It’s scorpion season – but don’t scream and squash them all

November 30, 2016 by
14 of Lanka’s 18 scorpions are endemic and some are rare

The female red scorpion was found in Jaffna under the pillow of a sting victim and sent to Peradeniya University for identification and has now given birth inside the lab to several young ones

Another rainy season has begun, bringing that unwelcome visitor, the scorpion. Known for the venomous sting at the tip of its tail, scorpions cause panic and the immediate reaction is to squash and kill them – but wait, say researchers at the University of Peradeniya – “The scorpion you kill can be a species that is rare and threatened”.

Researcher Sanjeewa Jayaratne said a small scorpion found in his home last year was found to be a species new to science and endemic to Sri Lanka. “It was found inside my house. The little creature could have fallen from the wooden roof. There could be more such unidentified scorpions in other parts of Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jayaratne said.

Four scorpions new to science were discovered in an islandwide survey last year carried out by a team led by the University of Peradeniya’s Professor Kithsiri Ranawana along with a world authority on scorpions, Frantisek Kovarik, Mr. Jayaratne told The Rufford In-country Conference of Sri Lanka recently held in Kandy by the Bio Conservation Society. The Rufford Foundation is a British charity that funds nature conservation projects in the developing world.

The new finds bring to 18 the number of scorpions in this country, 14 of them endemic species.

The research team found the deadly Indian red scorpion (Hottentotta tamulus) – which arrived in Jaffna accidentally with the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces during the civil war – has adapted well to the arid conditions of the peninsula and is found in Achchuweli, Karainagar, Palali, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai.

While no deaths from scorpion bites were reported last year, 50-60 patients had to seek treatment for red scorpion stings, Professor S.A.M. Kularatne of the University of Peradeniya’s Medical Faculty said.

Only the Indian red scorpion’s venom causes severe illness: other scorpions have a mild venom and stings are very rare as many species live in the bark of trees, not in human dwellings.

The scorpion species found on floor of Mr.Jayaratne’s home was named Charmus saradieli after the famous outlaw Saradiel who lived in Uthuwankanda two centuries ago. Two other newly-found scorpions were named after Mr. Jayaratne and Prof. Ranawana –Reddyanus jayarathnei and Reddyanus ranawanai respectively. The fourth species is named Reddyanus ceylonensis.

Studying scorpions is not easy as they are nocturnal creatures. “We travel to selected research sites during the daytime and go into the field around 10pm to look for scorpions until day breaks,” a researcher said.

Larger scorpion species live in burrows and under rocks on the ground while smaller ones prefer to live in the bark of trees and are well camouflaged.

Researchers use a special UV light to spot the stealthy creature: it becomes illuminated in bright luminous blue when its exo-skeleton captures the light, Mr.Jayarathe said.

Most scorpions in Sri Lanka have a restricted range but two are common in many areas, including the world’s largest, Heterometrus swammerdami, which is nine inches (23cm) long.

Mr. Jayaratne has been stung by scorpions several times and says using local first aid – rubbing a red onion and lime mixture around the sting – and taking paracetamol relieved the pain within hours. People react differently to venom, however, so it is important to obtain medical attention if the victim shows great discomfort. In areas inhabited by the deadly red scorpion one should not take chances but seek medical help as soon as possible, Mr. Jayaratne advised.

Published on SundayTimes on 27.11.2016

Field observations conducted at night

Charmus saradieli - The Scorpion named after the outlaw Saradiel

Charmus saradieli – The Scorpion named after the outlaw Saradiel

New Endemic scorpion - Reddyanus ceylonensis

New Endemic scorpion – Reddyanus ceylonensis

New Endemic scorpion - Reddyanus ranawanai

New Endemic scorpion – Reddyanus ranawanai

New Endemic scorpion - Reddyanus jayarathnei

New Endemic scorpion – Reddyanus jayarathnei

Heterometrus swammerdami - One of the common scorpion in Sri Lanka. Can grow upto 9 inches

Heterometrus swammerdami – One of the common scorpion in Sri Lanka. Can grow upto 9 inches

Observing Scorpions Under UV light at night - they are brightly illuminate at the UV light

Observing Scorpions Under UV light at night – they are brightly illuminate at the UV light

First aid for scorpion biteA person stung by a scorpion would feel a painful, tingling, burning or numb sensation at the sting site. Most scorpion bites do not require much attention but If you are bitten in areas where the Indian red scorpion is found, or can positively identify the species, seek medical assistance immediately.

