Tale of an extraordinary map
He struck me as being one of those who observed more, and spoke less.
“How could I help you?” He inquired candidly.
I pulled out an A4 sheet from my file and left it on his desk. It contained a
map of the road network of the Udawalawe National Park.
“Two things about this map particularly interested me”, I explained. “Firstly,
the road network is very detailed. Secondly, its feature locations have been
pinpointed using a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. I want to know how
and why this map came about.”
And thence, The Nation embarked on a quest to discover the roots of this
By Nimashi Amaleeta
“The map is actually the first step towards a larger project”
explained Srilal Miththapala, CEO, Serendib Leisure Hotels. “The
project, in turn, was a field study to trace the mobility patterns and
population dynamics of the elephants in the Udawalawe National Park (UNP).”
The origin of this extraordinary feat was quite interesting. The grant
for this project was from the US Fish and Wildlife Department. “The
grant was one among the very first given to a private individual!” he
exclaimed with pride. “It was a trailblazing initiative for Sri Lanka”.
And thus, the Engineer, Srilal Miththapala, became the principle
investigator of this elephant survey project. The objectives involved
photo cataloging elephants and recording their abundance.
“I have been in and out of this park for the last15 – 20 years”,
explained the engineer. “No, I think that value has been
underestimated!” prompted project manager Mifthah Mohideen, present at
the time of the interview.
The engineer paused for a moment. “I guess, you are right, Mifthah.” He
replied. “Elephants have amazed me well before that.
“The specialty of Udawalawe is that you find elephants there all round
the year. It was my hunch that there is a residential population at the
park and wanted to verify it. Coincidentally, this grant happened to
come through the internet… and immediately, I saw the possibility of
exploring my hunch scientifically. That’s what actually gave rise to the
“I had to design a methodology. I understood one salient aspect. The
less conspicuous you are, the better the chances of observing elephants
in the wild”, he further explained. “I didn’t believe in all these
‘hi-tech’ methods such as tranquilising the beast, collaring them and
then releasing, to track after. I sensed that this could traumatise the
animal, one way or another. It’s better to follow the herds silently and
inconspicuously, and observe them.”
Impressively enough, the engineer viewed the trackers as a better source
to gather data, rather than depend on the hi-tech and expensive radio
collaring. “The trackers visit the park daily, at least three to four
times. They know the park like the palm of their hands. They know where
the elephants are, where the herds are, where they rest, forage…etc.”
In an attempt to convert knowledge into useful reference data, the
engineer had given the trackers CR books and asked them to log all their
observations, at the end of each day. “I even gave them the guidelines”,
he explained. The engineer had also explained the potential of the book
to be utilised as an important reference source in future. This
endeavour, however, did not come through. “They kept on ‘losing the
books!’” He said, sarcastically.
The research team decided to visit the park twice a day. “We zoned the
park into 6 areas, and scheduled our visits in such a way so that, each
zone is given equal priority. We also paid attention to the fact that
elephants migrate in and out of the zones during the course of the
research, and considered this fact in our overall analysis.”
However, upon the commencement of the project, the first thing they
realised was that the park had no comprehensive road map. “Initially,
that was a great setback for our research project.” said the engineer.
“We had several difficulties,” explained the Project Manager. “Firstly,
being visitors, we couldn’t randomly roam about in the park. We were
compelled to stick to a well defined route. But, no comprehensive road
map. So, the very first thing we did was create a road map. That’s how
this map came about.” He further explained.
The map was quite detailed. A team including the project manager and
trackers and drivers, had traversed all the roads, and geo-refernced
them (i.e., describing a location, assigning it to information) using a
“Further, since we were considered ‘visitors’ (rather than research
personnel), each time we went into the park, we had to pay. We never got
off the jeep whilst inside the park. All observations were from inside
the jeep itself.” he voiced in a tone of dissatisfaction.
“My project manager’s notes were very copious,” grinned the engineer.
