Deepani Jayantha completed her course

Last month many of you chipped in to help cover a portion of travel expenses for Deepani Jayantha, Born Free’s country representative in Sri Lanka, to attend the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute course, “Conservation Conflict Resolution,” outside Washington, DC. Your support was beyond generous. The course concluded on Friday and I received this email from Deepani:

Greetings from Front Royal, Virginia! The course ended today. It was great!

It is such a great opportunity to come to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to attend the course, ‘Conservation Conflict Resolution’, which was conducted in collaboration with George Mason University. The intense 5-day course includes conflict analysis, theories of conciliation and mediation, identifying the third party neutral role and multi-stakeholder dialogue in conflict resolution. Role playing based on real life one-on-one conflict situations helps the participants to improve their skills of handling challenging issues. All 14 participants were from the American continents except for me, which made me feel special!

The most significant exercise of the course was discovering Bodhi-Lama in each participant and bringing him to life when interacting with other people every day. The Bodhi-Lama is a hypothetical character with all possible qualities of a genuine third party neutral.

With the course over, I plan to explore life in Virginia despite the difficult weather. The Appalachian Trail is inviting; sadly it is winter. It will be exciting for me to learn about the cultural history of Virginia at the museums in DC.

I am very grateful to all of Elephant Aid International supporters for your financial support. All the friends I made have been enormously helpful – thanks to all! What I learned in this course will invariably be helpful in handling multi-stakeholder dialogue in conservation of elephants in Sri Lanka.

Thanks again for your support,

A Gem in Sri Lanka

I realize that this entry is out of sequence but it deserves singular attention. While in Sri Lanka I was fortunate to meet up with a veterinarian named Deepani Jayantha. She develops and manages elephant-related projects for the Born Free Foundation in Sri Lanka. It was definitely my good fortune that Deepani was available to accompany me to several locations in Sri Lanka, including her Rathambalagama village project in Habegamuwa. This well-kept secret is a gem of a project, run expertly by Deepani, who throws her entire self into her projects.

Human-elephant conflict is growing in Sri Lanka and the challenges increase each day. In an effort to create solutions to the conflict, Deepani designed a project around a local village bordering the Udawalawe National Park, where wild elephants live and the Elephant Transit Home is located. Her goal was multi-layered: to educate villagers about elephant behavior, identify and plant crops elephants don’t like, improve human welfare at the local elementary level school and employ local people in positions that benefit the community, such as at the school library.

Deepani was instrumental in developing an innovative revenue-generating crop project for the village school, one acre of trellis growing passion fruit. The children plant and manage the crop, harvest the fruit and sell it, with all revenues going to their school fund. I was quite surprised to learn that the elephants don’t like passion fruit, because their wild counterparts at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee find it quite delicious.

Thanks to Deepani’s fierce commitment to conservation, her projects are totally green. Not being one to compromise, she defends an elephant’s need to live free in the forest. When humans present a problem for elephant welfare, Deepani looks for ways to alter human behavior instead of placing all need for change on the elephants.
With our shared passion for elephant welfare you can imagine the lively discussions we had. Of the greatest concern is human encroachment on the country’s national parks, the increased commercial use of elephants in festivals and religious events, general ignorance and greed that result in the poor welfare experienced by captive elephants and the pressure being put on the government to release captive elephants to the West.

With such a large number of orphaned calves living at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, zoos around the world are putting political pressure on Sri Lanka to release the elephants. What a serious disaster this would be, not only for the individual elephants who would be stripped of any future possibility of returning to the wild, but also for the dangerous precedent it would set. These baby elephants, both in Pinnewala and the Elephant Transit Home, need to be rehabilitated and released back to the wild in order to replenish the depleted population. Sending elephants off the Island will only push the population closer toward extinction. To ensure the viability and survival of the species, living in the wild must be seen as the only option.

Deepani walks the walk, living a frugal lifestyle by choice. She takes no resource for granted and lives unobtrusively with the garden lizards that grace her atrium, leaf-eating moneys that occupied the area before the neighborhood was built, civic cats that quietly scamper across her second story balcony and mongoose that disappear into the vegetation outside her gate. The local produce seller even knows to save browning bananas for Deepani to feed to the birds that find shelter in her garden. It was an honor to spend time discussing the trials facing wild elephants and the deplorable treatment of the captive ones. We may not have come up with all the solutions but spending time with a kindred spirit is always good for a battery recharge.

