Mirissa whale boats to be reined in

February 22, 2017 by

whalegraphicMore regulations and guidelines will be imposed on whale-watching boat operators in Mirissa. Licenses will not be issued to vessels this year as part of the measures planned, wildlife officials say.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation says regulations will be updated, while the Ministry of Tourism wants to upgrade the infrastructure.

Sri Lanka is famous as a popular spot for whale watching, especially blue whales. Trincomalee, Kalpitiya and the southern sea off Mirissa are the ideal locations. The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. Some operators sail too close to the whales and put tourists at risk, while harassing the massive mammals.

To regulate the industry, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was updated in 2012 with 14 guidelines. But now after taking the advice of whale experts’ the DWC is planning to introduce a new set of guidelines, said Channa Suraweera of the marine division.

Activists say the number of vessels needs to be controlled, considering the chaos in Yala.

Regulations require whale-watching boats to get approval from the DWC. Suraweera also said licences will not issued to whale watching boats this year for the season that lasts until October. Monitoring is done with the support of the coast guard and the navy.

Suraweera said the DWC too will increase monitoring, revealing that a ticketing system will be introduced in Mirissa.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said about 500 will be recruited to the Department of Wildlife and some of them could be assigned to monitoring whale-watching.

The Tourism Minister’s Secretary, Janaka Sugathadasa, said the industry should self-regulate for the sake of its own sustainability. The Tourism Ministry officials have also met whale-watching tour operators, Fisheries Harbour Corporation, DWC, local councils, and other stake holders recently.

Sri Lanka has a unique position to promote upmarket whale-watching tourism, so it is also important to upgrade the infrastructure, Sugathadasa pointed out. He said a separate jetty has been proposed and a pre-feasibility study will be soon started.

Sugathadasa also agreed the number of boats should be controlled.

Published on SundayTimes on 19.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170219/news/mirissa-whale-boats-to-be-reined-in-229587.html

The commercial whale watching industry at Mirissa started in 2008 and soon drew converted fishing boats. (File pic)

Alarm bells ring for popular reef fish

February 22, 2017 by

A beautiful parrotfish photographed in Colombo. Pic by Dharshana Jayawardena

Sri Lanka will need to protect its overexploited coral reef fish which are rapidly becoming rarer, conservationists believe.

Gal malu, or rock fish, are generally popular in the country and these include varieties of grouper and parrot fish (girawa).

The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) initiated a study in January to asses status of ‘edible reef fish’ commonly known as ‘gal malu’. The study will take about a year, the Sunday Times learns.

“The size of fish caught is smaller on average. Fishermen now must use more fishing gear to catch a similar volume of fish they caught a decade ago. This alone indicates the depletion of edible ‘gal malu’ populations,” points out Dr Sisira Haputantri – the head of Marine Biology Division of NARA.

The killing of a human-sized humphead wrasse (cheilinus undulates) in Unawatuna by spearfishing two weeks ago helped intensity demands for a ban on spearfishing.

The Director General of the Department of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources, M C L Fernando, said a proposal to ban spearfishing is now being reviewed by the government’s law drafters.

Action has been also taken to ban the fishing of tomato grouper (cephalopholis sonnerati) – a beautiful coral fish known as ‘ran thambuva’ locally. Tomato grouper inhabits holes in the reef with cleaner shrimp and helps maintain the hiding places by fanning out sand. Scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the groupers, the shrimp populations would die out.

Many other reef fish are threatened by overfishing and high consumption locally and overseas. The SundayTimes reported last week that the Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish. Most of them are groupers and listed under threatened categories in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List with the humphead wrasse being listed as ‘endangered’. However, the DG of the Fisheries Department is not convinced of the threat facing these fish and insists on a study to assess the situation.

But marine biologists and divers that the Sunday Times contacted say their encounters with large reef fish are becoming rarer, which itself is an indication of their vulnerability.

Meanwhile, news emerged this week that the Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera wants to ban the fishing of parrotfish.

When contacted, the minister also said that the fishing of parrotfish no smaller than 500 grams will not be allowed. But, the Sunday Times found out from the DG of Fisheries that there are no immediate plans to ban the fishing of parrotfish and that such a move would be based on the study on reef fish.

The parrotfish inhabits coral reefs and feed on algae growing on the reef. There are about 10 different species of parrotfish in Sri Lanka. Thankfully, locally there is not much demand for it as a food fish.

