We experience first hand how a grass roots charity is fast changing the game in elephant conservation and how international volunteers, including kids of 10 years old and over, are welcomed to help elephant conservation through unconventional measures.
This is our first week of three in Sri Lanka and we’ll be immersed into the fascinating world of elephant conservation for 5 days, arranged by leading UK not for profit organisation Pod Volunteer, before making our way down to the south coast, home to legendary surf and endless picture postcard beaches. Volunteering in Sri Lanka is a new way to discover this epic island. You won’t be disappointed.
Volunteering in Sri Lanka on an elephant conservation project
On the edge of a dried out paddy field in the scorching mid morning sun, a group of volunteers are busily prising apart elephant dung.
The fields surrounding the tiny village of Himbiliyakada, shimmering in the 40 degree heat, are bursting with young water melons, sweet papayas and verdant rice. Ecologist, Chathuranga, demonstrates to our small group how to measure the circumference of our parched dung balls and analyse the contents.
My 9 year old daughter, sporting over sized gardening gloves, is examining her chosen colossal elephant poo, twice the size of her petite hands, with a mixture of intense curiosity and fascinating horror.
My 11 year old doesn’t bother with the gloves and is peering excitedly into hers.
We are volunteering in Sri Lanka, collecting primary data at a macro level for a scientific research wildlife conservation NGO, in the central province of Sri Lanka.
It’s February half term and we’re on holiday.
Living at the scientific research field centre, a stone’s throw from Wasgamuwa National Park, we are part of a team of volunteers collecting data and monitoring wild elephants in the ever present battle to reduce the elephant-human conflict here in Sri Lanka.
We take turns with the single measuring tape, fastidiously jotting down our measurements onto our clipboard, to reveal the gender and age of each elephant whose deposits we’re examining.
Tearing apart the compost-like fibres, we search for tell tale seeds in their diet. Dung analysis is an age old method of studying animal health and dietary habits, with micro analysis capable of even delving into the genetics of each animal.
“Our” elephants, it seems have been feasting on a mixture of teak bark, grasses and mimosa (a pink flowering shrub whose leaves magically shrinks back when touched – causing much excitement to our girls).
Also present are tell tale signs of crop raiding – watermelon, rice and aubergine seeds.
Crop raiding is a habit that causes regular conflict between humans and elephants. Wild elephants irresistibly drawn towards agricultural land at night by the scent of crop and spice plots cause untold damage to crops.
Apparently rice is like chocolate to an elephant … who knew?
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Volunteering is a growing trend in adventure travel.
We’ve embraced it.
It’s the perfect way to discover a country from the inside out and once you’ve experienced this deeper level of connection, it’s difficult to return to a bog standard ‘all about me’ holiday.
Volunteering in Sri Lanka with Pod Volunteer, on an elephant conservation project gives us the chance to experience wild elephants in a completely different way than merely scheduling a morning safari in one of the jeep satiated national parks.
We are impressed so far. The hands on approach, working alongside field staff and ecologists, make this project feel incredibly authentic – something not always guaranteed in this booming volunteering tourism sector, which is unregulated and often unethical.
Watch our volunteering in Sri Lanka video below
This project, booked through Pod Volunteer, a non for profit, wildlife volunteering organisation in the UK, offers a unique sustainable model for conservation in Sri Lanka.
The grass roots NGO is entirely dependant on volunteer placement fees and works tirelessly with the local community to solve the human elephant conflict, prevalent since the 70s following an unprecedented migration of people into the area.
The lush green landscape surrounding us is a result of a successful irrigation programme built on government orders, transforming this previously dry zone into prime agricultural land.
Forty years ago human elephant conflict here was rare.
This, then isolated, area was inhabited by a small number of indigenous people who were part of a sustainable eco-system.
“The government offered an open invitation of 4 acres of land for free (2 acres of upland and 2 acres of mud land) to anyone who moved here” Chathuranga explains. 3 villages ballooned to 39. Now 37,000 people live here.
Human elephant conflict accounted for 361 elephant deaths in Sri Lanka in 2019 according to a report by the BBC in January 2020.
60-80 people are killed every year in Sri Lanka by elephants, “a relatively low number considering the damage that elephants are capable of … if they choose” Ravi Corea, the founding biologist and president of this elephant conservation project, tells us.
Wild elephants cause extensive damage to crops and property in Sri Lanka. The increasing costs of protection contributes to the poverty and debt of local villagers.
Suicide is also common among farmers whose crops have been ruined by elephants.
We take a welcome rest from the sweltering sun in the shade of a ramshackle tree house standing some 40ft tall in a lone tree. A long ladder leads up to the top and my girls make a bee line for it.
Tree houses such as these are a common sight dotted over Sri Lanka’s agricultural fields. They are, in fact, watch towers where villagers guard their valuable crops from raiding elephants as darkness falls each night.
