Category Archives: AWF Project Base News
The eco-farm has been super busy this week. Volunteers have been working hard alongside our resident gardener with super human powers-“Chesty”! Chillies and Aubergines had been left to germinate in the safety of the tool shed and were ready to be planted. We also took cuttings from one of our mature Wild Potato plants and created 5 new beds with the shoots. After bedding down the saplings in some nutrient-rich compost, we surrounded them with leafy twigs. This is to protect the young plants from direct sunlight for a few days as they have not yet been exposed to sunshine and could easily dry out.
Over the next couple of weeks we have plenty more seeds to plant… Beans, White Cucumbers, Carrots, Pumpkins, Corn, Beetroot, Cabbage, Melons and more. The harvests will be used to supply the fruit shop with fresh fruit & veg and used in the Elephant Enrichment Programme. Produce will also help to feed the ever-hungry volunteers!
Working alongside “Chesty” and under the guidance of Senna, volunteers are able to learn traditional farming methods they would not learn anywhere else. It’s amazing what you can produce without using a single chemical!
Everyone donned their mahout outfits early in the morning. Sarongs, mahout vests, bumbags, mahout belts, a stick, a knife and most important of all… a moustache! Some of us even had a change in hairstyle to fit the role.
We all waited by the cabins until the mahouts walked up to get their elephants from their beds at 7:30am. We then fell into line behind them, put on our best mahout walks, and strolled up to meet the elephants. We helped with the beds as normal, then headed down to the river for their morning bath.
Then everyone set about their normal day, but staying in character of course. Many photos were taken, mahouts are very smily normally, until a camera comes out, then they pull their stern face, so we did too! It may look like we weren’t having a good day, but really we’re just really good at being mahouts!
As the day went on, the sun got hotter, so in true mahout style, we cooled down. This doesn’t mean taking your top off, it simply means rolled it up until you look like you’re wearing a really short crop top! Hot stuff!
And when it rains you better hope you have your rain hat with you… a plastic bag!
The mahouts believe that if you get your head wet from the rain, you will become ill, so every time it rains the bags come out. They will spend hours in the river washing their elephant, but if a bit of rain comes, its time to get inside!
A few other mahout activities included, taking the dogs in the river for a quick wash, having a mid afternoon sleep in the mahout hut and chewing the not overly tasty combo of leaf, paste, tobacco leaf and a nut, which fills your mouth with a red liquid, and it looks like your gums are bleeding, yummy!
At the end of the day we all washed in the river and had a little swim. Once out and dry we all did what mahouts do best… we put on our sarongs and then put on shirts which clashed horrifically!
Like I said earlier, most of us were mahouts. However, there were a couple of exceptions, Stu dressed as Podi, which was amazing, neck brace, white beard and all! And JB became Sriyani for the day, much to the approval of mahouts and their wandering hands!
In the evening we carved a few pumpkins, lit some candles, strung up a few scary ghouls and drank a lot of scary punch. It was an extremely fun day!
A fun filled Sunday of all things hiking can encompass beautiful geology, awe inspiring views, diverse flora, abundant fauna and a true challenge for the calves! The journey to the village of Masca, takes you 650m above sea level; accessible by bus and/or taxi Until the 1991 this village was only reachable by sandy track, now there is a connecting road which snakes two and throw twisting heads and testing treads.
The region of Masca is located in volcanoes crater over different mountain slopes. It is no mystery that it is filled with basalt of all shapes and sizes for a the would Masca challenger to tackle. The steep and some times shallow artery’s that flow through gorge takes around 4 hours to complete, the with periodic breaks/stops to soak up the landscape and take photographs.
If inclined the reverse trail offers a much more arduous hike. Masca holds bear to a host of endemic flora, watered by a stream that keeps these almost Jurassic plants rooted.
The trek was somewhat engrained with the apprehension that the next apex of rock would reveal a geological marvel that would rival the limits of the imagination. That was never the case however; corner after arduous, but ultimately rewarding corner, until a cumulative dive into the crystal clear water at the end of the trek. Where we began to snorkel and survey the aquatic life this bay had to offer.
