elephants of Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, fill up so completely that there is little grassland for the elephants to venture out of the forest on to. And that makes viewing them difficult. Since this is the first year that these elephants have been studied, we are still learning their ranging patterns. Manori found that after the rains began most of the elephants disappeared from the tank shore, but a few families lingered on and were seen on a regular basis.

Right now Manori is in the southern part of the country. She has been called to give evidence in an enchroament case involving the Uda Walawe National Park, which will be heard by the Supreme Court. This story has been making the press and we hope to be able to bring you more news soon.

Meanwhile, we are fortunate that there are so many elephant enthusiasts in Sri Lanka and one of them, Srilal Miththapala (who, incidently, has written a book on elephants and owns a beautiful eco-friendly lodge – Hotel Sigiriya – in the area) has kindly sent us some observations. So it seems as though some families (the same ones seen by Manori?) are still hanging out around the tanks.

Once the rains stop the authorities will begin to use the water in the tanks for irrigation in an almost two thousand year old practice. As the water recedes so the elephants return once more to the fertile grassland, reaching a peak in numbers by August.

13th January approx: 25 in Minneriya and 35 in Kaudulla
14th January approx: 20 in Minneriya and 25 in Kaudulla
15th January approx: 15 in Minneriya and 10 in Kaudulla

And a couple of photographs – note how green the grass is!


Sri Lanka elephants

A thank you trumpet from ElephantVoices!

Thank you, Anna M., Sigrid H. and Michelle P., for your kind donations. They simply make a difference! You may enjoy seeing the sign below found in Orissa, India.


Last days with the elephants in Minneriya & Kaudulla

Manori and I had two fantastic last days – one in Kaudulla N.P. and one in Minneriya N.P. In Kaudulla we were fortunate to observe some very interesting defensive behavior during which we were confronted by a wall of elephants. One young female expressed her alarm at our presence by wide-eyed staring and by excited squeaking.

In Minneriya we were treated to an aggregation of 53 elephants. The group split and reformed as elephants went about their business: cooling down in the reservoir, splashing in the water, young males sparring, a musth male testing females, calves suckling and getting lost.

As the crow flies these two national parks are about 8 km apart, but it takes almost forty minutes to drive from one to the other. Along the way Manori and I stopped to pay our respects at the many shrines to Ganesh.

Kaudulla and Minneriya are separated by forest reserve, which includes a couple of small villages, and are surrounded by a mosaic of different habitat types – some protected, some unprotected.

One of the goals of our project will be to understand how the elephant population is using this landscape so that the authorities can better provide for their conservation and at the same time reduce conflict with people. In order to do that we need to know exactly how many elephants there are, and who is moving where, when. We also need to know whether the population is increasing or decreasing. Because the habitat is primarily forest it isn’t possible to get an accurate count. The only way to get solid answers is, therefore, to get to know the elephants individually – which is why we have been so very busy taking ID photographs. Later in the year we will be able to introduce you to some of these elephants via an online identification database.

In the meantime, just looking at the elephants gives a couple of clear indications. If the population is growing it is at a much slower rate than in Amboseli, as there are relatively fewer calves and juveniles to adults. And males over approximately 20 years old are covered in bumps caused by buckshot. They are the big raiders.

It’s been an extremely interesting and busy visit. In addition to getting to know the elephants we had a number of important meetings and discussions with the Wildlife Department and others. I gave two lectures – one to the Wildlife Department staff in Minneriya and the other in Colombo to the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society.

On our last day Manori and I had a meeting with Dilmah Tea, whose Conservation Foundation is supporting our work. I planted a tree on the grounds of their main office in Colombo to commemorate the beginning of our joint endeavor for elephant conservation.

Link to Dilmah Conservation

It’s been a great pleasure to experience the Sri Lankan warmth and enthusiasm – everyone we have met has been very welcoming and helpful. This includes the management and staff at Hotel Sigiriya, who have welcomed us back to our new “home”.

Petter and I are looking forward to what lies ahead with renewed commitment. Working with Manori is a great pleasure and we feel fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from someone with so much experience. Manori moves in an unusual circle of wildlife and elephant enthusiasts and we have slipped into this crowd with ease!