Wash the sting with soap and water and remove all jewellery in case it restricts circulation if there is swelling of tissue e.g. if there is a ring on a finger that starts to swell up.

Apply cool compresses on the sting area, usually 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off.

Do not cut into the wound or apply suction.

If the victim is five years of age or younger, seek evaluation by a medical caregiver.

Give a painkiller to relieve pain, but avoid aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) because they could contribute to other problems.

If symptoms increase in severity, go to a hospital emergency department.

Rare night heron found exhausted

November 30, 2016 by

A Malayan night heron, a rare migrant bird, appeared in a garden in Thimbirigasyaya this week, spotted by Rajini Jayawardena who lives in Siripa Road last Sunday night.

“It was a relatively large bird and was in the garden, hidden in the darkness. It didn’t fly away even when we went closer to it so I was worried about whether the bird was injured,” Ms. Jayawardena said.

The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), based at the University of Colombo, was alerted and its MigrantWATCH team identified the bird as a Malayan night heron, which visits the country around this time.

As there were no visible injuries, the team believed the bird was exhausted and disoriented by its long flight of more than 2000 miles and decided to let it recover by itself.

Ms. Jayawardena kept a watchful eye on the heron to keep it safe from cats, crows and other predators. When even by Tuesday the bird did not show any improvement FOGSL decided to capture it and give it a check-up.

Dr. Sampath Seneviratne, who took care of the bird, said it had no injuries – it was simply exhausted. After receiving some first aid, the night heron was released to a better habitat in a Colombo suburban area.

Bird migration is in full swing with star migrants such as the greater flamingo flocking in their thousands in lagoons in the Jaffna peninsula, according to Janaka Bandara, who photographed these birds.

Global conservation giant meets in LankaThe Global Council of BirdLife International, the world’s largest partnership of conservation organisations with partners in more than 120 countries and territories, meets in Sri Lanka this week.

The organisation’s Chief Executive Officer, Patricia Zurita, said the meeting in Sri Lanka will contain important discussions.

BirdLife Global Council’s local partner is the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), represented by Professor Sarath Kotagama.

The public will have a chance to meet BirdLife International’s members and representatives of its Asian partners at the BirdLife Asian Partnership Bird Fair being held today from 7am-5.30pm at the Thalawathugoda Biodiversity Study Park located near the Kimbulawela end of the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Road. The event is free and more information can be obtained from

Published on SundayTimes on 20.11.2016

Land grabbers eye unprotected forests around Sinharaja

November 30, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 23.10.2016

Protect these LRC forests immediately – environmental organisations urge president

School children learn importance of protecting environment at BLUE – GREEN event

Environment organisations fear  there is an ongoing attempt to grab forest lands in the vicinity of the Sinharaja forest by individuals and groups.. The scheme came to light when a group commenced surveying around 400 acres of the Delgoda Forest located near the Sinharaja Forest last week. The group claimed they possessed  deeds to the land.

The Sunday Times learned  the Forest Department’s Range Forest Office in Kalawana was able  to stop the activity as no proper documentation regarding land ownership was provided..

Sriyantha Perera of the ‘Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka’ said many fraudulent attempts are being made to grab forest land. In one instance an individual claiming rights to the forest land based on ‘Nindagam Oppu’ claimed to have been issued during the British colonial era in 1940.

According to this old ‘nindagam’ document  the individual claimed he owned an extent of 800 ‘vee kuraniya’ – an old unit of measure used to quantify amount of harvest. This roughly equivalent to 2000 acres according to Rainforest Protectors.

The reality however is that no individual can legally own over 50 acres of land.

Another ruse of the land grabbers is to peruse documents of the Land Registry in an effort to identify land  owners who may have died and those who have left the country, create fake documents and claim ownership. Perera added that with the advent of nature-based tourism, land value in the area had sky-rocketed and this was another reason behind the rush to grab land illicitly.