If you are fit enough the hike back up the trail is worth it, but most travel by boat sailing past the highest cliffs of Los Gigantes where you can find a boat or taxi back to the source.
I managed to record some bird species whilst there:
- Tenerife blue tit (Parus teneriffae)
- Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)
- Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
- Common buzzard (Buteo buteo)
- Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus)
- Rock dove (Columba livia)
- Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
- Herring gull (Larus argentatus)
- Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea)
Sadly, no sightings of any ospreys!
Where birds were lacking, their ancestral friends crawled up to the mark. With lizards, literally everywhere and some amazing insects including some dragonflies you could mistake for their larger fire breathing cousins. I recommend this hike it to anyone, spending time in Tenerife!
An Eden at best and a hiker’s paradise none the less!
3:30am the alarm wakes us. As we’re preparing to leave, Jody and I scowl at Halina for not coming with us. Pretty sure she injured her foot herself just so she wouldn’t have to come.
We jumped in the van and had a little nap for a few hours until we reached Nuwara Eliya, probably one of the most visually stunning places in Sri Lanka.
Jody was already staring out the window when I woke up. The views were astonishing, it was like we were in ‘Land Before Time’. There was a huge lake, with an island in the middle, surrounded by hills and jungle. The sun was just over the hills creating a misty scene and shimmering on the perfectly still water. Every bend in the road would show another spectacular waterfall. There is no way I can describe the beauty, you really have to see it for yourself.
There were seven of us all together making the climb. Adam’s Peak is one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated places of pilgrimage, standing at 2243m. Buddhists believe the depression at the summit is the Sri Pada, meaning sacred footprint, made by Buddha as he left the earth.
It’s a long way to the top, roughly 7km and around 5500 steps!
The first stretch was deceiving, the steps were spaces out and not steep, and we were thinking this wasn’t going to be so bad. It was only once we realised the climb hadn’t even started yet, that we thought otherwise. There was a large area for prayer and a huge white Dagoba, surrounded by beautiful mountains and waterfalls… and some more steps.
From now on the climb was relentless, step after step, twisting and turning up the mountain, and the sun high in the sky wasn’t helping all that much! As we progressed and the waterfalls and Dagoba got smaller and smaller in the distance, the views became much more impressive.
After a couple hours of continuous step by step climbing, everyone was feeling like their legs wouldn’t work much longer, and then we reached a sign which read ‘The ancients had to tread with utmost care this particular stretch of the pathway, depending heavily on chains and ropes. Even today, the path is steep and the journey arduous.’ They weren’t joking either!
The steps became so steep, you had to hold on to the handrail, hauling yourself up a few steps at a time. The handrail was actually a bit of a relief for your legs. Every corner we turned had to be the last one, but it wasn’t, it just kept going.
Sorry Jody, had to put this one in!
Finally we made it to the summit. It felt so good to sit down and let our legs get over the trauma they had just been through. The view from the top was………. a white wash of cloud! There was a small section where you could still see down but, mainly, there was cloud.
We each rang a bell, just once, to signify we had made it to the top. You ring once for each time you have made it to the top. Before long I guess I’ll be ringing it twice, as I know Halina wont climb unless she drags me along again.
After our well needed rest, some snacks, feeding the dogs and a chat with the security guard, who lives there for 6months at a time!! we began our descent.
The clouds obscuring our view from the top, now decided to empty upon us, making the climb down a tad precarious, the steep steps at the top were now wet and slippery too.
After maybe a thousand steps, everyone’s legs had turned to jelly, every step you could feel your legs shaking uncontrollably, ah well, only 4500 to go!
Roughly an hour and a half later, everyone had made it through the monsoon rains back to the van. Everyone was soaked to the bone and bodies still in jelly form, but everyone was happy and proud of the successful journey to the summit of the Sri Pada. Hard going but definitely worth it!