Busy days – WD blog-writing – thank you for your support!

These are extremely busy days, with elephant-related issues following us around the clock, and work priorities are high on the agenda. Collaborating with people in different time-zones adds to the feeling that we live in a small, global society, although it does steal some sleep!
Joyce holding lecture at school near Udawalawe
Sri Lankans love elephants, despite an increasing number of human-elephant conflicts. ElephantVoices’ new project aims to reduce conflicts by creating more ownership towards solutions and consequences related to elephants and their conservation. Education and online access to project data are key words in the project. In the photo Joyce talks about elephants in front of a school-class near Udawalawe National Park.

Education is a core part of ElephantVoices’ goal – and even our blog here on WildlifeDirect is a consequence of that. We want share our knowledge and passion for elephants with you and, concurrently, stimulate interest in supporting elephant conservation and our work.

We have enjoyed participating on WD so far, and are happy to report back that your contributions have helped us to repair our field vehicle in Kenya. It is now ready for our next field trip which will take place between January and March 2009. Contributions through WD have also given us a much needed super-portable Asus Eee 901 computer, which Joyce has been using to write her field diary from Minneriya-Kaudulla – parts of which have been uploaded to this blog. The tiny Asus is a very lap-friendly device with a super-long battery which will serve her well for her 24 hour journey back to Norway… In other words – your support helps us do our job for elephants.

And this is partly how we see our blog efforts – writing the blog IS actually quite a lot of work. We provide you readers with news, experiences and facts from a world that not many have the possibility to be a part of. Those of you who do have the opportunity to support us may feel more connected with work that you believe is important. A win-win situation – for elephants, us, you.
Joyce recording in Udawalawe Transit home in 2003
Joyce “churping” – while recording during ElephantVoices’ visit to Udawalawe Transit Home 2003. Our friend R. Myunideen Mohamed, then Park Warden in Yala East National Park, is following a special kind of interview with curiousity…

We appreciate whatever you do for elephants – and continue to promise that if you support our work with a donation we will do our best to give you value for money. Elephants need and deserve no less.

It will be more quiet from Joyce now, by the way, she is soon at the end of this hectic start-up session of our new Sri Lanka research and conservation project. A couple of lectures and meetings in Colombo remain – and then, once she is back in the office, plenty of preparations related to field-work follow-up, proposal writing, web/database-development and our fund-raising trip to California in November await us. But that’s another story…

We’re happy to know that you are following our work – and we welcome any contributions!

Best wishes, Petter

Joyce’s travel diary Sri Lanka (4)


This morning Manori and I tried to solve some computer problems, sorted through ID photos and worked on a budget for the overall project. Our project will have quite a number of different components – social structure and demography, social behavior and communication, habitat use and movement patterns – with each of these informing recommendations for the design of a conservation landscape for this population of elephants. The area the elephants use is a mosaic of different patches of landuse types – national park, sanctuary, forest reserve, farmland and villages and small towns.

This afternoon we drove to a second national park, Kaudulla, about an hour from where we are staying, to see if we could find elephants there. Along the way the jeep that we had borrowed broke down with clutch problems. We managed to get into the park in another vehicle and, after some searching, found a couple of elephant groups. The first was a group of 10 males – including one just coming into musth and one young tusker (since very few males in Sri Lanka have tusks this is always noteworthy).

Around the corner from this group was a large mixed group (cows, calves and associating males). They were disturbed by the presence of several jeeps and were making quite a commotion. We waited quietly for them to calm down and then approached. But one young male came charging out of the forest again and gave us a lively challenge.

From my dictaphone notes:
17:44 I took some photographs of a young male who was demonstrating, threatening us and instead of doing that, sort of running at you and then kicking dust or throwing dust at you [that African elephants do in similar circumstances], they [Asian elephants] tend to collect dust [with their trunk and feet], kick the dust, and while standing in one pace throw the dust over their head in a display.
Throwing dust display 1Throwing dust display 2Throwing dust display 3

As I sit at my desk writing this piece I can  hear explosions in the distance: villagers trying to chase male elephants out of their farms…..

