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Nadia in the field

KPCRC-SLEP host Oklahoma City Zoo staff

When Oklahoma City Zoo’s Senior Elephant Caretaker Nadia Miecznikowski was selected for the conservation travel opportunity to go to Sri Lanka with OKC Zoo’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Animal Behavior, Dr. Chase LaDue, she was thrilled. The Oklahoma City Zoo (OKC Zoo) is actively developing a leading role in an area of conservation concern in the north central part of the island. 

The OKC Zoo raises a significant amount of conservation funding through the Round Up for Conservation program. This program supports The Sri Lanka Elephant Project (SLEP), Kaludiyapokuna Primate Conservation and Research Center (KPCRC), and several other projects. It also provides funding for OKC Zoo staff to participate in hands-on conservation. Nadia’s travel to Sri Lanka was funded by the Round Up program. 

“By rounding up when making purchases, OKC Zoo visitors engage in powerful, collective conservation action that is making a positive impact in Oklahoma and other parts of the world, including Sri Lanka. It’s amazing that our visitors can help protect endangered Asian elephants and critically endangered purple-faced langurs on the other side of the world by simply rounding up. Small change clearly adds up to big change!” OKC Zoo Senior Director of Conservation Education and Science, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, said.

After 20 hours of travel from Oklahoma City to Colombo, Sri Lanka, Nadia arrived to visit and support research and conservation in the Kaludiyapokuna Forest Reserve.

“Visits from zoo staff are of great importance to KPCRC and SLEP as they provide an opportunity for zoo staff to witness and assess first hand how conservation initiatives supported by the zoo perform on the ground. It also exposes zoo staff to conservation issues that are often difficult to comprehend without personally experiencing them,” said Dr. Rajnish Vandercone, founder of KPCRC. 

Located a few kilometers away from the Kaludiyapokuna forest, Nadia stayed at the field houses located in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. The field houses provide living quarters, a basic laboratory, kitchen, and dining facilities for on-site research assistants and visitors for SLEP and KPCRC. “It was inspiring to see small teams of researchers take on these mighty conservation efforts,” Nadia said. 

For Dr. Vandercone, partnerships with universities and the involvement of the OKC Zoo means opportunities for advanced research, financing, and future collaboration. “Sri Lanka is currently going through a financial crisis and the likelihood of securing local funding for initiatives of this nature is slim. Not surprisingly, the National Science Council and National Research Council of Sri Lanka have not called for grant applications in the last three years! In this context, the support we receive from OKC Zoo is invaluable.”

Both KPCRC and SLEP are committed to investing in the next generation of conservationists in Sri Lanka. “The field of conservation biology flourishes when diverse communities have seats at the table,” said SLEP Project Leader Dr. LaDue. “It’s inspiring to have many people here from all different places. Everyone brings something to the team. It’s nice to share meals and form partnerships for research papers,” said research assistant Lara Grandgirard. Dr. LaDue added that, “we have a lot to learn from and with each other.”

The forest spans several small mountains, and the primate team follows multiple monkey troops from dawn to dusk each day in these rugged conditions. For the primate team, a typical forest day starts by traveling to the field site by motorcycle or tuk tuk. “When the incline was too steep to continue by motorbike, we hiked,” said Nadia.“The team was visibly excited to share all the work they did. It was easy to see how hard they work and how much love they all have for the primates.” From listening for seeds to drop to hiking through unmarked thick forest, Nadia was impressed with the primate team’s expert langur tracking skills. “We’re learning more about the forest everyday,” said Lara, “and all the volunteers, like Nadia, bring a different set of skills.” 

While the near threatened tufted gray langur lives successfully across fragmented forests and urban landscapes, the highly specialized critically endangered purple-faced langur only lives in the receding forests. One respite from the long 12-hour days in the field was the delicious roti, made special by camp staff, Amitha. “She’d wake up early to make the bread before we left for the field. She didn’t have to, but she did,” Nadia said.

Nadia also loved seeing the significant and diverse roles of elephants in Sri Lanka. “I felt fortunate to experience time in the field with both the primate and elephant teams. Each animal team has to acquire research permits. As a visitor, I was lucky to get special permission to visit both research locations,” said Nadia. 

With as many as 6000 elephants living on the island, Sri Lanka has the highest concentration of elephants in any Asian country. These once-flourishing elephants are now being pushed into smaller areas as residential, commercial, and farmland developments increase human-elephant conflict and disrupt the elephants’ historical migratory routes. “I saw firsthand accounts of human-elephant conflict,” Nadia said. “During my first night, the field house was visited by elephants who had flattened a barbed wire fence to get to a banana tree. Throughout the night, I became familiar with the sound of firecrackers which was later explained to me as an elephant deterrent, as well as a way for farmers to let each other know that elephants were nearby. My first gut reaction was to think about how cool it was to have been unknowingly so close to a wild elephant. However, after hearing firecrackers every night, and seeing damage from elephants every morning, the reality of living amongst elephants sunk in,” Nadia said. 

In addition to the impacts these developments have on the elephants, Nadia learned more about how people are affected too. She joined the SLEP team to conduct surveys to better understand attitudes and perceptions of local communities towards elephants and other wildlife in the area. “Our team recognizes that people living around elephants often have been marginalized, and we actively seek opportunities to give them a voice in our work,” said Dr. LaDue. 

For the full-time research assistants at KPCRC, having Nadia visit meant an opportunity for international collaboration. “The team tracks the elephants so closely that they anticipate their patterns,” Nadia said. “They can identify over one hundred individuals and know them by name. It was amazing to see.” While at the field site, the elephant team shared their elephant catalog with Nadia and she noticed one with particularly large ears. “Wow! He reminds me of Jar Jar Binks,” Nadia said. The field team asked if Nadia would like to name him and so was named the Star Wars-inspired elephant. 

“It was a pleasure hosting Nadia in Sri Lanka. Her enthusiasm and positive attitude was infectious,” said Dr. Vandercone.

Nadia’s experience in Sri Lanka is not one she will soon forget. Her passion is evident. She is a champion for Sri Lankan wildlife and the knowledge she learned on the island will go far. “I am excited to share the human experience and to help spread the challenges facing both elephants and people in Sri Lanka.” This spring break, Nadia plans to help refresh the OKC Zoo’s elephant presentation to reflect the new perspectives she learned in Sri Lanka. 

“Sri Lanka is underestimated as a travel destination. The people are so kind and they really want you to love Sri Lanka,” Nadia said. “It’s a biodiversity hotspot, which makes it all the more important to protect and preserve.”

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