Unfortunately though, this beautiful fish is in high demand among Chinese. There are suspicions and fears that the appearance of parrotfish in local supermarkets is to cater to demand from increasing numbers of Chinese living and visiting Sri Lanka.

Arjan Rajasuriya Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka emphasises that fish stocks of Sri Lanka need to be monitored regularly, especially to check whether demand has grown in recent years for species that had not been sought-after previously.

He also notes that reef fish are threatened due to pollution, invasive alien species, climate change, and illegal fishing methods such as dynamiting. Conservation is necessary before its too late, he said.

Published on on 05.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170205/news/alarm-bells-ring-for-popular-reef-fish-227272.html

List of reef fish Sub-Aqua Club requests to protect

List of reef fish Sub-Aqua Club requests to protect

Bees halt cricket second time for Sri Lanka

February 22, 2017 by

Published on SundayTimes on 12.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170212/news/honey-bees-are-not-aggressive-says-expert-228184.html

South Africa contested against Sri Lanka in the third one-day international on February 4 dressed in pink to raise awareness of breast cancer, but it was bees that grabbed the attention.

Players duck for cover as bees invade the Wanderers Cricket ground during a match between Sri Lanka and South Africa

Bees invaded the ground forcing players and umpires to lie on the ground before they took cover in the dressing rooms.

A local bee keeper, Pierre Hefer, came to the ground armed with a tub of homemade honey comb to attract the bees. Hefer later told the international media that he initially thought there could be as much as 5,000 bees at the ground, but the actual number was less — 1,000 to 2,000. He drew many of them away.

However, this is not the first time the Sri Lankans had been interrupted by bees. In 2007, during a cricket match between England while Sri Lanka was batting, bees invaded the Asgiriya Cricket ground in Kandy forcing players to lie down. Kumar Sangakkara who was batting at the time later told the media that he had experienced it twice at the ground. In 2008, a match in India was halted by bees.

“There is nothing to worry about bees in our part of the world. In Sri Lanka it is mainly the giant honey bee (apis dorsata) called ‘bambara’ in Sinhala that forms large swarms that move periodically. But if they do not have a hive to protect, these bees are usually not aggressive,” assures bee expert Dr Wasantha Punchihewa. He also warns that African bees could be more aggressive, so precautions should be taken.

Dr Punchihewa revealed about localised migrations of ‘bambara’ where they move from coastal areas toward the hill country that could cause this kind of encounters. This migration is timed with the flowering of different plants in different areas. “Bambara start to migrate into the dry zone at the start of January when palu and weera common trees in dry zone such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya begin to flower. They leave these areas in July. The giant honey bee starts moving further south from July and reaches the hill country for the time when the nelu flower blooms.’’

However, we do not have proper data on this migration, so Dr Punchihewa points out the importance of doing research to study this phenomena. The giant honey bee is the species seen at Sigiriya. Dr Punchihewa says this species has social structures where ‘soldier’ bees take care of ‘colony defence’. About three-quarters of the worker population of a colony is engaged in colony defence covering the hive forming a protective curtain. If a threat is sensed, the guard bees exhibit a warning posture, and this signal is transmitted to nearby workers who also adopt the same posture. This creates a wave that travels across the hive with an audible threatening sound. It is a warning that has been issued to the unsuspecting person or animal that you are too close to the comb.

It is also important not to squash any bee as chemical signals emitted could trigger an attack.
Attacks by bees are reported every year from different parts of Sri Lanka. These bees have a venom gland that gets detached from the body. If stung, it is important to remove the sting without squeezing the venom gland as it will inject more venom advises Dr Punchihewa. If stung by a large number of bees, he suggests seeking medical attention.

Honey bees are nature’s prime pollinators and without them the ecological balance will be lost and many of the forest plants will not survive according to Dr Punchihewa. The ‘bambara’ is misunderstood and you can co-exist with them. There is no real need to destroy hives, says Dr Punchihewa.

Often the ‘bambara’ is referred to as a ‘wasp’. But the ‘wasp’ is called ‘debara’ in Sinhala. It is a different species, the bee expert points out.

 

Save Kirala Kele, a cry from environmentalists

February 22, 2017 by

In December, a Baillon’s Crake a rare migratory bird to
Sri Lanka was spotted in Kirala kele (c) senehas karunarathna

With World Wetland Day being celebrated on Thursday (February 2) bird lovers here have called to protect the Kirala Kele wetland that recently made headlines due to the sighting of a record number of migratory birds.

