There’s been a newsletter, an Instagram post, and a Facebook post. And now, there shall be a blog post. Problem is, what else is there to say? Well, quite a bit actually since I’m writing this from the perspective of a newbie Skillseed facilitator. Not only was this my first overseas course since I joined Skillseed, it was also my first time traveling to Sri Lanka. While there were a lot of firsts to contend with, I was blessed to have a veteran Skillseed facilitator, Hema, to guide me.
Before the course, I only equated Sri Lanka with the following:
1. Primary school Social Studies lessons on the Sri Lanka civil conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations
2. Delicious Dilmah tea
Beyond that, I was as unfamiliar with the country as the students from Dalton Academy Beijing were. However, I was ready to welcome new insights from the country that I knew I could only gain by being there. Although we were heading to Sri Lanka to understand a specific issue - that is, the human-elephant conflict - I knew that experiencing the reality of Sri Lanka in person would be far more educational than any online travel article. We were really fortunate to work with so many local partners that shared brilliant insights about the country. For example, through meeting people like Sara Nazoor and Dr Amanda Kiessel, we gained a more nuanced view of a society still grappling with the aftermath of the civil conflict. Sara is an advocate who is working tirelessly to de-stigmatise mental health issues in a society that traditionally shies away from such things. As part a campaign called Footsteps to Freedom, she was part of a team that walked across Sri Lanka to raise awareness on mental health, focusing on suicide prevention. Cool right?!
Amanda, the co-founder of an amazing social enterprise platform called Good Market, also took some time to meet us and share the world of social entrepreneurship as well as her experiences of being in Sri Lanka during the time of the conflict.
Context-setting through engaging experts is a key component in all Skillseed courses, as we believe that real-world learning should not be done in silos and that knowledge from different areas can inform and enhance a holistic understanding of an issue. This process can get a bit messy though, so we try to consolidate the students’ learning at the end of each day with a comprehensive reflection session.
Life took a drastic turn when we arrived at the fieldhouse. We were all a bit shocked at our living conditions because it was so dramatically different from the cushy hotel that we left behind in Colombo. Communal living was a norm in the field house, which was basically an introvert’s nightmare (raises hand). Besides our group of students from Beijing, there were other international volunteers staying at the fieldhouse. Fun fact: Hema and I sat beside a Singaporean volunteer on our flight to Sri Lanka, and it was such a hilarious surprise when we saw him at the field house. The phrase “What a small world” couldn’t be overstated!
Another unique experience of the fieldhouse - besides cats that jumped onto your bed in the middle of the night – was showering with all kinds of insects in the bathroom. I could hear the hoots and howls of the students during shower time, signaling the discovery of a new species. Suffice to say, the fieldhouse was a unique character-building experience for the city-dwelling students.
Our lives at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) mirrored that of a wildlife researcher. We started in the early mornings after breakfast, and continued in the mid-afternoon after lunch and rest time. Our morning activities varied from day to day. On our first day, we visited a local farmer’s home to learn more about Project Orange, an initiative by SLWCS to plant orange citrus trees in order to mask the smell of other crops and deter elephants from raiding the farms. The students also helped weed the area - some wielded a machete while the rest of us practiced our Asian squats and removed the weeds with our hands.
That same night, we got the students to reflect upon their labour-intensive morning activities and the feasibility of the Project Orange. Because the farmers in rural Sri Lanka did not usually plant orange trees, SLWCS’s volunteer programme ensured that there was extra manpower available to help maintain the citrus crops. Their support was essential to ensure buy-in from local farmers. The other alternative would be a violent tit-for-tat situation where the farmers would retaliate against the elephants that raided their crops. Project Orange offers a relatively non-violent solution where elephants and humans can co-exist and the farmers may even benefit from a new form of cash crops.
On another morning, we split into two groups to conduct a field survey comprising of electric fence inspection and dung transects. This entailed looking out for termite infection on wooden structures of the fence, signs of elephant damage, and also markers such as elephant dung or footprints.
The electric fence spanned five kilometers, along the perimeter of the farmers’ rice fields. In addition to collecting scientific data, the students also got a chance to experience the rigours of outdoor fieldwork. Observational skills were not the only things required for fieldwork - a certain level of fitness was helpful too. The students literally got in touch with nature when they took off their shoes to cross a small stream during the survey.
Of course, for someone who didn’t live with a real fear of elephants, it was easy for me to believe that elephants are gentle creatures. But if I were to suspend my experience and inhabit the shoes of the villagers for a moment, I would probably view elephants as a threat, not only to my own physical safety but also to my livelihood.
