Expert urges Lankans to recognise value of our forests

October 18, 2016 by

This article published on SundayTimes on 31.07.2016 will be re-posted here to remind the importance of our forests on this October – National Tree Planting Month. It is also a tribute to the ‘International Research Symposium on Valuation of Forest Ecosystems’ which is an initial step taken by REDD+ to assess the true value of the services silently offered by our forests.

Prof.Savithri Gunathilake

Prof.Savithri Gunathilake

The world is losing forest at the rate of 3 million hectares a year according to 2010-2015 figures, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed as World Forestry Week was marked in Rome on July 18-22. Minister Susil Premajayantha attended the Rome forum on behalf of the President of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka needs to pay more attention to the restoration of its own degraded forest land, Emeritus Professor at University of Peradeniya, Professor Savitri Gunatilleke said.

“Forests fulfil a series of ecosystem services, both tangible and intangible, and it is vital that we recognise their importance,” said Professor Gunatilleke, who recently received an award for her contribution of studies of forests in Sri Lanka.

“Methods are being explored to provide monitoring values for different ecosystem services the forests provide, which we take so much for granted. Hopefully this might convince decision-makers why forests need to be conserved,” she said.

Prof. Gunatilleke highlighted the importance of using Sri Lanka’s forest resources sustainably.

“In recent times, a number of forest species with economic value, such as walla patta, weniwel and kothala himbuttu were illegally and unsustainably harvested directly from forests. Over-exploitation threatens their survival so we need to do something immediately to arrest the situation,” she said.

She emphasised the importance of scientific studies to support a strategy to conserve such plants. “If we know the conditions required for their propagation and growth, these plants can be cultivated so that the pressure on plants in natural forests is reduced,” she said.

“Plants such as cinnamon were previously harvested directly from forests but these are now successfully cultivated, so why not do this for the other heavily harvested forest species? It is worth a try,” Prof. Gunatilleke said.

There is emerging molecular evidence now that some groups of rainforest plants such as the ancestors of durians, rambutans and dipterocarps (the hora and thiniya-yakahalu dun group of species) migrated to South-East Asia via the Indian Plate when earth is undergoing changes some 40-50 million years ago.


Currently, these ancestral species are confined to south-west Sri Lanka, where an ever-wet climate prevails. “These rainforests are a refuge to these ancestral species as well as a host of others, and hence of great significance to the entire tropical Asian region,” Prof. Gunatillake said.

Her research reveals that about 60 per cent of the tree species in Sri Lanka’s lowland rain forests is endemic but that their distribution is highly localised, with most being quite rare. Continued deforestation and illicit encroachment could threaten the survival of such species, she fears.

These wet zone forests are small in size, very fragile, much fragmented and in constant danger of conversion to other uses. It is important therefore to link these remaining forest patches and restore degraded forests using sound ecological principles, the researcher advises.

A new huna emerges from unprotected Salgala forest

October 16, 2016 by
 Published on SundayTimes on 25.09.2016

Herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe who revealed a brightly-coloured new tree snake from the Sinharaja forest last week has now announced the discovery of a new endemic gecko, found in the Salgala forest in Kegalle district.

The gecko, or huna in Sinhala, is a familiar creature: most of our houses are inhabited by a family of “house geckos” that mostly come out at dusk. The new gecko is different, being mostly active during the daytime. It prefers rocky habitats and is also smaller than the house gecko.

The researcher first found this Salgala gecko in 2012 while exploring the least explored areas of the country to fill in the gaps in knowledge on the reptiles and amphibians that live in those habitats. The research team found a healthy population of this gecko living in the wild around the Salgala area and also inhabiting outer walls of some of the houses close to the forest.

The new gecko is scientifically described as Cnemaspis rajakarunai, named in honour of Henry Rajakaruna, one of the masters of Sri Lankan photography, in recognition of his services to promote Fine Art Photography for over half a century. Mr.Rajakaruna perfected a technique of low shutter speed motion capture internationally known as “Rajakaruna style”.

In common language the Salgala gecko is called  Rajakarunage diva huna, Rajakaruna pahalpalli and Rajakaruna’s day gecko in Sinhala, Tamil and in English, respectively.

Geckos are interesting creatures: they lack eyelids and have a transparent skin that they clean by licking. It also has a well-known defence mechanism of being able to lose its tail. While a predator is distracted by a still-alive detached tail, the gecko is able to hide in a safe place and, in time, grow a new tail.

Geckos move upside down on ceilings using specialised adhesive toe pads that enable them to climb smooth, vertical surfaces. Geckos shed their skin and, it is said, is able to replace each of their 100 teeth every three to four months.

The new discovery brings to 45 the number of gecko species in Sri Lanka. There are about 1,500 species worldwide.


Salgala, where the new discovery was made, is a few kilometres away from Galapitamada, where the critically-endangered freshwater fish, bandula barb, has its sole habitat. Salgala is an unprotected forest patch, and that is of concern to researchers. Mr. Wickramasinghe said there was an urgent need to survey the unprotected ecosystems there since other new species awaiting discovery could perish if the habitat was destroyed.

Mr.Wickramasinghe’s work has been assisted by the Ministry of Environment, the Nagao Natural Environment Foundation and principal sponsor, Dilmah Conservation. Dulan Vidanapathirana and Gayan Rathnayake helped him with the research.

The new gecko was named after Henry Rajakaruna

The new gecko was named after Henry Rajakaruna

Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna


Dance in Trance – Unique photography techniques by Henry Rajakaruna

Wildlife desperate for water

October 12, 2016 by
Safe waterholes dry up, driving animals into human areas 

Poachers are heavily active during the drought – Hambantota

As the drought worsens, not only humans but wild animals too are suffering, reports Malaka Rodrigo

A family living in Hathporuwa, Sooriyawewa, had an unexpected visitor early morning on September 20 – an eight-foot crocodile. The family alerted Hambantota wildlife rangers who promptly responded. Later the same day, the same team of rangers had to rescue another croc, a 9.5 footer, from an agro well in Meegahajadura. As the smaller water holes dry up, wild animals looking for water are increasingly straying into human settlements.

Hambantota wildlife rangers also revealed an increase in elephants infiltrating villages and raiding crops as the drought progresses. Most of the small tanks in the pockets of forest patches had dried out so animals – particularly elephants – were moving to the remaining water sources such as Bandagiriya Wewa.

These, however, are now surrounded by cultivations, most established illegally, so the elephants now have to move through villages to get to the water, intensifying the chance of human-elephant conflict.

The dry period is a merry time for poachers. They use inhumane methods such as poisoning the remaining waterholes, bringing death to the unsuspecting animals.

The wildlife rangers and Special Task Force police nabbed three poachers at Kadawara Wewa in Hambantota this week, finding the bodies of two spotted deer they had killed. They also found different kinds of traps set up near the waterhole to capture wildlife – mainly deer.

