10 Reasons to Volunteer with the Elephants at Wasgamuwa in Sri Lanka
by Natasha Whates
This July I spent two surreal weeks volunteering ... [with the Project]. I can’t praise the organisation enough, I loved every minute. One thing to note about this project is that there is no interaction with the elephants, which is the main reason why I chose it. Here I’ve decided to write 10 reasons why I had the experience of a lifetime.
1. The Authenticity of the Project
I’m well aware that some volunteer projects are put on for tourists and it can be hard to research a genuine project without actually going there yourself. I have to say that this project is as genuine as they get. The work that the [Centre] do to help with the human-elephant conflict is inspiring. They’ve transformed the area since starting 21 years ago and have hugely reduced the conflict. They’ve set up electric fences around farms, introduced a bus to take children to school and they are currently working on a bee project to put elephants off going near the farms.
2. A Wealth of Things to Learn
Each day we helped to collect data surrounding the elephants. Sometimes we would analyse their poo (yes really, it’s only grass mostly). We’d see if they’d been near the farms by what they’d eaten. Some mornings we would monitor the electric fences and my favourite activity was visiting the farmers and interviewing them about the human-elephant conflict. I learnt a vast amount about elephant conservation on this trip and got to see for my own eyes scientists and conservationists in action.
3. The Passion of the Staff
One of the things I will always remember about the project is how welcoming the staff were. They weren’t just put there for us volunteers, they were regularly out collecting scientific research and monitoring the elephants. Chandima, the main man, was extremely knowledgable and passionate about conservation. I would ask him numerous questions about his life and the elephants and he would happily tell me all about it. It’s sometimes the people that can make an experience even more memorable.
4. Seeing Wild Elephants Daily
Okay, so this is probably the main thing I loved about my volunteering. Each afternoon we would go to the tank (a lake) and sit quietly waiting for elephants to appear. We would fill out data sheets identifying them and monitoring their behaviour. Sometimes we would see some lone bulls and occasionally a large family would emerge from the trees. One day we saw around 23 elephants altogether. There were no tourists around, just the locals. This was a massive contrast to visiting the national parks where there would be a sea of jeeps crowding the elephants.
5. Living in the Wilderness
Our volunteer house was in the middle of nowhere. All that was to be seen for miles was jungle and forest. I had no idea how rural it would be, the bedroom didn’t have any walls! It was a bit of a shock at first but I grew to love the rural-ness of the place and being able to watch the stars at night. The shower was unreal, it overlooked jungle and wildlife. I’ve never experienced wilderness like this before, I was covered in dust from the roads and bugs and geckos would fall on our heads but I’d probably choose living in this wilderness over a luxurious hotel.
6. The Inspirational Farmers
On the first Friday morning we collected data about destroyed crops before interviewing local farmers about the human-elephant conflict. Despite their loss of income (sometimes 30,000LKR a year), the farmers showed no anger towards the elephants. In fact, each farmer we visited was very fond of them, finding them beautiful. This love they showed towards a creature who destroyed up to a third of their crops, their livelihood, was inspiring and something we can all learn from I’m sure.
7. My Favourite Day
Each day with the project was special and in my second week I had a day that stood out for me. In the morning we monitored the fences visiting local farmers along the way. They welcomed us with plenty of freshly grown fruit. In the afternoon at the tank we observed 21 elephants altogether whilst watching the sunset behind them. This included a family of 17 who huddled close when dogs or men on motorbikes came near and various bull elephants who drank from the water and chased after dogs trumpeting away. We stayed later than usual and after dark we used night vision goggles to view the elephants whilst listening to them rustling in the trees.
8. Free Time with the Volunteers
I had to include all the fantastic volunteers I met from around the world in this post. When we weren’t out collecting data or observing elephants you could usually find us playing card games, mainly UNO, around the table. We had weekends off from volunteering and spent them either at the beach or at the volunteer house.
9. Visiting Wasgamuwa National Park
As part of the project we got one free trip to the nearby Wasgomuwa National Park, home to elephants, leopards and sloth bears. Unfortunately we didn’t see either of the latter but we did see monkeys and elephants. Towards the end of our visit we saw a group of males playing in the water including a big tusker (only around 5% of males in Sri Lanka have these tusks). We watched the sunset behind them.
10. The Food Last but not least, my favourite thing: food!
Home cooked traditional Sri Lankan food for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday. More rice and curry than I’ve ever eaten in my life but it was delicious. I particularly enjoyed the Dhal and other various curries and they were even more special when accompanied by poppadoms.
We ended each day watching the sunset behind the elephants ... It was a magical, peaceful way to end each day and it’s one of the things I miss the most about the project.