Since elephants represented a very real, physical fear, getting rid of the elephants seemed like the only rational way to stop being scared. This fear begs the question: Are elephants themselves to be naturally feared? Or is the real culprit the conditions in which the elephants are situated, where their natural responses are perceived as violent, even though those responses are simply proportionate to their size and understanding of the world?
This passage from a book titled Elephants on The Edge puts it better:
Afternoons were spent in a tree hut, looking out for elephants crossing the ancient elephant corridor. Unfortunately, I did not get to witness this sight personally but I was glad to know that the rest of the group did during our last day at SLWCS. Don’t worry, I still got to see elephants at the Wasgamuwa National Park! It was absolutely surreal to see this majestic beasts in their natural habitat. Looking at how serenely the elephants were grazing and lumbering around, it was hard to imagine that they were at the centre of a human-wildlife conflict where both sides have suffered fatalities.
This is not to dismiss the villagers’ plight, but if we were to trace the origin of this problem, it would seem that it all started when an earlier group of people decided to settle near elephant populations. However, identifying the cause of this conflict was not so that we could shift blame and responsibility but so we could include those who are responsible in the collective effort to find a solution. Based on our limited experience and time in Sri Lanka, it seems that the problem was most urgently felt by those living in rural areas close to the wild homes of the elephants. As such, the work of organisations such as the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society’s Youth Wing is essential because they work to change the mindsets of these communities. For example, The Youth Wing frequently gives talks in schools to inculcate the importance of wildlife and nature conservation in young minds.
Recently, they organised a poster competition called “Colouring The Future”, as a way for youths to express their thoughts on conservation through art. I love the idea of art as a medium to explore global issues like conservation, especially when it’s used as a gateway into issues that can be intellectually dense or complex. One of the struggles I faced as a facilitator was how to maintain student engagement, and to be fair, the human-elephant conflict wasn’t an issue that that city-dwelling students from Beijing could resonate with easily. Thus, using art as a medium would’ve been a great way to engage the students. Nevertheless, I think that the students still came away with a new outlook on wildlife conservation as well as life in another country (according to their feedback hehe!)
Another contentious issue surrounding the elephants was the economic exploitation of elephants for tourism. We briefly discussed this when we passed by a mahout walking alongside his elephant along the highway. Later on, our group got to learn about different types of economic exploitation at Eco-Maximus, a factory that transforms elephant dung into paper products. We were given a tour of the premises where we got to witness the entire process from the drying of elephant dung to the production of paper. You have to see it to believe it!
Throughout the course, I constantly checked in with myself, readjusting the expectations I had for myself and the students. I had initially set myself a lofty goal of changing mindsets and educating participants on the human-elephant conflict, but I eventually realised that it was enough to expose the participants to a different culture and to a different way of living and thinking. Even though I tried to set a good example by showing enthusiasm and excitement for learning, there is only so much a facilitator can do. and the remaining effort lies within the participants to ensure their learning is complete. Learning is, after all, a two-way street. I understand that the whole experience would have been overwhelming, especially for those who were travelling overseas for the first time. So, from this, I learnt that teaching in a classroom and teaching on-the-go are worlds apart. When you’re teaching on-the-go, there are so many elements to juggle, with the majority of them being out of your hands. Then again, this is where I find much value in our experiential learning journeys. It shows us that learning isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to the classroom, although structure is undeniably convenient and lovely. But if we desire to be more adaptable and resilient in a constantly-changing world, we must adopt a growth-mindset and be open to learning whenever and wherever it may happen. In order to not miss a moment of learning, it is thus essential to “be present!”, as Roger, one of the Dalton teachers, says.
I am really grateful to have been assigned to the Elexplore Sri Lanka trip as my first overseas course with Skillseed. You could say it was a dream course for me, since I harbour a soft spot for wildlife conservation, an interest that first bloomed during my volunteering stint at the Singapore Zoo and Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), which eventually shaped my decision to pursue my undergraduate studies in Environmental Biology. As this was the first edition of the course, and in the spirit of continuous improvement, we will be doing a full review of the course to see how we can further strengthen the objectives of Elexplore Sri Lanka for our future participants.
If there are any groups or organisations out there looking to discover and learn more about wildlife conservation issues, drop us an email at email@example.com! We’d love to see what we can co-create together :)
This post is authored by Liyana Omar, Skillseed’s 2018-2019 Gap Year Intern.