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Dr. Shermin de Silva: “You are not your work”

At the core of our mission is compassionate conservation that tries to balance the needs of nature and wildlife with that of the communities who share the same landscape. We know that solving the coexistence challenge will not happen quickly, so in the meantime, we have been supporting the communities we work in from a […]

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At the core of our mission is compassionate conservation that tries to balance the needs of nature and wildlife with that of the communities who share the same landscape. We know that solving the coexistence challenge will not happen quickly, so in the meantime, we have been supporting the communities we work in from a wholly different direction.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shermin de Silva.

Shermin de Silva is the President & Founder of Trunks & Leaves, a nonprofit focused on the conservation of Asian elephants and their habitats. She obtained her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, studying the behavioral ecology and demography of Asian elephants and directs the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka, which she initiated in 2005. She is a founder and trustee of EFECT, Sri Lanka, as well as a member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a child growing up in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, I was an urban kid surrounded by buildings. But there was nothing I loved more than watching wildlife documentaries on TV and I was just fascinated by the natural world. When I discovered dinosaurs, I decided (like many other kids) that I just had to become a paleontologist. The opportunities for this are rather limited in Sri Lanka, which was also going through a very difficult political time, so my family immigrated to the US. It was only then that I became aware of environmental and conservation issues, which I was also very passionate about.

Fast forward several years and I entered UC Berkeley, still expecting to keep pursuing paleontology. However, there I came to the realization that I wanted to work in a field that could somehow help the species that were actually still alive today. It seemed like we needed all hands on deck to rise to the challenges we were facing.

Eventually, my path led me to Asian elephants — a species that was under-studied, in need of conservation attention, and found in relatively large numbers in Sri Lanka compared to the rest of Asia.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In the nearly 15 years since I started the research project, there isn’t any single incident that stands out, but rather the longer-term perspective that such a timespan enables. This is really valuable and virtually unique for studies of Asian elephants in the wild, where they have a lifespan of 60 or so years. We are able to see individual animals born, develop, change their behavior, and also die. We can see how their relationships change. We witness changes in the environment — both inside the protected area we work in and outside, as a consequence of a booming post-war economy. And most recently, in getting to know the farming communities living along the edges of protected areas, we are learning their challenges and seeing through their eyes.

If I had to choose one observation though, it would be from our most recent work using trail cameras to observe how people and elephants share land. My entire team and I were not sure how useful this approach would be, given that we had a handful of cameras spread out over a very large landscape and no guarantee that elephants would ever walk out in front of them. So we were surprised and astonished at the frequency with which both elephants and people were seen in the same areas, using the very same paths, with zero encounters or negative incidents. It really demonstrated that although elephants can be an economic liability and quite dangerous if mishandled, the vast majority of the time they peacefully go about their business on exactly the same landscapes as people. This gives us great hope that it is possible to live and flourish together, if only we can use the land more wisely.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure that this is especially funny, but it certainly felt at the time as if the elephants played a trick on us. We were used to watching elephants inside the national park during the day, when we were mutually aware of each other. But at night, elephants completely have the upper hand.

Several years ago, we had the opportunity to “stake-out” an agricultural area just outside the national park where there had been some complaints about crop raiding. We were eager to document who the culprits were — was it an entire herd, a gang of males, or just a one or two individuals? We positioned ourselves along the edge of the field in our vehicle with the headlights turned off and pointed in the direction we expected them to pass by based on what people had reported from previous nights.

