Fading fortunes of the native Vesak flower

May 10, 2017 by

A species of orchid that blooms in May and commonly called Vesak mal is becoming rarer. Plant experts say habitat loss and over collection from the wild are causing its decline.

The Vesak orchid. Pix by Bushana Kalhara

Scientifically known as dendrobium maccarthiae, it may have got its local name because it blooms in the month of Vesak. It is a light violet-pink flower with a paler lip and a purple blotch in the centre. It is a larger variety of wild orchid. The flower is about 6 centimetres long and 7.5 cm across. The photos accompanying this article were captured by Bushana Kalhara from the Kukulugala forest patch in Ratnapura two years ago in late May. He says the flowers were on the canopy about six metres above ground.

A specialist on orchids, Dr Suranjan Fernando, says the flower grows in south western lowland forest patches in Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kalutara and Colombo districts. The core area of the distribution is northern and western parts of the Ratnapura and Kalutara districts. It is also found in the western parts of Kegalle, southern part of Colombo and northern part of Galle district.

“The reason that this orchid is not found in other parts of the lowland wet zone is still a mystery,” Dr Fernando says.

Like most of the other wild orchids, it is an epiphyte plant that grows harmlessly on tall trees getting moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. The species usually grows in the upper parts of the tree trunks and large branches of mature trees.

It is a popular Sri Lankan flower and has been featured in stamps issued in 1950 and 1994. The orchid is also the provincial flower of Sabaragamuwa.

1950 stamp featuring Vesak Orchid

The former head of the Botanical Gardens, Dr Siril Wijesundara, reveals that there was a plan to use the Vesak orchid as a local alternative to the poppy to commemorate war heroes following the end of the war against Tamil terrorists in 2009.

It has caught the attention of collectors and exporters since the colonial days because it is endemic to Sri Lanka. Collecting the orchids from the wild for ornamental purposes led to its decline in the 1900s. This led to its listing as a protected species from 1937 with the inception of the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. Even the Forest Ordinance protects the Vesak orchid.

The former head of the Customs Biodiversity Unit, Samantha Gunasekara who is also an orchid lover says he once saw an ad on e-Bay that listed a plant for sale.

He was certain that it had been gathered from the wild.

Dr Fernando says field observations in the past 10 years have shown that the flower is in decline.

A number of other wild orchids are also threatened.

In Sri Lanka, orchidaceae is among the largest families in the country with 191 known species with 57 endemic species. Orchids grow in many habitat types in Sri Lanka, but highest number has been recorded in diverse ecosystems found in the wet zone.

According to the 2012 National Red List of Threatened Fauna and Flora, four orchid species are likely to be ‘possibly extinct’ as they have not been recorded for a considerable time. Sixteen species are ‘critically endangered’, threatened with becoming extinct, while 54 species are categorised as ‘endangered’. And 60 species fall into the ‘vulnerable’ category.

A number of showy orchids are also in demand. The Red List 2012 lists phaius wallichii (star orchid), rhynchostylis retusa (fox tail), and vanda tessellata are commonly collected by growers and flower enthusiasts. Habenaria crinifera (naarilatha), ipsea speciosa (nagamaru ala), anoectochilus spp. (wanaraja), zeuxine spp. (iruraja), are taken from the wild for medicinal purposes and because of various mythological beliefs associated with each species.

Published on SundayTimes on 07.05.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170507/news/fading-fortunes-of-the-native-vesak-flower-239451.html

Samanala reserve reveals new species

Another new orchid species was added to Sri Lanka’s Orchid Checklist a few weeks ago. It was found in the Adam’s Peak (Samanala) Nature Reserve in Kuruwita-Erathna foot path in the Ratnapura district.

The researchers Tharaka Priyadarshana and Ishara Wijewardhane say the orchid was first discovered on December 31, 2015, while they were conducting research with the National Wildlife Research and Training Center. Anusha Atthanagoda, Nandun Arangala, Asanka Jayasooriya and Pankaj Kumara too have been among those who supported this discovery according to a scientific paper.

The new orchid belongs to an orchid genus called oberonia that has about 200 known species globally. They are also called fairy orchids. The new orchid is named oberonia meegaskumburae to honor the senior researcher Dr Madhava Meegaskumbura of the Peradeniya University.

The new orchid

Declining loris populations risk lives on power lines

May 9, 2017 by

The rescued loris. Pic by Tharindi Pathirana

As tall trees in urban gardens become rarer, the loris appears to find electric wires an alternative way to move around. But many end up being electrocuted.

One lucky loris that got stuck on a power utility post last Monday was rescued in Anuradhapura town.

Young Tharindi Pathirana who lives near the SOS Children’s Village in Anuradhapura town heard screams around 9:00 pm. It lasted about 20 minutes. With her father’s help she began looking around and they found the frightened creature. But, by the time they reached the location, it had fallen to the ground. They took it home and alerted the wildlife officers, but they could not come until the following day to take custody of the animal.

Sri Lanka is home to two species of loris, namely, the gray slender loris and the red slender loris. These species have two subspecies, each restricted to various parts of Sri Lanka.

The Sunday Times contacted Chaminda Jayasekara – the naturalist of Vil Uyana hotel who also published a book about the loris to help identify the species that was saved in Anuradhapura. He identified the animal as a grey slender loris, which belongs to a subspecies scientifically categorized as loris lydekkerianus nordicus.

“I have come across at least five loris deaths due to electrocutions during the past six months. Last March, I saw a loris death at Kaduruwela in Polonnaruwa,” Mr Jayasekara says. He lists Polonnaruwa, Girithale, Anuradapura, Mihinthale as areas in which electrocutions occur often.

A number of loris have been seen in urban settings where power lines are abundant and it seems these insect hunters use the utility posts and lamp posts as places to find prey.

Mr Jayasekara also said he had witnessed a number of loris killed in collissons with vehicles on roads.

Loris researcher Saman Gamage says translocating these animals should be done with caution as there are a number of subspecies in various parts of the country. Translocating could result in species mixing.

Mr Gamage points out that loris populations can survive in many isolated patches of forest, but the numbers are declining.

Published on SundayTimes on 07.05.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170507/news/declining-loris-populations-risk-lives-on-power-lines-239405.html

An electrocuted loris. Pic by Chaminda Jayasekara

Another electrocuted loris

Wilpattu 2012

Gentle marine giant stays more on our waters

April 30, 2017 by

A whale shark seen with a swimmer off Colombo. Pic courtesy Nishan Perera

As the sightings of whale sharks increase in our waters, experts say the world’s largest fish needs to be protected.

“We still know very little about whale sharks, but the fish is already ‘endangered’ and highly threatened by both target and bycatch fisheries,” says marine biologist from Blue Resources Trust, Daniel Fernando. He made the remarks at a lecture at an event organised by Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club this week.

The blue whale is the largest creature on Earth, but since it is a marine mammal, the crown of being the largest fish goes to the whale shark. A whale shark can grow up to 40 feet (12 meters) or more and weigh about 20 tons. The average whale shark is 8 metres long, but the ones found in Sri Lankan waters are 6-7 metres according to Mr Fernando.

Scientifically classified as rhincodon typus, the whale shark called ‘mini muthu mora’ in Sinhala is in fact a species of shark. But unlike other sharks, they do not have teeth and they are filter feeders that depend on plankton. By opening their huge gaping mouths closer to the surface, they scoop in these plants along with any small fish.

Divers have reported more sightings in the seas off Colombo.

Nishan Perera, a marine biologist who has made regular dives in the oceans off Colombo, reported more whale shark sightings in February and March when these fish are seen in our waters. “Two or three whale shark sightings during this period is normal, but this year there were dozens of encounters,” Mr Perera said.