The Kalawana Divisional Secretary refused to comment on the issue when the Sunday Times contacted her. The Conservator General of Forest, Anura Sathurusinghe said that he also got to know about the attempts to grab forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja and the matter is under investigation.

Meanwhile, the ‘Rainforest Protectors’ has called on government to take over all forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja because the high value of its endemic biodiversity. They added these patches of forest also act as corridors linking the larger rainforest complex, and if destroyed, the already fragmented fragile ecosystem would be adversely affected.

The environmentalists said they recognised difficulties faced regarding forest lands claimed by private individuals. However they pointed out that forest lands belonging to the Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) are forests which can be immediately brought under the protected area network as the  LRC had agreed to transfer the lands to the Forest Department several years ago.

Unfortunately boundary demarcation disputes have slowed the process of transferring the said lands for protecting under the control of the Forest Department.

Forest Conservator General Mr. Sathurusinghe said these LRC lands were now being surveyed, but said that Forest Department has to wait until the survey Department finalised its demarcation.

Environmentalists point out that as there were attempts to grab forest lands in these areas with blessings of the local politicians, it was very important to expedite the process of protecting LRC forest lands.

“There have been instances where lands are grabbed overnight. Why can’t work to protect these forest  lands be expedited? especially when the Environment Minister is the President of the country who enjoys executive powers environmentalists ask.

Meanwhile the month of October is earmarked as ‘Tree Planting Month’ with the campaign spearheaded by the President Maithripala Sirisena himself. As Environment Minister, the President also aims to increase Sri Lanka’s forest cover up to 32 percent from the current 29 percent.

Environmentalists are thus  urging the President to expedite the process of bringing these LRC lands under the protected area network to give them the much needed legal protection necessary to ensure their safety.

Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green EraSpeaking at the opening ceremony of the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” policy initiative, held at the BMICH,  President Sirisena emphasised that should any individual or institution take action to upset the balance of the environment,  government would not hesitate to enforce the laws against the wrongdoers.

While welcoming these sentiments, environmentalists said action rather than words were necessary. They pointed out that approval had been given  for the implementation of environmentally harmful projects such as mini hydro power plants.

Activists who have a joint stall in the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” exhibition, are using the opportunity educate people on how sensitive environments are being destroyed for a negligible amounst of power generated by mini hydro power projects.

The ‘Rainforest Protectors’ also handed over a letter President Sirisena emphasizing need to take timely action to ensure Ministry of Environment, Central Environmental Authority and Sustainable Energy Authority cease issuing permits for future mini hydro projects and urgently appoint a team to investigate issues connected  to existing mini-hydro projects.

The organisation accused unnamed government politicians of attempting to get permission to restart currently halted mini hydro projects which allegedly harm the environment.

Don’t monkey around with our monkeys

November 20, 2016 by

Having a feast: Coconuts and bananas not spared. Photos by Rukmal Rathnayake

A peaceful resolution of the conflict for living space with our closest relatives

As monkeys struggle for existence while causing havoc to the people with their monkey tricks, the need to co-exist with our closest animal kingdom relatives was emphasised at an international conference here.

The Toque Monkey, better known as the Rilawa, causes more trouble than the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey or Kalu wandura, according to studies.

The Fifth Asian Primate Symposium hosted by the Sri Jayewardenepura University was held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel with seven countries participating to discuss ecology, biodiversity, human-animal conflict and related issues of interest to Asian primatologists.

An analysis of around 500 monkey-related complaints received by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), from 2007 to 2015 was presented at the conference by Dr. Tharaka Prasad, the DWC’s chief veterinary surgeon. According to him, 54 percent of the complaints have been against Rilawas and 29 percent against Kalu Wandura. Both these species are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Colombo which records the highest human population density had the highest frequency of conflicts of 115. Sadly, most of these are against the Kalu Wandura which is closed to the risk level of the Critically Endangered Western Purple-faced langur. Its conflict with humans severely undermines its future survival. Sri Lanka’s western region, where these langurs mainly stay, has only a few forest patches and the remaining habitats are also being lost or degraded. There are only a few protected areas, under the control of the DWC in the Western region, adding to the challenge of conserving these highly arboreal langurs.