Each village surrounding Wasgamuwa National Park is now circled with an electric fence for protection against elephants, funded by our project.
This initiative is working, however some elephants, being incredibly intelligent creatures, simply pull up trees, throw them onto the fences and step on over. The villagers maintain them daily.
We’re in the buffer zone right now. An area bordering the National Park where no electric fences offer protection. Villagers plant here at their own risk.
“Elephants love mango” Chathuranga tells us, “they come into the villages and shake the trees”.
“The last few years” he continues, “we are getting a lot of plastics & the elephants are getting used to eating from the garbage tip in Heppitola (the local town), where access is possible from the elephant corridor. Razors blades and glass as well as plastics can have dire consequences for elephants”. An electric fence has since been set up around the garbage tip.
In 2012 in Dambulla, he tells us, seven elephants died next to the town’s garbage tip. The post mortum revealed the cause of death – polythene stuck in their intestines.
Our group, strangers from all walks of life who met outside Kandy railway station only four days ago, is now an amiable team helping this grassroots NGO combat human elephant conflict one day at a time.
We are the only family.
Steve and Wendy, a couple in their 60s from York are here for 4 weeks and became instant grandparents to our two girls who joined them enthusiastically each night in the volunteers’ evening game of carrom.
Theresa, a German girl studying biology, is here for 3 weeks, Kim, a content strategy analyst from London and a part time journalist with the Guardian, is here for a week and Julian, a young passionate ranger from the Pyrenees, has signed up for 2 months.
We’ve all bonded quickly during the last 96 hours together, with the group readily accepting the girls as their own and encouraging them in their efforts on our daily morning tasks.
The rhythm here is relaxed compared to the 5.30am wake up calls on our Borneo volunteering programme in 2018.
Breakfast starts around 7.30-8.00am with banana pancakes, coconut rice balls, spiced curry or thickly cut slices of white bread with lashings of pineapple jam washed down with copious amounts of Ceylon tea.
Our morning tasks differ each day. We’ve retrieved SD cards from camera traps hidden in the forest, analysed recent animal foot prints in sand traps, re-setting them by raking.
We’ve weeded the field centre’s butterfly garden and identified and GPS charted trees & shrubs favoured by elephants in 100m square grids in order to compare the results 6 months down the line.
Other volunteer activities could be helping to re-build villagers’ properties destroyed by elephants or weeding orange bio-fences designed to deter elephants through scent.
Morning activities last for around 2-3 hours. We’re finished up here now and we walk the 15 minute trek back to our waiting jeeps re-tracing our steps past the verdant rice fields.
We scramble into the back of jeeps for the 15 minute dusty journey back to our field centre, slowing occasionally to let herds of bleeting goats pass by. Holding their hats, my girls jolt along, their faces plastered with huge grins.
Riding in the jeeps twice a day to morning project sites or to afternoon elephant observations is a highlight of theirs. Particularly if they’ve managed to bag the one particular jeep with the sun roof. Riding standing up, their heads poking out the top, the hot air streaming their hair like a hair dryer, they whoop with laughter or yelp at getting squashed on the hard iron bars as the jeep scrambles rough terrain. This epitomises adventure for them.
The road runs parallel to narrow concrete irrigation channels fed from the Victoria Dam, some 100km away and we often spot sluice gates diverting water. Crops and man are thriving here.
The project is run from both Colombo and the research field centre near the village of Pussellayaaya, in the buffer zone of the Wasgamuwa National Park, a park little known by tourists and a far cry from the aggressive barrage of jeeps hustling elephant herds in Sri Lanka’s more popular National Parks.
We pull up outside the field house, a rudimentary building of cement and corrugated iron built for purpose, clearly not for comfort.
This field centre, established over 25 years ago, is the hub of primary data collection for this breakthrough conservation model and houses one of the two scientists here on a 2 week rota system, several field assistants and volunteers from all corners of the globe.
Basic dormitories, built from rough breeze blocks, house up to 100 volunteers at a time, drawn from all over the world to work on this ground breaking project.
Many volunteers are gap year students able to come for months at a time, whilst others, such as us, are squeezing a week into their annual holiday.
Cheerful drawings of local wildlife adorn the brick walls of the communal dining area, drawn and dated from past volunteers.
Male elephant identification photos line another wall whilst a dusty, well used carrom board stands in the corner – the subject of many a late evening game to hoots of laughter and conviviality.
A blanket on a piece of string serves as the doorway to the volunteer dorms, cordoned off from the communal area by breeze blocks two metres high. A large gap between the corrugated iron V roof and the dorm walls allow for a through breeze. Occasional mongoose race through the rafters, disturbing sleepers with their inconsiderate racket.
