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!
Lewis Gospel – AWF Volunteer Co-ordinator, Tenerife.
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.
The river Kelani runs through the village of Kithulgala. We have been white water rafting twice now, its awesome!
The journey to the starting point is funny too, 6 people in a tuktuk with the raft on top!
The first time we went, the water level was high and the white water pretty strong, the second time we went we were told they have closed off the dam upstream and the water level was much lower.
The journey lasts between an hour and an hour and a half, paddling downstream, charging through the rapids, and trying your best not to get thrown out of the boat! The scenery is unbelievable, traveling down the river through thick jungle, surrounded by misty mountains, with animals all around, over hanging trees. It really was beautiful.
You had to be careful when looking around and taking in the wonderful scenery though because as soon as someone realised you weren’t paying attention you got pushed off the boat!
The instructors enjoyed winding us up to, telling us things like there were crocodiles in the river, and that the cable that went across the river at boat level was an electricity cable and that we weren’t allowed to touch it! Which was hilarious, as we neared it he shouted get down, everyone dived into the raft as he casually lifted it with his oar and laughed to himself!
The first time rafting, when the water level was higher, the rapids were a lot more fierce and John and Niclas fell out of the raft! The second time however, when the level was a lot lower, there were quite a few section where the water was lower than some of the rocks and the raft got stuck. The instructor had to get out on numerous occasions to free the raft to carry on, which was entertaining in itself!
The other boat actually got caught under one of the heavy rapids, filled up with water, and everyone had to abandon ship while their instructor tried to free the raft. We came along shortly after, wedged ourselves against some rocks so that our instructor could go and lend him a hand. Eventually after pretty much getting right underneath the raft they finally managed to get it free.
Both times, on the last stretch of river we all jumped out and floated down the river. The first time was amazing, how often do you get to float down a river in the middle of the jungle whilst chatting to your friends after you’ve been white water rafting?! And as if that wasn’t good enough, it then began to rain, everyone was in agreement, that it was one of the most amazing experiences they had ever had.
Next time we are going to try night rafting, can’t wait!
Climate Change could Kill 100 Million
More than 100 million people will die and global economic growth will be cut by 3.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 if the world fails to tackle climate change.
Widening of road to Sinhagad affects several rare, endangered plant species
Botanists have said that widening of the road to Sinhagad is affecting the existence of many rare and endangered plant species. Sinhagad has about 500 species of flowering plants, of which around 72 are endemic to the area.
The botanists have also underlined the need to conduct a study to fix the carrying capacity of this place and said that there should be scientific study before further widening of the road to ensure that the potential habitat of plant species is not destroyed.
Forest destruction leads to more floods in temperate regions
Keeping forests standing would lessen both the number and size of spring floods in temperate regions, according to a new study in Water Resources Research, by slowing seasonal snow melts. In deforested areas, snow melts faster due to a lack of shade causing at least twice as many, and potentially up to four times as many, flood events. The new research highlights a largely unknown ecosystem service provided by temperate forests: flood mitigation.
Rarest Gorillas lose half their habitat in 20 years
Cross River gorillas and eastern gorillas lost more than half their habitat since the early 1990s due to deforestation, logging, and other human activities, finds a comprehensive new assessment across great apes’ range in West and Central Africa.
All of the world’s great apes are of conservation concern, according to the IUCN Red List. More broadly, 24 of the world’s 25 species of apes, are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. The only species that isn’t? Humans.
Laos last chance to save last 6 River Dolphins
Gland, Switzerland – A tiny population of six river dolphins, isolated in a deep pool in the Mekong River on the border between Laos and Cambodia, will not survive long unless Laos takes immediate action to ban gillnet fishing in the dolphin’s range on their side of the border, warns WWF.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Destroyed by Crown of Thorns
Revelations that chemical fertiliser pollution is driving the significant and ongoing loss of coral on the Great Barrier Reef highlights the urgent need for intervention by the Australian and Queensland Governments, WWF-Australia said today.
Killer whales captured for shows in Russia
Two killer whales were caught in August in the western part of the Okhotsk Sea opposite the island of Reineke. One whale died or, in another version, was released. The second was transported to Vladivostok and is now in the dolphinarium TINRO center near Nakhodka. According to our sources, the killer whale are planning to sell abroad.”
Sharks in Jeopardy
Shark populations worldwide are crashing due to over fishing and the ever increasing demands for shark fins.
Waste Food Waste Water
Global water resources are discussed at a conference in Stockholm. Rsearch has shown that if you waste food, consequently water is wasted. Stockhold International Water Institute state that 40% of food purchased is thrown away.
