Category Archives: Human Elephant Conflict

The DWC: Treating a Wild Elephant in his Wild Home

One quick minute out of a day spent with the stellar team of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, as they responded to a call of a wild elephant needing veterinary intervention in the field. Tracking, moving the elephant into position with loud “elephant crackers”, darting, assessing, and then treating, these guys and the veterinary team are skill-in-action.

Competition for resources makes it hard to believe sometimes that wild elephants will still be here in the generations to come, and there is no simple solution. Many times it seems that there may be no solution at all… But still, there are those that stand up, rise up, and fight for what’s right, every single day, even when there is no guarantee that the effort will allow the elephants, and all non-human animals, to inhabit their rightful place on the planet. The time spent working beside those who continue to believe in the rights of the wild ones is sometimes all that heaven will allow, and sometimes, it is all that is needed to carry on.


Turning Conflict into Coexistence

We live and work in the rice-farming villages of rural Sri Lanka. Every day we’re exposed to all sides of all of the stories and only one thing is perfectly clear: that the situation is getting worse for both elephants and people (2019 was the deadliest year on record since 1948), and that to turn this conflict into coexistence will require a holistic way of thinking/acting/moving forward.

Just yesterday we were driving down the main road that separates the Knuckles Mountains from the paddy fields to see 2 wild elephants bathing in the tank (reservoir) in the middle of the afternoon. Although they were beautiful, seeing them at that time of day and their proximity to the soon-to-be-harvested rice was unsettling, for the safety of both families of elephants and families of people.

In the midst of it all, we gather a momentum of hope when we hear those living among these majestic animals say: “The animals seem to appreciate a kindly touch. In the middle of his paddy, Lalith and his neighbours demonstrate their technique, passed down for generations. They sing to the animals: “Go away, little babies, go away. But once we’ve gathered the harvest, anything we leave is yours.” How on earth, Banyan asks, can that work? It just does, Lalith replies. After all, he adds, ‘We’re still here, and so are the elephants.”

This final quote is taken from a recent article published in The Economist. You can access the full article here.


Six Hours

Six Hours. In less than 6 hours yesterday, I was lucky enough to be working alongside very diverse people dedicated to changing stories of escalating conflict into new stories of compassionate coexistence. Some of the stories were obvious. Some were very subtle and you had to pay close attention to how they were Change Makers too.

Along with my tiny-but-mighty team of Supun Priyankara Herath and Sarath Kumara, the morning was for the elephants and the villagers, working for peace with DWC’s (Department of Wildlife Conservation) Mahinda Wijayasinghe and Sanjeewa Wikrama, the Wasagamuwa Park Warden, and my favorite monk of the Weheragala village (those larger stories coming soon, still sorting photos and facts).

The afternoon was for the street dogs, the children who were curious about how to change a life, the woman who saw a chance to change her dog’s life and came running up the road, and one little boy who cannot walk or talk or sit up or chew his food or hold a toy and yet can chortle and laugh alongside his un-complaining widowed mother. I’ve been working on writing proper stories about so many animals and people here, to tell the true stories of love. Oh for that window of time to do them justice!

Every one of these people believes in the power of being willing to walk the path of Compassionate Action, even when the steps are not always clear. We might not speak the same verbal language, but we speak the same language of the Heart…


Grazing in Rubbish

With wild elephants foraging for food in smoldering trash heaps filled with endless plastic, broken bottles, batteries, etc, we witness a system so broken that even working to keep elephants in the wild is conserving an unacceptably small piece of an unsustainable future. If there is no wild left, then “saving elephants” forces them into a different sort of captivity—not one of physical chains perhaps, but captive to a world where their rightful home has been stolen and their identity forever lost.

Fragmentation (of wilderness and of public policy) is adding to the crisis of trying to keep wild elephants wild in Sri Lanka.

Documentation of the individual and family elephants that feed at this open dump has begun, with the research going to those who can best support policy change. It’s not too late, but there’s no time to lose.


Sri Lankan Civilians Receive shotguns to “control” the elephant issue

2019 was the deadliest year for elephants since Sri Lanka’s Independence in 1948, with over 350 elephants losing their lives, most at the hands of humans…350+, forever gone, lineages disrupted, and more yet to come…

And now, somehow one of the “solutions” appears to be 2000 civilians receiving shotguns to “control” the issue. Not only are they an endangered species and deserve a more thoughtful response simply by being what they are, but if the discussion must turn to money (and it always, always does), then looking at the amount of money wild elephants generate through safaris and tourism in this small island nation surely must give those overseeing the situation some pause…

The complexity of the issue is easy to ignore in our anger. First reactions can fly about on wings of hatred and overwhelm as the seemingly never-ending story of conflict, greed, ill-advised farm placements, overpopulation, etc, subsumes the greater issue—that this, that ALL of this, is about relationships and what we value as a species…

Everything is about relationship– to the land, to the animals, to one another, to money, to the complex/interwoven systems that have somehow trickled down to create such desperation.