We piled in the van knowing that we had a long journey ahead, all tired and ready for bed. But as soon as we hit the dusty dirt road, I remembered why I was here. What can only be described as feelings of happiness filed me. The time that we have spent here in the village of Werageila has been nothing but happy memories, even when dripping with sweat, working under the mid day sun, working alongside these incredible people keeps a continuous smile upon your face.
After high fives from all of our children friends and a lovely warm welcome from Deepika, I sat down and played a much missed game of snakes and ladders with my ‘nangi’s’ (little sisters) Sanduni and Sandeli. A gentleman arrives at the house and Deepika rushes to introduce us to her husband, Ruwan Dissanayaka. He works in Colombo prison, and comes home every few weeks to see his family. It was great to finally meet the man of this house. We were brought a cup of Deepika’s tea, and I watched everyones faces as they took their first sip and realised that there was more sugar in the cup than tea! I love it!
As we sit on the porch, playing games with the children, villagers stop by every so often to say hello and ask if I have any photos of them for them. Luckily, I was well prepared and had photos printed of each farmer and family we had met. I must be known as the ‘photo lady’. I see it as a small thank you to each of them for their welcoming of us and their time.
Back at the MEF, every Monday we have Sinhala lessons with Sriyani. Now Sinhala, with its extremely long words and 42 letters, is not the easiest language to learn, but I was very pleased to impress my mahout by saying ‘mama Habarana yanowa, mama sikurada enawa’ meaning ‘I am going to Habarana, I am coming back on Friday’. I thought I would try practising some of my new words and phrases on the children. All of the children here, although sometimes shy, speak very good English. After a few giggles at my probably funny attempts, Mihiri and Sunduni correct my pronunciation and become my Sinhala teachers here in Werageila. Then the two little rascals arrive.
Mahinda’s youngest ‘Juty’ meaning ‘small’ and his sidekick Sahan. As they climb all over Stu, destroying his laptop, they speak to us in Sinhala like they have no idea we don’t understand. As photos of elephants come on screen, we pick up some words that they are saying. ‘Aliya’ meaning elephants and I was surprised to hear ‘etah’ meaning ‘tusker’, which I have not yet heard said in the 4 months that I have been here. I only know the word from researching the Sri Lankan elephant.
One of the masoners, Premadasa, who had been helping with Sirisena’s well, recalled that Wayne was a practising magician and without a word of English demanded he put on a show. ‘Podi magic’ we all chant, ‘podi’ meaning small, as it was a previous volunteer, Jesper, that was given the name ‘magic boy’. Their faces were puzzled as Wayne, trick after trick, baffled them.
I sat down and tried to make notes for this blog and the girls asked what I am always writing. I explained that I am writing a diary of my time here and the work that we are doing, and I explained that they are all in it. I got out my laptop and showed them a previously completed blog and start to read it to them. Mihiri takes over and practises her English. They were all happy to see photos of themselves and I explained that these blogs are read by people in England and they were all very excited to hear this. As my screensaver of elephants starts, I decide to explain about the MEF, about the charity providing a home to many captive elephants. I wonder if they have ever seen people so close to elephants or if this is something completely new to them. Suddenly, the most beautiful music fills the house and all of the children run to see John, who like the pied piper lured them all in with his melody.
After a delicious meal of rice, dahl and fresh fish we sat down and discussed a filming plan. This week we aim to collect the final footage or our human-elephant conflict (HEC) film, a documentary introducing the HEC and what we are doing to help reduce it.