Deer and other small animals have other new threats. As safe waterholes dry up they have to venture into more open areas. Groups of feral dogs learn to hunt these weakened animals. Hambantota wildlife officers this week found a dead deer that had been attacked by feral dogs.

The media officer of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Hasini Sarathchandra, said the department was arranging more patrols in protected areas during this dry period but with a large pockets of unprotected areas outside national parks and only a few dozen wildlife rangers available for deployment it was impractical to expect matters to improve as the drought continued. Not only Yala, near Hambantota, but also Wilpattu and Kumana are experiencing drought.

Yala National Parks Warden D.P. Siyasinghe said this is the typical dry period Yala experiences every year. “Many of the small water pools have gone dry but there are number of large tanks and rock pools that still contain water. The department is also putting water into some of the waterholes and, with the use of solar power, some waterholes get water pumped from the river that still has water,” he said.

The Sunday Times learned that the DWC with support from Linea Aqua, last year rehabilitated a number of tanks inside Yala that helped to increase water capacity and retention so that rainwater is held for a longer period.

Some wildlife experts are of the view that drought is a natural process and we should not interfere too much with it. Late Childers Jayawardene, who was Yala Park warden in the late ’70s, earlier said “drought is nature’s way of maintaining life”.

“Drought eliminates the sick and weak animals. Next year, after the drought, what we have is a healthier animal population. Drought is nature’s way of maintaining life,” Mr. Jayawardene said. Hence mechanisms to minimise the damage from drought should be carefully considered.

Elephant expert Dr. Prithviraj Fernando pointed out that food was a bigger concern than water during a drought. An average elephant spends 16-18 hours a day grazing as it requires about 150kg of food, so a dry period is a testing time for elephants particularly restricted into a smaller area.

Releasing of 9.5 feet croc fallen into a Agri well in Meegahajadura - Hambanthota on 20.Sept

Releasing of 9.5 feet croc fallen into a Agri well in Meegahajadura – Hambanthota on 20.Sept

Dr. Fernando pointed out that many of the national parks have more elephants than their vegetation can support during drier period, so it is important that animals be able to roam in adjacent forests to assuage their hunger. As the national parks are surrounded by electric fences, however, the elephants’ movements were restricted.

“Sadly some of these fences erected between national parks and wildernesses belong to the Forest Department. It is important these fences be readjusted if we need to have a healthy elephant population in national parks such as Yala and Udawalawe,” he advised.

Dr. Fernando also said the plan to keep the Minneriya tank at spill level throughout the year for irrigation should be reconsidered in order to manage habitats for elephants in drier periods.

Hundreds of elephants in the area gather during the dry season around the Minneriya tank bed to feed on fresh shoot of grasses that come up as the water level recedes. If the Minneriya tank was at spill level all year round a large amount of these grasslands that emerge during the dry season will be submerged, depriving elephants of this nutrition-rich fodder.

Without this fresh source of food during drought, conflict will increase, Dr. Fernando warned, urging authorities to rethink the strategy.

The drying water holes

Drying out water holes

Science needs strategic direction, says UNESCO chief

October 12, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 21.08.2016

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova

“Science holds answers for many of the key questions of sustainability we face today and science needs to be more strategic and tightly connected with national strategies,” UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova, told a forum of about 200 scientists in Colombo.

The event last week was organised by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a dialogue between Sri Lankan scientists and the visiting DG of UNESCO. Ms.Bokova acknowledged the talent of Sri Lankan scientists and invited them to use UNESCO platforms more effectively for their work.

Participating scientists spoke out about barriers to research in this country, saying lack of funds and high-calibre science projects hurt the quality of research in Sri Lanka.

Taking oceanography as an example, Professor Ruchira Kumaratunga, who established the country’s first university Oceanography Department at the University of Ruhuna, said, “The equipment and other services needed to carry out oceanography research is costly. We have buildings, but it is difficult to get these fully equipped with the funds we receive. We also have research vessels, but fuel is costly. Even a diving licence is costly”.

The Minister of Science, Technology and Research, Susil Premajayantha, said the government is to set up a National Science Centre in Colombo to exhibit and celebrate the beauty and wonders of science. Such centres exist in most South Asian countries as well as in the developed world. Ms.Bokova pledged that UNESCO would support the project.

It was essential to attract more talented Sri Lankans to science, Minister Premajayantha said. “You don’t find as many scientists of very high calibre as we had in the past so we have a duty to popularise science, technology and innovation,” he said.

Ms.Bokova also visited three of Sri Lanka’s eight World Heritage Sites, including the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the Sigirya Rock Fortress, and the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. She had to face a barrage of questions relating to the status of the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple, a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Asked whether it would lose its status due to unapproved development work carried out by a local monk, Ms.Bokova said a UNESCO technical team that inspected the site in March 2015 had made a number of recommendations and UNESCO was working with the government in order to improve the conservation and management of the site. At the moment, there are no plans to delist Dambulla, she said.

Ms.Bokova, who met President Maithripala Sirisena and other leaders, said she was “impressed by the strong political will to move forward and go through the reconciliation process”.

Trials to start for home-grown anti-venom

October 10, 2016 by

Drug will for the first time counter kunakatuwa bites : Published on SundayTimes on 09.10.2016

Researchers at the University of Peradeniya will next week begin clinical trials for new snake anti-venom that experts

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

Prof. Indika Gawarammana

hope preclude the high rate of allergic reactions from imported medication.

Indian-manufactured anti-venom serum is the main weapon used against the 50,000-plus snake bites recorded annually in Sri Lanka but as venom varies in snakes of different countries the Indian anti-venom has limitations here.

As this paper reported recently, Indian anti-venom could cause adverse allergic reactions in 50-80 per cent of patients, with nearly half of these reactions life-threatening. Most Sri Lankan doctors see the solution (anti-venom) as a bigger challenge than snakebite itself.

“All laboratory tests have now been completed and the results show that the new anti-venom is far superior in terms of neutralising venom compared to the Indian anti-venom,” the team’s chief scientist, Professor Indika Gawarammana, said.

“After the safety and effectiveness of the new anti-venom is established following clinical trials, commercial manufacturing can be started.”

The research team received the first batch of the anti-venom processed by its collaborator, the Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) of the University of Costa Rica a few weeks ago and are now ready to begin clinical trials, said Prof.Gawarammana, who is Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at Peradeniya.

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

First batch of anti-venom for our own snakes

The anti-venom is active against number of venomous snakes. The first test batch will be effective against venom from the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and the hump-nosed viper (kunakatuwa). Anti-venom properties for the krait will, in time, be included in this serum.

The hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale) is responsible for the highest number of snake bites in Sri Lanka and these can sometimes be fatal. Currently, there is no venom to treat kunakatuwa bites and victims are only treated with symptomatic treatment such as painkillers. Records show an unfortunate proportion of patients develop chronic kidney failure due to lack of an anti-venom.

