For her internship Muditha Heekenda went to the USA, where she worked at a Conservation and Research Centre. This institute is attached to the Smithsonian National Zoological park and located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Front Royal, Virginia.
Research facilities include a GIS lab, endocrine and gamete labs, a veterinary clinic, a radio tracking lab, 14 field stations, and biodiversity monitoring plots, as well as a conference center, dormitories, and education offices. Here she worked on a specific case, with data from Yala National Park in Sri Lanka.
“To reduce the conflict between humans and elephants in Sri Lanka, the current elephant conservation strategy is based on limiting elephants to protected areas. That is, elephants are trans-located into protected areas and electric fences are constructed on the boundaries of such areas. In that situation it is extremely difficult to monitor, study and observe the elephants directly.”
“In the project an indirect method, called radio telemetry, had been selected to observe the elephants by installing GPS collars on selected animals. While GPS data will enable obtaining both day and night locations, the VHF component will allow locating the animals when needed, enabling downloading of the GPS data.
For this project, two different things had to be done. One is processing the GPS data and the other is creating a land cover map for Southwest Sri Lanka.
Since I stayed for four months, I prepared this land cover map by using ASTER satellite imageries to quantify the temporal and spatial dynamics of chena agriculture. GPS data that indicate the habitat use of wild elephants were downloaded and processed to create separate maps for each elephant, including their daily paths and weekly home ranges.
My internship experience was everything I thought that it would be and more, because it gave me an opportunity to live in an isolated city in USA; Front Royal, Virginia with all Americans. That was a good experience, very different and very exciting. Cultural differences made me uncomfortable sometimes but they were really friendly and kind to me. I can still remember how they felt when I was feeding them with spicy and hot Sri Lankan foods on our common dinner party at every Thursday.
Working at the GIS lab was a first-hand experience of everything in a large educational and research institution. I made incredible contacts and friendships. The opportunity that I got to travel to big cities like New York and Washington DC was incredible.
Finally, I feel that I learned almost everything I needed to know from this internship thanks to my MSc program.”