Kirala Kele in Sinhala means ‘forest of kirala trees- or a ‘mangrove forest’. It covers an area of 1,800 ha with 310 ha of it being designated a wetland located at the exit of the Southern expressway in Godagama about three km from Matara town.

In December, a Baillon’s Crake a rare migratory bird to Sri Lanka was spotted in Kirala kele. The bird was seen in a particular area of the wetland, and bird watchers flocked to the wetland to see this rare bird. Subsequently more rare migratory birds such as the grey-headed lapwing, turtle dove, comb duck, marsh and even the greater spotted eagle were sighted in a small stretch of the wetland.

Kirala Kele earlier came under the purview of the Southern Development Authority. It was deemed a sanctuary in 2003 and declared as a conserved area under the ‘Sri Lanka – picturesque sites programme’ by a special gazette notification. Kirala kele is made up of different types of wetlands – marshland, mangrove areas, paddy lands, and irrigation canals – as well as numerous home gardens as it borders populated villages. Several encroachments are visible in many areas and concerned environmentalists have brought to attention the urgent need to protect it.

Ruhuna University’s Prof.Saman Chandana Ediriweera who has been researching the biodiversity of Kirala Kele for several years says, ” the area is an ideal wetland habitat for many organisms and can be considered as one of the most valuable conserved areas in the Matara District.” According to a study conducted by IUCN Sri Lanka, 83 plant species, 25 species of fish and 13 mammal species including the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey inhabit Kirala Kele. The study recorded 103 bird species of which 48 were wetland birds and with the recent sighting of rare birds the number would be higher, Prof. Ediriweera said.

He warned that recent human activities within the premises of sanctuary would prove harmful to the ecosystem. He identifies garbage dumping, removal of vegetation, hunting, spread of invasive weeds as major threats to the wetland. Prof. Ediriweera says authorities should take immediate steps to curb these threats and save Kirala Kele wetland.

As Kirala Keleis a protected area, and now in the absence of a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) field office in Matara,    it  comes under the purview of the field office at Kalamatiya.

Other migratory birds like the turtle dove was also spotted
(c) Moditha Kodikara Arachchi

Meanwhile Kalamatiya wildlife ranger Uthpala Adaranga said they regularly visit the sanctuary, but as private lands can exist inside a ‘sanctuary’, they are powerless to stop activities within the sanctuary that could be inimical to its ecosystem. In addition Kalamatiya is located about 50km away from Matara, posing a difficulty to monitor this protected area regularly. Environmentalists in Matara have highlighted the need for a DWC office in Matara so that quick action could be taken when the need arose.

In addition to being an important habitat in 2010 a plan was initiated to promote Kirala Kele as a tourist attraction with World Tourism Day celebrations being held in Kirala Kele. But the drive to promote it as a tourist destination didn’t last long.

Published on 05.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170205/news/save-kirala-kele-a-cry-from-environmentalists-227215.html

Humphead wrasse killing stirs calls for protection and spearfishing ban

February 1, 2017 by

Declare the endangered humphead wrasse as a protected species in Sri Lanka and ban spearfishing, researchers of aquatic resources, diving groups and conservationists demand. An environment lawyer says spearfishing can be banned under existing laws.

Outrage grew after pictures emerged showing a human-sized humphead wrasse, (Cheilinus undulates) also known as Napoleon wrasse, being hauled ashore after being killed. This fish, with its thick lips and a hump on its head, is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is also regarded as a delicacy by the Chinese especially in Hong Kong where it fetches upwards of  Rs 45,000 a kilo. This coral reef fish must be in demand in Chinese restaurants in the island as well.

The fish can grow up to six feet and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It can live up to 30 years, but many are killed before they reach maturity.

Humphead wrasse is a popular target of spear fishermen.

In Unawatuna, a dive centre that mainly caters to Russians is allowing spearfishing which destroys many large marine species, marine activists say.

“In the case of the Unawatuna incident, the fish was speared outside the protected area and the law doesn’t ban hunting of humphead wrasse. So, we are unable to take any action against them,” said Channa Suraweera of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He oversees marine affairs.

While hunting of wild animals on land is illegal, fish is treated as a food source, irrespective of the threat levels various fish species face.