Joyce’s travel diary Sri Lanka (3)


This morning Manori and I worked on our ID photos from the previous afternoon and then had a meeting to discuss various aspects of the project. After that we had an early lunch of fruit and soup and then gathered our things and headed toward the park. The elephants are in the forest in the morning so this allows us to do much needed office work without feeling like we are missing anything.

Today was better for me – I recognized some of the females we had seen the day before including a “pretty” female with a scoop out of her right ear, a female with elongated ear lobes and another with a small cup-shaped notch out of her left ear. They were all in a group of 12 elephants (not a perfect count, however) though yesterday two of these females had been in the group of 7 elephants, and the “pretty” female had been in the group of 9. Mmmmm – one large family, or…the plot thickens!
MK group

Then we saw a big group of 31 elephants with a couple of small calves and a large female with a very torn left ear. She will be easily recognizable again. With her was a female with very pink edges to her ears….and many more.
A group of 16 elephants included a large female with a hole in her left ear. This had some drivers nervous because there is a female with a hole in her left ear that is aggressive – so all females with holes in their left ear are “the female with the hole in her left ear” and cause for concern! She seemed very calm to me and may be confused with the female who chased vehicles and kicked our car back in 2003 – she had a hole in her left ear….
Large MK female with hole in ear

All the groups we were with today were cow-calf groups – in other words mothers and their calves without any adult males. Now I have to stop – its 23:33 and I have to be ready to use my brain again tomorrow!


Manori and I spent the morning working on budgets. At 10:30 were joined by colleagues for more elephant discussions, we had lunch and then set out for another afternoon with elephants. It was fabulous! The elephants were extra ordinarily close this time and there was lots of interesting behavior. A musth male visited the group, passing within a couple of meters of the car several times.
Big MK male
I thought you would enjoy reading some of the comments I made on the dictaphone as I was watching:

15:58 OK, got some fantastic behavior here as the musth male is moving through the group testing, females squeaking, some females testing one another, females putting trunks into one another’s mouths, and then as the musth male moved to another part of the group again the females began rumbling and ear flapping, so its quite similar to african elephants. Its not a modulated rumble, though, rather quite flat.

15:59 Something very different….  the musth male is testing a female and is trying to bite her tail and she’s pulling her tail away, he grabs it again, so some subtly different behaviors…our (African) males don’t do that!

16:11 Ok so suddenly heard some short squeaky kind of trumpet, a kind of trump, and ah the elephants moving toward something in the grass with their trunks raised, and then I guess Manori saw a jackal running away so this group of about 5 elephants went following after the jackal so again similar kind of behavior to African elephants.
Manori and Joyce in Minneriya NP

Joyce’s travel diary Sri Lanka (2)

Hi all,

Manori and I arrived in the Minneriya area on evening of 16th. I have been bowled over at the generosity of people here. A friend of Manori’s owns the Hotel Sigiriya which is about a 30 minute drive through the forest to Minneriya and he very kindly invited us to stay free of charge until we have set up our own base here. So we are very fortunate to have access to a swimming pool (except we have been too busy to use it), great food and incredible service – not to mention internet and electricity for charging all of our gadgets. We are so grateful. It’s also good to know that many are showing interest in the project – including funding bodies. World renown Dilmah Tea, through  Dilmah Tea Conservation, have already come on board, which gives us lots of energy in this early phase.


This morning we departed early to meet with the Warden of Minneriya National Park – we had very good discussions about the various threats to elephant conservation. Manori had arranged for me to give a lecture on African elephant behavior to a group of 20 or so of the park staff. The park has recently built a beautiful visitor center and auditorium designed by an award winning Sri Lankan architect. The auditorium was open on the sides and really stunning. The talk went well and Manori followed up by giving a presentation on the characteristics used to indentify Asian elephants.

We had already gone over all of this material together since the three of us (with Petter) have been working to build a searchable online database – so I was busy taking photographs of Manori speaking. I should have paid
more attention. Identifying Asian elephants has required me to reprogram my brain – and it isn’t working too well yet!

Then into the park and out with the elephants. They appeared from the forest, as if by clockwork, at 14:00. More and more groups appeared but we focused on four – a bull we named Suddha because of his white tail hairs, two cow-calf groups and one larger mixed (adult males with the cows and calves) – these included 7, 9 and 45 elephants, respectively.