After waiting for ages, we finally began to hear the unmistakable sound of elephants feeding. We could tell they were getting closer and were convinced they would pass in front of us soon, at which point we would turn on the bright lights. Anticipation mounting, we held our breaths and waited…and waited…and waited…At some point we finally realized the sounds had died away and never passed in front or around us. We felt rather foolish then, because the elephants could probably smell us from quite far away and there was no way our “ambush” would have worked. The next morning, footprints revealed that they had passed through another field, with the owners in the house nearby completely unaware of their presence. This incident gave me the initial inkling of just how masterful elephants are at avoiding people on a relatively crowded landscape, foreshadowing what our trailcams confirmed nearly 10 years later.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I started working in conservation out of an affinity for the animals, but I’ve really come to sympathize with the challenges and hardships of the people who are also struggling to survive on these landscapes. As a parent, for instance, I would not want to share my backyard with a large and potentially dangerous animal who could harm my child or any other family member. Likewise, how can we expect people to tolerate an animal that can eliminate a year’s worth of income derived from hard sweat and labor?

At the core of our mission is compassionate conservation that tries to balance the needs of nature and wildlife with that of the communities who share the same landscape. We know that solving the coexistence challenge will not happen quickly, so in the meantime, we have been supporting the communities we work in from a wholly different direction.

Farmers are parents, and grandparents. We saw that they greatly valued their children’s education, but there were very few resources. There were some pre-schools without proper furniture, and others that lacked basic infrastructure like water or electricity. In each village, we chose one pre-school to support. As a communal resource, helping the schools means we are actually touching hundreds of families, who will benefit from the support for years to come. We have so far supported 18 pre-schools, getting to know each community and its circumstances in the process. While supporting schools might seem unrelated to elephant conservation, it really isn’t — it is part of a holistic approach that builds trust and relationships with the very people we plan to work with for years to come.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the teachers we supported had been trying for years to obtain a water supply for her classroom, which consisted of a crumbling building. Each day, the parents ferried in the water supply themselves in large cartons, filled from roadside pumps quite far away. This was all the water they had for drinking as well as sanitation — all because they simply couldn’t afford to pay the fees required to have the public utilities install a water line to the property, or the infrastructure that went with it!

With our assistance, they first got their water supply, and then used it to demolish and rebuild the entire school building. Observing their progress was eye-opening for me, as access to water is something that many of us take for granted. I couldn’t believe that such a basic need even existed in these areas, which were by no means remote despite being rural.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Let’s ask first what is the root of the problem? The human-elephant conflict is not fundamentally driven by the poor themselves, but by the unsustainable and irresponsible policies shaped by those in power who are acting out of pure, exploitative greed. The latter is at the root of many of our social and environmental issues, be they climate change or income inequality. So we can speak in generalities.

Politicians are failing to meet their own self-stated targets and commitments to sustainability, and as a result, both people and nature are paying a heavy price. I truly wish political actors — whether at the local levels or international — would truly act in the interest of their constituents and society, rather than their own desire for power and profit.

This is where society has a major role to play. All members of civil society must try to exert their political and economic influence to the utmost extent possible to hold the policy- and decision-makers accountable. We can’t expect to achieve a sustainable, equitable society without demanding that businesses switch to a more just and far-thinking economic paradigm, and to support those that do. This means participating in the political process and being ethical consumers.

At the level of communities, there is an urgent and fundamental need for empathy. We live in a highly polarized world where it is very easy to isolate ourselves from differing points of view and caricature those who we perceive to be on the other side. Conservationists and animal lovers are as guilty of this as everyone else, with misanthropic tendencies that alienate those who are not within the “tribe”. I believe most people fundamentally want to do what they believe is right and good. We may disagree on what that is, but whether as local communities or a single global one, we must work together and respect one another to solve our problems.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

The simplest definition of a leader is as an individual who takes charge of others. The differences arise from how they do this. One style is to control others through brute force, fear and the assertion of power. Such leaders mainly have their own self-interest at heart. Another is to inspire others to follow through a more collaborative, inclusive process that fundamentally has the interests of others at heart. Such leaders “take charge” in the sense that they assume responsibility for the well-being of others. Any number of dictators and certain presidents may come to mind as representing the former, while visionaries such as Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. represent the latter. I think we all have dictatorial potential driven by ego and insecurity, but also the ability to cultivate that selfless, confident leadership modelled by those we admire.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Your priorities will change over time, and that’s ok. At first, I was 100% committed to becoming a paleontologist. Then I just knew that I really wanted to study animal behavior and be a professor. But later, starting a nonprofit seemed like a better way to make a real-world impact. And now I may just start a social enterprise. As the saying goes, life is a winding road. The sooner you get comfortable with change and let go of the illusion that you have some idea of where you will end up, the happier you will be. ‘Meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are journeys, not singular end points.

