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 intriguing map.

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 project”.

“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 GPS receiver.
“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 concluded.


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?!


The project

• Title: Field study to trace the mobility patterns and population dynamics of the elephants (Elephas maximus maximus ) in the Udawalawe National Park.
• 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 Evenings)
• 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

Research team
• Srilal Miththapala - Principal Investigator
• Mifthah Mohideen - Project Manager
• Rohan Cooray - Research Associate
• Asoka Deegodagamage - Research Assistant
• Kapila Harischandra - Logistics

Sighting details
• 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 aspect.)

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.
Foraging behaviour
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.










- web designed by shermil fernando