The process of anti-venom development is complex. First, tiny amounts of venom are injected periodically into horses. Horses subsequently develop antibodies – a process similar to immunisation of children for various infections (polio, measles etc.) – in their blood.

These antibodies, the anti-venom, are then extracted, purified and freeze-dried for human use. If the purification is faulty the resulting substance could contain other serum proteins that could cause the problematic reactions coming from Indian anti-venom, Prof. Gawarammana explained.

The researcher recalls how the project began: “In October 2013, Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka invited Sri Lankan scientists, including myself, to produce safe and specific anti-venom for Sri Lanka.

“At our request, one of the best anti-venom producers in the world, Instituto Colodomiro Picardo (ICP) in Costa Rica, agreed to produce a test batch of Sri Lankan species-specific anti-venom at almost no cost,” Prof. Gawarammana  said.

The ICP produces anti-venom for many South America and African countries and Papua New Guinea and these countries do not experience the problems seen in Sri Lanka from anti-venom. Recognising the value of the Peradeniya team’s work, the National Research Council of Sri Lanka provided part of the funding for the project. The rest of the funding came from Animal Venom Research International, a non-profit organisation based in USA.

The necessary permission to collect snakes and house them in a serpentarium, milk venom and export venom to Costa Rica was given by the Department of Wildlife of Sri Lanka.

The project was not without challenges. The team faced unnecessary delays due to adverse media publicity at the inception of the project. As well, researchers only received permission to collect snakes from home gardens to extract venom.

Prof. Gawarammana said ICP was ready to transfer the technology for making the anti-venom to Sri Lanka. He said the researchers do not mind who manufactures it as long as they realise their dream of seeing it save lives.

Milking a Russsell's Viper to extract venom to be used for research

Milking a Russsell’s Viper to extract venom to be used for research

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well

The new anti-venom be effective against Kunakatuwa bites as well


Ecological survival a shared responsibility

October 10, 2016 by

World Bank binds communities into visionary project – published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016

Sri Lanka and the World Bank have signed a $US45 million loan to help protect the country’s natural habitat and resources from degradation and over-exploitation. The Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) aims to address key issues in conservation while assisting to improve the lives and livelihoods of neighbouring communities.

ESCAMP was initiated in 2009 when the former Rajapaksa government asked the World Bank for a $US30 million loan. The bank, with assistance of number of experts, come up with a proposal including a science-based action plan to address number of conservation issues including the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) in selected areas.

Conservationists had high hopes for ESCAMP as a landmark project but in the latter stages of negotiation the Ministry of Finance requested fundamental changes and the World Bank decided to drop the project in 2011, fearing the changes would harm its objectives.

The Sirisena government showed interest in reopening the project and made a formal request. After updating the proposal both the WorldBank and Cabinet signed approval of the project on September 5. Most of the main components remain intact and this time the amount being given is $US45 million.

“The project will improve responsible planning and management of protected areas and other biologically and ecologically important locations throughout Sri Lanka,” said World Bank Senior Environment Specialist and Project Task Team Leader Darshani De Silva.

Importantly, it will create partnerships of environmental guardianship with local communities, she said. “It will help to create sustained linkages with communities living adjacent to protected areas to ensure participation in protection of critical ecosystems and benefit sharing, promote compatible developments within and around sensitive ecosystems, raise quality of visitor services and revenue potential of forest and wildlife resources, while developing the capacity of Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation to deliver on their institutional mandates.”

There are four main components. One is a Pilot Landscape Planning and Management for Conservation scheme in two particular areas in the dry zone and biodiversity-rich wet zone. The second component, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and Human-Elephant Co-Existence, includes financing the scaling-up of successful human-elephant coexistence pilot projects along with identifying economic incentives for affected communities.

The third component, Protected Area Management and Institutional Capacity, has the biggest funding allocation, $US 24.2 million. It aims at supporting the Protected Area (PA) network, support of nature-based tourism development and strengthening of the institutional capacity and investment capability for conservation and management. Project management is funded as the fourth component.

Conservationists view ESCAMP positively as it clearly looks at long-term solution for many issues including human-elephant conflict. The proposal clearly specifies that project funds should not be used for failed solutions such as elephant drives or the capture and domestication of problem elephants.

The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment will lead the implementation of the project in partnership with the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife. It is expected that ESCAMP will conclude in 2021.

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

What price for Nature’s ‘greenbacks’ – the forests?

October 7, 2016 by

Prof.Nimal Gunathilake

Conservationists are debating whether working out a rupee value for forests would convince money-crunching bureaucrats that preserving them makes more economic sense than stripping woodland for income-producing purposes.

“Many people consider forest as a waste of land where utilising that terrain for other purposes can bring income, also contributing to the national economy. But forests provide other services such as delivering the fresh water we drink and the clean air we breathe whereas if we lose these services it will cost a lot of money to implement costly alternatives,” the Conservator-General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe said.

“It is often a big challenge to communicate this value to politicians and officials who mainly understand the value of everything in monetary terms and demand forest land for other development work,” Mr. Sathurusinghe said at a press conference organised by REDD+ Sri Lanka regarding the forthcoming International Research Symposium on Valuation of Forest Ecosystems and Their Services to be held in Colombo on October 18.

REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is an effort to identify value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries.

“Tagging a value” for services provide by an ecosystem such as a forest is a modern concept. Ecosystem services are broadly divided into four categories: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits. The concept aims at putting a price tag for these services which helps to convey their values in monetary terms. Hence the price that has to be paid by destroying that particular forest is highlighted.

“We know about ‘provisioning’ values of forests such as the value of timber, but other services are often taken for granted,” said forests expert Professor Nimal Gunathilake. He explained the aims of the research forum were to share the existing knowledge on forest ecosystem services valuation, identifying new methodologies and identifying the drawbacks.

Conservator General of Forests Anura Sathurusinghe

Ecosystem valuation can be difficult and controversial, and economists have often been criticised for trying to place a “price tag” on nature. At the forum, a question was raised whether communicating the value of individual forests to the general public is prudent as people could start exploiting natural resources such as in the case of illegally stripping forests of “walla patta” trees and smuggling the resin-rich wood overseas.

Mr.Sathurusinghe revealed that a recent review of forests showed degradation was a bigger concern than deforestation. Deforestation means conversion of forest to another land use type while degradation is deterioration of the standing vegetation in density, structure and species composition due to human activities and natural causes.

The four main causes of deforestation are encroachment, infrastructure development projects and private agriculture ventures while drivers for forest degradation include illicit felling of trees, cattle grazing, forest fires, gem-mining, quarrying, forest undergrowth cultivations such as cardamom and non-timber forest product gathering such as weniwel or walla patta. A REDD+ Sri Lanka report states Anuradhapura is the district with the highest levels of deforestation and forest degradation.