Dr Sisira Haputantri of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency said the agency will be recommending to the Fisheries Department that the humphead wrasse be made a protected species. But that will only be a start as monitoring whether the fish is being hunted is difficult.

Large coral fish such as the humphead wrass are threatened in other areas of the island as well.

In 2013, the Sunday Times  exposed the danger to the humphead wrasse particularly in Kalpitiya area where divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the giant fish. They kill the fish even if it takes cover in underwater caves.

In times past, free divers engaged in spearfishing. They can stay underwater only for a limited time. But scuba gear allows divers to continue spear fishing for longer. “Scuba gear allows a diver to stay under water for long periods and chase a target fish. Most of the mature humphead wrasse in our reefs have already been hunted and large specimens such as the one that had been speared in Unawatuna are rare. Only a handful of individual fish that flee at the sight of a diver are survivors,’’ said researcher Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka.

Dr Malik Fernando, who is a founder member of the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club, a diving club, recalls how wild animals once heavily hunted in colonial times, have become a source of pride and joy in the island once they are protected.

“The land animals once hunted by a few brought wonder and joy to many, such as those who ventured into wild places and protected areas in search of them. Visiting wildlife parks became a major recreational activity and a source of income for the Government. What we are proposing for the marine environment is an extension of what has been done on land: the conservation of a threatened group of animals (fishes) that would otherwise likely disappear from our waters,” Dr Fernando writes in an appeal.

The Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club sent the appeal to the Minister of Fisheries in May 2015 outlining reasons for a ban on spearfishing.

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

“This proposal would certainly inconvenience a few people. But we are confident that those who would be affected do not depend exclusively on spearing fish or renting spear fishing equipment for their existence. Like the hunters in days gone by, they will learn to live with the new rules. The result will be that the seas around Sri Lanka will once more be home to really large giant groupers and family groups of the humphead wrasse,” he observes.

“Removal of large coral fish could be detrimental to the whole coral ecosystem affecting other species as well. For example, the humphead wrasse feed on crown-of-thorn starfish that destroys coral reefs,’’ said marine researcher Rajasuriya. Also large fish such as the tomato grouper help maintain the holes in low relief reefs where the scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp take shelter. These shrimps are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the large fish the shrimp populations would die out and adversely impact the sustainability of the business.

The Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said spearfishing can be banned under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act section 28, listing the equipment under the illegal gear.

The marine experts also highlight the importance of banning illegal fishing practices such as dynamiting and bottom trawling.

A diver swimming with a gentle giant Hump-head wrasse (c) www2.padi.com

A diver with giant Hump-head wrasse (c) www2.padi.com

Groupers too threatened due to spearfishing 

Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but some other large coral fish such as Groupers are threatened due to spearfishing and other illegal destructive fishing methods. So Sub-Aqua Club in their appeal to the fisheries minister to take actions, lists following coral fish to be protected. 

 

Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Endangered  

 

Tomato Grouper Cephalopholis sonnerati Least Concern
Whitespotted grouper Epinephelus caeruleopunctatus Least Concern
Blue and yellow grouper Epinephelus flavocaeruleus Least Concern
Brown-marbled grouper Epinephelus fuscoguttatus Near Threatened
Giant grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus Vulnerable
Malabar grouper Epinephelus malabaricus Near Threatened
Camouflage grouper Epinephelus polyphekadion Near Threatened
wavy-lined grouper Epinephelus undulosus Data Deficient
saddle grouper Plectropomus laevis Vulnerable
leopard coral grouper Plectropomus leopardus Near Threatened
Roving coralgrouper Plectropomus pessuliferus Near Threatened
Yellow-edged lyretail Variola louti Least Concern
Lyretail Grouper Variola albimaginata Least Concern
two-striped sweetlips Plectorhinchus albovittatus Not Evaluated
Tomato Grouper - threatened by spearfishing

Tomato Grouper – threatened by spearfishing

Blue and Yellow Grouper 

Blue and Yellow Grouper

Giant Grouper

Giant Grouper

Published on SundayTimes on 29.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170129/news/humphead-wrasse-killing-stirs-calls-for-protection-and-spearfishing-ban-226444.html

 

Angry villagers rattle weak-kneed regulator over mini-hydro disasters

January 29, 2017 by

Villagers troubled by the damage to the environment caused by mini-hydro power projects joined environment groups on Monday to take their anger to the doorsteps of the Central Environment Authority.