2. Be persistent, but give yourself the permission to be flexible. Change does not necessarily equal failure, and failure is not necessarily a bad thing. These statements may seem self-contradictory, but they are related to the preceding point. Women and minorities face all kinds of explicit and implicit biases which we ourselves may be barely aware of. So we have to be persistent and skeptical in the face of outright criticism or even seemingly benevolent advice that actually undermines what we set out to achieve. I graduated second in my class in high school, but I didn’t even try to apply to an Ivy League university. Though I had wanted to, I thought my family wouldn’t have been able to afford it and a well-meaning counselor (herself a woman of color) discouraged it. We were ill-informed, and today I am much more sensitive to the issues underlying experiences like this. Nevertheless, I did manage to earn a PhD. I am really excited to be where I am and doing what I am doing today, though it has been frightening to step outside the ivory tower I was preparing to live inside.

3. You are not your work. Often our personal identities are so strongly tied to what we do that we do not separate ourselves from it. This is especially true of scientists and conservationists, but it is just as common in other professions. While a high level of dedication can be important for success, it can also lead to burnout. And, what happens if something undermines the work-identity? Close to 10 years ago, there was a very traumatic rift among members of my field team that nearly ended the project. It led me to question whether the actual impact we were having was worth the stress and anxiety on everyone, least of all myself. But it pushed me to treasure and value my relationships and interests outside of the cause, to cultivate a distinct separation between it and myself, and ultimately to have a healthier outlook.

4. The so-called “motherhood penalty” is real, but it is also opens new avenues. I always had the intention to have kids, but I was afraid of the disproportionate career costs to women which everyone seemed to be talking about. And despite being fortunate to have an extremely supportive partner, some are just impossible to avoid. At some point, like many others, I recalibrated my expectations. But unexpectedly, the experience has spurred a whole world of ideas and relationships that I would not have had otherwise.

5. If you’re a woman, seek out multiple female mentors. As a scientist and academic, I’ve had many more male than female mentors, despite my field having a fair number of outstanding female role models. Many of those male mentors, including my early college professors, were wonderfully supportive. But women have a deeper understanding of what other women face and it manifests in a valuable difference in perspective as well as desire to help others succeed.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Oh dear, I wouldn’t say enormous. What I’m about to suggest isn’t new and but it’s the first thing that comes to mind and is worth reiterating. We need a movement to increase empathy. Young children, once they begin to ascribe sentience to others, over-extend to all sorts of objects — not only animals and toys, but also rocks and other inanimate things. They are distressed by any perceived pain or suffering in others. But as we get older, wiser, and rather more cynical, it becomes a struggle to see beyond our own opinions and trials. We absorb and internalize rules about in-groups and out-groups and create barriers among ourselves that prevent us from seeing common ground. We reserve that precious empathy only for those within our own circles. It takes conscious effort to broaden the circle of empathy again. In this era of technology-enabled echo-chambers, it’s imperative that we break through those walls both at the personal and societal levels.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world.”

This is an anonymous quote, written on a section of the former Berlin wall. It feels universal, and given the context, one is automatically inclined to think of the positive. It reminds me to acknowledge and appreciate the countless obscure, unknown people who are working in some way to make the world a bit better. But I also see it as cautionary — if we ignore our personal responsibility to work toward the greater good, if we leave problems for others to solve, if we fail to speak against the suffering of others, we collectively have a negative impact.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. Besides using her own success to enable and uplift others, she just seems like a lovely down-to-earth person who would be fun to spend time with!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow Trunks & Leaves and our work on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (@TrunksnLeaves).

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