Four Leapards a Week Enter India’s Illegal Wildlife Trade
At least four leopards have been poached and their body parts entered into illegal wildlife trade every week for at least 10 years in India, according to TRAFFIC’s latest study “Illuminating the Blind Spot: A study on illegal trade in leopard parts in India” launched today by Dr Divyabhanusinh Chavda, President, WWF-India.
Climate Change and Seafood Supply
Developing countries that rely on nourishment from the oceans will soon find their sources of food and way of life threatened.
SHELL has been told it must accept the consequences of it’s reckless drilling and plans for oil drilling in the arctic.
Many of our friends that have visited Sri Lanka have told us that a ‘must do’ is to play caroom. Caroom is a typical Sri Lankan game played by all the locals. So, we bought a caroom board, having no idea how to play.
As soon as we got the board out here at MEF, Chandana (one of our mahouts), came running over to teach us how to play. It is so much fun!!!
We play it now almost every night! However, when on a team with a Sri Lankan you have to learn to laugh at the disappointing looks they give you every time you miss! Ha!
No better way to spend an afternoon, than sitting in the sunshine overlooking the elephants beating the mahouts at their own game!
We had a volunteer so kindly buy an ankle strap for Rani and Raja, a while back. Having found that the elephants and mahouts like and get on with them, critical, we started fundraising for more. We now, thanks to many of our kind hearted volunteers, have enough funds for one for each elephants front and back leg. Awesome!
We are introducing these ankle straps for many reasons. When males go into musth, a period of increased testosterone, in which they become very aggressive, they currently (due to us having no musth pens here yet, something we are working towards) are kept up in their beds for this time. These males often pull against their chains, causing scarring of their hind legs. These ankle straps are designed to prevent this. Made of a strong canvas, they do not rub or damage the elephants skin when pulled against. Another benefit of these straps is the protection from lightening. If lightening is to strike a tree, it can pass through the chain to the elephant. Since we have been here (4 months), we have heard of 2 elephants that this has happened to in Sri Lanka. Many people, including myself, do not like to see the elephants on chains. We, associate chains with shackles, imprisonment. Unfortunately, without an enclosure here, there is no choice. In an ideal world, these elephants would be wild and free, but for these captive elephants, this is not the case, and with chains being one of the only materials strong enough to restrain an elephant, they are part of their lives, they are used to them, and they do not cause them any harm. The elephants even help the mahouts put them on in the morning! So, as well as the ankle straps benefiting the elephants, they also benefit us, as it helps us understand that they are more of a restraint and safety measure, than a shackle. Soon, each of the elephants here will have one on their back leg and one on their front leg.
In time, with the enclosure, the lives of these captive elephants will be completely different. But until then, this is a small something that we can do to make a difference.
It was Wayne and myself (Halina), that paid for Bandara’s ankle strap. Without having favourites, we both have a soft spot for our old man looking Bandara. He looks very happy with his new gift.
The mahouts are very happy with their elephants new anklets. Above is Nuan showing off his matching anklet that I bought him!
A slightly shorter week to be had in Habarana this week, as on Monday we had a small celebration for Pooja’s birthday. All the volunteers gathered as Pooja smashed apart her giant birthday cake to get to the tasty fruit hidden inside, it was a great afternoon.
We headed off to Habarana late in the afternoon. After driving for about an hour along the windy and very bumpy road from Randeniya, we reached a sign in the middle of the road, which translated as ‘road closed’! We thought this was going to add extra hours onto the journey, but thankfully, it was only an extra ten minutes.
Upon arrival we were greeted with friendly smiles, a few high fives and a cup of Deepika’s amazing sugary tea. We then showed the new volunteers around and explained a bit about what we were doing in the area, and shortly after, tucked into a delicious traditional meal of rice, fresh fish from the lake, sambol, dahl, poppadoms and chopped passionfruit leaf.
Early on Tuesday morning, right on schedule, Peeder turned up on his bicycle with fresh vegetables for sale. We asked if he would mind us asking a few questions. Peeder is eighty years old and was a carpenter most of his life, but is now unable to do such heavy work, so supports his family through farming. He sells his crops in two villages and earns around 300-400 rupees per day, and always sells out.
We asked Podi about Peeder working at eighty, and whether this was a common occurrence, he said that in Sri Lanka, a lot of men enjoy working and like to work until they are no longer able to do so.