A giant whale shark seen in colombo seas (c) Sanjeev de Silva

The Maldives is a famous destination for whale sharks and queries revealed a lower number of encounters in Maldivian waters when there was an increase in our waters said Mr Perera. The whale sharks have spots on the body and its pattern is unique for each individual. So, the Sri Lankan marine biologists also shared the photos of the whale sharks seen in Sri Lankan waters with other international whale shark databases to verify where they are from.

It could be the same individuals seen in different occasions, but the fact that they are seen more often means that the fish that are used to passing through our waters are staying a little longer than previous years.

Author of the “Sharks of Sri Lanka”; Rex I De Silva says the large number of recent sightings baffle him. He says these fish usually migrate to areas rich in plankton. These areas are where there is an upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the depths. So, it is possible that, fuelled by changes in hydrologic factors, such upwellings are now occurring with greater frequency in our coastal waters. Upwellings encourage the growth of plankton which, in turn, attracts other plankton feeders such as fish. Whale sharks also feed on fish (especially small scombrids) which are attracted to the plankton.

Changing oceanic patterns due to global warming is another reason according to the expert. However, these are just suggestions as to why whale shark sightings have become common in recent years. We just do not have sufficient data to draw firm conclusions, cautioned Mr De Silva.

Howard Martenstyn, another expert, points out that there are more nutrients in the western seaboard compared to 2016 as evidenced by increased rainfall and river outflows and that may explain more whale shark sightings. Mr Matenstyn also reminds us that the number of sightings in the same area does not usually equate to the number of whale sharks, highlighting the need for more supporting data and investigations.

The whale shark is a gentle giant, which allows divers swim with them. They pose no danger to humans but an accidental blow from the powerful tail can cause injury. Experts advise keeping a minimum distance of 1.5 metres from the front of the body and 3 metres from the rear.

The whale shark takes about 15 years to mature to reproduce and is vulnerable to overfishing. Sri Lanka passed laws banning the catching of whale sharks in 2015, but awareness of such regulations, along with implementation, is often lacking points out Daniel Fernando.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170430/news/gentle-marine-giant-drawn-to-our-waters-238733.html

Experts urge Sri Lanka to join global effort to protect sharks 
Sharks have slow reproductive cycles and cannot be fished at levels similar to other fish. But sadly, Sri Lanka is among top 20 shark killing countries ranked at 14th place according to a 2013 report by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC and the Pew Environment Group.

The Fisheries Department says that steps have been taken to protect sharks. Five species are protected by law, including three species of thresher sharks, oceanic-white tip shark, and the whale shark. The department says it even distributes tools such as de-hookers and line cutters among fishermen that can be used to release sharks caught in nets or hooks.

But more needs to be done to protect these apex predators in our ocean near the top of the marine food chain and help regulate populations of species in the marine ecosystem, the experts say.

Sharks are also important to the economic survival of the fishing industry and have the potential to attract tourists. So Sri Lanka should follow the example of the Maldives and other nations to support international conservation and protection of sharks, marine expert Howard Martenstyn, says.

Several species of shark migrate into different areas of oceans governed by different countries. So to protect them, the Convention of Migratory Species initiated a memorandum of understanding on the conservation of migratory sharks in 2010. Sri Lanka has not yet signed this, but marine experts say this would be a great step forward in recognising the value of sharks within our national and regional waters, points out Daniel Fernando.

Sad plight of a whale shark in Galle, 2014- photo courtesy Lankadeepa

Real Sal blooms thrive despite the ‘cannon ball’

April 30, 2017 by

In full bloom: The real Sal flower at the botanical gardens, Peradeniya. Pic courtesy Peradeniya Gardens

The flower with pinkish fleshy petals and strong fragrance regarded as ‘sal’ is a favourite flower of the Buddhists. But they are not aware of its real identity.

While Vesak is only few days ahead, the real sal trees in Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya are in bloom. According to botanical gardens sources, the trees start flowering in early April and still there are unopened buds on higher branches. So, it is likely they will be flowering closer to Vesak and you may still have a chance to witness the real sal, in the gardens.

‘Sal’ is sacred to Buddhists as legend has it that Prince Siddhartha was born in a garden of sal trees in Lumbini and His Parinirwanaya occurred in Kusinara again under sal trees. Vesak commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment (Buddhahood), and Death (Parinirvana) of the Gautama Buddha, so it is interesting that a flower associated with two notable events bear flowers closer to the period of Vesak.

However, the real sal is a small white flower that blooms in a tree scientifically called as shorea robusta. Though these flowers are smaller and has no fragrance, there is indeed some sacredness in its appearance.

But then what about the large pink flower with a strong fragrance that we commonly know as sal?

The pink flower blooms in the cannon ball tree (couroupita guianensis). While the real sal tree is native to India/Nepal, the imposter is native to South America according to botanists. The cannon ball tree bears large rounded fruit that resembles a ‘cannon ball’.

Dr Siril Wijesundara – botanist and the former director general of Botanical Gardens Department says that the first sal tree has been planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1880, but sal trees had existed elsewhere in Sri Lanka before that. He recalls there are about seven sal trees in the gardens.

The real sal tree, shorea robusta, belongs to a family called dipterocarpaceae to which the ‘hora’ trees belong to. The sal tree can grow up to 35 metres and a girth of about 2 to 2.5 metres in about 100 years under favourable conditions according to botanists. Sal is also a popular timber tree in Asia. Like hora, the fruit of shorea robusta has tiny wings to assist its distribution in the wind.

The flower misidentified as sal, has pinkish fleshy petals and a strong fragrance. The large flower is about 6 centimetres wide and has a hood-like bulge which conceals a small white nodule in the centre of the flower that looks remarkably like a small stupa. Up in the hood, there are finger like structures, which some see as deities worshipping the stupa. So, the imposter tricks the unwary Buddhists to think it is the real sal flower. The tree doesn’t have any timber value.

Dr Wijesundara also pointed out that Buddhists in Thailand too regard the wrong flower as the sal flower. Tracing back the history of the misidentification, Dr Wijesundara pointed out that in 1901 King George VI planted a cannon ball tree in the Peradeniya gardens and it was identified as couroupita guianensis, meaning that this mistake was not detected. Dr Wijesundara recalls seeing a mural by S.P. Charles at Colombo Museum, which featured the wrong tree. So he believes the mistake could have occurred later.

More mistakes continued.

To mark the peace talks of 2002, the tree planted at Rose Garden Hotel by Anton Balasingham, and Professor G L Pieris, was also the wrong sal plant.

Even in movies portraying the life of the Buddha, the cannon ball tree has been seen.

Prof Namal Gunathilake – another veteran botanist, shares an incident where the mistaken identity of real Sal tree caused trouble. At an Ayurvedic conference, one research team that tested an Ayurvedic recipe reported that the combination of medicinal compounds doesn’t work. But when Prof Gunathilake queried about the compounds they used, it was revealed that they used the barks of the wrong tree.

Sunil Sarath Perera – a song writer and a pioneer environmental activist said that the sal tree is recorded in history.

A Sal tree planted by Nepali King in 1980s in Peradeniya Botanical Gardens

The Salalihini Sandeshaya which has been written during the Kotte era has referred to sal trees and the Dutch Thombu clearly mentioned ancient village names referring to sal. Mr Perera said that Salpita Korale where he was born is such a name and in Kirulapone villages such as ‘palle pattuwa’, the name refers to the location of sal trees.

Mr Perera has also seen the aesthetic side of sal forests in India. “In north India there are stretches of sal forests. With its ivory colour flowers and less undergrowth, the sal forests are tempting for anybody to rest under their shade. He says it is not surprising that Queen Mahamaya decided to rest in a sal forest. During his three-week stay in Jim Corbett National Park, Mr Perera had visited the jungle, riding on elephants in search of royal bengal tigers.

