Exploring a Potential Field Site

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By Lisa Barrett

This summer, one of my goals as a 1st year Ph.D. student was to determine if I wanted to do work with wild Asian elephants. My dissertation will look at personality and problem-solving in elephants, and it is an extension of my work with Think Elephants International in Thailand. After months of planning and discussing with my grad school advisor, as well as with my collaborator, Dr. Shermin de Silva (founder of nonprofit Trunks and Leaves), I was ready for my trip to Sri Lanka.

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Me and the other research assistants at Think Elephants doing a Skype session with a Thai classroom.

Besides the regular worries of traveling (fear of flying, traveling alone to a foreign country, jetleg, adjusting to new food, etc.), I also had a few very important tasks to accomplish. In other words, this was not a vacation. Still, while I tried to remind myself that there was “no pressure” in going on this increasingly overwhelming trip, my mind kept wandering back to a nightmarish scene of me spending 10 years in grad school without completing my research. Furthermore, I received funding for my trip, so I definitely had to make this short visit productive!

So, what was on my to-do list? First, I had to get a sense of the area to see if I would like doing research there. Next, I had to practice identifying individual elephants (or at least learn how one would identify elephants). I had a bit of experience doing this in Thailand, but since I was only working with 20 or so elephants there, it was nothing compared to memorizing hundreds of wild elephant ear shapes, scars/markings, etc.! Third, I needed to think about my specific project and what types of things would work and would not work in the environment.

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Breakfast!

After about 30 hours of travel to Colombo, I met my driver who would take me to Uda Walawe National Park. I immediately felt the thick humidity as we exited the airport, and I definitely struggled to adjust to the air, probably because I was coming from Wyoming which has very little humidity. After a several hour drive, I met the local research assistants who I would be learning from. They showed me their research vehicle, the “office”–a bedroom with computers upstairs–, my room, and very importantly, my fan. We had a meal of curry and rice, and then I was left to settle in. The food had a lot of Indian influences, which was different from what I was used to (my stomach made sure to remind me of that).

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The research vehicle.

The next day, the research assistants took me to the park first thing in the morning. We immediately spotted some elephants, and I began taking behavioral observations and videos until they moved out of sight. We eventually stopped in some shade to have breakfast, boiled chickpeas with coconut flakes and rote (like taco shells but better!). I was immensely impressed by the research assistants’ ability to identify every elephant in a matter of seconds! We spent the rest of the morning in the park until lunchtime, when we went back to the house for lunch and relaxation (which also corresponds with the hottest part of the day). We went back out to the park until it closed at dusk.

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A family of elephants crosses the road in front of us.

We went to the park three days per week, and the other days we spent going over our notes. I also took that time to learn some of the elephants the research group had identified, and sometimes, to take a nap.

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Identifying elephants by their ears and other distinctive marks can be tricky!

On the weekends, the research assistants showed me around the (very rural) village nearby. I learned about how some elephants get passed the electric fence around the park and invade crops. I got to see a local Buddhist temple with many interesting Hindu aspects. Perhaps my favorite “field trip” was to the Elephant Transit Home (ETH), a sort of elephant orphanage for around 40 young elephants. The facility fosters the learning of necessary skills for elephants without adult role models so that they can then be released into the national park. I had the opportunity to see the result of such a successful program—we spotted several elephants who had previously been released and were doing quite well. These individuals wear radio collars so that the ETH can track them.

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The elephants receive milk throughout the day. Tourists can pay to watch the feedings, and their donation goes toward getting supplies for ETH.

At the end of my visit, I finally got to relax during a day trip to the beach where I got to visit a sea turtle farm.

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My last sunset in Sri Lanka– taken on Mount Lavinia beach in Colombo.

After two weeks at Uda Walawe, I definitely learned a lot about elephants and how my project could work there. It was definitely a productive visit!

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