Dr. Prasad who frequently treats injured monkeys said: “Monkeys are social animals. So we get into really difficult situations as to what we should do for the injured animals after they recover.”

At present, such monkeys are released to a location closer to Colombo as there is no alternative. There is a plan to build a facility to keep such monkeys, he said.

Sri Lanka is home to two other primate species — the Grey Langur and Slender Loris. Slender Loris monkeys stay mainly on the trees and rarely make contacts with humans. Even where Grey Langurs or hanuman monkeys are concerned, the number of human-animal conflicts is negligible.

According to the analysis, about 70 percent of the complaints relate to crop damage. Several other primate scientists, both local and international, made presentations at the symposium. A strategy to conserve and coexist with Sri Lanka’s monkeys was also presented in a paper prepared by Dr. Rudy Rudran of the Smithsonian Institute. Dr. Rudran’s research team is conducting an islandwide survey to identify important issues relating to monkey troubles.

Local researchers Surendranie Cabral, Sanjaya Weerakody and Rukmal Ratnayake say the utcome of this research may help to identify factors and reduce conflicts or tension between humans and monkeys.

Instead of viewing this situation in the grim terms of monetary losses due to the conflict, it should be seen as a challenge to the science of conservation biology, where coexistence of humans and monkeys is the key to conflict resolution, the symposium agreed.

VIP migrants find haven in Colombo wetlands

November 20, 2016 by

This is the bird migration season and the remaining wetlands around Colombo are attracting some special migrant birds, particularly in the wetlands around Thalawathugoda.

While testing his new camera, Erich Joseph was lucky to capture the comb duck in a spot close to the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital. This is a rare migrant and the sighting in our capital city indicates the importance of protecting the remaining wetland habitat in Colombo and its suburbs.

Another migrant, the glossy ibis, has also taken refuge in the Thalawathugoda wetlands. Rishani Gunasinghe, who managed to photograph a small flock of these birds, says that although they look a dull black at a distance, light shining on their feathers brings out their real beauty.

The comb duck

Prehistoric man stirs to life as scientists find clues to the past in ancient caves

November 20, 2016 by

Our pre-historic humans took refuge in caves that hide many secrets that are helping archaeologists piece together how humans evolved thousands of years ago, the respected archaeologist, Professor Raj Somadeva said.

Recent excavations in a number of caves have produced archaeological finds showing how prehistoric humans, initially living as hunter gatherers, gradually moved to a living based on agriculture.

The changing climate at the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago triggered this change, and evidence of the missing era between Balangoda Man and written history is gradually being assembled.

Prof. Somadeva made these revelations last week at a news conference organised by the Science and Technology Ministry to brief media about the archaeological research being carried out through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

With this funding, a number of caves inhabited by pre-historic man are being excavated. “We are having two field work sessions every year, each about one-and-a-half months long during the dry seasons, February-March and August-September. The rest of the year is devoted to analysing the findings and documentation work,” Prof. Somadeva said.

Research on human evolvement in Sri Lanka was pioneered by Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala who excavated skeletal remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in 1955 from sites near Balangoda. He named this Homo sapiens balangodensis, commonly called Balangoda Man, a being that lived 38,000 years ago. Some 36 skeletons of Balangoda man have now been unearthed from different parts of Sri Lanka together with stone tools.

We have little evidence of the transformation of this man to the modern era. Written history indicates that a population from neighbouring India colonised Sri Lanka, and this is attributed to Vijaya’s arrival.

Of course, those who came from India could have brought in a technically advanced culture, but the humans who lived on the island were already an advanced group and it is likely that our pre-historic man’s culture mingled with the introduced culture, Prof. Somadeva believes.

There is little evidence on the pre-Vijaya era and that is the period the archaeologists are trying to unearth. Prof. Somadeva calls this transition period a “twilight period of our history”.

His team found 35 different half-burned grains from the Lunugala cave they studied. Carbon dating confirmed these to be 6,000 years old. “Perhaps this is clear evidence that our ancestors started experimenting on their own with edible grains,” Prof. Somadeva said. “Today there are about 64 varieties of edible green leaves available in a village market – who found that these were edible? There are lots of plants with medicinal values – who found their medicinal                       effectiveness?”

He says most of these knowledge came from the experimentation of early home-grown humans.