Deforestation is taking place at a relatively higher rate in the dry zone due to the many development projects now occurring there. Experts cautioned that dry zone forests are as important as wet zone forests.


Published on SundayTimes on 02.10.2016

Thousands of years old ‘near fossilized’ animal remains found in Yala

October 7, 2016 by

Bone fragments believed to be animals that died thousands of years ago were discovered from a rock pool in Yala this week.

They are parts of skeletons of elephants, tortoises, wild buffaloes, spotted deer, wild boar and other animals, say students of the Kelaniya University Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology who are studying the fossils.

The level of fossilisation indicates the animal bones are 1,000 to 5,000 years old, palaeobiodiversity expert Kelum Manamendra-arachchie said.

“Some of these bones could be older,” he added. With time, the organic materials inside bones are replaced by mineral substances and experts can estimate their age by observing the extent of this fossilisation process.

Fossilisation only happens in rare cases. Animal carcasses are usually eaten or bacteria can rots them away before fossilisation can occur.

Fossils are found when animals die in location where their carcasses – or parts of it – are protected from scavengers and the elements, such as when they are found on the seabed or a river bed and become buried in sand, soil or mud. Rock pools with beds of clayey mud are ideal, Mr. Manamendra-arachchie pointed out.

The bones were found during efforts to find water sources for thirsty animals. Due to the drought, many of the Yala National Park’s waterholes have run dry. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) sent a crew with a backhoe to deepen a rock pool known as Wel-mal-kema in Yala Block I.

These rockpools are the lifeline of wild animals during droughts as many of them have water when other water sources run dry. It is believed animals became trapped in the mud of this rock pool when they came there for drinking water thousands of years ago.

Through analysis of the bones, Mr. Manamendra-arachchie is able to surmise that wild buffaloes were plentiful thousands of years ago in Yala. The national park has a population of wild buffaloes but these are mixed with domesticated buffaloes. Mr. Manamendra-arachchie says the base of the hobes are thicker in wild buffaloes and there were many such skulls among the excavated bones.

This Wel-mal-kema is 30 feet long and believed to be 30 ft deep. Only half of it has been excavated and it is possible that there could be much older fossils.

Yala has a number of such rock pools, so there could be many mysteries waiting to be unearthed. The Director-General of the DWC and the Minister for Wildlife has requested the Institute of Archaeology to continue with this study in Yala.

Mr. Manamendra-arachchie said he analysed a similar, but smaller rock pool in 2005 in Thanamalwila from which he collected four truckloads of bones that, he believes clearly accounted for more than 100 elephants, 150 wild buffaloes, 200 spotted deer, 150 wild boar and 50 sambhur deer. Most of them had almost become fossilised. 

Published on SundayTimes on 02.10.2016


Students investigating the bones

Activists back plan to source perahera jumbos from Pinnawela

October 1, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 10.07.2016 

An illegally caught wild elephant.
Pic courtesy Animal Welfare Trust

Wildlife activists have welcomed Cabinet’s decision this week to have a herd of 35 captive elephants from Pinnawela trained to take part in cultural events while under the care of the Department of Zoological Gardens.

The move follows a proposal submitted by the Minister for Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera in the aftermath of the seizure, from private owners, of some 30 elephants believed to have been caught illegally from the wild. Preliminary investigations into this matter have been completed and the elephants, of varying ages, have been transferred to a facility in the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe.

Forces opposing the confiscation of the elephants began a campaign of fear that the confiscations would disrupt cultural events, claiming even major events such as the Temple of the Tooth perahera would be threatened due to lack of elephants for the processions. There have even been claims that wildlife activists and conservationist groups were being bribed by western countries to disrupt Sri Lanka’s cultural life.

The setting up of a unit of trained elephant to be used for cultural events was first proposed by a former director of the Zoological Gardens, Brigadier H.A.N.T. Perera but was blocked by captive elephant owners, and the former government was not interested in implementing the proposal.

The Director at Species Conservation Centre, Pubudu Weeraratne, who voiced the need to bring those behind the jumbo racket to justice said keeping trained elephants at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was the best solution. “This solution will help the elephants’ welfare and they will get the chance to move around with other elephants when there is no work,” Mr..Weeraratne said.

The elephant calves have to be sourced only from Pinnawela and not from the Elephant Transit Home, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust emphasised.

The Pinnawala orphanage was started as a facility to house elephant calves found abandoned or orphaned in the wild. But since 1995 all such orphaned elephants are housed at the ETH with the intention of rehabilitating them and releasing them back into the wild. To take an ETH elephant for training would be to deny its chance to return to the wild, Mr. Chamikara said.

Pinnawela has now has become an elephant management centre, with several births annually, and as the animals there have more interaction with humans activists agree it provides best option as a source of calves to be trained for use in pageants.

Prior to Cabinet’s decision this week, the Secretary of the Tamed Elephant Association, Dhamsiri Bandara Karunaratne, told media there was a dire need to have more captive elephants trained for cultural events and that the removal of 30 captive elephants from private hands had left a large void. He said that while there were 19 tuskers among Sri Lanka’s captive elephant population only three were suitable for carrying the relic casket of the Temple of the Tooth.

The veteran environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardene, said the wildlife activists’ fight was only against the illegal capture of animals: they were not opposed to using elephants for major cultural events.

“Even by the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, which is the main legal document, the using of elephants for the main cultural events is honoured. We never proposed anything to block the elephants from being used in cultural and Buddhist events,” emphasised Mr.Gunawardene, saying those who wanted to keep elephants in private hands for their own satisfaction were trying to hide behind religion.

“We know that traditional elephant owners too get into some difficulties. But it is mainly due to those who acquire these elephants illegally” he concluded saying that the justice should be delivered without delay.

“Don’t use the Dalada Esala Perahera for to let the elephant thieves escape,”  the Anti-Corruption Front’s Ulapane Sumangala Thera said in a separate interview.

Elephants in Esela perahera of Sri Dalada Maligaya (c)

Esela perahera of Sri Dalada Maligaya (c)

Top international award for Peradeniya scientist

October 1, 2016 by

Prof. Savitri Gunatilleke with her PhD “guru”, Prof. Peter Ashton, and her husband, Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke, holding the plaque for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the premier global organisation with a mission to foster scientific understanding and conservation of tropical ecosystems, has awarded its 2016 Honorary Fellowship to Professor Savitri Gunatilleke, Emeritus Professor at the University of Peradeniya.

Prof. Gunatilleke is the first Sri Lankan to receive this award, made at the ATBC’s 53rd Annual Congress in Montpellier, France last month.

The award is given to researchers who have demonstrated life-long distinguished service to science and have been an inspiration and role model for younger scientists and students of tropical biology.