The Botanical Gardens Department in 2012 under the guidance of Dr Wijesundara distributed about 900 sal saplings to temples around Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the fragrant, beautiful cannon ball flower qualifies for religious offerings.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170430/news/real-sal-blooms-thrive-despite-the-cannon-ball-238746.html

Climate change affects sakura blooms   

In Japan, the blossoming season the sakura or cherry blossoms, is slowly coming to a close. The season starts in March and lasts until early May when cherry trees in different regions come into full bloom on different dates.

Having analysed the dates of these blooms in Kyoto in Japan since 800 AD, Japanese scientists have found that the sakura is blooming earlier. They worry that this is a result of global warming, where a warmer March stimulates the trees to bloom early.

A graph showing early full bloom of sakura based on historical data

Sakura bloomed in Nagoya, Japan (c) Makiko Yashiro

Enjoying the nature at backyard on Earth Day 2017

April 22, 2017 by

Today is #EarthDay2017 and the theme this year is “Environmental & Climate Literacy”. I had a little field visit with my little ‘birding colleague’ who had her first experience of millipedes. She was fascinated that millipedes have so many legs and the way they are getting coiled when disturbed.

..We also visited the garden enjoying the nature in the backyard. On our way, we also got the chance to pluck few rose apples (ජම්බු).

Regarding millipedes, I wanted to tell my little daughter that these creatures would be a group that will be badly affected by climate change as more severe doubts are due to hit this part of the world. A research paper also stated that elevated atmospheric CO2 and changes in plant community composition are expected to alter leaf litter quality affecting millipedes.

We are already facing disasters that are highly charged due to climate change. Sadly, I believe that my daughter’s generation will have to face more severe disasters due to climate change. On this Earth Day, let’s all determine to do our part to protect environment and act in a way not to fuel global warming atleast for their future.

Let’s all hope there will be better tomorrow for my daughter’s generation (including the biodiversity of the earth)…!!!

Source for Millipede data: http://www.senckenberg.de/files/content/forschung/publikationen/soilorganisms/volume_81_3/32_david.pdf

Message on the Earth Day by Executive Secretary of Convention of Biological Diversity:
Message_Mother_Earth_Day (2)

Infographic showing number of people who do not think climate change is not that serious
http://www.downtoearth.org.in/factsheet/convenience-in-denial-57655

Enjoying nature at backyard on Earth Day 2017 – Dulithi trying to pluck a rose apple (ජම්බු)

Dulithi showing the rose apples that she pucked

They they have so many legs..?? – Dulithi observing millipedes

Curious – A closer look at the millipede

Aggregation of millipedes

We also found a shell of a snail

Urban excitement over barn owls

April 17, 2017 by

Kirulapana Barn owl showing its beauty (c) Shantha Jayaweera

The barn owl is a rare bird in Sri Lanka categorized as ‘near threatened’ in the 2012 National Red List, but it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke that one was seen in Kirulapona on April 1.

It had been attacked by crows and had fallen from the roof of a four-storey building, where it had taken refuge. It was handed over to wildlife expert Shantha Jayaweera who later released it. “Even through it had been attacked by crows, there were no external injuries.”

The barn owl (tyto alba) is a beautiful owl species with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upper parts. Its scientific name means, ‘white owl’. Barn owls have adapted to living among humans. Granaries, warehouses, old buildings where its favorite prey, rats and mice, live attract the owl.

Mr Jayaweera thanks all those who ensured the owl’s safety. He stressed that owls do not represent a bad omen, but helps to remove harmful pests such as rats. According to National Geographic, on average, a wild barn owl eats about four small mammals a night. That is 1,460 rats per year.

The barn owl is about 34 centimetres in length but its long wings make it looks bigger and elegant when flying. It mainly hunts by sound rather than by sight where its acute hearing can detect the slightest movement and sound of its prey.

The barn owl’s heart-shaped face collects sound in the same way as human ears and its hearing is the most sensitive of any creature tested, according to some literature. Barn owls are faithful lovers. A pair mates for life unless one gets killed. It breeds between February and March.

Mr Jayaweera, who is a senior member of the Young Zoologists Association, recalled that the National Zoological Gardens once received an injured barn owl from a public library few years ago. Responding to a post on social media, many shared sightings in Colombo and the suburbs.

“I have seen barn owls in Duplication Road, Fife Road, and near the Golf Club,” said Rex I De Silva.

Namal Kamalgoda had seen one in Town Hall, the National Museum and also in Dehiwala.

Others reported sightings in Pettah, Fort and surburbs such as Kottawa, Moratuwa and Ratmalana.

The rescued barn owl with Shantha Jayaweera

Environment lawyer, Jagath Gunawardane, who is also an expert on birds, stressed that unlike other rare birds of Sri Lanka, the barn owl is mostly found in old buildings in towns.

Another bird expert, Moditha Hiranya Kodikara Arachchi, shared an observation of a barn owl in Kandy inside the old Electricity Board building. “This barn owl was day-roosting on fans in the office without any trouble, until it was chased away because of droppings all over the office,” he said.

Experts fear that rat poison could harm these owls. According to the Barn Owl Trust, even a rodent eating a dose is not enough to kill it, and it may carry the poison in its liver for several months. So, before a poisoned rodent dies, the weakened rat may be caught by a barn owl, which then ingests the poison. Unfortunately, no research has been carried out on the effects of sub-lethal doses on wild barn owls.

“There could be a viable population of barn owls throughout Colombo and many other urban areas. It is an iconic bird in our urban settings,” said veteran ornithologist, Prof Sarath Kotagama.

He is inviting the public to share their barn owl sightings in Colombo and suburbs. Note the date and location by email:urbanbirds.srilanka@gmail.com or call 071- 8440144.

Barn Owl facts (c) Barn Owl Trust

Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/urban-excitement-over-barn-owls-237094.html 

Red light for spearfishing

April 17, 2017 by

Following continuing action by activists and reports in media including the Sunday Times, the government has banned spearfishing.

The gazette notice last month says: “No person shall engage in any fishing operation using spear guns or hand held spears within Sri Lanka.” The regulation also specifies that no person shall use or possess, or have on board any local fishing boat, any spear gun.

Spearfishing is a method of killing fish by a shooting a ‘pointed spike’ using a ‘spear gun’. Earlier, spearfishing was done by skin divers, but now scuba kits allow divers to remain under water longer to target larger, valuable fish species such as grouper and hump-head wrasse, which are also highly threatened.

Marine activists welcomed the ban.

Some of the large reef fish such as Napolean Wrasse are threatened

But there are those who claim spearfishing is a sustainable method, as it only removes the targeted fish and there is no by-catch.

“But if we specify a list of fish not allowed to be speared, will those spearfhishing in our waters adhere to such guidelines? How can we monitor?” asks marine activists. They say a total ban is the solution.

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources, M C L Fernando said the support of the navy and the Coast Guard are needed to enforce the ban.

The Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act bans several methods of fishing.

Mr Fernando said the department and the ministry were planning to regulate few other fishing methods, including bottom-trawling.

TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran submitted a bill in Parliament proposing to ban bottom trawling. But some technical issues have surfaced and the bill will be re-drafted and resubmitted by the Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, the Director General of the Fisheries Department, Mr Fernando, said.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html 

Some of the illegal fishing methods

Another dugong butchered in Mannar

April 17, 2017 by

Can giving incentives for abandoning illegal fishing methods save dugongs and other threatened marine life..? 

Caught red-handed – Dugong meat found in the 3 wheeler with the culprit

Two people who were arrested while transporting 80 kilos of dugong flesh in a three-wheeler have been released on bail by a court.