The archaeologists also found pendants and other non-utilitarian items, and Prof. Somadeva said this is evidence that our early humans showed cognitive ability, knowing the concept of self.

They also found shark teeth in some of the caves. The sea is about 40km from the location of the findings so this indicates our prehistoric man travelled to exchange items from other tribes that lived closer to the sea.

The scientists have also found colourful beads that could have been used for necklaces which have been sent to a laboratory in the United States for carbon dating to determine their age.

The team also found artefacts believed to have been used in rituals, including a sharp stone tool with a bloodstain on one side. Finding bloodstains on such artefacts is extremely rare. Prof. Somadeva said scans by the Medical Research Institute found red blood cells but more was needed for extracting DNA; the team is still hopeful of this.

The archaeologists are also seeking help on the star formations in the skies above Sri Lanka thousands years ago. They have found a piece of rock with holes in it, similar to artefacts found in China and Israel. Chinese archaeologists think their stones indicate stars in Orion’s Belt, and the Sri Lankan stone could be similar. “During the drier period, the stars look bright so this could be something our historic humans used to try to read the sky to predict climate,” Prof. Somadeva said.

The findings could effectively make a paradigm shift of the history that we know at the end of the project, he predicted.

Exploring life in the darknessCaves with areas of different light penetrations can be refuge to some of the least studied animals and plants. The scientific study of organisms living in caves is known as biospeleology, and Peradeniya scientists recently studied caves in Nuwara Eliya to explore the life in the darkness.

Research by Chathurika Munasinghe of the University of Peradeniya under supervision of Prof. K.B. Ranawana on the Mandaramnuwara and Rotupihilla caves in the wet zone was presented at the Wild Lanka symposium recently organised by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The researchers walked through these caves exploring different light zones such as the entrance zone, twilight zone and dark zone, recording temperature, humidity and light intensity every
five metres.

Six vertebrate and 12 invertebrate animals were identified in the Mandaramnuwara cave and six vertebrate and 11 invertebrates were identified in the Rotupihilla cave, Ms. Munasinghe said.

Bats are common in both these caves with the common wentwing bat and rufous horseshoe bat being the most common. Insects and spiders accustomed to darkness were also found.Also seasonally the edible nests swifts build  in the darkness of these caves.

Caves in Sri Lanka are largely unexplored, so the research team suggests conservation measures and education to increase public awareness were important to minimise damage to these cave

Published on SundayTimes

They have flown a long way – be kind

November 20, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 30.10.2016

As the bird migration season begins, experts are urging the public to watch out for exhausted migrants found in their gardens and neighbourhood in coming weeks.A number of exhausted or dead birds were found this week. A disorientated dead Indian pitta, commonly known as avichchiya, was found dead after having flown into a window at Pelawatte, birdwatcher Will Duncan reported on October 18. Another dead pitta was by seen Harshani Ratnayake the same day.

After flying hundreds of miles, weakened birds can easily become disorientated and lose their way. Records indicate Colombo can expect more Indian pittas this month so people are asked to be vigilant.

Malayanan Night Heron
(c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

If an exhausted migrant is found, the bird should first be protected from predators such as dogs, cats, rats and crows. If the bird is able to fly and show recovery on its own, let it recover naturally under a watchful eye, the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) advises. Its MigrantWATCH program is aimed at assisting such troubled migrants.

If the bird is unconscious or takes a long time to recover keep it in a dark, quiet and warm place; a clean cardboard box with small holes for ventilation would be a good enclosure for the troubled bird. Handle the bird as little as possible to avoid adding to its stress.When the bird is able to fly, release it as soon as possible in a safe environment. Attend to traumatic injuries (broken bones) as necessary and if extensive care is needed, consult a veterinarian.

Launching MigrantWATCH 2016-17, biologist Vimukthi Weeratunga called for the protection of bird habitat. “Decades ago, we could see thousands of migrant birds in wetlands such as Bundala but such large flocks are rare today in southern Sri Lanka,” he said, using the example of the “star” migrant, the greater flamingo, that has abandoned the Bundala wetlands.