In order to get as much footage as possible, to use in the human-elephant conflict film, we decided to retrace our steps with the camera crew, Chris and Stu, and visit all the things of interest that we had previously seen and explore a bit further looking for evidence of elephants. Setting off from the house, we started walking through the village heading out towards the farmland. The smell of onions filled the air, as almost every household had a porch full of onions. During the dry season here, many farmers make their income through growing onions, and now was harvest time. Having harvested them all from the fields, they had to prepare them for market. One of the most amazing things about the people of this village, is how everybody helps everybody. One day, a crowd of people will head out to help one family harvest their crops, then the next day, they will all head out to help another. The people of Sri Lanka are very kind hearted, but this good willed nature is unique to these small farming villages. Podi explains that even in Kegalle, where the MEF is based, if he needed help on his land, he would have to pay someone. The smiling faces of these kind, hardworking women, the colours of their floral sarongs, the smell of onions, set a beautiful scene.
They thanked us again, telling us that these were the onions that we had helped them plant at the start of the season. These farmers have to invest around 70,000R to grow onions, and at the end of the season, they sell them in Dambulla for around 40R (20p) per kilo. Millawana, a farmer here that we previously spoke to, told us that at the end of his onion harvest he hope to have made around 300,000R.
Saying goodbye to the onion ladies, we carried on down the road. On the side of the road, the bushes had been burnt away, probably to increase vigilance for safety, by making it easier to see a rogue elephant that has wandered to close to the village. In the ashes we saw an elephants footprint. This must have been recent, probably made the night before, as the ashes would have been moved by wind etc. The height to an elephants shoulder is 2 times the circumference of the footprint. This was a big elephant. Seeing evidence of elephants in the centre of the village like this, amongst peoples homes, shops and the village school, is a reminder of how vital it is for us to help this community defend themselves and their land from elephants, and in turn help conserve the Sri Lankan elephant.
As we head out of the village and into the farmland, we meet Swijerathna, a local farmer here, tending to his onions. He tells us that a couple days before, on the 10th, 8 elephants had wandered onto his land. He shone his torch at them and they changed direction, so only crossed the edge of his land rather than walking right through the middle of his crops. He shows us the damage that they had caused.
Elephants down eat these onions, but through crossing his land, had trampled his onions just 10 days before he was due to harvest them. The onions that had been trampled are unsalvageable and he will be unable to sell them.
From this conflict, he lost 2500R worth of onions, for which he will get no compensation. Our volunteers will be staying with these farmers in their treehouses at night, to monitor the elephants and get an overview of the situation here. But, the key to any successful conservation project, is working with the community and getting their involvement. We bought some small diaries to give out to farmers for them to record elephant data for us. We asked him, if elephants came to his land, if he could write down in this diary the date and number of elephants. This way, we can start to collect data from the farmers and get to see how often, how many elephants are in what area. He was very happy for our interest and offer of long term help. We then took a GPS reading of his treehouse and the border of his land, which we intend to do with each farmer, enabling us to map out each farmers land, so when we get data from these farmers, we can map where the elephants frequently visit.
We carried on down the dusty road further out onto the farm land, nearing the jungle border. On route, Podi points out more elephant evidence, alongside the balls of dung and footprints, which are often seen here.
He points out some trees that had been pulled down by elephants so that they can reach the leaves. He then shows us a small patch of dried mud on a tree, from where an elephant would have rubbed up against. He is well trained to spotting these subtle signs of these giant creatures.
We were heading out towards the elephant bones, that we were taken to see by Sandith on our first field trip to this area. Seeing the elephants bones scattered in the shade of the tree, brought back the scary realisation of the scale of the problem we are facing here. This is the remains of an elephant that had been killed. Years ago, someone had decided to take matters into their own hands, and defend themselves and/or their land from a rogue wild elephant, even though it is illegal to kill an elephant here in Sri Lanka.Human-elephant conflicts in Sri Lanka kill 200 elephants and 48 people in 2011 (Sri Lanka Department of Forest Conservation). This is exactly what we are here to prevent.
We then headed back to Deepika’s for lunch, and a much needed cold drink, after our morning out exploring. After food, and a small break whilst the camera crew logged their footage, we headed back out to the fields for some more filming.
We wanted to get some shots of treehouses, so we ventured to Siripala’s treehouse, overlooking the lake, very stunning location. Chris and Stu clambered up the ladder to the top to get some shoots of the view from within.