There were detained on Sunday, April 9, by the navy at Thavulpadu in Mannar and handed over to to regional officers of Department of Wildlife Conservation. They were then produced in court and released on surety bail of Rs.100,000 each. The DWC unit in Mannar is investigating, according to Channa Suraweera who is overseeing its marine unit.

Dugongs recorded in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka continue to be hunted for meat and are now believed to be ‘critically endangered’ locally. Killing a dugong or the possession of its meat was banned in 1970s. Dugongs are often killed when entangled in fishing nets as well as through dynamite fishing.

Despite the laws, the killing [as bycatch] continues [with atleast 13 dugongs killed last year].

Marine activists say innovative methods are needed to discourage fishermen from killing dugongs. A trial is underway in Kalpitiya, Puttalam and other areas where dugongs are found. The project aims to give financial aid to the fishermen to replace illegal fishing gear.

A Kalpitiya fisherman inspecting his Sea Bass cage

“We have replaced about 30 illegal nets in Sottupitiya area in Kalpitiya. An agreement was also signed with fishermen not to resort to illegal methods,” said Thushan Kapurusinghe of the Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, which is implementing the initiative.

This initiative is financed and managed Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment (UNEP) under the ‘Dugong and Seagrass Project’ that also functions in number of other countries of the Dugong range.

The project is also helping fishermen to set up crab cages and sea bass cages in the shallow waters, Mr Kapurusinghe said.

There is high demand for sea bass, also known as moda. The baby fish are being fattened in metal cages set up in shallow seas. Lagoon crabs, too, are being raised this way. “Raising sea bass is profitable. So this is an added income for us,” said Mr Priyantha, a local fishermen who plans to set up a sea bass cage in Kalpitiya.

The project is part of an international effort across the dugong range. It is an incentive-based approach to dugong and seagrass conservation. It is funded and managed by the Global Environment Facility and UN Environment.

The project, which ends in April, is also supporting alternative livelihoods for fishing communities including batik, sewing, dried fish packaging, coir mat production, and ornamental fish breeding.

During a recent media visit, we got a chance to meet a fishing community in Serakkuliya in Kalpitiya.

K B Nilmini, who has taken up sewing, together with a group of housewives said she can earn a decent living. “Our men used nylon nets to catch more fish. It is not legal, but that was a way to earn enough money. But, now, as I can support the family with the income from sewing clothes, we can abandon illegal fishing,” Ms Nilmini said.

But the numbers engaged in illegal fishing is large and they need to be persuaded to give up the practice.

Sewing for getting an additional income for abandoning illegal fishing

[Published on SundayTimes on 16.04.2017 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170416/news/incentives-for-dugong-hunters-to-abandon-illegal-killings-abandon-illegal-killings-237146.html. Please note that some corrections are required from the edited version. This blog post is published with all the corrections] 

Koha’s call overseas comes from another species

April 11, 2017 by

Singer of the Avurudu song – the Male Asian Koel (c) Udara Samaraweera

The Koha or Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) is considered the harbinger of Sinhala and Tamil New Year for its beautiful song aimed at attracting a mate.

Its call can also be heard beyond Sri Lanka’s shores.

The Koha’s call is heard even in Australia, reminding Sri Lankans who live there of Avurudu.

One Sri Lankan who heard the bird sing, asked last year: “What on earth was a Koha doing in Sydney?”

A search on the video sharing social media platform YouTube suggests the Sydney Koha is different. It is not the same species found in our island, but the Eastern Koel or Pacific Koel scientifically classified as Eudynamys orientalis.

This bird is also called the Common Koel and its male is easily identified by its glossy black plumage, tinged with blue and green, and striking red eye – similar to the Koha found in Sri Lanka. The female has glossy brown upper parts, heavily spotted with white, and a black crown.

But unlike in this part of Asia, the Koels in Australia start to sing in September or October. According to BirdLife Australia, the Eastern Koel is a species that migrated to Australia from areas north – New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly the Philippines. It breeds in northern and eastern Australia, mostly in Queensland and NSW, southwards at least to Sydney, where they are common in the suburbs. A few venture into eastern Victoria, and vagrants have been seen as far afield as Melbourne, the Murray River and Adelaide. They remain until March or April, when they return to their non-breeding grounds.

This explains what Sri Lankans living in Australia have been hearing.

It is colloquially known as the rainbird or stormbird, as its call is usually more prevalent before or during stormy weather.

The male Pacific Koel that sings a song very similar to our own Koha

According to the literature, the closely related Asian Koel, Black-billed Koel and Pacific Koel form a superspecies which are sometimes treated as subspecies. Superspecies is defined as “a group of largely allopatric species which are descended from a common evolutionary ancestor and are closely related but too distinct to be regarded as subspecies of one species”.

The Asian Koel is a brood parasite which lays it eggs in the nests of some other birds. In Sri Lanka, the Asian Koel particularly chooses a crow’s nest. But in the Australian conditions, the Eastern Koel lays its eggs in the nests of Red Wattlebird, friarbirds, the Magpie-lark and figbirds that are usually smaller than the Koel. The young Koel will grow to nearly twice the size of the parents, but the foster parents continue feeding it until they realize the mistake.

Eventually, the young birds migrate northwards, usually later than the adults, to return as a breeding bird the following spring, accordign to the BirdLife Australia.

The songs of the male Eastern Koel amazingly resemble those of the Koha in Sri Lanka. Visit http://www.youtube.com and search for “Eastern Koel Calling” to listen to their calls.

Pacific Koel (female)

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170409/news/kohas-call-overseas-comes-from-another-species-236486.html 

Rare bottom-dweller is a vulnerable fish

April 9, 2017 by

‘Why humans are so cruel..?’ could it be Shark Ray’s last thoughts..?

In the animal kingdom, there are species that look alike, or ‘hybrids’, between two or more creatures. Marine creatures with such features often go unnoticed, but the fish caught in nets off the southern coast puzzled many as it appeared like a shark and a ray (‘mora’ and ‘maduwa’ in Sinhala, respectively).This strange fish had ‘shark like’ fins and tail. However, its head looks like a ray and had ray-like ‘wings’. The fish photographed by Devsiri Peiris last month is said to have been caught accidentally in a fishing net. It is about five feet long and a male.

“It is a fish we call ‘shark ray’, known by fishermen  as ‘thith mora’’’, says Rex I. De Silva – an expert on sharks. “Despite its Sinhala name, it is not a shark but a ray,’’ he says.

The shark ray is scientifically named as Rhina ancylostoma also called mud skate as it is found in sandy bottoms doing bottom feeding. Due to the shape of its head the fish in this group is also known as ‘guitarfish’. The one caught is a Bowmouth Guitarfish. According to literature, this large species can reach a length of 2.7 m (8.9 ft) and weight of 135 kg (298 lb). They are found in depths of up to 90 m (300 ft).

Shark expert, Mr de Silva says the species is rare. “Nevertheless the species appears in very small numbers from time-to-time in fish markets. I have seen them at Negombo, Kalmunai and Kirinda markets,” Mr De Silva says.

The Red List of Threatened Fauna by IUCN categorises the shark ray as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction. Other than getting caught in fishing nets, dynamite fishing, bottom trawling pose a threat to shark rays. Habitat degradation and destruction too threaten this rare fish.  Published on SundayTimes on 09.04.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170409/news/rare-bottom-dweller-is-a-vulnerable-fish-236477.html

The Shark Ray or Guitar fish with fins similar to that of sharks and upper body similar to a ray (c) Devsiri Peiris

Shark ray in New Port Aquarium – she has given birth to 9 pups

Super pods of sperm whales put on marine spectacle

April 6, 2017 by

The eight-strong orca pod get ready to charge towards the sperm whales. Pix courtessy Andrew Sutton

While observing a super pod of nearly 100 sperm whales, marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara witnessed a rare occasion when killer whales attacked the marine giants in the seas off Kalpitiya. It was an epic battle.