“Even small home gardens in Colombo could be vital for the survival of some of the migrant species so the public can do its part and make home gardens bird-friendly,” Mr. Weeratunga said.The blue-tailed bee-eater, forest wagtail, barn swallow, brown flycatcher and brown shrike are some of the common migrants to be seen even in Colombo.

Mr. Weeratunga, a veteran photographer, has photographed rare migrant birds and asked birdwatchers to be watchful because common-looking birds could turn out to be a rare migrant that might be paying their first recorded visit to Sri Lanka.The long-distance migrants can be badly affected by the impact of climate change. Last year, the University of Copenhagen conducted a study based on observations of thousands of volunteer birdwatchers across Europe and found that birds are affected by changing climatic conditions and that while some species benefit from these changes, birds of colder regions stand to suffer.

Sri Lanka lacks sufficient data to analyse the adverse effects of climate change and other environmental issues on birds so the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), based at the University of Colombo, is calling on bird lovers to record sightings of migrants and submit them to the MigrantWATCH program.

As part of the program, the FOGSL has scheduled a two-hour public lecture by Professor.Sarath Kotagama on New Updates on Bird Migration on Saturday, October 29 at 9.30am at the Department of Zoology of the University of Colombo. A field visit to observe migrants in Colombo’s wetlands has been arranged for Sunday, October 30 starting from Thalawathugoda Wetland Park, from 6.30-9am.

These events are free and all are welcome, and the FOGSL is keen to meet those who are new to birdwatching. For more information about these events and how to be part of this Citizen Science program, call organisers on 0712289022 or email

Malaka Rodrigo is a coordinator of the MigrantWATCH programme.

Dream big, major science forum urges Govt.

November 20, 2016 by

Shehan Rathnavale of COSTI presenting
the Colombo Resolution at STS Forum 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.20

Sri Lanka, near the bottom of the world ladder in inventions, is paying a heavy price for overlooking science in decision-making, a leading scientist warned at a symposium of almost 700 scientists, inventors, science managers and students.

“We are trying to make incremental steps in embracing science and technology but that is not good enough. We need to dream big,” said Professor Ajith de Alwis, Project Director of the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research.

“To make a real difference in the economy, we need to embrace science. For example, by applying technologies, we can bring the cost of food down and enable more disposable income to people,” Prof. de Alwis said.

The high-level forum, Science and Technology for Society Sri Lanka 2016 (STS), ended last weekend with adoption of the eight-point “Colombo Resolution” that stated economic development should go hand-in-hand with social and environmental progress.

The resolution also calls for the country to foster innovation, build resilient infrastructure and follow sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation. Participants repeatedly pointed out that 14 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals stressed the importance of technology.

The message carried by the forum – the largest gathering of scientists in the country, with participants from 24 countries – would not have been lost on the ministers who were directly involved in it: Deputy Ministers Dr. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne delivered keynote speeches while the Minister for Science, Technology and Research, Susil Premajayantha, was active on all three days, personally marshalling his men to make the event a success.

Fellowship dinners for the participants were organised by invitation at President House and Temple Trees, giving time for both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to interact with participating scientists.

“The STS Forum would have injected a good dose of science even to the leaders of the country, so let’s hope that the event helps to foster some change,” Prof. Ajith de Alwis commented.

According to the Global Innovation Index 2016 (GII), Sri Lanka ranks 91st out of 128 countries assessed over their capacity for and success in innovation. Among South Asian countries, India is in 66th position, Pakistan 119, Bangladesh 117, Nepal 115, and Bhutan 96.

The index also ranks Sri Lanka at 102 on annual spending on research and development. The STS Forum noted the very low investment in Sri Lanka on R&D – under 1 per cent of the budget.

Speakers emphasised the importance of getting the private sector involved in research funding but experts cautioned that Sri Lanka’s private sector is extremely conservative and that it has been a challenge to encourage its involvement in R&D.

The forum also had a stream for “Citizen Sciences” that included discussion on science communication. Senior science writer Nalaka Gunawardane commented that social media was both a boon and bane for scientific information, saying, “Peddlers of pseudo-science, anti-science and superstition are faster in adopting social media platforms than actual scientists, science educators and science communicators”.

Astrophysicist Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga, taking a radical stance, objected to a two-minute video on religious observances shown at the forum’s opening ceremony.

