Shermin de Silva is a postdoctoral fellow and Berkeley alumnus studying the elephants of Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka. Upon hearing about the funding challenges facing Berkeley’s hyena colony, where some of her earliest research was conducted, she was inspired to write the following short memoir that traces her career arc from the hills of Berkeley to the fields of Sri Lanka.

There’s a sea breeze blowing, only it’s not the sea – the wind is rolling over the fields of sugar cane in front of the field station.  A few hundred meters up, the road meets a single-lane highway and beside it is the electric fence. On the other side amble hopeful giants.  They’re elephants, eyeing the little fruit stand across the way and biding their time until some passer-by passes over the goods.  The evenings are cool, even chilly.  Now and then you hear the burst of what sounds like a firecracker – elephant ‘shots’ meant to drive fence-breakers away, but unsuccessful so far as each evening these days someone has been going through.  Word is that at least one of them is a one-tusked male trans-located into the park a short while ago.  So far we have not managed to catch the culprits in action, although our housekeeper spotted one strolling past the gate of our field station early one morning.  That describes a typical evening for me last summer.  I’ve been studying the Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka for the past six years.  Currently, I’m trying to raise money to find ways to help elephants and people live alongside one another.  How did I get here?  It’s a long way from Berkeley.

I’d always known I wanted to be a biologist.  When I was an undergrad at Berkeley I studied animal behavior.  Dr. Lucy Jacobs was the first to take me on – I helped one of her students study the ever-industrious squirrels on campus.  I later graduated from squirrels to hyenas, working for a few years with Drs. Frederic Theunissen and Steve Glickman.  I’ll never forget the first time I heard a hyena whoop – to me, this sound ranks up there with the howl of a wolf or the call of loon.  All that is wild in the world.  It may seem just slightly out of place in the placid Berkeley hills, sending shudders up the spine of the uninitiated jogger.  Nevertheless the hills would be the emptier without it.

What drove me initially was the question of whether human language was truly different from the means of communication employed by other animals – and indeed, whether human thinking was itself different as a result.  It was my mentors at Berkeley who encouraged me to apply to graduate school, and Dr. Jacobs in particular who directed me to the people who would become my supervisors for those six important years.  They were two primatologists at the University of Pennsylvania, Drs. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth.  There was just one hitch – I didn’t want to study primates.  I wanted to study an endangered animal about which very little was known at the time but nevertheless had a reputation for intelligence.  An animal that was still roaming wild in just a few isolated corners of the world. Not coincidentally, one of these corners happens to be my country of origin, Sri Lanka.  I wanted to study the Asian elephant.

Luckily for me, my supervisors agreed.  Still, I would be treading new ground – Asian elephants were typically very difficult to watch because the habitats they occupy are usually too dense to drive in.  This was why so little research had been done previously. But I got lucky again – there was a National Park in Sri Lanka that had a reputation for its elephants, and here I could watch them all year round. And so I started my own project in Uda Walawe.  I read about research on African elephants and modeled my study on these. I learned to tell apart individual animals by their own unique features.  Little did I know what I was getting into – our photographic database of the elephants I encountered would soon grow into the hundreds.

I documented elephant calls, some of which are at a range below human hearing.  I learned which calls were used under which conditions.  Soon though, I was fascinated by the nature of individuals’ relationships with one another – their friendships.  With help from my very dedicated field assistants, I was able to discover that elephants, like people, differed a lot in their sociability.  Some had lots of companions but kept little or none over the long term.  Others had had fewer companions, but were very faithful to them.  And we also uncovered a shocker: our little park hosted between 800-1200 elephants, nearly double the number people had previously thought and perhaps as much as a fifth of the population in the entire country.

Over the course of these studies I saw first-hand that elephants and humans are at war with one another.  Our park is surrounded by villages, numbering at least 12,000 people. Many are farmers. At night farmers patrol crops growing right up against the borders of the park, which are invariably raided by desperado bulls.  We would see the results of this inside the park – animals turning up with gunshots and burn marks.  Deaths by poisoning.  The people are extremely poor.  Some are openly hostile to the elephants who rob of their subsistence, whereas others would rather not hurt them.  There have been casualties on both sides.

Since finishing my Ph.D last year, I’ve added new dimensions to my research.  I’m now a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. George Wittemyer (himself a former graduate student at Berkeley while I was an undergrad – we’d never met), comparing the social lives of Asian elephants to those of African elephants.  I’m also interested in how conflicts with elephants are being addressed in both species, as some of the challenges are similar.  I’ve started surveying households around Uda Walawe, taking stock of their crops and livelihoods to find alternatives that are more sustainable.  And now I’m exploring different ways of funding my research as well as communicating it to the public.

One of these ways is the #SciFund Challenge, an experiment to see whether crowdfunding can help drive scientific progress by engaging people to directly support research that they find interesting.  Until December 15th, I’m turning to the cybercrowds to finance some of this work.  A little goes a long way in Sri Lanka, so I’m hoping it will help me expand our research in these new directions.

If you’d like to help, please visit http://www.rockethub.com/projects/3707-help-elephants-people-in-sri-lanka

To learn more about our work, stop by our site http://elephantresearch.net and catch us on twitter (@AsianEle).

Photographs courtesy of Shermin de Silva.

Leave a Reply