More than 200 villagers from different parts of Sri Lanka were among the protesters who denounced the projects.

“We decided to protest as a last resort. The remaining waterfalls will be destroyed by upcoming hydro projects, so they have to be stopped as our waterfalls are not only for electricity generation,” said Saman Perera from Rainforest Protectors which was one of the organisers of the protest.

The CEA has now promised to review the projects.

“Based on wrong policies and improper guidelines, the mini-hydro power dams have become an environmental disaster,” Samantha Gunasekara, the former head of the customs biodiversity unit who is also an expert on freshwater fish said at the protest.

Protesters blame agencies such as the Central Environment Authority, Sustainable Energy Authority, and the Ceylon Electricity Board for approving the mini-hydro power plants in environmentally sensitive areas. They allege the CEA is too lenient or that corrupt officials are approving projects.

Gunasekara also points out the need for monitoring mini-hydro power plants now in operation.

A mini-hydro being contructed at Mandaramnuwara

A mini-hydro being contructed at Mandaramnuwara

Many of the protesters were from Marukanda in Kuruvita, Ratnapura. Ananda Premasiri from Marukanda, said the mini-hydro plant at Marukanda will affect at least 4 kilometres of the river. He said already there are 3 mini-hydros in Kuruganga and another in an associated waterway within a short distance. He fears these will adversely impact on the biodiversity of a sanctuary.

Premasiri is not willing to accept any more mini-hydro power plants. Although district officials have decided to halt the latest project, which began in December, it is continuing with the backing of a high profile political figure in Ratnapura.

The CEA Chairman, Prof Lal Mervin Dharmasiri, said new licenses for mini-hydro projects will not be issued. Projects approved by the Sustainable Energy Authority be evaluated. He promised that all the problematic mini-hydro power projects will be evaluated within the next three months.

Published on SundayTimes on 29.12.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170129/news/angry-villagers-rattle-weak-kneed-regulator-over-mini-hydro-disasters-226501.html 

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Minneriya gathering may turn sour for elephants

January 29, 2017 by

 

At Moragahakanda, a dam was built at Elahara across the Amban Ganga to create a reservoir. A second dam will be built at Pallegama in Matale across Kalu Ganga to create the Kalu Ganga reservoir. These two larger water bodies are about 10 kilometres apart and will be linked by a tunnel.

The project aims to provide water for drinking and irrigation for areas in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Trincomalee districts. The project also includes a hydropower plant to generate 25 megawatts of electricity.

About 3,500 families had to be resettled due to the project.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of the area affected by the project is forested land and it is believed that the conflicts between elephants and humans will increase. As the project aims to take water to Rajarata, tanks like Minneriya will remain filled during the dry season that lasts from July to about November. Minneriya National Park is famous for being the gathering place of large numbers of elephants every year between June and September. Environmentalists say that Minneriya being filled would be detrimental to the large herds of elephants that come feed on the lush grass growing on the plains in the dry season.

NOTE:

During Workshop on the Policy for the Conservation and Management of Wild Elephants organized by WNPS on 24th January, the repercussions of the plan to keep the Minneriya Tank at spill level throughout the year from recently commissioned Moragahakanda project was highlighted. Herewith I’m sharing my past articles written on the same to renew the debate..!!

* “Is it too much ‘Water for Elephants’..?” (08.05.2011)
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110508/News/nws_20.html

..sections of following articles also highlighted the issue.

* “Don’t leave conservation solely to Wildlife Dept: Former DG Pilapitiya” (25.09.2016)
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/…/dont-leave-conservation-solely-…

* Minneriya gathering may turn sour for elephants (22.01.2017)
http://www.sundaytimes.lk/…/small-creatures-of-moragahakand…

 Small creatures of Moragahakanda get a helping hand

Pix by Kanchana Kumara

Operations to rescue and relocate small wild creatures trapped by the waters of the Moragahakanda reservoir are continuing.

Filling of water at the reservoir began on January 11. Department of Wildlife Conservation officers with support from volunteers began rescuing wildlife species that had been trapped by the rising waters.

“Giant squirrels, squirrels, wild cats, reptiles, lizards, monitor lizards and snakes top the list of animals that we rescued,” says Wildlife Department’s chief veterinary surgeon, Dr Tharaka Prasad who led the rescue.

These operations are sometimes risky. Video footage show occasions when frightened animals could endanger rescuers. Dr Prasad said rescued animals were released into nearby forested areas that will not be affected by the waters.