I got to work right away – trying to photograph, age, sex and make sense of who was who, and who was with whom. I got befuddled pretty quickly and it wasn’t just jet lag. I am used to looking at tusks which give an
overall appearance to an elephant, as well as being a good indicator of age and sex. Well, these elephants don’t have them – among all the elephants we saw only one male had tusks. So imagine trying to make sense
of scores of tuskless elephants. I really felt I had lost my touch. Meanwhile Manori worked away quite happily – which was a little demoralizing! Hopefully I will slowly catch up…

Trumpet, Joyce

(Message from Petter: Hoped to upload some photos with this post, but the connection in Minneriya is down so Joyce is not able to mail me any)

Joyce’s travel diary Sri Lanka


I arrived in Sri Lanka in the afternoon and Manori was at the airport to meet me. We had an hour long drive through traffic to the other side of town to her parent’s home where I was given a very warm welcome. Afternoon tea is a tradition here, just as in Kenya, and so I immediately felt at home!

That evening we were invited to Lalith and Ayanthie Seneviratne’s home for a dinner gathering with many of the friends Petter and I had made during our visit to Sri Lanka in 2003. A special surprise guest was Mohamed who had accompanied us on the safari we took around the national parks. Mohamed, who has an extraordinary connection with elephants was then warden of Yala East National Park and we learned so much from him.

The evening was very jolly – a guitar appeared and we ate a delicious meal prepared by Ayanthie.
ElephantVoices team visiting Sri Lanka in 2003 - Yala East National Park

ElephantVoices visits Yala East National Park on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast in 2003. We had a fantastic experience there thanks to our friend Lalith Seneviratne (right) and our extraordinary host, R. Myunideen Mohamed then Park Warden. The parks had just been reopened following two decades of civil unrest, but was hard hit by the Tsunami in December 2004. Mohamed’s family were among the many who lost everything but their lives. All the Park’s staff saved themselves, some by running side by side with water buffaloes. The elephants had left for higher ground earlier. The park’s new headquarters was submerged in five feet of water, but a miracle saved them from major damage.


This morning Manori and I got up early and drove to the northern side of Colombo to meet with the Director of Wildlife, Mr. Wijaysooryie. We had a very useful hour long meeting during which we discussed a variety of elephant issues including human elephant conflict, elephant habitat and what to do about elephants being hit by trains. Then we continued on our way north toward Minneriya. The drive was long and the traffic heavy, and I was really feeling jet-lagged. My system is very confused having come from Washington by way of Norway! Stops along the way for fresh passion fruit juice and samosas made me feel I was back in the tropics!

Manori is still looking for a place to set up our base and meanwhile the Hotel Sigiriya has generously given us two beautiful rooms free of charge. So I am writing this having been given a frangipani flower for my hair, a refreshing fruit drink, a cooled and scented face towel, a cup of tea and having done 10 laps in the pool. All this while being entertained by macaques stealing our sugar and langurs knocking over the furniture.

Stay tuned for the next installment…..
Elephants by Minneriya tank

From National Geographic to Sri Lanka

Hi all – Joyce here

I returned on Friday evening from a three-day trip to Washington DC where I was attending an event at National Geographic to celebrate Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s 40 years of dedication to elephants. While there I participated in an in house discussion regarding the future of elephants and did a couple of radio interviews. It was wonderful to have a chance to spend time with Iain and Oria who have played such a big role in my life, and to catch up with the work of several other elephant colleagues.

Today I am on my way to Sri Lanka. To save on costs I am going by a rather tortuous route – Ryanair to Stansted, bus to Heathrow and then a flight to Colombo by way of Doha. Sigh! But there is a real bonus to this madness after all – yesterday I got the bright idea to contact my oldest friend, Amanda Clarke, who is an Archaeologist at Reading University to see if she could meet me at Heathrow for a chat. Manda and I were best friends at age 10 at Hospital Hill Primary School in Kenya and have remained close since then. As a teenager I spent several summers with her in Cornwall and when I was a graduate student at Cambridge I often stayed with her family who lived nearby. The last time we were together was in 2002.

So a reunion at Heathrow and then an overnight and all day flight to Colombo where I will be met by Manori Monday afternoon. Stay tuned!