One of the shots that we wanted for the film, was a farmer walking away at the end of his day, and climbing up into his treehouse for the night. Podi tracked us down a farmer, who was happy to be in our documentary, and we filmed him entering his tree house. We then needed a timelapse of the treehouse as the evening sky turned to dusk and then dark. This did mean that we had to sit in a field for a couple hours, but in a setting as incredible as this, with good company, it was very enjoyable.
As we discussed some of the wildlife we had seen on route, such as a red headed lizard, a tortoise, a peacock and a snake, one of the farmers pointed out the birds that we flying above us. The farmers say that when swallows fly low, rain is on the way. This is what they have all been waiting for. It has not rained here in Werageila for around 6 months, and life has been very difficult for this community. Now is the hardest time for them, as many of the lakes here have dried up. For us, coming up every few weeks, it is easy to see the water levels dropping. The rains are due in October, and it couldn’t come soon enough. They tell us how beautiful this land is during the rainy season. I am very happy that I will be here to see it, as to me, it is beautiful enough already.
On our last day here, we decided to go and help the people of the village with their onion harvest, so again, back out to the fields we headed. We found a group of women, and joined them in sitting amongst the onions. It was certainly much easier harvesting the onions than planting them! Pulling them up, many at a time, soon enough we were surrounded by piles of freshly harvested onions. The women were very thankful and again, told us that we had helped plant them, and now harvest them, they blessed us. It doesn’t even feel like long ago that we were here planting the tiny onion shoots, and now, at the end of the season, they are full grown, and very tasty!
We saw Mahinda working on his land nearby, so we popped over and asked if he had time to take a break and talk to us. He was more than happy, and invited us into his hut. He tells us about his life as a farmer, his daily work, his family and his troubles from elephants. He again, reiterates how difficult it is to be a farmer here during the dry season. He is looking forward to the rains of October.
Back at the house, we spot Piyadasa, another farmer who lives across the road from our host family. We pop over to see if he has the time to talk to us. He is currently growing onions, but also works as a mechanic for bicycles. He also recently lost about 30-40 kilos of onions due to elephant damage.
We gave him a data diary and asked for his help in monitoring these elephants. The talk was cut short by the little rascals, Sahan and Sunil, running over and climbing all over us!
Back at the house, we decided it was time to interview Podi. He has been absolutely brilliant here, and he has so much knowledge of the area as has been working for the MEF for around 30 years. We asked him to tell us everything he knows about the human-elephant conflict and what our goals are here in Werageila. The answers couldn’t have been more perfect.
He explained how he first came to Weragiela with Sandith’s father, Sam Samarasinghe, in 1979. They started talking with farmers and decided to try and help them defend their land from elephants by giving them bells. Since then, Sam passed away, and the charity MEF was founded. Now, with the help of AWF, the MEF are able to further this work by having a permanent research base there and can put in place long term sustainable strategies to reduce conflicts. Podi’s talk was truly inspirational.
The next few weeks, we will be focusing on strategies we wish to help put in place here, in particular, certain crops that we can plant in buffer zones around the farmers crop land, that are unpalatable to elephants, so act as an elephant deterrent.
Goodbyes, are as hard as ever. But now being able to say ‘passe hamuwemu’, meaning ‘see you later’ definitely made things easier.
We formed a line for poo passing and what should have been a not very exciting job turned into a really fun morning due to the fantastic crowd of fun volunteers we have here! I am not very good at catching, but when only wearing one glove and someone is throwing poo at you, I didn’t miss one!