“When will the science community of Sri Lanka realise that developing a scientific literate society can’t be done while pandering to religious and astrological beliefs?” he demanded.

“It is unfortunate that the otherwise very well-organised STS Forum started with a two-minute video for religious observances. I hope COSTI will go beyond the talk and take science to our society via a science centre … and regular science programming on national television, which does not have any science programmes at present,” Dr. Ratnatunga said.

The Colombo Resolution and videos covering STS Forum sessions may be viewed soon at

Malaka Rodrigo was a panellist in the Communicating Science session

Lanka underlines science-based development at Colombo symposium

November 20, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 11.09.2016

A three-day symposium on “Science and Technology for Society” ended yesterday with the adoption of the ‘Colombo Resolution’ – a blue print aimed at incorporating Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Sri Lanka’s Sustainable Development programme.
Commonly referred to as the STS Forum, the event — organised by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research — drew more than 700 local and foreign scientists, inventors and students.

The decision to hold an STS Forum in Sri Lanka was taken following the success of last year’s Japan Forum, where Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe delivered the keynote address.Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Colombo event, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said science and technology-driven innovation was the enabling force in Sri Lanka’s sustainable development programme.

Science and Technology Minister Susil Premajayantha said the Sri Lanka would take forward the message of the symposium and would try to make it a regular event. The symposium discussed topics such as nanotechnology, STI for Sustainable Development, Innovation ecosystems, Citizen Science and Emerging Technologies.

The STS forum was organised by the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) with the help of 12 institutes coming under the Ministry of Science Technology and Research Ministry.

COSTI director Ajith de Alwis said the knowledge gained from the forum should be applied in policy making.

Note: I have been a panelist of this forum under the session ‘Communicating STI’.

Doing presentation on Communicating Science at STI for Society Forum

Doing presentation on Communicating Science at STI for Society Forum

Battle for solar energy begins

November 20, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 11.09.2016

The government this week launched Soorya Bala Sangramaya (Battle for Solar Energy) with President Maithripala Sirisena inaugurating the programme by lighting his official residence with solar power.The government said it expects the programme to add 200 MW of solar electricity to the national grid by 2020 and 1000 MW by 2025.

A community-based power generation project launched by the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy, Soorya Bala Sangramaya promotes the installation of solar panels on the rooftops of households and institutes such as religious places, hotels, commercial establishments, and industries, and the buying back of excess power for the national grid.

Solar electricity customers can connect their own onsite generation system to the utility grid and receive credits on their electricity bills for their excess renewable energy generation.Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and Lanka Electricity Company (Private) Limited (LECO) consumers are given options from three schemes: Net Metering, Net Accounting and Micro Solar Power Producer.

Under the Net Metering scheme, the consumer has to pay only for the net amount of electricity that was consumed. If the solar electricity production exceeds the electricity consumption of the premises, the balance amount can be carried forward for future use for up to 10 years but no fee will be paid for the excess electricity produced.

Under the Net Accounting scheme, if the electricity generation of solar rooftop system is greater than the consumption, the consumer will be paid for the excess at the rate of Rs.22 for 1 Kwh initially. If the consumption is greater than the generation, the consumer shall pay for the excess consumption according to the existing electricity tariff structure.

The total electricity generation from the solar rooftop system would be purchased under the third category, Micro Solar Power Producer. The bill for electricity consumption would be paid to the utility as usual.The solar drive is not, however, without concerns. Although prices of solar panels have come down, considerable capital is still needed to install solar panels, so mostly it is the richer houses that can afford it.

Former CEB General Manager Shavindranath Fernando said solar power generation takes place during the daytime and the excess generation is fed back into the Grid, when the cost of the power generation is relatively low. However the same consumer will draw power from the Grid in the night when most electricity is used. Further it is at night where the Power systems are getting stressed, and the same unit of electricity will cost more to generate at night. He suggested a time-of-day tariff to buy back electricity for the national grid from solar power producers.

President launches 'Surya Bala Sangramaya' by lighting his official residence with solar power.

President launches ‘Surya Bala Sangramaya’ by lighting his official residence with solar power.

Solar panels on a rooftop (c) Newsfirst.jpg

Solar panels on a rooftop (c) Newsfirst

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