He said rescuers had so far not seen any large animals such as deer, wild boar, and elephants. He believes large animals have already moved to safer ground. The filling of the reservoir has created 22 small islands which could become refuges for animals.

Earlier, a team lead by the IUCN Sri Lanka (International Union of Conservation of Nature) carried out animal rescues in the area. IUCN Sri Lanka’s Sampath Goonatilake who participated in the operations said a number of plant species that are important and threatened were translocated. The team had also relocated some freshwater fish.

According to IUCN, 80 animal species and 202 different plant species were identified from the affected area. The operation translocated 916 plants belonging to 58 species and a total of 2,414 animals belonging to 46 faunal species (fish and other species) according to IUCN. It also states that monitoring reveals an 84 per cent survival rate of transplanted plant species.

Dr Prasad of the Wildlife Department, said officials will account for the animals saved once the rescue is complete.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170122/news/small-creatures-of-moragahakanda-get-a-helping-hand-225706.html

Drones – a handy tool in trained, trusted hands

January 29, 2017 by

A drone being prepared for a habitat mapping operation.

When police seized a drone that recorded the Hambantota port protests last week, it renewed the debate on whether to welcome this ‘new kid on the block’ or to ‘rope him tightly’.

While few view drones as a menace, their applications in different fields can open up new opportunities that had not been previously thought of. Professionals in different fields welcome this new kid on the block while recognizing the need to ‘discipline’ it.

Dr Eric Wickremanayake, a conservation scientist of the World Wildlife Fund, points out that drones can be used in protected areas to map habitat, monitor traffic, and track illegal activities.

A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can be remotely operated and transmits video and images. Infrared sensors can be used for different applications.Drones have been used over decades specially for military applications, but now they are used for commercial, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and other purposes.

Dr Wickremanayake said mapping habitat is essential for wildlife park management and previously it was done using satellite imagery. But satellite imagery is expensive, difficult to process and can’t be obtained immediately. “But now we can send a drone on a pre-programmed grid, photograph the terrain and using specific software, prepare the map.”

Dr Wickremanayake is the chairperson of Environmental Foundation Limited and also conservation scientist of WWF. He is assisting conservation work in Nepal.

“We got down drones also with the aim of tracking poachers, but found that habitat mapping is a better application,” he said.

Drones can be used to track Sri Lanka’s illegal cultivations of ganja for example.

In Africa, drones have been used in anti-poaching operations, but this is a difficult proposition in Sri Lanka, he said, especially because of closed canopy forests.

“However, opportunities to use drones in conservation are enormous. For example, we may use drones to control traffic in parks. Take Yala, for example, where adrone can easily detect areas that has problematic congestion and take action,” Dr Wickremanayake suggests.

Drones can be used to address the conflict between humans and elephants.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society under guidance of Ravi Corea in Wasgamuwa has begun research on how drones can be used in the conflict. WCSG research scientist Chandima Fernando said he noted elephants can be deterred by drones, but that the drawback is elephants raid farms at night, when operating a drone is a challenge.

Dr Wickremanayake suggests that a network of pre-programmed drones be set up on the perimeter of villages. These can then be automatically activated in response to infra-sounds made by elephants. The drones can then help scare the elephants. “It is, of course, a futuristic project, but technology is available and it is a matter for an engineer to piece them together to present a practical solution” Dr Wickremanayake said.

Fernando also worked closely with a research team in New Zealand’s Auckland University using drones for conservation and even locate injured elephants.

In 2014, there was an attempt to introduce drones to wildlife applications. This was done by Tropical Ecosystem Research Network together with the University of Singapore. They mapped sections of protected areas such as the Horton Plains, Udawalawe, and Lunugamwehera.

These experts say the Wildlife Department should explore the use of drones in their work. They also accept drones need to be operated based on rules and regulations. Fernando said that in New Zealand, permission is needed to operate drones.

Drone- ' new kid on block' - can also be used for conservation and many other applications

Drone- ‘ new kid on block’ that can be used for many different applications

Drone can be used effectively in responding to natural disasters, as well. “During the floods, we used drones to find out paths of the floodwater. Dronescould be used in rescue missions. They can be particularly used for precision agriculture, or what is called smart farming,” points out Manju Gunawardana, a research scientist who studies use of drones in agriculture.