With the whole team of us working together, within no time the bank was clear! Here at the MEF, we work hard and we play hard! In true MEF style, a water fight broke out in the river! Not one volunteer got away dry! At least we didn’t then need to shower!!! (joke)
The feeling one gets when about to climb a 12,200 foot volcano rising from a 30mile wide volcanic crater, is one of angst, fear, and utter ‘I-can’t-effing-wait’ness. As we drove the short distance from Arona along the windy bends of the base of the National Park at 9.30pm, it was only until ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC/DC came blasting through the speakers that we doubted the idea of climbing this beast at night, in probably not enough clothing, and armed with only chocolate fingers, cheese sandwiches and a flask of champagne. Nevertheless, we started the trek with positivity and a sense of enthusiasm, making it to the summit just in time for the beautiful sunrise which we welcomed with smiles and countless photos from the GoPro which I set on time-lapse mode on a rock nearby.
The beautiful curve of the horizon with the beaming glow from the sun as it slowly rises from its sleep, gives you the realisation how powerful and breathtaking the world is from a different angle.
The view from Teide puts all my other mountain experiences to shame. With a constant variation in the array of colours gleaming from the horizon, it’s an experience definitely worth the walk up.
Click on the link for a TimeLapse video I took at the top. Teide Summit Timelapse
During enrichment afternoons the elephants are given a chance to interact with each other. This week there have been some very lovely moments between them that I have been lucky enough to catch on camera.
A few days ago, whilst the mahouts were all posing for a photograph in their new tshirts, Lakshmi and Raja were in the river together. We turned around to see that Lakshmi had approached Raja and was stroking his face and tusks with her trunk. It was as if to say ‘hey, havent seen you face in a while, how ya doin?’. Raja has recently come out of ‘musth’ (a period of increased testosterone, that can make them aggressive), so has been kept at a distance from the group for the past month or so. So this moment was seen to us as a bit of a reunion for the two of them.
It is well know here at the MEF that Pooja and Rani have a close friendship. Today during enrichment, they shared a moment together socialising, rubbing trunks and each other faces in kind, affectionate gestures.
For all at the MEF, these moments are precious and are a snippet of what their lives will be, once we have our dream elephant enclosure, the FREEDOM FENCE. It will be incredible to witness them sharing more free time, to socialise, play and interact together. The enclosure will give the elephants here a completely new and better life.
To help make this dream a reality, please join many hard working volunteers and people dedicated to making a difference to the lives of these elephants, in donating to our justgiving page: http://www.justgiving.com/AWF-Elephant-Enclosure-2012
For more information on the elephant enclosure please see: http://www.millenniumelephantfoundation.com/projects/enclosure/
Thank you all for your support.
The past couple of months I have spent here in Sri Lanka, has opened my eyes. The people here are incredible people. Many of them live in mud huts, walk miles everyday and work long hours under the hot sun to feed their families. Many of them have experienced loss, that we may not ever come to understand. Through times of war and the tsunami disaster, many people here in Sri Lanka have lost their homes, families, friends, and have seen things that we can’t even imagine. But yet, I have never witnessed such a happiness within people as I have here, surrounded by smiles, kindness and gratitude. People that will invite you into their homes, feed you, care for you, and in return, only wish to see you happy. Just last week, a local fisherman brought us a delicious meal of freshly caught fish that his wife had so kindly cooked for us. And all he wanted was to return to his wife and when she asks, be able to say ‘yes, they were happy’.
Coming from what now seems like another world, it is this simple, grateful being, that seems so fragile and rare. Experiencing life here, amongst these incredible people has opened my eyes to, not so much a new way of life, but one so easily forgotten when caught up in the circus of modern society. It has reminded me to be thankful. Thankful for all the simple things in life. The sun rising each morning, a smile from a stranger, the sound of laughter, tears of joy, the closeness of a friend, the love of your family, an answered prayer.It is these simple things that grant you happiness. Life is what you make it. Make Yours Extraordinary!
Peace and Hello elephant loving community! This is Leiah Rasmussen reporting on my most recently completed project, the harmony of elephants mural. It was difficult at first sketching the elephant shapes and flower pedals, but once I started painting the rest came naturally.
I feel the urge to add more to the piece but I know if I do the details could be asthetically overbearing. I hope this piece interests and invites tourist’s curiosity and brings harmony amongst the mahouts, volunteers, employees, and of course elephants.