There are no answers at this time. For those of us that live in rural areas, every night we hear elephant “crackers” (like fireworks) or gunshots, as small-family farms attempt to bring their rice to harvest. I cannot speak for the huge farms and banana plantations down south, where corporate export $$$ is making the decisions, I’m only able to share that in this area the impoverished do not want to kill the elephants, they only want to feed their family. They are not land-grabbers, as most of them have farmed here for generations, so attacking them is popular, but not helpful.

With that said, we are 100% against this proposal of arming civilians with shotguns. Violence begets violence, and once these extraordinary animals are gone, they are gone forever. End of story.


Seeing Elephants at Sunset

Yesterday’s gift was breathing with wild elephant families at sunset. A surreal experience and an exquisite reminder of what so many of us are fighting for.

Nothing in conservation is what it seems—there are the fights you expect and the ones you don’t. There are the conflicts that you can understand (even when you can’t always resolve them), and the conflicts that you can barely dream might have a resolution in them.

To those who don’t really know me, it may seem like my work is to fight for keeping wild elephants wild while extending humane care to those already held captive. Or perhaps to stem the flow of the suffering dogs seen around every bend in the road, or to enable local subsistence farmers to keep their crops in the ground until harvest, while simultaneously offering their children options and choices for a different future.

But that’s not quite the work, not really. What it really is, for me, is the willingness to go with fierce love to where I am called, to be relentless in living my life as an offering of the dharma, and to remember to be happy along the way.

And then sometimes there are wild elephants at sunset..


Take it off the Bucket List

“Elephants in Captivity” is a complicated topic, with many countries entangled in its web via logging, patrolling, temple duties, and/or tourism of many shapes and sizes. More of the story is being heard as the mainstream media starts to pick up the pieces of a puzzle that, even when put together, will have no clear picture of how to fix all that has been broken. Education is key, as is an active empathy for a once-wild animal that is now living in a world that is not its true home.

It’s currently low season here in Asia, but many are planning holidays for the high season soon to follow. If plans include interacting with elephants, consider if your ”pachyderm love” is truly helping or hurting what you care about.

It might be easy to fall into the trap of loving an “elephant experience” (bathing, hugging, “too-close selfies”, etc..) more than loving the elephant itself. A “hands off” sanctuary that places the needs of an elephant before the desires of a tourist or volunteer is a great place to start changing the story from “they exist for us” to “they are deserving of as much respect and space as we can possibly give them”. Sometimes it’s about taking something OFF your bucket list…

Some of our sanctuary friends in Thailand and Cambodia:
https://www.facebook.com/BEESElephants/
https://www.facebook.com/ElephantValleyProject/
https://www.facebook.com/ElephantValleyThailand/

Current mainstream media article telling a bit more of the story:
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/…/global-wildlife-touri…/

To a kinder world for us all…


The Wonder of the Wild Ones

The wonder of the wild ones. I watch them and they watch me, and who knows who is really saving whom.  The conditions are challenging, the myriad of problems in turning multi-layered conflict into unilateral coexistence is not for the feint of heart, and the uncertainty of the future for the wild ones is on my mind every day.  On the days when I see gunshot wounds in a crop-raiding bull or speak with a family impoverished by that same innocent bull, the answers are as nebulous as the monsoon clouds.  The sustaining belief in the power of Compassionate Action is real, yet no doubt the complexities of the issues are as well.  With poets by our side, we’ll continue the good fight for the peace of wild things…

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. (Wendell Berry)


Treating the Wild Ones in the Field

Working alongside the Department of Wildlife Conservation, we spent a rather amazing day in the world of tracking/darting/treating a wild elephant in need of veterinary intervention. It is an honor, in every sense of the word, to learn and serve with these fine people, all working so hard to keep Sri Lanka’s elephants wild…And safe…

Stories to come as soon as a rainy day keeps me bound to the IPad. When the weather is good, the work is too big to get the stories out of my head and on to the page.


Remembering Why We Do What We Do

A sunset spent witnessing wild elephants in their wild homes is a surreal experience, and an exquisite reminder of what so many of us are fighting for. Nothing in conservation is what it seems—there are the fights you expect and the ones you don’t. There are the conflicts that you can understand (even when you can’t always resolve them), and the conflicts that you barely dream could ever have a resolution in them.

Creating sustainable change rarely has a direct path, and the complexities of resolving Human Elephant Conflict on a very crowded planet can be overwhelming. Some days though, you get lucky enough to quietly watch families of wild elephants simply being elephants, renewing the hope that the beauty you see is the beauty that can be saved.


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