The ATBC said Prof. Gunatilleke’s selection was unanimous, with nominations including researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, India, France and Indonesia.

Founded in 1963, the ATBC Honorary Fellowship Award is considered one of the highest accolades a researcher in the field of tropical biology can receive, with more than 80 scientists around the world being honoured so far – of whom only six have been women.

The main area of Prof. Gunatilleke’s research has been the Sinharaja rainforest. In the 1970s, the Sinharaja forest was logged by the state forestry enterprise. Her research and conservation promotion contributed in large part to the eventual designation of the Sinharaja as a World Heritage Site.

Prof. Gunatilleke graduated with a first class honours degree in Botany from the University of Ceylon in 1969. She completed her MSc in Ecology, and also obtained her PhD – on a paper entitled “The Ecology of the Endemic Tree Species of Sri Lanka in Relation to their Conservation” – in 1975 from the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of the world-renowned tropical forest expert, Professor Peter Ashton.

“In fact, I wanted to study plant pathology – the science of studying causes and effects of plant diseases – but Professor B.A. Abeywickrama, then head of the Botany Department at Peradeniya, suggested I study forest ecology. It was a decision that changed my academic career,” she said.

The higher studies were challenging for the shy research student. “Quite frankly, I had not been to a forest when I started my PhD studies and I hardly knew how to identify different plants in the field. So I had to learn fast but luckily I had supportive local supervisors,” Prof. Gunatilleke.

She pays tribute to her undergraduate teachers, professors M. D. Dassanayake and S. Balasubramaniam, who helped her tremendously to gain this knowledge during her formative years.

As the distribution patterns of Sri Lanka’s endemic tree species growing in the different lowland climates unravelled during her Ph.D. field research, Prof. Gunatilleke’s bond with the forests grew. She pays tribute to her team of field researchers and field assistants for her success.

Later, she tied the knot with another academic in the field, Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke. “Nimal has been of great strength to me,” she said, adding she was lucky to have a research partner at home.

Prof. Gunatilleke was a pioneer in taking university students to the field for forest studies. Earlier, the practice was that even forest ecology had been taught in the classroom without stepping into a forest.

When asked why that practice could not continue, she was persuasive. “Sri Lanka’s forests are among the best ‘outdoor laboratories’ to study biological diversity. But it was a time that the university had limited resources so we had to push the administration to convince the importance of these field studies,” Prof. Gunatilleke said, recalling the time she introduced “multi-day” field courses to her students.

Prof. Gunatilleke has a long history of mentorship of a younger generation of Sri Lankan tropical scientists, with a number of them serving in reputed international and national institutions.

Savitri  Gunatilleke is an outstanding role model for scientists in Sri Lanka and women scientists in particular. Apart from her academic work, which is evident from her many influential publications, she also committed herself to the advancement of ecology and conservation in Sri Lanka’s development. She has been a member of Sri Lanka’s National Man and Biosphere committee and helped to prepare the country’s Biodiversity Action Plan (1997) to name but two of many contributions.

Prof. Savitri observing tree crowns in Hakgala Botanic Gardens.

Prof. Savitri observing tree crowns in Hakgala Botanic Gardens.

Study shows problems with snake antivenom

October 1, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 14.08.2016

Russell’s Viper’s fangs

Research shows one of two kinds of antivenom imported from India might not be very effective against some venomous snakes in Sri Lanka, where 40,000 people are hospitalised due to snakebite each year.

The research team checked several batches of Indian antivenom from the VINS and Bharat brands, the only antivenom (antivenene) available in Sri Lankan hospitals for many decades. They are made to counter bites by four major venomous snakes in India, the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya’s Medical Faculty, who recently returned to the university after completing his PhD in Australia, led the research.

The study showed only the VINS antivenom neutralised the neurotoxicity of krait venom. Both antivenoms partially neutralised cobra venom and did not neutralise Russell’s viper venom.

VINS antivenom neutralised the toxic effects of Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper venom more effectively than Bharat antivenom.

The researchers conclude VINS is a better product that could help save more lives compared to Bharat but stressed the need to have locally manufactured anti-venom.

Both antivenoms lead to high rate of allergic reactions. Past studies have shown a 35-85 per cent chance of allergic reactions to Indian snake antivenom, a high figure compared to the allergic reactions reported in antivenoms used in the United States and Australia which are under 5 per cent.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage

The study also found a wide variation in the protein content and effectiveness of the different antivenom batches manufactured from 2008 to 2012, an inconsistency of quality that is a worry for medical practitioners fighting to save the lives of snakebite victims.

Snake venom is a complex mixture of toxic proteins that act against different vital organs, leading to life-threatening complications and death. Snake venoms harm the blood-clotting system, nervous system and kidney functions.

Snake antivenom is produced by injecting horses with small and repeated doses of snake venom to produce antibodies that are extracted from horse blood and made into antivenom.

There can, however, be other horse proteins in this extraction that need to be filtered out.

Contamination through unwanted horse proteins and impurities in snake antivenoms lead to allergic reactions to antivenom.

“The best option is for us to develop our own antivenom to cover all medically important venomous snakes in Sri Lanka,” Dr. Maduwage said. A group of scientists at the Peradeniya Medical Faculty is working on developing antivenom.

There is currently no antivenom available against the hump-nosed viper, the commonest type of highly venomous snakebite in Sri Lanka.

Listed along with Dr Maduwage as authors of the antivenom research paper published in the international journal Nature Scientific Reports last month are Anjana Silva, Margaret A. O’Leary, Wayne C. Hodgson and Geoffrey K. Isbister.

While researchers normally use mice in order to test the effectiveness of antivenom on snake venoms the team’s study reveals this method can be faulty.

“How snake venom attacks mice and human are different. The results of the mice study in our research are inconsistent with what happens to humans,” Dr. Maduwage said.

Saw scaled viper

Famed snake rescuer killed by rescued cobra

September 28, 2016 by

Note: ‘Window2Nature’ was not updated for several months. During this period, I have done several articles and these will be uploaded to the blog in coming days. Apologize from those who subscribed to the blog for filling your inboxes with number of posts in shorter period. The blog will be active and get updated regularly hereafter. 

This article was published on 16.08.2016 on SundayTimes. May it be a tribute to Amal Wijesekara’s silent service of rescuing countless number of snakes 

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Amal Wijesekara – saviour of countless snakes, died last week of a snake bite, aged 47 and unmarried. He was found dead on August 3 morning, near his residence in Galle, with bite marks on his left hand. Apparently the tragedy had occurred late at night or in the early hours of the day. The large cobra believed to have bitten him was also found dead in a cage.amal-wijesekera-milking-a-venomous-thith-polanga-russells-viper

Popularly known as ‘Amal Ayya’, Mr Wijesekara was famous in Galle and its suburbs for ridding gardens and houses of intruding snakes. If a suitable place to release the snake is not available in the vicinity, he takes the snake home and keeps it in a cage, until he can find transport to release them in the wild. Many of the snakes Amal rescued had been beaten, so there were times he had to treat their wounds for months, before releasing them to the wild.