Sri Lanka is famous for wildlife spectacles such as this along with the largest gathering of Asian elephants, huge pods of blue whales and rare sightings of leopards.

One spectacle in the making is super pods of sperm whales (physeter microcephalus). The sperm while is the largest ‘toothed whale’ which can dive to depths of 3,200 feet in search of its favourite food – the giant squid. Female sperm whales and their calves live in pods of 15-20 members, while males tend to roam alone in cooler waters closer to polar regions. A super pod of whales is formed when such smaller pods gather for feeding, socialising or mating. March to April seems to be the time such super pods form and in 2012 the largest such gathering consisting of over 100 individuals was recorded.

Marine biologist Ranil Nanayakkara who has studied the sperm whale super pods from 2010, left Kalpitiya shores on March 23 to scan the ocean specially for sperm whales. It turned out to be their lucky day when they witnessed the sperm whale super pod about 15 nautical miles from Kalpitiya at 9.15 am after travelling for about one hour. “There were over 150 sperm whales on the ocean of around one kilometre. The super pod we saw consisted of 50 to 60 individuals,’’ Nanayakkara said.

Together with Ranil, British author Philip Hoare and photographer Andrew Sutton were on the boat and it was a show of a life time. The larger sperm whale males had joined the super pod and they witnessed love making on a massive scale. The team witnessed foreplay — rubbing against each other, tail slapping, spy hopping, rolling over. Even researchers could see the animals’ aroused genitals and as they watched, a pair swam belly to belly under the boat.

The sperm whale is also famous for making sounds. It makes the loudest sounds of any animal and also emits morse-like “codas” used to communicate long distances. The sea is full of sound as well and Nanayakkara was listening to these codas using special ear phones.

The ocean was like an opera, said Nanayakkara.

A large male sperm whale that came to rescue the weaker pod

They observed a large male deviate from the super pod and swim rapidly northward. “When a sperm whale swims fast, its large head stays out of the water – so we could clearly say it was in a great hurry. Then several other large males started following the first one. Seeing several large male sperm whales moving northward we thought it could be an aggression related to mating, so we followed them,” Nanayakkara explained.

After travelling two or three kilometres, the team found the large males with a pod of about 10 females with younger whales. The males packed their bodies tightly and it was like several logs stacked tightly. The men in the boat also saw something else. One person in the boat alerted the others to a dolphin but to their surprise it was the unmistakable dorsal fin of an orca. The sperm whales had rushed to protect the pod that came under attack by the orcas.

The black and white orca (orcinus orca), is a mid-sized toothed whale. it is the largest member of the dolphin family and became a popular after being featured in the movie ‘Free Willy’. But the orca is not an innocent animal as it is an agile predator in the ocean also known as the ‘killer whale’.

“It was a pod of about eight orcas attacking a weaker maternity pod. The large males would have heard the distress call and had rushed to protect them. The males packed their bodies side by side tightly guarding the weaker whales from the predatory orcas,” Nanayakkara said. The water around the smaller pod was cloudy with orangish whale poop – a defense mechanism used by the distressed whales to conceal themselves from the predators.

Killer whale attacks on other whales have been reported on a handful of occasions previously. Working as a team, they usually challenge the weaker female or a calf to hunt it down. According to Nanayakkara, the orcas found in our waters is transient and they are born hunters.

“We had also observed an amazing communal defense mechanism used by the sperm whales where the males encircle the weaker females and young putting their bodies in front of the attacking killer whales,” Nanayakkara said. This is a known as the “marguerite formation”, named after the shape of the flower by that name. In this formation, the heavy and powerful tail of an adult whale is pointed outward, readying to deliver lethal blows to any incoming attacker.

Ranil Nanayakkara Listening to the songs of sperm whales

The researchers also experienced a somewhat scary experience. Since the marguerite formation was not effective, the whales started using the boat as a cover to avoid the orcas. They moved to the other side of the boat when the orcas charged and a collision could have been dangerous.

This ‘battle of the titans’ dragged on for more than an hour. The sperm whales finally made the orcas give up. Nanayakkara said there were about 20 killer whales at that time and it could also be the largest orca pod seen in Sri Lankan waters.

Nanayakkara said it was one of the amazing moments he had witnessed in his whole life.

Published on SundayTimes on 02.04.2017http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170402/news/super-pods-of-sperm-whales-put-on-marine-spectacle-234975.html

Know the sperm whaleThe head of the whale contains a liquid wax called spermaceti, from which the whale derives its name. Spermaceti was used in lubricants, oil lamps, and candles. Scientists have yet to understand its function, but believe it may help the animal regulate its buoyancy. Some also believe that the spermaceti has bio-acoustical amplification properties, enabling the whale to produce the loudest sounds of any animal.Mature males average 16 metres (52 ft) in length but some may reach 20.5 metres (67 ft), with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length. Capable of plunging to 2,250 metres (7,382 ft), it is the second deepest diving mammal, following only the Cuvier’s beaked whale. The sperm whale’s clicking vocalisation, a form of echolocation and communication, may be as loud as 230 decibels under water. The sperm whale has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s. Sperm whales can live for more than 60 years according to sources on the Web.Ambergris, a waste product from its digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes.

Building boom endangers sand and gravel resources

April 2, 2017 by

Sri Lanka’s lawmakers this week approved a proper mechanism to mine sand, gravel, and rocks from lands belonging to the Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department where applicable. The decision aims to ease the demand for these and other building materials.

A cabinet paper states that only lands that are not declared as ‘protected areas’ will be targeted and that mining be done only after an environmental assessment. But environmentalists say the remaining forests should not be vandalized.

The Environment Conservation Trust’s Sajeewa Chamikara says that as soon as the war ended, forests in the north were mined for soil, gravel, and rocks to provide materials for infrastructure such as roads. “This eventually led to a severe water shortage in some of the northern areas and the new approval of mining in forest areas could also lead to such a situation,” he warns.

Environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella, points out the situation is worse in the Gampaha District in the Western Province. “There are a lot of mining activities as these building materials could be easily transported to Colombo due to the proximity. But these mines already contribute to water shortages in the area,” he said. He also says there are no licences for 80 per cent of the excavations. Even those who have licences excavate more than what is allowed.

Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Acting Director General, Sajjana De Silva, said the agency had cancelled more than 100 licences citing violation of conditions during the past few years. He said there are a number of unapproved excavations and that support from other agencies is needed.

He said the daily volumes needed to fill the central expressway exceeds the amount of gravel generated by all licencees.But as controls are tightened, it is creating shortages of building materials.Projects such as expressways and numerous high-rises in Colombo and elsewhere require massive amounts of natural materials.Experts says there is a construction boom in Sri Lanka.

Sand mining at Dambulla

“Finding sand and other materials is the worst headache for contractors,” says the Chairman of National Construction Association of Sri Lanka, Athula Galagoda. He also says that the quality of the sand is poor.

Road Development Authority Chairman, Nihal Suriarachchi also says sourcing gravel for filling purposes is diffcult and it could affect expressway projects.

Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust suggests estimating the materials requirements and identifying ways of sourcing before projects are started.

Sand mining at Divulapitiya

GSMB’s former chairman, Dr. N. P. Wijayananda, points out that most of the problems regarding gravel occur because the constructors or suppliers of soil and other material are looking for sources closer to construction sites. It will be cheaper to transport, but will carry a huge environmental cost.

“Find a feasible source of gravel in a central place, do the mining scientifically and transport to the construction site. Yes, the supplier will have to spend more for transport, but environmental damage will be much less,” Dr Wijayananda suggests.

The SundayTimes also asked Dr Wijayananda, what could be a possible solution. He suggests a three-pronged approach – opening up new deposits, using railways to reduce transport costs, and promote the use of sea sand.