You can learn more about Deepani’s work here
Be sure to follow this dynamo. I have no doubt that she will be instrumental in bringing about great changes for the elephants and forest and village people in her beloved Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka condensed

Feb 19

I am on a plane leaving Sri Lanka with my head spinning and heart smiling. This gem of a country has its challenges when it comes to both wild and captive elephant management but the people I met during my short stay give me hope. Friendly and dynamic, the people I met are dedicated and hungry to succeed in their effort to create safe and healthy environments for elephants.

These past nine days have been well spent. Not a moment was wasted as guardians appeared at every turn to direct and assist me. Looking back, I realize how truly blessed I am. Many thanks to all of the kind and dedicated people who made my visit productive and memorable, especially on such short notice!

This visit was to be a simple fact-finding mission to experience first-hand the elephant situation in Sri Lanka. Prior to my visit I heard so much about the dwindling wild populations, crowded orphaned calf facilities and elephant/human conflict. Honestly, I knew little about Sri Lanka’s efforts to rehabilitate and release previously orphaned calves and to fence in a multi-thousand acre national park area for problem (crop raiding) bulls. Sri Lanka has many seriously progressive people working on elephant welfare.

Elephant culture in Sri Lanka is ancient; elephants are a part of everyday life for many, from community festivals when elephants are dressed in lavish costumes and paraded through the streets on chains, to the simple farmer who is in direct conflict with crop raiding “wild ones.” Like most other Asian countries, elephants are big business. They are used in festivals, at temples, in processions and in many other public venues. They are money makers. Unfortunately, traditions that involve financial gain can lead to corruption.

On the first day of my visit I went to the Colombo Zoo. It is a beautiful botanical garden, very well laid out, with lush vegetation and mature trees. With such obvious attention paid to the design of the zoo, I was surprised to find the elephants standing side-by-side under a shade structure, chained on two legs. It was a difficult sight to see in such contrast to the surrounding beauty.

Next I went to see the elephants at the Pinnewala orphanage. I was saddened to find so many elephants in a small barren area. Large males were kept beyond the public area, chained on two legs on concrete. All the others were in an open area, which offered no shade from the blazing sun, while tourists were invited to have their picture taken with them.

The following morning I visited the Millennium Foundation, just down the road from Pinnewala. It is a privately owned elephant facility that is currently home to several elephants. Most are not permanent residents and, when not on grounds, appear in pageants and at temples. There is a beautiful stream that runs through the property where the elephants are bathed daily. Tourists and volunteers help scrub the elephants and are allowed to ride them without a saddle. The grounds are gorgeous and elephants are kept in the shade, which was a nice change from the Pinnewala, but they still spend their lives in chains.

It was after meeting with the government vets, Dee from Born Free Foundation and National Park staff that I saw another side of elephant management. The government has two projects that stand out: the Elephant Transit Home and an elaborate bull fence area in one of the National Parks. These established projects, with their successes and challenges, create a model for wild elephant management.

The Elephant Transit Home is a brilliant project. Open to the public in the most minimal way, the ETH provides a home to orphaned calves calves until several individuals form a bonded group, at which time they are released and monitored in the national park. The extent of keeper interaction is restricted to when the calves are bottle-fed every three hours. Their days are spent in the forest and they are tied by one back leg with a rope overnight. It would be fabulous if the calves could be allowed to be untethered overnight but limited space requires that they be secured. It was heartbreaking to see so many orphans, but they appeared healthy and content with their circumstances.

Later we drove into the park and were fortunate to observe one of the released herds of orphans wallowing in a mud hole. This group is of particular interest because one of the females recently gave birth and is raising a healthy baby girl. This is definitely a model project with a happy ending.

I’d heard much about the Bull Pen, a 5500-acre area within a national park, enclosed with electric fence for “problem bulls.” We drove deep into the park to look at the fence. When I saw it I had to laugh, remembering when we were trying to build a Flora-proof fence.

Working systematically a few steps behind us, Flora would figure out how to dismantle anything we erected. It seems the Park’s bulls are taking the same approach. It is frustrating right now, but in the end the bulls will be instrumental in designing their own pen, one that can be used as a model in other national parks.

I was most impressed by many of the wildlife officers, vets, NGO representatives and others I met who appear united in the goal to keep wild elephants wild. I feel quite fortunate to be invited to collaborate with these dedicated men and women. My hope is that their progressive attitudes and current projects will bring Sri Lanka much deserved recognition and the confidence to effectively address the serious welfare needs of their captive elephants.

out in the field

I am in Sri Lanka, more fabulous experiences, elephant related of course. I realize my internet access will be slim to none over the next few days and want to wish Tarra a Happy 37th Birthday.

Namaste my sweet girl,