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Field experiences of OKCZ-Sri Lanka Biodiversity Grant recipients

Life in the field of Oklahoma City Zoo-Sri Lanka Biodiversity Grant Recipients

One of the Co-Directors of Kaludiyapokuna Primate Conservation and Research Center (KPCRC) and Sr Lecturer at University of Peradeniya, Dr. Rajnish Vandercone and Oklahoma City Zoo’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Animal Behavior, Dr. Chase LaDue noticed that it was just a few hundred dollars preventing Sri Lankan undergraduate students from pursuing fieldwork and research in the nearby Kaludiyapokuna Forest Reserve. “There is so much talent and passion in Sri Lanka,” Dr. LaDue said, “the Oklahoma City Zoo was able to help fill the niche to fund student projects.”

The first recipients of the Oklahoma City Zoo Sri Lankan Biodiversity Research Grants, Umashi Wijerathne and Hansi Bandara, have spent the past several months in Kaludiyapokuna. These self-starting and hardworking women are using the grants to undergo novel research to help protect the vanishing Sri Lankan wildlife.

Umashi noticed the lack of studies in Kaludiyapokuna on bird interactions and how they partition their resources. To fill this gap, her research takes a closer look at different bird species partitioning resources within the same habitat. Umashi believes that her research will help provide invaluable insights about the intricate web of life in the Dambulla Kaludiyapokuna to help guide conservation strategies and protect the forest’s ecosystem. Umashi noted that birds are considered an indicator species, and she hopes that her study of them will also help protect other endemic and vulnerable species in Sri Lanka.

Hansi noticed that dispersal limitations may reduce mating opportunities in the endangered and endemic purple-faced langur due to their shrinking habitat. She is undergoing research to compare social behavior between two langur species in Kaludiyapokuna, where mixed species associations of both species have been recorded. Behavioral observations of the habituated mixed-species (the tufted-gray langur and purple-faced langur) and homogenous group (only purple-faced langurs) were routinely observed with the help of the Kaludiyapokuna Primate Conservation and Research Center (KPCRC). “The research assistants supported us in everything,” Hansi said, noting that her research would not have been possible without Erick Lenden-Hasse and Lara Grandgirard. Hansi hopes that her research will help lead to better understanding how heterospecific males are successful at soliciting mating opportunities in mixed species groups. Despite her passion for primates, the animals that first got her interested in conservation were elephants. “I don’t want to see them die,” Hansi said, commenting on the increasing human-wildlife conflict in Sri Lanka. She hopes that her research here is just the beginning.

With human-wildlife conflict increasing, there is no shortage of Sri Lankan students eager to get involved in conservation research, but academic funding limits many. Hansi hopes that “more and more grants for students like us,” become available.

“We’re building capacity within Sri Lanka,” Dr. Chase said when speaking on the importance of funding community-based conservation. “These students radiate resiliency and there is so much talent and passion in Sri Lanka.”

The Oklahoma City Zoo (OKC Zoo) seeks to foster the development of the next generation of conservationists on the island of Sri Lanka by supporting student research. The Sri Lankan Biodiversity Research Grants are competitive and help students gain experience in biodiversity research. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and grants are awarded at a maximum of 160,000 LKR each.

With students like Hansi and Umashi, the future for Sri Lanka looks bright.

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