He recalled that earlier the sand deposits at Manampitiya were opened up to meet urgent needs.

“The flow of the Mahaweli river causes sand to accumulate around the Manampitiya Bridge in Polonnaruwa, creating a flood plain around it. If we do not use this sand, they will anyway be washed to the sea. The next monsoon will replenish the sand deposits, so sand excavation in this area could be done sustainably,” Dr Wijayananda assures.

He reveals there are other sand deposits between Manampitiya and Trincomalee. But there are no proper access roads and it is not easy to transport from the sites.

“All these excavations have to be done under strict guidelines without deepening the river unnecessarily and without affecting the banks,” Dr Wijayananda said.

He also said that during his tenure at the Mines Bureau discussions were held with the railways on transporting materials, but that it was more expensive. “But if the government is willing, it can amend the rules facilitating cheaper sea sand transport by rail. I’m sure the cost of sand can be reduced by 40 percent,” he said.

Sea sand needs to be properly cleaned. “Europe extensively use sea sand for construction. We need to mechanically clean the sea sand and set standards of minimum salinity levels.”

Published on SundayTimes on 26.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170326/news/building-boom-endangers-sand-and-gravel-resources-234121.html

Threatened dugongs thrown a lifeline

March 28, 2017 by

The dugong is the most threatened marine mammal likely to disappear from our waters, but there are efforts to save the species reports Malaka Rodrigo. Published on SundayTimes on 26.03.2017  http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170326/news/threatened-dugongs-thrown-a-lifeline-234096.html

A Dugong (Dugong dugon) swims in the Red Sea (c) Fergus Kenedy

Thirteen dugongs were killed last year, according an informal survey in the North Western coastal areas by marine activists. This is one dugong killed every month and considering their rarity, is worrying, says Prasanna Weerakkody of Ocean Resources Conservation Association.

A dugong washed ashore on Nadukuda beach in December, 2016 (c) ORCA

The latest dugong deaths occurred December last year. A carcass was found on Nadukuda beach in Mannar. A few weeks earlier, another carcass washed ashore near Thavilpadu beach. Fishing activities using explosives are common in the nearby Vankalai Coral Reef and marine activists initially thought dynamite had killed the dugong found in Nadukuda.

“Through informal discussions with fishermen, we found out that one dugong had been trapped in a net. The fishermen knew it was illegal to pull it ashore and had it anchored under water to collect it when the navy is not around. But the carcass got loose and washed ashore,” revealed Weerakkody. There could be many other dugong deaths that go unreported, he said.

Dugongs are also called mermaids of the sea because some sightings of mermaids are actually misidentified dugongs seen from afar

The dugong is also known as the ‘sea cow’ for its habit of grazing on the seagrasses on the ocean bed. Seagrass is different from seaweeds (which is an algae) and are actually more closely related to the flowering plants with roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. Seagrasses can form dense underwater meadows and an adult dugong consumes as much as 45 kg seagrass according to experts.

Dugongs are vulnerable to extinction because they are killed directly or indirectly by human-related activities, which include fishing, coastal development and hunting. The seagrasses on which they depend are thought to be one of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth.

In 2015, the “Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project” was initiated to improve protection and conservation of dugongs and their seagrass habitats around the world, said United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP)’s Max Zieren who recently visited Sri Lanka. Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste and Vanuatu is part of the project, which is the first coordinated effort, he added.

In Sri Lanka, the project focuses on the northwest region, namely the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay where dugongs have been recorded. The project is coordinated by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and eight other partner organisations are supporting.

Sugath Emmanuel, local fisherman and diver in Kalpitiya, said he had not seen a dugong alive. He recalled eating dugong flesh during his childhood, in an area where many dugongs were caught. The flesh was considered a local delicacy. Hundreds of dugongs were killed before it was outlawed in the 1970s. Now, about 90 percent of the dugong killings are accidental or by-catch.  

Dugongs are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ in IUCN’s threatened species list considering global populations, but they can be ‘critically endangered’ in Sri Lankan waters, says Arjan Rajasuriya, project manager of International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He has been diving for the past 30 years, but has yet to see a dugong alive.

IUCN’s responsibility in the project aims at establishing an additional 10,000 hectares of marine protected area in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. Rajasuriya says dynamite fishing should be halted.

The project also aims to raise awareness among people and also give incentives to abandon illegal fishing methods. Project partner, Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, is seeking to reduce the negative impact of destructive fishing practices on seagrass habitats and provide income generation opportunities to local communities in return for their commitments for the prudent use of habitat and natural resources in the Puttlam lagoon.

The Biodiversity Education and Research NGO has taken on the education aspect of the project, especially targeting schools. Ranil Nanayakkara, who heads the group, says the response from school children has been positive.

The overall project is financed by Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP / UN Environment)  supports its implementation together with the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their Range of the Convention on Migratory Species.

Dr Lakshman Peiris, who is the project manager of DWC, said the Wildlife Department was focused on addressing marine issues with the establishment of a special unit.

The Sunday Times also asked Peiris what will happen after the four-year project ends in 2018. “The project will give us lots of information. We will create a management plan and will make sure its implementation together with other strategic partners such as Department of Fisheries, Coast Conservation & Coastal Resources Management Department, and the Marine Environment Protection Authority. The Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Coast Guard can give us lots of support by monitoring and stopping illegal activities,’’ Peiris added.

Dugongs are also found in the Indian part of the Gulf of Mannar, but unfortunately India is not part of the project. Marine biologists say India too needs to get on board. Peiris of the DWC said plans are underway to increase coordination between two countries.

Marine biologists also stress the need for action, once a strategy to save the dugongs are made. “Since the dugong is a charismatic species, we can use activities geared to protecting it to also help us to provide a refuge for other threatened marine creatures,” marine expert Rajasuriya said.

Experts gather to discuss future of Dugongs 

The third Meeting of Signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Dugongs and their habitats (Dugong MOU) was held last week in Abu-dhabi. A number of DWC and NARA officials participated at the meeting representing Sri Lanka that signed the Dugong MOU on 2012.

IUCN’s Sirenia Specialist Group (dugongs and manatees)’s Sri Lankan representative Ranil Nanayakkara said the gathering provided a good platform to learn about conservation initiatives used by experts in other countries

Surveying Seagrass habitats

Tech tools track dugongs
The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency has developed seagrass mapping methodology and is doing research to produce seagrass maps on distribution, species composition, density and status, and threats in Mannar, Palk Bay and Palk Strait.
Prasanna Weerakkody says sonar is being used to identify seagrass beds. These are then mapped and what varieties of seagrass available in that area is marked. The Ocean Resources Conservation Association team is using drones above shallow waters to map the areas. “We particularly focus on areas in which fishermen say they had seen dugongs in the past,’’ Weerakkody said. “To conserve, we first need to know where dugongs are.’’
He says informal investigations are necessary to find out where dugongs are being caught. DWC’s Channa Suraweera showed us a new mobile app they had developed to get more records of exact dugong sightings. When a dugong is seen, a fisherman who has the mobile app can record its exact GPS location while taking a photo at the same time.

Mannar Dugong carcass washed ashore in November, 2016

Dugong also attracts tourists

Toxic waste water disposal goes on unchecked

March 26, 2017 by
World Water Day falls on 22nd of March. This article was published on SundayTimes on 17.03.2017http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170319/news/toxic-waste-water-disposal-goes-on-unchecked-233273.html

A canal brings pollutants into the Kelani River. Note the difference in colour of the water

Industrial waste water and municipal sewage released untreated poses a danger to Sri Lanka’s environment, experts warn on the eve of World Water Day, which falls on Wednesday  (March 22).

The theme this year is “waste water” with the campaign focusing on reducing and reusing waste water.