Staying in the volunteer dorms it seems is an adventure in itself and I realised on our first arrival, that I’m not so rock and roll in my old age. I breathed a surreptitious sigh of relief when we were shown to our own separate private quarters a short 2 minute walk through the woods.
Families and other volunteers requiring more privacy and a degree of comfort can opt to pay extra for the private accommodation. Our twin bedded villas are stark in comparison with the heavenly views of the lake and, incredulously, have air-con!
The field centre, now ensconced in the community after 25 years of living side by side with the local people, develops practical solutions mitigating elephant-human conflict, environmental damage, climate change, and biodiversity loss, whilst addressing sustainable livelihoods, land use, and rural poverty issues.
Their motto “saving elephants by helping people” is working. Last year no elephants were shot here.
Initiatives such as the ele-friendly bus, introduced 5 years, ago have been astonishingly successful.
Parents on the daily school run, forced to walk the daily gauntlet of the elephant corridor, used to carry a gun for protection and wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
The project now funds a school bus which safely carries local school children living in elephant corridors to school and back.
This simple solution has doubled handedly increased school attendance and protects elephants following ancestral migration paths that run through inhabited areas.
This incredible initiative is maintained and funded directly by the money brought in by volunteer contributions and costs 1.2 million rupees per year.
The interior of the school bus, cleverly emblazoned with simple, colourful, educational illustrations, teach the school children to respect these incredible creatures, depicting practical advice on what, or vitally what not to do when encountering a wild elephant.
Chinkawandu, the society’s volunteer co-ordinator, tells us educating the young is critical.
If children grow up learning these important messages, they will be less inclined to hunt endangered species or to shoot elephants purely from fear like their parents”.
Afternoons are reserved for elephant observations and so naturally it’s everybody’s favourite part of the day.
After 2-3 hours of free time, including a leisurely lunch of rice and curry, we clamber back into our jeeps, my girls making a bee line for their particular favourite, and drive back into the elephant corridor and wait.
Clustering around the jeeps, we talk in hushed tones, watching and waiting, scrutinising the tree line, hoping to see the appearance of the mammoth beasts we’ve travelled so far to see.
We’re full of anticipation after hearing tales regaled from other volunteers of exceptional elephant experiences. The tree houses that the project used to use to watch the elephants were burnt down by lightning last year and so we’re more out in the open.
We wait. And wait some more.
Sightings aren’t guaranteed. In fact, we didn’t see any elephants on our first couple of afternoons of elephant observations. We returned disappointed after having heard of sightings back to back for weeks.
But this is nature. Real wildlife opportunities that aren’t staged or orchestrated.
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Every volunteer is taken to Wasgamuwa National Park at some point in their volunteering journey. As we were only participating for a week (I wish we’d booked two!), we were bundled off into a jeep on our penultimate afternoon, our guide smiling in the knowledge we’d be sure to spot Lorna, a famous matriarch and her 18 strong herd who never leave the park boundaries. We’ve got everything crossed.
Wasgamuwa National Park, one of the lesser known national parks in Sri Lanka covers an area of nearly 400km². The park connects to Kaudulla National Park in the north allowing free movement of animals through connecting elephant corridors so the numbers of elephants fluctuate but it’s estimated that between 150-200 elephants are in the park at any one time.
It’s the perfect park to spot wild elephants and is surprisingly completely off the tourist radar.
The first thing I notice, in stark contrast to our previous safari experiences in Sri Lanka (at Kaudulla and Yala) was the distinct lack of any other jeeps. Literally. We saw only two other vehicles in the entire park. My heart sings – our experience at Kaudulla two years earlier had made me sick to my stomach – jeeps packed with tourists racing after elephants and encircling the herd. We’d asked our driver to move away to another quieter area of the park – we were just too uncomfortable to be part of it.
We immediately spot a crocodile lazing on the banks of a muddy water hole, jaws menacingly open. We spot bright green Indian beaters and the dark shape of a serpent eagle perched perfectly still on a branch only metres from our vehicle. The grasslands are full of herds of water buffalo and axis deer, but we’re focused on the one creature we’ve come to see. Elephants.
Our hearts sinks as we make a circuit of the park with no sightings at all. Our guides are skilled and spot well camouflaged species easily.
And then we turn a corner and recognise a couple of grey square shapes slowly heading into the forest. Elephants! But only a glimpse before they’re gone.
Little did I know only moments later we were to have the most intense elephant encounter of our lives.
Our guide signals to the driver who, with a sharp pull on the wheel, veers off the road and we jolt excitedly over grassland, spotting a herd just to our right. It’s Lorna’s herd and they have babies.
We pull up some way off and kill the engine.
Incredibly, they move towards us at a leisurely pace, busily tearing bunches of mana grass out of the earth with their strong trunks, shaking out the dirt nimbly, as we learnt only Sri Lankan elephants do.