If not for Amal, many snakes would have been killed, as the public doesn’t know how to get rid of venomous snakes. Amal did not belong to any organisation and conducted his rescue mission voluntarily. Amal’s technical assistance was used by the National Geographic team for their field work on snakes. Amal also trained elite soldiers on handling and surviving snakes in the field.   “Amal was very competent at handling snakes” recalls Prof. Ariaranee Gnanathasan of Colombo University’s Faculty of Medicine. “Amal is a good man and it is sad to hear of his untimely loss,” grieved Prof Ariaranee.   Amal Wijesekara was very good at identifying snakes. About 9 years back, he picked an unusual looking Hump-nosed Viper and referred it to his colleagues Dr Kalana Maduwage and Anjana Silva. “Amal gave this strange looking specimen of a Hump-nosed Viper from Galle, to Kalana and me, saying, “Malli meka new wage” (Brother, this snake looks like a new species). Indeed, it was a new snake species. We named the snake after him to honour him, by proposing the name Hypnale sp. “amal” – according to the proper nomenclature – Hypnale amali. This is the only thing we could do for him,” writes Anjana Silva.

“He is a wonderful person with a big heart,” say his colleagues who recognise Amal as one who worked for the love of snakes, sans any personal gains. He studied at Richmond College Galle.

Flawed approvals of mini hydro projects spell river, land destruction

September 28, 2016 by

This article was published on SundayTimes on 28.08.2016

Mini hydro power plants set up in sensitive areas can cause environmental damage and harm the biodiversity and ecosystem of forests, groups campaigning to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and the environment have warned.
The Environmental Foundation Limited and Sri Lanka Jalani said this week that there are deficiencies in the approval process of plants sited in protected as well as ecologically-sensitive areas. They suggest that policy guidelines be developed on where such plants can be built.

Trees are felled, river banks are cleared causing erosion and and rocks are blasted to build these plants. Debris chokes the rivers.
A mini hydro power plant is built by building a weir (dam) to collect water which is then channeled to generate less than 10 megawatts. Already 145 such units are in operation and it is understood that more than 100 are being developed or under evaluation.

The Initial Environmental Examination is the main assessment that determines whether the environmental clearance should be granted for such plants. But there are serious inaccuracies or omissions, Dr Sevvandi Jayakody of Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries of Wayamba University, said. “Many of these IEEs contain a dubious list of animals and plants with important species present in the area missing. It is clear that those who conduct the IEEs either do not have proper subject knowledge, do it in a hurry, or biased.”

Rather than doing IEEs on a single project basis, it is important to assess the environmental impact on a whole stretch of river to assess the collective impact on the river, she said.

Protests in Gatambe

Regulations require that a free flow of water in a river must be ensured to help maintain the ecosystems downstream.
“But we have serious concerns on accuracy of calculations of the amount of water that needs to be released as environment flow. Who ensures whether the flow is constantly being monitored day and night?” asked Dr Jayakody emphasizing the importance of regular post-monitoring of operations of mini hydro plants.

Prof Ivan Silva who has a Phd in river ecology, said mini hydro power plants may help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but one must take into account the destruction caused by the felling of trees to build projects.

Sections of river that dry out can also create water pools that could generate methane, which is a worse than green house gases.
Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane, pointed out the need for more serious environmental impact assessments for mini hydro power plants in highly environmentally-sensitive areas. He also questioned the ethical integrity of some experts who conduct IEEs while sitting on panels that approve projects.

“Our aim is not merely to block the development process, but to make them sustainable,” EFL’s director, Shehara De Silva summed up.

Regulators reveal holes in their buckets

The Sunday Times contacted Sustainable Energy Authority, Director General, Ranjith Pathmasiri, who noted that most viable hydro power projects have been completed and the authority is at present focusing on solar and wind power. Referring to its role in commissioning of mini hydro power projects, he said the main responsibility was to grant an energy permit for engaging in and carrying on of an on-grid renewable energy project.

The Central Environment Authority carries the main responsibility for environmental aspects of mini hydro projects, he said. 

CEA Director General K. H. Muthukudaarachchi accepted there could be some issues with Initial Environmental Examinations handled by regional offices. He said that it has been decided that assessments for projects in sensitive areas be handled by the head office. Action will taken against projects where deficiencies are found.

When asked about post-monitoring of projects, the CEA head said it had to be a shared responsibility. The CEA does not have capacity to monitor by itself, he added.

Stand up for Conservation: Former Wildlife DG Pilapitiya urge civil society

September 26, 2016 by

“Sri Lanka has the potential of being the best wildlife tourism destination outside Africa, but only if done the right way,” Department of Wildlife Conservation’s (DWC) former Director General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said at a public lecture on Thursday.

Delivering the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society’s (WNPS) monthly lecture on the topic, ‘‘Civil Society’s Role in Conservation” Dr. Pilapitiya, who resigned from the post in June this year after serving for a few of months, called on civil society to stand together and play a role in conserving wildlife as the DWC cannot do it alone, especially when it comes under political pressure.

“While revenue generation from wildlife tourism is important, it should not be done at the expense of conservation because if there is no wildlife, there is no chance for generating revenue from wildlife tourism. Therefore, DWC should give priority to conserving and protecting the country’s wildlife resources,” he stressed.

A survey carried out in 2010 by a university on visitor experience in wildlife parks revealed that a majority of foreign visitors who repeatedly holidayed in Sri Lanka visited a national park only during their first visit.“The “quality” of the visitor’s experience is much more important from the point of view of both wildlife conservation and revenue generation than the “quantity” or number of tourists visiting our national parks, Dr. Pilapitiya said.

Expanding on the aspect of quality, the former Director General said DWC guides have to be better trained in nature interpretation to provide visitors with a memorable experience. In addition, safari jeep operators should also be trained in driving etiquette and nature interpretation since many jeep drivers are not accompanied by DWC guides due to lack of staff. Discipline of safari jeeps and other vehicles entering the national parks was key to a better visitor experience, the former DG stressed.

He said currently about 650 safari jeeps are registered in Yala Block-I while ideally the  number of vehicles should be in the range of 150 a day to prevent overcrowding of the park. However drastic measures to limit the number of vehicles should not be taken overnight as there could be possible repercussions. “If we immediately restrict the number of vehicles many could lose their jobs. Economic opportunities in areas surrounding Yala are limited and these jeep drivers won’t have a source of livelihood. Don’t forget they know every bush in this wilderness and there is a lucrative market for bush meat. So what is the guarantee that such an act would not push them to be poachers which is far worse,” Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out, adding that the solution should be gradual and well thought out.