“What he means is,” spoke up the manager, “whenever we sighted an
elephant or a herd, I made detailed notes. These included numbers, the
identification features like ‘one eye blind’, ‘marks on the ear’…etc.,
and also took down notes of the location viz, vegetation and distance at
which they were sighted. The GPS coordinates were also included. We even
considered the tourist influx. And at night, at base camp, we pooled the
data, analysed it and built the picture little by little.”
“We are content with the output. Our efforts were systematic, well
organised, well observed and well documented. We are content with the
procedure as well as the results.”
“In fact, our efforts have been recognized and well received by Dr Karl
Stromayer and the US Fish and Wildlife Services.” The engineer
Tongue in cheek
“How did the Dept of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) respond to this
project? And what sort of support did they extend?” The Nation was
intrigued to find out.
“Lukewarm!” was the engineer’s candid response.
The trackers and drivers, however, were very helpful. We treated each
one of them as one among ourselves.” The engineer explained.
The lukewarm response of the DWC is indeed deplorable. At a recent
workshop I attended, where personnel from various National Parks were
also present, I overheard the representative from the UNP remark to
another “the DWC cannot afford more than three projects a year. It’s too
costly.” Given this situation, why shouldn’t the DWC accept such
projects run by individuals? Particularly, when they have been conducted
on a concrete scientific basis?!
• Title: Field study to trace the mobility patterns and population
dynamics of the elephants (Elephas maximus maximus ) in the Udawalawe
• Duration: May 9, 2001 to February 28, 2002 (10 months)
• Total area ‘surveyed’: 185.1 sq.kms. (06 Zones)
• Total Number of Days of field observations :166 Days (83 Mornings, 83
• Total Number of sightings: 2,363
• Total Number of Elephant counted: 11,869
• Total Number of Males Identified: 54
• Total Number of Females Identified: 28
• Total Number of Elephants identified: 82
• Srilal Miththapala - Principal Investigator
• Mifthah Mohideen - Project Manager
• Rohan Cooray - Research Associate
• Asoka Deegodagamage - Research Assistant
• Kapila Harischandra - Logistics
• Male Adult 2,561
• Female 2,311
• Sub adult 780
• Juvenile 1,161
• Infant 490
• Age/Sex not confirmed. 4,566
• Total 11,869
Distribution in space
The overall sightings of elephants belonged to roughly 8 categories,
wherein their numbers varied from 1 to 50 and even 100. The general herd
size varied from 5 to 20, while the overall average was 10-11. ‘All-male
groups’ were observed more frequently. In certain instances, single
females and small ‘all-female groups’ were also observed. Once the
results were developed on ArcView (GIS software) they clearly showed
that single individuals are fairly widespread over the park, while
concentrations were found in proximity to the road/teak forest, the
western open grass plains and the reservoir. Out of the 82 elephants
identified, preliminary observations allude at the fact that their
movement is restricted to the central area of the park.
As expected, single adult males showed the greatest dispersion while
herds showed a somewhat smaller dispersion over a fairly limited area.
The main roads and its surroundings, although the most busy and
traversed areas, showed the highest abundance. And this ascribed to the
available vegetation and terrain.
Contrary to the norm, that males have a wider range of movement, some
interesting sightings have indicated that single males and herds show
varied movement patterns and ranges. (Yet the project infers that the
sample size was too small to derive a concrete conclusion regarding this
Distribution in time
41% of the elephants were sighted during morning hours, while 59 %
were sighted during evening hours. Analysis of the monthly sightings
indicated that there is a greater abundance of elephants during the
months of September, October and November. Elephants, however, seemed
scarce in May and June. This observation showed a direct correlation
with the rainfall patterns, as May and June were the driest months of
the year, while September, October and November were the wettest.
The predominant foraging behaviour observed in elephants was grazing.
Grazing was slightly more during the evening hours of the day than in
the early hours.