They’re so close now, I have to rapidly take off the zoom lens on my Canon.
Their low rumbles reverberate around us, the swish of their ears filling the air as we quietly watch wide eyed marvelling at their baggy, wrinkly skin, protruding bumpy foreheads, colossal feet – we are smitten.
We watch for almost an hour scenes that could have been filmed on a David Attenborough documentary. We are delighted. It’s a far cry from our jeep hustling experience on an afternoon safari in Minniyeria national park two years ago.
Our guide gently tells us how to identify males and females. Males have a sloping back, whilst females are box shape. All of this herd are female apart from some young male adolescents.
Depigmentation, only found in Sri Lankan elephants, (the pink colouring on their skin) also helps with identification.
The gentle demeanour of the elephants is clear and they don’t seem bothered at all about our presence. Closer and closer they come until they are less than a metre away, our guide is on high alert and we’re told to move to the other side of the vehicle as he crunches a plastic water bottle, the crinkling sound deterring them from coming any closer.
These powerful creatures could turn our jeep over in seconds. The moment passes. We observe male adolescents play fight, tiny adorable babies staying close to their mothers as they protect them in the middle of the herd.
Their chewing is so loud, punctuated by the click click of cameras and then we simply put them down. We have nothing more to capture and we are simply in the moment. We are captivated.
These peaceful creatures have a natural lifespan of between 70-80 years old, of which the first 4-5 years is spent entirely with their mother. At 12 years old maturity kicks in and the dominant male chases off any male adolescents.
Leaving the park, in a state of elation, we stop one more time to let a python, with two cartoon like bumps in it’s belly, slither across the road. It’s just made a kill, our guide explains.
Five days in on the project and our eyes have been been wrenched open to the stark facts of human elephant conflict. Participation, even for a week, on a project of this kind can mess with your emotions. In a good way.
Life long passions are kindled. And education comes hard and fast, whether you’re a 9 year old or a 79 year old. Learning through this kind of project is incomparable to simply reading about global issues in school.
We’ve contributed in a small, significant way towards a greater elephant conservation goal.
Even after our incredible experience yesterday in the national park, we’re still desperate to see elephants in situ with the project. This afternoon is our final elephant observation and so the pressure’s on.
My girls have bagged their favourite jeep (so no whining today thank goodness) and we’re stopped stationary on top of a bright orange mud road atop of a ridge bordering a sparkling lake near the village of Weheragala. It’s a favourite spot along the elephant corridor and sightings here are common.
Lady luck is on our side. We don’t have to wait long before our guides signal our attention and point to several grey shapes looming out of the forest to our right.
A herd of 18 elephants slowly appears, lumbering into the open to graze on the lush grass bordering the forest and road.
Emitting a low rumbling, these creatures are alert but relaxed as we look on just over a 100 metres away.
We are delighted.
Peacefully feeding, the elephants are not scared of us, but we take heed of our guides warnings not to leave the vehicles and climb out through the jeep roof and settle down to watch this incredible landscape before us. For over two hours.
Our field assistants, complete with long sticks, tell us that only 7% of male elephants now in Sri Lanka have tusks – one of the reasons that poaching is far less here than in Africa. It’s thought that incredibly genetics play a part in the decline of tusks in male adults.
A motorbike with two Sri Lankan local men passes us suddenly and the herd immediately shrink back to the forest behind the protection of a bull elephant who remains in sight defiantly, eyes fixed on the motorbike. Our guide tells us the local riding the motorbike is a well known elephant hunter. The elephants know him by smell.
Our time on the project sadly come to an abrupt end. One week wasn’t enough to absorb the extraordinary work the project does to help locals and to cultivate a change of behaviour from grass roots towards elephants.
We’re dog tired but jubilant in the precious time spent at this incredible project. We would highly recommend volunteering in Sri Lanka on this project to any adventurous family out there looking for a meaningful holiday.
Volunteering in Sri Lanka with Pod Volunteer certainly gave us a chance to learn so much about not only the elephants in Sri Lanka but gave us a huge insight into the people, their culture and their hearts.
If you’re looking to volunteer in Sri Lanka, Pod Volunteer organised our placement on this project and we can highly recommend them. Not only are they not for profit but their communication and organisation is second to none.
Pod Volunteer work with local grass roots charities worldwide, arranging volunteer placements on sustainable, needs-based projects that have lasting and positive impact on the local community.
The recommended minimum age for project volunteering in Sri Lanka is 10 years old.
One week on this elephant conservation project costs £945.00 per person which includes a day travelling to the project, 4 full days on the project and the weekend off.
Volunteers under 18 have a reduction of £100.00. For those with more time, we would massively recommend spending an extra week on the project for only £100 more (£1045.00 for 2 weeks).
Pod Volunteer provided our placements free of charge in exchange for this review. Our opinions, as always, are our own.
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