Globally, over 80 per cent of the waste water generated by society flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused, says a United Nation’s report. This has been the case even locally, water experts in Sri Lanka say.

“Most collected waste water in Sri Lanka is released to surface water bodies and eventually the ocean without any treatment. Even Colombo has so far only a sea outfall for its waste water,” says Pay Drechsel researcher at International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

A recent study by the Ministry of Environment in partnership with UNICEF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reveals that pollution in the Kelani River basin is severe and industrial waste water as well as domestic waste water aggravates the pollution.

A separate study by the Environmental Foundation Limited to identify industries located along the river mapped facilities that discharge waste water to the river.

Service stations are another major waste water generating source, but the discharge goes directly to natural water sources.

These polluting industries and service stations should not be allowed on river and stream banks, says Kusum Athukorala of Sri Lanka Water Partnership. She suggests zoning laws that restrict these into industrial zones.

Apart from industrial polluters, there are also households which discharge their effluents into rivers and water bodies.

The World Health Organisation says in a 2014 report that 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water contaminated with faeces, putting them at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene cause around 842,000 deaths each year.

“Too many toilets pits in business premises and houses in wayside communities such as Gampola and Pilimatalawa seem to lead directly into streams and rivers. “Trucks transporting sewage are often seen dumping loads into main rivers such as the Kelani in places such as Sedawatta,” said Kusum Athukorala, chairperson of Sri Lanka Water Partnership.

Most households rely on septic tanks or pit latrines. However, there are only very few treatment plants for human waste collected from these pits or septic tanks, once they fill up. Only 1 per cent of the excreta (fecal sludge) are treated. Due to the lack of dumping/treatment sites, illegal dumping in landfills is common, and surface and groundwater can get heavily polluted, points out IWMI researcher Drechsel.

Due to population growth, accelerated urbanisation and economic development, the waste water volumes and pollution are increasing globally.

This will be an issue for the proposed megapolis development, and experts say waste water management should not be neglected.

But there are ways to make use of waste water. Safely managed waste water is an affordable and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials. There are many treatment processes and operational systems that will allow cities to use waste water to meet the growing water demand, support sustainable agriculture, and enhance energy production and industrial development.

Experts say treated waste water can be used safely for agriculture or service stations etc.

Waste water has its uses

Every time we use water, we produce waste water. According to UN Water, 80 per cent of all our waste water just flows back to nature untreated. Households should to try to reduce waste water, said Kusum Athukorala of Sri Lanka Water Partnership. And the waste water that is generated can be used for watering of plants and washing cars.  

20 Ways to Conserve Water at Home

Fishermen playing deadly games with dolphins

March 12, 2017 by

A video captured by an onlooker shows some of the dolphins being hauled in while alive

Deaths of a dozen dolphins trapped in a beach seine net (ma dela) last Wednesday evening in Trincomalee has stirred strong emotions.

A video captured by an onlooker shows some of the dolphins being hauled in while alive, contesting claims by fishermen that they had released some.

Nine Trincomalee fishermen who were arrested were denied bail and are in remand custody.

All marine mammals in Sri Lanka are protected under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance, and Fisheries Act. The fishermen were arrested under the provisions of these laws, said Roshan Aluthgamage, the OIC of Trincomalee Harbour.

The dolphins had been caught near the inner harbour. The fishermen who had come from nearby Manayaweli village started laying the net around 4 pm and it was dark around 7pm when they pulled the net in. According to the fishermen, they realized dolphins were in the net but that it was too late.

Beach seine nets are known as ‘ma dela’ in Sinhala. It is a fishing net laid from the shore and is a traditional fishing method, which is legal. The fishermen also had a license and it is also possible that they did not target the dolphins. But as it is a crime to kill the protected marine mammal, they were arrested, Aluthgamage said.

Marine mammal expert Ranil Nanayakkara, identified the victims as spinner dolphins (stenella longirostris), the most acrobatic of all dolphins.

In 2013, the killing of 40 dolphins as a result of an illegal purse seine net, called the ‘laila net’ in Kalpitiya, highlighted the need to look at fishing practices around Sri Lanka.

Laid out: The dead dolphins. Pic by Rahul Samantha

There are suspicions that hundreds of dolphins are getting killed in fishing nets.

As it is illegal to kill a dolphin or possess its flesh, Sri Lankan fishermen also tie their tails to sand bags and sink the carcasses, say marine activist Upali Mallikarachchi.

Often the flesh is used as bait, he said.

There are occasions when fishermen target dolphins. Two fishermen in Mirissa were arrested last year in the possession of a dolphin thay had harpooned, according to news reports.

Senior Lecturer of the Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology University of Ruhuna, Dr Terney Pradeep Kumara, said dolphins alive are more worth than dead pointing out the benefits from the whale and dolphin watching industry. The worldwide whale and dolphin tourism industry was estimated to be worth US$2 billion in 2010. he said Sri Lanka stands to lose a good opportunity.

Travice Ondaatjie, the Conservation Officer of the Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club, said that killings in Trincomalee show the need for more effective monitoring by the Ministry of Fisheries and law enforcement. A few years back many more dolphin were killed in Kalpitiya, too. But were the perpetrators punished? he asks.

Dr Pradeep Kumara, general manager of the Marine Environment Protection Authority, urged greater cooperation among government agencies. He suggests a coordinating framework involving the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Department of Fisheries, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, Central Environment Authority, and even the Forest Department as they manage some of the mangroves, to protect marine resources. Published on SundayTimes on 12.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170312/news/fishermen-playing-deadly-games-with-dolphins-232419.html

 

Winning ‘Wildlife Service Excellence Award’

March 9, 2017 by

I received the award “Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini”(විශිෂ්ඨ පූර්ණ සේවා ප්‍රසාදිනී) at the Sewa Prasadini Abhises – 2017 (Service Excellence Awards) organized by the Ministry of Wildlife and Sustainable held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) on 3 March (on World Wildlife Day). The awarding ceremony held under the patronage of President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena was organized to honor those who excel in the field of conservation of wildlife.

In addition to the officers attached to Wildlife Department and other institutions under Ministry of Wildlife and Sustainability; a number of environmentalists, zoologists, journalists, Divisional Secretaries and other group representing various fields fight for the conservation of wildlife had been awarded. I received the award “Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini” – which was the second highest accolade in the awarding scheme – mainly for the contribution of ‘Communicating Wildlife’.

Total of 153 was awarded under the four categories mentioned below that had significance in its order:

1) Athivishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini (20 awardees)
2) Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini (about 30 awardees)
3) Vishishta Sewa Prasadini
4) SewaPrasadini

Experts like Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando (renowned Elephant researcher), Dr.Siril Wijesundara (botanist / former head of Botanic Gardens), Jagath Gunawardane (veteran Environment Lawyer), Mendis Wickremasinghe (herpetologist who discovered number of new species) were among the awardees of ‘Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini’ – so personally, I’m feeling really honored to receive this recognition.

For more details, please visit the article on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170312/news/wildlife-officers-conservationists-honoured-for-their-commitment-232412.html

I am taking this opportunity to THANK all those who supported me in this endeavor and dedicate this award to everyone that genuinely contribute in conserving Sri Lanka’s unique Biodiversity past, present and future..!! 

Receiving the award from Minister of Wildlife – Gamini Jayawickrema Perera

Awarding ceremony was held under patronage of president Maithripala Sirisena

With other awardees Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando, Dr.Siril Wijesundara, Jagath Gunawardane

With other awardees Ranjan Marasinghe, Mendis Wickremasinghe and Isuru de Zoysa

The participants


The award විශිෂ්ඨ පූර්ණ සේවා ප්‍රසාදිනී

Deadly garbage dumps pose elephantine problems ?

