A Day in the Life of a Conservation Volunteer in Sri Lanka


Shared with us from our newest volunteer partner organization in Sri Lanka, this is Christina Saylor’s story about being a wildlife conservation volunteer. She tracked elephants, while helping to unravel the secrets of their progenitors.

Christina’s Story

Last summer, I spent two weeks volunteering in Sri Lanka, and believe me when I tell you I learned a LOT about elephant poop. I am a city girl, after all. I had no idea you can determine an elephant’s sex, age, and size from its poop.

christina-volunteer-in-sri-lankaWhen I envisioned participating in the program, I had romantic daydreams about watching wild elephants sweep their trunks across grassy plains at sunset while they trumpet a welcoming bellow toward their well-meaning observers. As it turns out, all of this happened. But there are a lot of other, sometimes less glamorous activities, that consume the day of a volunteer. And assessing dung is one of those! This is an extremely important activity, because it can tell you whether an elephant has been into a farmer’s crops, snacking at the garbage dump or eating its’ natural diet of manna grass or other vegetation. It can also show how recently they’ve visited an area or lead a trail to their latest location.

What I could not have fully understood before my trip is how complicated human-elephant conflict is. I witnessed it from both sides of the fence (or in this case the road). In fact, in just one afternoon, I went through the excited anticipation of seeing a large group of elephants, the quick dissipation of that excitement after meeting a terrified villager, and the awe of watching a herd move through the Sri Lankan twilight.


It was August 23rd, four days after I had arrived at the volunteer site. That morning, Leila, the house cook, made hoppers–a fermented crepe that would become my favorite Sri Lankan treat. Fortified by the large breakfast, I set out for the day with my fellow volunteers. Our task was cleaning “sand” traps–spots of cleared earth on steep forested hills meant to capture the paw prints of otherwise elusive leopards.

We were led up and down the sharp hills, easily finding the traps which were hidden under dried leaves. After raking them clear, we broke up the heat-hardened dirt and set a smooth, soft top layer. It was hard, hot work, but we were rewarded with ripe jackfruit taken from the nearby towering trees. Lunch and a swim in the tank (otherwise known as a lake) near the volunteer house soon followed. I spent a lot of time looking out over that lake during my stay. The first time I saw it, the horizon was aflame in amber sunrise. It was my first morning in the field house, and I was the only person awake. It felt incredible to be in this remote place that was both utterly strange and beautiful.

After our swim and a bit of rest, we climbed back into the Land Rover to drive to the Weheragalagama (WG) tank. This was such a lovely part of everyday… heading out to the WG tank where we would wait for the elephants. They were fickle. Sometimes we would see them; sometimes not. But the scenery was always gorgeous.


This particular afternoon a family group of 5-6 elephants meandered out of the forest onto the grass. We watched them through binoculars and recorded characteristics on data sheets: ear-fold direction, tail length, tuft qualities, scars, etc. which we would compare to close-up photos and data sheets.

We were all struck by how many scars marked the elephants.  80 percent of the WG elephants were marked from shotgun wounds.  Most villagers don’t want to kill the elephants, but they will shoot them if necessary to protect homes and crops. Apparently some rural farmers have shotguns but cartridges are expensive and difficult to acquire.  So they keep using the same cartridge cases which they fill with stuff like ball bearings and old nuts and bolts.  While this homemade ammunition cannot kill an elephant outright, some do die from wounds that become infected.  This is a horrendous and prolonged death for an elephant.  It can suffer for months before succumbing to the gunshot injuries.

I felt sad for the elephants, that they should suffer pain for doing what is in their nature–seeking out available food sources. And it was no wonder they looked to the crops, particularly during dry season (July through September) when the elephants’ food sources are naturally less abundant, a problem compounded by the villagers’ slash-and-burn agricultural practices. While the burning provides a fertile plot in the short-term, it can destroy the already scant grasses that the elephants eat. Around this same time, many crops grown by the villagers are coming into harvest. And if you’re an elephant, food is food, whether it’s wild manna grass or someone’s carefully cultivated cucumber patch.


We found a spot where we could watch the elephants without disruption. Within minutes, dark shapes formed in the twilight along the roadside. We waited, trying not to move or even breathe heavily. We were rewarded for our patience. Twenty-eight elephants crossed the road in front of us. Some came quite close, and always there was at least one watching us carefully.

It was an incredible sight. You would likely not expect it, but these great, lumbering creatures move with incredible grace. They walk almost lightly, their adept trucks swinging and plucking as they move. 

Read more about Christina’s life as a volunteer on her blog post!


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