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya

Over-visitation was a serious problem mainly in three parks–Yala Block-I, Minneriya and Horton Plains. He warned that there were signs of it becoming a problem in parks such as Wilpattu, Udawalawa and Kawdulla. “Let’s prevent over-visitation by imposing regulations now itself, Dr.Pilapitiya said.

The former DG also questioned the prudence of national planning that doesn’t envisage the bigger picture. He cited the plan to keep the Minneriya tank at spill level throughout the year for irrigation endangering the annual elephant gathering. Hundreds of elephants gather during the dry season around the Minneriya tank bed to feed on fresh shoot of grasses. If Minneriya tank is at spill level year round, a large area of the grassland that emerge during the dry season would  be submerged depriving the elephants of food. This would escalate human-elephant conflict in surrounding areas  in the short term time  with elephants looking for fodder compelled to raid crops.  In the long term the future conservation of the 300-400 elephants of the area would be in jeopardy.

The  gathering has been recognised as one of the 10 wildlife spectacles of the world. The overall revenue gained from wildlife tourism around the gathering  is estimated to be $1.25 million, but this would  be lost if Minneriya tank  was at spill level year round. Besides, no agricultural revenue generated from this irrigation project would add $1.25 million to the national economy, Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out.

The Government recently signed an agreement for a $45 million loan from the World Bank to carry out a project on Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) which has provision to fund activities to improve Wildlife Tourism. Dr.Pilapitiya stressed the importance of using these resources to make a significant improvement in the quality of wildlife tourism here.

Elephant under siege by jeeps at Yala Block-I (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

Elephant under siege by jeeps at Yala Block-I (c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

Stand up for Conservation: Pilapitiya tells civil society

While the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) should be the driving force of the “Conservation Agenda” of the country, the systematic politicisation of the public service since the 1970s does not allow the department to do its job. While political authorities should provide policy direction and allow the agencies to implement the policies, now  politicians not only provide policy direction but they  get involved in implementation as well.  Unfortunately, a politician’s long term planning horizon is usually six years which is the election cycle, but for good conservation initiatives, planning must be on a much longer time horizon, Dr. Pilapitiya said.“While we should stand up against such interference, it is unreasonable to expect a person whose survival depends on the job to stand up to political pressure.  There are many instances in this country where public servants who stand up to political pressure have been victimised.

“Here Civil Society can play a bigger role. They do not face the pressure that DWC officers face, so if they can collectively have a voice, it can help mitigate some of the detrimental decisions that would hurt conservation goals,” Dr.Pilapitiya stressed adding that private enterprises should utilise their CSR money for more wildlife research as data was required to make sound decisions. He said Government funds allocated to departments hardly support research and information gathering. 

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

Sinharaja’s slithering new beauty

September 26, 2016 by

A new creature has been found in the Sinharaja rainforest, surprising experts who believed the well-researched forest had few secrets left.

Hidden from sight high in the tree canopy is a new and vividly-coloured snake now revealed by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe in an article published this week in the prestigious science journal, Zootaxa.

“The snake lives in the canopy of the forest and that could be the reason it eludes the eyes of researchers who frequent Sinharaja,” Mr. Wickramasinghe explained. He had first seen the snake as early as 2001 while conducting other research and had continued to search for this snake afterwards, managing to spot just six such specimens.

He has named the new snake the Sinharaja tree snake or Sinharaja bronze-backed snake.


The Sinharaja tree snake is a beautiful reptile with a unique colour pattern of prominent cross-bars in black and white and a red neck. It has a dark purple tongue. It has a slender body, rounded pupils, enlarged vertebral scales, and a head distinct from the body.

The live specimen Mr. Wickremasinghe photographed was recorded 15m high up in trees near Kudawa. “I was on top of a small cliff so the tree canopy was at eye level when I spotted the beauty,” he said, recalling his chance encounter.

The snake is active during the day and lives in the trees. Its large pupils give it very good eyesight, and Mr. Wickremasinghe believes sight, more than scent, is used to hunt prey. The snake could be feeding on geckos, lizards, skinks and could be laying its eggs in tree hollows.

The holotype or the single type specimen upon which the scientific description and name of a new species is based was unfortunately a member of the species run over on the road near Mederipitiya. Mr. Wickramasinghe preserved it in formalin and then began the painful scientific process of comparing it with specimens of other snakes to make sure it was not, in fact, already known to science.

Mr. Wickremasinghe assigned the snake to the genus Dendrelaphis and gave it the scientific name Dendrelaphis sinharajensis. In Sinhala, it is called Sinharaja haldanda and in Tamil, Sinharaja komberi.

The Dendrelaphis genus has 44 members around the world. There are six bronze-backed snakes in the country, three of them endemic. Although they share many common features, the colour pattern of Sinharaja tree snake makes it easily distinguishable from its close relatives.

The Sinharaja tree snake is rarely sighted, so it is likely to be rare, Mr. Wickramasinghe said, stressing the need for more research into the species.

Habitat loss and forest fragmentation could affect this species directly as it need trees to survive. But, sadly, the axe of destruction moves at the boundaries of the Sinharaja forest.

With the new discovery, Mendis Wickremasinghe has scientifically described 23 new species – two snakes, 11 amphibians, seven geckos and three skinks. He hinted that another discovery is on the way, so keep checking The Sunday Times for another new species very soon.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016

Repertoire: Mendis’ book wins awards at State Literary Awards 

Mendis Wickramasinghe is an outstanding wildlife photographer and his maiden coffee-table book,Repertoire, won two awards at the recently-concluded State Literary Awards, commended for presenting scientific information in a simple manner and for Kasun Pradeepa’s excellent layout.

Those interested in buying a copy should contact 0767 987 688 or purchase the book at a special rate from book fair stall no: L-379 of the Wildlife Trust. 


A Thought for World Environment Day 2016…!!

June 5, 2016 by

Today, 5th of June is the World Environment Day 2016. I had a little field visit to the neighborhood land in the morning with my little ‘birding companion’ to feel the nature to celebrate the day. The land was full of grass that still holds silvery morning dew. As we walked in, grasshoppers that disturbed by our foot movements jumped out on different directions. Butterflies were seeing flying from one wild flower to another in search of nectar. A lonely lizard basking the rays of morning sun was watchful, but did not make a move by our presence. My little daughter was excited as many of these things in the nature were new to her. She had quickly find friendship with mimosa (නිදිකුම්බා) shrubs found plenty in the land. She started enjoying kicking mimosa shrubs one after another watching joyously how the leaves go to sleep by her touch. She also liked its flower and plucked few, showing me her priced collection.

‘Nature’ is indeed a wonderful thing, but we often ignore the beauty of its little things still survive around us. Hope my little daughter and all the kids in the world would get more chances to experience the joy of nature and they will not destroy nature, but protect it when they grow up. This is my World Environment Day wish..!!