March 5, 2017 by

Agonising death: The elephant which died after suffering for more than a month after eating garbage at Manampitiya. Pic by Karunaratne Gamage

An elephant which had been regularly eating garbage at Manampitiya died last Saturday after suffering from a sickness for a month.

This well grown male, about 20 years of age, was part of a herd that fed on garbage from a dump at Manampitiya. It had fallen ill in the third week of January. A veterinary surgeon and a team of wildlife officers tried to flush out any non-digestive materials from its stomach. One even inserted a hand through its anus to manually pull anything that remained. At first they pulled out about 15 kilograms of polythene in a day and over a month about 30 kilograms were removed.

Dr Pramuditha Devasurendra who had treated the elephant, rejected the idea that the polythene was the cause of death. He said toxic bacteria in rotting food may have been the cause. “The garbage pit contains lots of lunch sheets with rotten food. Deadly bacteria can grow on the food. This is main reason for the death of the elephant.”

Dr Devasurendra revealed that a post-mortem did not find any polythene in the bowels of the dead elephant. Its liver and spleen were damaged.

He said he had treated another elephant about half a kilometre away from the garbage dump at Manampitiya. “That elephant too died and I have been unfortunate to witness deaths of at least 10 elephants since I assumed duties in this area four years ago,” Dr Devasurendra said.

The Manampitiya dump is not the only one that attracts elephants. A garbage dump in Dambulla attracts elephants. Yet another dump in Hambantota is protected by an electric fence. Dr. Devasurendra said an electric fence was needed at Manampitiya.

Meanwhile, Dr Prithiviraj Fernando, estimates that there are at least 50 locations where elephants come to forage at the dump. They are mostly in the dry zone.

Dr Fernando said piles of vegetables, over ripe fruit, flour, rice, bread and the like are more nutritious than what is found naturally. Elephants which rummage for these at the dumps are in better health, he said.

But he said every day 500 elephants may be eating garbage. “In a year, how many of them would die as a result? How does this compare with other ‘unnatural’ causes of elephant deaths? Such as being shot, hakka patas, injuries from trap guns and nooses, train or vehicle accidents, starving to death inside parks after being driven in and restricted with electric fences,” he asks.

It is mostly adult males living outside Wildlife Department protected areas that eat garbage.

The Manampitiya dump: Veritable death trap for wild animals. Pic by Kanchana Kumara

This also means the elephants are not raiding farms. So if they are to be prevented from raiding garbage dumps would it increase the human elephant conflict, and how many of them would be injured and killed? And how many people would be injured and killed? Dr Fernando asks.

“So before jumping in and trying to ‘fix’ something one should first find out what the problem is, figure out the cost and benefit of ‘fixing’ and make an informed decision. Otherwise the cure may be worse than the disease,” he warns.

Dr. Fernando suggests separating the organic matter from the plastics, metals, and glass materials before being dumped.

Published on SundayTimes on 05.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170305/news/deadly-garbage-dumps-pose-elephantine-problems-231517.html 

Sea cucumber hatchery to give momentum to industry while saving species

February 26, 2017 by

The construction of a new sea cucumber hatchery was initiated in Mannar yesterday at a cost of Rs 180 million rupees, says Nimal Chandraratne, the director general of National Aquaculture Development Authority of Sri Lanka.

Once completed this year, the hatchery will produce a million juvenile sea cucumbers annually, Chandraratne assured.
Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling primitive marine invertebrates closely related to starfish and sea urchin. They have elongated soft bodies resembling the shape of a cucumber or a sausage, giving rise to its common English name. In Sinhala they are called ‘muhudu kudella’ (sea leach). East Asian countries regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy where it is commonly known as bêche-de-mer (literally “sea-spade”) in French, creating a lucrative market.

Sea cucumbers seen at Mannar . Pic courtesy Kumudini Ekaratne, IUCN

Sea cucumbers seen at Mannar . Pic courtesy Kumudini Ekaratne, IUCN

The sea cucumber is a slow-moving animal that allows easy collection, so it was soon over-harvested in many areas. On average, a hectare of sea bottom should have a population of about 30 individuals, but a survey by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, a decade ago, revealed the number has dropped to one or two individuals in some areas, according to senior scientist Ajith Kumara.It is stated that the sea cucumber industry in Sri Lanka is quite old, having been introduced by the Chinese. Some old records mention that processed sea cucumbers appear to be one of the commodities taken to China during the last 1,000 years when trade existed via the silk route. But the demand has arisen sharply with a high price tag, so the industry surged in 1980s in coastal areas. They are dried and the entire processed harvest has been exported to countries like Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan bringing much needed foreign exchange.

In Sri Lanka, 27 different species of sea cucumbers are found, but the high value species are mainly confined to north, east and north-western coastal areas. The war had deterred over-exploitation with restrictions on maritime operations, but the post-war scenario seems to be detrimental to sea cucumbers.

A study funded by the Mangroves for the Future, carried out for six months between October 2013 and June 2014 by the University of Jaffna, found that the population is depleted in the Jaffna Lagoon. According to the study of 29 sites in the Jaffna Lagoon only10 locations had any sea cucumbers. The total in the 10 sites was only 360 individuals. But another survey between 1980 and 1981 recorded 20-160 individuals of high-value sea cucumber species per square metre.

The sea cucumber species called sandfish (holothuria scabra) that has higher value in the market is now categorized as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List of threatened fauna. So the industry is doomed to collapse without intervention.

Against this backdrop, the sea cucumber farms are being introduced in Sri Lanka. A number of farms are already operating and the Mannar hatchery will help produce juveniles for farms.

Chandraratne of NAQDA said that holothuria scabra, that has a high demand, will be bred in the hatchery. The creatures will be artificially bred. At present there is a privately-owned hatchery and another operated by NARA.

Chandraratne said there are plans to establish a sea cucumber farm in Nainathivu and more hatcheries later.
NARA’s inland aquaculture and aquatic resources division researched to develop technology for breeding sea cucumbers since 2011 at their Kalpitiya field station independently.

Scientist Kumara said it was difficult to distinguish male and female sea cucumbers, so about 50 individuals are put into a tank and given a thermal shock by increasing the temperature of the water in the container and cooling it down quickly. This results in the male sea cucumber releasing sperm. Then the female starts to release eggs.

One female releases several million eggs, but very few hatch, Kumara explained.
Kumara said they are working closely with the community to protect the sea cucumber fishery by releasing some of the hatched juveniles into the natural environment.

Fisheries expert Dr Steve Creech, emphasized the importance of having a management strategy for Sri Lanka’s sea cucumber fishery to save the free living population. He recognizes the issue of open access for Sri Lankan sea cucumber fisheries that will further deplete the natural living species. So he suggests there should be harvest control strategies based on annual assessment of the status of the stocks. Dr Creech thinks that sea cucumber farming is a good development with low impact on the environment and ecosystem and fishing.

Published on SundayTimes on 26.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170226/news/sea-cucumber-hatchery-to-give-momentum-to-industry-230528.html

FISHERMEN, 302 SEA CUCUMBERS SEIZED
Fourteen fishermen were arrested by the navy on February 20 for illegally gathering sea cucumber. They were arrested in the Keeramunal area and 302 sea cucumbers, a dinghy, and diving gear were seized. They were handed over to the fisheries inspector at Kilinochchi the navy said. The navy has often intercepted smugglers bringing sea cucumbers from India, mostly in dried form. Due to over-harvesting, India banned gathering of sea cucumbers from the wild, so racketeers are not allowed to export the sea cucumbers through India. It is believed they are selling their stocks to Sri Lankans who can re-export taking advantage of loopholes in regulations.

Sea cucumbers seized by Navy in Northern seas

Sea cucumbers seized by Navy in Northern seas