You get to see a lot of things in Sri Lanka that you don’t see in the Western world, like on the back of Peeder’s bicycle, an old style set of scales to weigh the vegetables. Everything is electronic for us these days, but something about seeing an eighty year old man, on a bicycle, with a small amount of fresh vegetables and these old scales, leading such a simple but happy life, really made me smile.
Later in the morning, Podi had arranged for the volunteers to lend a helping hand at the local temple. We arrived to find a group of friendly Sri Lankans rebuilding the steps leading up to this beautiful sacred site. We asked how we could help and formed a line from top to bottom and helped them move a pile of bricks to where they needed them, and remove all the unwanted stones. It felt good to work along side these locals and with all of us lending a helpful hand, the place was a lot tidier in no time.
They were very grateful for our help and wished us a long life. It is moments like this, simply helping people, that remind us all what this project is all about!
At lunch time we sat and taught Sanduni and Sandeli how to play the new game we had bought for them, snakes and ladders! They really enjoyed the game and it was great to see their reactions to going down the snakes and the sheer excitement of going up a ladder. We also encouraged them to count in English and taught them the words ‘up, down, snake and ladder’ too. The game was obviously a hit as we saw them playing it most of the day and also teaching their friends how to play.
After lunch a few of the local children came round for an English lesson, always great fun, the children here have so much energy and enthusiasm, as well as beaming smiles! It seems they enjoy learning from us, as much as we enjoy teaching them.
Today, we started teaching times, a lot easier said than done. It is not as simple as we first thought, but we gave it a shot. You forget it’s not simply a case of one, two, three, four… you have to learn past and to; quarter past, half past and quarter to; five past, twenty past, ten to, etc. Tricky! We had some posters with different objects on and asked the children to name them, sat in a circle and played the memory game and then finished with lots of games, and of course, hide and seek.
That evening, whilst Halina and I were writing up a few notes from the day, we overheard Sanduni and Sandeli playing snakes and ladders in the next room, and they were not only counting in English, but every time they went down a snake, we heard them say ‘down, down, down’, very sweet, and great that they are learning.
The second day started with a very cultural experience. We spent the morning with Mahinda, on his land, where he was giving thanks to the God Ganesh, for protecting him and his land through the season.
We were told that farmers, at the start of the season, before they plants their crops, they pray to God and ask that he help and protect their land, from many things, including elephants. They hang a coconut at the start of the season and promise to give it to the Gods after the harvest.
So today, we were giving thanks to God Ganesh, as Mahinda had a successful year. Millawana, an elder member of the village was there to front the ceremony. They had laid out a white sheet, which had five sets of leaves, fruit and burning incense. We all sat around and watched everything being set up. Mahinda asked me if I wanted to help him by grating some coconut, of course I complied and took my seat on, what can only be described as, a wooden stool with a big scary spiky arm sticking out the front. I used this to grate a couple coconuts, then Grant took over and did a few too.
In a huge pot on the fire, he then mixed rice and the coconut with banana and sugar, which they then served onto banana leaves and placed in front of the Gods as an offering. Millawana then took a piece of wood from the fire and sprinkled a powder over the smouldering end of the stick and then wafted it above everything on the white sheet. The smell was incredible!
After giving thanks to the Gods and offering them all that was on the sheet, Millawana picked up half a coconut shell with a yellow liquid in, and blessed everyone in turn. Then Mahinda took the coconut that he had left on his land at the start of the season, removed the outer husk and took the center, he closed his eyes and spoke a few soft words. He then took the coconut high in the air and threw down hard, smashing the coconut to pieces over a rock on the ground, giving to God Ganesh as he had promised at the start of the season.
We were then served some of the coconut rice ourselves on a banana leaf, which was sweet and delicious. We all just about managed to eat the huge portions we were given, only to have our leaves refilled with an equally huge portion! Needless to say, none of us needed lunch today!
As volunteers working closely with this community, we are privileged and very lucky to experience these beautiful cultural events, that many people will never get the chance to see.
We asked if they enjoyed making them, to which they all replied yes, they all weave in their spare time. This must be the case because they were looking at us, not their hands, most of the time we were talking. We asked if we could come back and buy a few of each item and sell them in the MEF shop, and when they sold come back and buy some more? Of course, only if they wanted to, to which they all smiled and said yes, they would love to.
In the afternoon, the volunteers went off to Minneriya national park to see the wild elephants and took three of the local children along, we would love to go every time, but as we are volunteers ourselves we can’t really afford to go every two weeks! As much as we want to!
