16 Tips to Help You Prepare for Your Volunteer Experience in Sri Lanka

volunteer in sri lanka outing

I have just concluded my two weeks as a volunteer at the Elephant Conservation Project in Sri Lanka, and I am sad it was time to leave as I have had the most amazing time. I came here to get some hands-on experience as a current biology graduate who wants to continue studying and working in the field of elephant research and conservation. I’ve definitely learnt lots about human-elephant conflict and met some amazing people who have given me great advice.

The field house is a great, homely place filled with lovely local staff, fun volunteers and delicious food prepared fresh every day. I think it definitely attracts a certain type of person, and you have to be prepared to rough it a little to enjoy.

At the fieldhouse you do not have the luxury of hot water, air conditioning or wifi, but I think that is what makes the experience all the more greater. I also have to mention that we have a stunning view (especially at sunrise) over a huge body of water, which brings many species of birds.

sunrise in sri lanka

Every morning we drive out to a specific area to do a transect, which involves walking along a planned route in search of signs of elephant activity. When we find elephant dung we note the GPS coordinates, measure the circumference of the dung, estimate how old the sample is, and examine the contents. By examining the contents we can see what the elephants have been eating – we are especially interested in finding if the elephants have been raiding farmer’s crops or raiding the local dump site. We have found plastic pieces in various dung samples, which demonstrates just how serious the problem of human-elephant conflict is here.

During the middle, hottest part of the day, we have a break back at the field house to chill out and spend our time how we like. After lunch we head out again to the dump, treehouse or tank to sit quietly and wait for elephants. If elephants are present we observe and take data on the number of individual elephants, as well as their sex, age and behavior. We also take data on the number of humans who go past, their transport mode, how noisy they are, whether there are any attempts to move the elephants on and how the elephants respond to this. 

We had the weekends free to explore surrounding areas or to relax at the field house. On my first weekend I went with two other volunteers to Dambulla to visit the Cave Temples which have beautiful statues of Buddha, as well as amazing paintings on the walls. We then headed to Sigiriya where we hired bicycles and then climbed Lion Rock the next morning.

volunteers and friends in sri lanka

At the top of the rock are ruins from a palace, which is stunning, as are the views! I would highly recommend anyone traveling to Sri Lanka to check Sigiriya out. I spent my second weekend at the field house, and had a few cheeky beverages with the staff which lead to lots of dancing, singing and playing the bongo drum! It was a ton of fun!

The human-elephant conflict here in Sri Lanka is extremely high, and it has been interesting, yet disappointing, to see the effects first hand. It shows the need for volunteers to come and help out at the project to collect data which can later be analyzed and used to implement methods to reduce human-elephant conflict. A solution is desperately needed here in Sri Lanka.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to come and stay at the fieldhouse and meet such amazing people from all over the world who are all working towards the same goal. I am also lucky to have had the support of the staff from Greenheart Travel who were so helpful and caring, and who genuinely want to ensure I had the best time possible. I can’t wait to come back again, hopefully as a researcher myself, to try and help the elephant population in Sri Lanka.

elephant in sri lanka

Sarah’s Advice for Future Volunteers:

      Be open-minded and embrace the culture, new opportunities, experiences and friends. You truly do get out what you put in!

      On the train from Colombo to Kandy sit in the doorway and enjoy the scenery passing by. It’s a really liberating feeling, but hold on tight as there are some horror stories associated with this.

      If you’re a girl, bring a sport bra. The roads can be pretty bumpy!

      Buy some snacks and fruit for in-between meals. The papaya is delicious; you can’t go wrong with it.

      If you decide to go away for the weekend, keep in mind it may take longer than you think to get around due to the roads and buses.

      Earplugs/headphones and an eye mask go a long way.

      Bring mosquito repellent and make sure you tuck your mosquito net in nice and tight.

      You do get a fair amount of spare time so bring a book, a journal and any other hobby you want to improve on.

      Bring a good camera and binoculars – it’s not uncommon for the elephants to be a distance away so you’ll be happy you can zoom in nice and close.

      Take lots of photos! Not just of the animals and the scenery, but also of all the people you meet. You can never have too many photos.

      Make sure you get up to watch the sunrise over the water tank, it is stunning.

      When you’re out in the field, forget about everything for a moment and pretend you’re in Jurassic Park – yesss it sounds weird, but just do it.

      Ask the staff if you can go up to the Knuckles Mountain Range. It’s absolutely beautiful and you feel like you’re on top of the world.

      Respect the culture and people here – don’t walk around in short dresses and low tops while you’re in town. It will be uncomfortable for you and for them.

      Give yourself some time before or after your time here to explore other parts of Sri Lanka. It’s such a beautiful country that you’ll regret it if you don’t!

      Enjoy yourself; make the most of every moment and soak up as much knowledge and information as you can from the people who know so much about human-elephant conflict.

A little favor…if you like dogs and have a little bit of spare cash, please bring some tick/flea ointments. There are so many pups that hang around near the fieldhouse who would greatly benefit from some simple medicine that isn’t obtainable here! 

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