Dr. Shermin de Silva joins UBC in a joint appointment between Geography and Zoology in July 2022. As Assistant Professor of Connectivity Science, Dr. de Silva will be part of UBC’s new Interdisciplinary Biodiversity Solutions Cluster.
She studies the ecology and conservation of Asian elephants, is the founder of the nonprofit Trunks & Leaves, and directs the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka, which she initiated in 2005.
What has been your pathway so far, and how did it bring you to UBC?
I was a very urban kid. I grew up in the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka, so pretty much my only window into the world beyond my backyard was nature documentaries. We moved to the US when I was 10, and even there I didn’t go hiking or camping or any of those things. I think it’s wonderful to be able to have nature experiences at a young age, but I suppose I’m a testament to the fact that you don’t necessarily need those to become interested in the natural world!
We went back to Sri Lanka intermittently to visit family, and when I was around college age I saw a documentary showing all of these places in the country that I had never been to. The war was happening the whole time I was growing up there, so a lot of areas were not really accessible because it didn’t seem safe. National parks would close and reopen – but they had much fewer visitors than they do today. So when I saw the documentary, I felt sad and almost jealous, because here was the country I was from, and I hadn’t been to these places.
So the first thing I did when I graduated from my biology degree was take two years off to decide on graduate programs. I visited the places from the documentary, and one of them was a national park. I was already thinking about studying elephants, and then I discovered that I had extended family in that area of the country, who I had never met. So all of this was a big process of self discovery that ultimately allowed me to do the research I needed to do, in the place I needed to do it, and the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project was born in 2005.
Early on in graduate school, I was pretty focused on animal behavior. But then you start thinking; well, what can I actually do that matters, to help protect the species that we’re studying? So I started the non-profit Trunks & Leaves, which aims to raise awareness about Asian elephants, when I was just graduating.
My husband is also a biologist and we had started a family, so I needed something that was a consistent affiliation for the research program that I had established, since I wasn’t at a career stage where we could both look for academic jobs at the same time. I had to ask, how do I keep doing what I want to do in the absence of that infrastructure? Which is how the non-profit came about.
So I have ended up doing my own thing for the last couple of years. I’ve also become increasingly interested in this question of co-existence, because that’s the number one problem for elephants – how do we live with them? And how can research really inform that? In the non-profit world, I see a lot of interventions and pilot projects that are not very evidence based, or informed by data. So I’ve continued doing my research, but within this non-profit space.
I’ve also had to do other things that academics typically don’t do; running the office, giving public talks, helping create animations or consulting on a documentary. All these things are fun, but they are also not research, and research takes a lot of time. One of the big challenges of a small nonprofit is a lack of resources, as I don’t have the institutional setup you would have at a large NGO. I’ve also missed having intellectual community with other researchers. So when this job came up, it was such a nice fit for the work I was already doing, and filled in those gaps I was missing – I couldn’t pass it up!
Coming from a background in animal behaviour, what interested you in elephants specifically?
When I was trying to decide what I wanted to study, I literally sat down and made a list of all the interesting species! I was interested in human language and communication and philosophy – I was also a philosophy major. So I wanted to combine that with studying animal behavior. That would mean species that are considered to be cognitively interesting, so I had dolphins and primates and corvids on the list, but I didn’t really feel like just adding one more brick into a huge edifice of work that had already been done…
So when I looked at research on elephants, I had seen documentaries about how elephants communicate using low frequencies and infrasound, and there was a lot of research on African savanna elephants. When I looked into Asian elephants, my assumption was that since they have been in captivity for thousands of years now, we must know a lot more about them. It blew me away that we actually don’t know that much about wild Asian elephants; only behavior and physiology that have mostly been studied in captivity. Here were the animals I wanted to work on, and they were in Sri Lanka. So I thought, this is a way for me to get back to my roots, and do something meaningful!
When people think about conservation, especially in the context of African elephants, the major thought tends to be that we need to stop poaching. What are the deeper conservation questions you’re looking to explore?
If you go to Asia, most people will have their experience of elephants as tourists, in these up close and personal encounters. I increasingly feel that is causing a split view for lay people, where African elephants are wild creatures that you can be in awe of, and Asian elephants are these touchy feely, cute, cuddly things. On the other hand, for farmers they’re seen as a problem.
There are all these different perceptions of elephants, and how people who actually live with elephants experience them, as opposed to people who care about elephants from a distance. I’m getting more interested in this question of culture; how people perceive elephants, and why they perceive them that way. And what does it have to do, if at all, with our propensity to save them or protect them or value them in different ways?
Then there’s the practical desire to understand how we can physically share land and space, while being very aware of the fact that I, personally, don’t live with elephants. I live half a world away from the local populations that have to deal with them day in and day out. So I feel an ethical responsibility towards the elephants and a responsibility to the people, because I think it’s all very well and good to say “oh, we need to protect species XYZ,” when we’re not the ones who have to take a risky walk to school near them, or have our loved ones be affected by by that species.
So I think that has opened this whole new world of horizons; I’m just becoming more and more fascinated with human behavior, and how different communities and different cultures view nature – elephants as a starting point – but also nature at large.
What interested you in geography as a field, and when did you first start thinking about it?
The funny thing is, back when I was applying for PhD programs, I actually looked into geography programs! I’ve been interested ever since I discovered GIS and saw that there’s this whole world of research that I love.
I’m a very visual person, I think that’s the biggest appeal. A picture really is worth 1000 words, and when you can observe spatial patterns and look at things on a map, it shows you relationships that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. It’s very simple also from a public communication standpoint; it’s a nice tool to be able to communicate with non-specialists. And I love beautiful data. So, it combines all those things!
So I was thrilled that this position was cross posted between geography and zoology, because my perspective has just broadened out a whole lot more since I started thinking about human-elephant, and human-wildlife interactions. This term socioecology, which I presented in my job talk, has had a very narrow, discipline-specific understanding in different sectors – people who work on people, and people who work on non-human animals use this term in different ways. I see a need to marry those different perspectives into a broader, more inclusive inquiry.
So that’s what I’m really excited about; I think geography is a perfect place to do that. Geography brings together the physical and ecological and biological together with the human dimensions. There are other layers that I want to get into, but I don’t really have a background in, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with a really diverse range of people.