Instead, Halina and I spent the afternoon with a few children, playing games and making friendship bracelets. I’m pretty sure by the end of the day, every child in the village and every volunteer had a new pink and black bracelet.
Around 5 o’clock, Sumana, one of the ladies weaving the baskets earlier, came around to show us how to weave. Firstly, she took the leaves and passed them through a block of wood with a gap and sharp piece of metal, to cut the leaves into equal strips. Then, in a matter of seconds, placed a few leaves alternately on the ground, lifted some ends, bent some leaves and had the base of what was to become a bag. It would have taken me a week to figure out how to do it!
Today was also Sandeli’s birthday, 9 years old. We bought her a cake and all sang happy birthday. Sandeli then started to cut the cake, only problem was, the first slice was pretty much a quarter of the entire cake, so mum had to take over and we all enjoyed a nice bit of cake. One of the volunteers also bought three small water pistols for the children, which proved rather interesting on day 3!
That night Podi had arranged for the volunteers to stay in treehouses on the farmlands, in the jungle. We all jumped on board the trailer, driven by what looked like half a tractor, lit only by torchlight, and headed out into the jungle. We jumped off the trailer and navigated our way through many paddy fields until we found the first treehouse. After they had settled in for the night, we headed over to the second treehouse, where Grant and Caitlin would be staying.
Podi told us, when climbing the ladders to the treehouse, to go slowly and hold the sides of the ladder, rather than the rungs. Being over 6 feet tall, carrying a big backpack and rushing to the top of the ladder with excitement, it was no wonder that a couple of the rungs slid down as Grant ascended! Luckily there was no damage, just a bit of movement, and Grant was fine. Little bit scary but quite funny! We headed back to the trailer and back to the house. The sky was filled with stars, a perfect night for sleeping in a treehouse.
The volunteers all said they really enjoyed their stay in the treehouse, a great experience. That night when they were in the treehouses, Halina and I heard many bats making quite a racket in the tree across the road, apparently there were hundreds having a feast right above Jodi and Kerri, making just as much noise!
That morning we headed out to the farmland to help build a new treehouse, but when we got to the land, there was no farmer in sight. So instead, we took the volunteers on a bit of a tour around the farmland and the edge of the jungle to explain our ideas an show where the elephant corridors were.
We saw elephant dung only a few days old, broken branches possibly from the night before and some huge elephant foot prints on the farmland, proving once again how very real the human-elephant conflict is, in this village.
On our way back, in the distance, we saw Sandu, Sanduni and Sandeli running through the fields and into the water, they were collecting lotus leaves for our evening meal.
Maybe the water pistols we bought wasn’t the best idea, as when we got back to the house we were ambushed by Sanduni and Sandeli, on several occasions!
They bought over a strange green thing, which they broke apart and squeezed out a few seeds, which tasted lovely. They told us it was also from the lotus flower.
Finally the volunteers had had just about enough of being attacked by water pistols and started to fight back. More children started to turn up and join in, and within minutes there was a full blown water fight going on. The children were filling up bowls and bottles, Sandu was even using the hosepipe! Ten minutes and lots of soaking people later, it dawned on us that it hadn’t rained here in Habarana for 6 months, as soon as we realised this we all stopped and went to apologise to Deepika for the waste of water, to which she replied not to worry, it was fine, and she was so happy the kids were all having so much fun. Just in case we weren’t sure if she was being honest, she started spraying us with the hose too! A very entertaining afternoon!
Lunch today, was served on a lotus leaf. Not only did it look amazing, but it is said that it adds a sweet flavour to your food. It was delicious!
After lunch I sat down with Sanduni for half an hour and we switched roles, I got out my notebook and we translated lots of words. For being only twelve years old, her English is outstanding, much better than my Sinhala! I learnt some larger numbers, colours, emotions, family members and some words to do with the weather. Hopefully, both my Sinhala and Sanduni’s English will improve if we do this each time we visit. She would make a good teacher!
Later in the afternoon we went down the road to interview Siripala, however, he was not home. Across the way, was Millawana, the man who led the ceremony on Mahinda’s land, he was also another person we wanted to have a chat to, so Podi asked if he would mind us asking a few questions. We headed down a track next to one of the shops for a bit of shelter from the wind, and set up the camera and a lovely location looking out towards the jungle. Millawana was great to chat to, he had lots to say and had a big smile on his face the whole time.
The driver had come from MEF to pick us up, but just before we left Deepika had put out a delicious spread of tea and homemade cakes, which were amazing! A great send off after another great week.