2016 WED - showing the flower 2 2016, WED - plucking nidikumba flower 1 2016, WED - plucking nidikumba flower 3

Shark spotted in Menik Ganga

May 19, 2016 by

This article was published on 16.02.2016 on SundayTimes –

A few months ago, the apex predator of the freshwater riverine habitats, the crocodile, was reported in the sea off Wellawatte; recently the apex predator of the ocean, the shark, was reported in a river. The latest sighting of a shark in a freshwater habitat was reported by a group of wildlife lovers who visited Yala on January 23.

While travelling to their campsite in the evening they passed a bridge over the Menik Ganga that flows across Yala. The slow-flowing water in this part of the river is shallow and one of the group members spotted a large fish.

“That is a shark!” shouted Isuru de Soyza, pointing it out to the others before it swam away. Senehas Karunaratne, armed with a camera, had only a split of second to click before the shark took refuge under the bridge.

“The shark was about three feet long and quick in the water,” commented Mr. Karunaratne.

Rumours of sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga have been around for a while and Mr. de Soyza claimed to have seen one in the same section of the river a few months ago.

Photographic evidence of sharks in the Menik Ganga first came from a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG). While conducting an islandwide freshwater fish survey at the Menik Ganga about 7km upstream from the coast they spotted a shark in shallow, crystal-clear water about three feet deep.

They netted the shark and carefully brought it out of the water to take measurements. The shark was about three feet long. After photographing it, they released it back into the water.

The WCSG survey team had three more sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga and the Kumbukkan Oya, closer to Kumana.
Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on sharks, Rex I. de Silva, was sent the WCSG photo for examination and identified the shark as a variant of the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hermiodon).

This species lives in the Indo-Pacific region from the Gulf of Oman to New Guinea, with most records from the coastal waters of India. The International IUCN Red List of threatened fauna lists the Pondicherry shark as “Critically endangered – possibly extinct”.

The Red List states that the shark was last recorded in 1979. Rex de Silva, however, states that the shark has been recorded in small numbers in Sri Lankan seas since the mid-1980s with the species’ presence in Sri Lankan waters first documented by himself in 1988.

Commenting on these sightings on the “Sharks of Sri Lanka” Facebook page, Mr. De Silva said it was important to differentiate between a shark in freshwater from a shark in a river.

“In times of drought, when river levels, fall seawater may intrude some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species may follow the seawater intrusion for a considerable distance up river, so although they are in a river they will still be in salty or semi-saline water.

When the salt water recedes the marine species follow it back to the sea. A shark in freshwater, on the other hand, is usually present farther up a river beyond the reach of salt water. As mentioned above, the shark photographed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle to date remains the only record of a shark from freshwater in Sri Lanka.”

Mr. de Silva states that anecdotal evidence over at least 30 years suggests that there are sharks in the Menik Ganga, but these sharks were not identified although speculation about their identity was sometimes offered.

Literature indicates that Pondicherry sharks do not grow much longer than about 3.3 feet and hence are not a threat to humans.

Sharks are not blood-thirsty man-eaters as Hollywood movies depict, so the presence of sharks in the Menik Ganga simply adds an interesting element to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and is nothing about which to feel panic.

A fisherman in Hikkaduwa caught a 12-foot, 350kg shark, reports last week said.

The shark was caught in deep ocean about 20 km from shore. Inspecting footage of the specimen, shark expert Rex De Silva provisionally identified it as a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Help for identifying a sharkAltogether, 61 species of shark have been found around Sri Lanka, however there could be more varieties living in our waters. Shark expert Rex de Silva maintains a Facebook group called “Sharks of Sri Lanka” and welcomes public sharing of images for identification purposes.

When forwarding images for identification it is best that a full lateral view (side view) is submitted as correct identification often depends on the relative positions of the fins, size and position of gill slits etc.

“I appreciate that obtaining a lateral view will not always be possible in which case any image is better than none and I am pleased to note the great interest in our sharks among lay persons,” Mr. De Silva states.

Mr. De Silva also launched a comprehensive book on sharks last year, with illustrations by prominent wildlife artist Jayantha Jinasena. Copies could be purchased from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Department of Zoology, University of Colombo (call 2592609 or email


Mini hydros: Clean energy comes at high cost to Nature

May 19, 2016 by

This article was published on 14.02.2016 on SundayTimes

Damming streams a ‘death sentence for many species’ 

Dam being built across the Anda dola. Pic courtesy Rainforest

Mini hydro plants, touted as clean energy power sources, are destroying eco-systems in some areas, experts warned.

In Sri Lanka, large hydro power potential has all been fully utilised and what remains are opportunities for small or mini hydro power. These smaller plants are blocking streams, threatening freshwater fish and the fragile ecosystem in these water sources, a conference heard last week.

The Dams, Rivers and Freshwater Fish in Sri Lanka conference was organised by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) to focus particularly on threats to Athwelthota feared from a proposed mini-hydro power plant.

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream.

Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law. But the change in flow is a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat, said Samantha Gunasekera, an expert on freshwater fish and orchids who until recently headed the Customs Biodiversity Unit.

“Different fish need different micro-habitats,” Mr. Gunasekera said. “For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water. But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely. With flow changes the PH value [acid levels] of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.”

“Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,” WCSG member Madhura de Silva said.
In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams, Mr. de Silva said. “Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.”

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost, Mr. Gunasekera fears.

He emphasised the importance of considering the collective effect of all the mini-hydro power plants on a stream or a river when carrying out environmental assessment.

Many streams have been marked as potential for building mini-hydro projects and already about 37 are in construction or evaluation phase, revealed CEJ member Hemantha Withanage.

Environmentalists revealed the damage caused by a number of these projects, among them the mini-hydro plant being built crossing the Anda dola in Dellawa forest close to Sinharaja rainforest and a plant at Koskulana in the northern Sinharaja buffer zone.

The Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka says these projects will damage the Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest complex.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana, the Rainforest Protectors say.

Anda Dola, a tributary of the Gin Ganga in the Neluwa Divisional Secretariat in Galle district, is the latest victim of the rapidly multiplying mini-hydro projects throughout the wet zone.

The weir and a 2.5 km section of penstock (concrete channel) has been constructed within the Dellawa rainforest, which is ecologically part of the Sinharaja Rainforest Complex. Due to construction happening within the protected forest reserve and negligence in part by the developer, the project is said to be causing massive environmental destruction affecting the stream, rainforest, soil and endemic fish in the region.

The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardene said project in such an environmentally sensitive area needs to undergo proper environmental assessment.

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) bears a significant responsibility to make sure Environmental Impact Assessments are being conducted thoroughly and to make certain the recommendations of the EIAs are being implemented. CEA chairman Professor Lal Dharmaratne said his institute would take action against those who violate the law.