Gunawardana and the team last year introduced a way to spray weedkillers in farmlands by first identifying where it is needed.

“What is happening now is spraying agrochemicals evenly across a field irrespective of need. The use of drones can cut down agrochemical use,” Gunawardana said.

The International Water Management Institute, too, has been experimenting with drones for a number of applications in Sri Lanka. The data management unit’s Salman Siddiqui told the Sunday Times that the institute studied how drones can be used to give farmers early warning of problems. “Using infrared sensors we can identify stress in a plant 10 days before the effects are visible to the eye. It could be water shortage, lack of fertilizer, or due to a pest attack,” he said.

The institute also assisted the survey department to map Badulla town, which is prone to landslides. Drones have been used to map location of wells suspected to be linked to chronic kidney disease.

Sri Lanka should be ready to use drones for various purposes with proper regulation, experts agree.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170122/news/drones-a-handy-tool-in-trained-trusted-hands-225710.html

Spear-fishing threatens Giant Coral Fish

January 25, 2017 by

Images showing large Hump-head Wrasse (which is about 4.5ft) speared at Unawatuna raised concerns again whether spearfishing has to be banned. The Hump-head Wrasse  is categorized as ‘Endangered’ and it is important to protect this fish. Here is my article published on SundayTimes on 03.03.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130303/news/spear-fishing-threatens-giant-coral-fish-35194.html

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Kalpitiya’s unsustainable fishing practices came under the spotlight recently after dozens of dolphins were killed after being trapped in banned fishing nets. Besides the charismatic dolphin, other “endangered” marine creatures are falling victim to illegal fishing methods, including spear fishing. Spear fishing could wipe out the world’s biggest reef fish, the Hump-head Wrasse, from Kalpitiya and other marine areas, warn marine biologists.

A Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

The Hump-head Wrasse is also known as Napoleon Wrasse, and is scientifically categorised as Cheilinus undulates. The male can grow up to six feet (two metres) and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It has a prominent bulge on its forehead, hence the name “hump head.” Some females have a sex change and turn into males with maturity. The Hump-head Wrasse can live up to 30 years, but many get killed even before reaching maturity.

Kalpitiya fisherman Chanaka says divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the Hump-head Wrasse. “Most of the larger Hump-head Wrasse are gone from Kalpitiya,” Chanaka said. In a bid to survive, the giant fish sometimes hide in cavities in underwater caves, but this does not stop divers from shooting their spears into the cavities and killing the fish.

In times past, spear fishing was done with free diving, without scuba kits. The time a hunter can stay under water was limited, but now modern spear-fishing makes use of elastic powered spear-guns and slings, or compressed gas-powered spearguns to strike the fish with accuracy. The scuba gear allow the diver to stay underwater for long periods, and divers use the extra time to go for the larger fish.

Kalpitiya Bar Reef Sanctuary architect Arjan Rajasuriya confirmed that the Hump-head Wrasse is becoming a rarity in Kalpitiya. All the larger fish have been hunted, and the Hump Head Wrasse appears to be highly vulnerable to over-fishing, he said.

The absence of the Hump-head Wrasse could be bad for the health of the coral reef, says Mr. Rajasuriya. The Hump-head Wrasse feeds on hard-shelled prey such as mollusks, starfish, or crustaceans. This includes the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorn starfish. With the disappearance of the large fish, the Crown-of-thorn starfish population is increasing and putting the system out of balance. There was a Crown-of-thorn starfish outbreak at the Pigeon Island coral reef last year.

In 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Hump-head Wrasse as vulnerable. In the Red List of Threatened Species it was later upgraded to “endangered”. The fish is also targeted for the live restaurant fish trade, where fish are kept live in tanks for the customer to pick the fish he wants cooked for him. Samantha Gunasekara of Customs Biodiversity says this kind of trade is not found in Sri Lanka.

Marine biologist Nishan Perera said spearfishing is practised in other parts of the island as well. Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but also Giant Groupers, Parrot Fish and most of the giant fish are being over-fished in our waters by spear fishing, he said. The Giant Grouper can grow up to three metres, but such big specimens are rare these days, Mr. Perera said.

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Sri Lankan elephant families don’t have a dominant figure, study finds

January 16, 2017 by

Dominant behaviour: Trunk-over dominance gesture between
two adult female elephants.

The accepted norm is that elephant society comprises distinct family units dominated by the oldest female, or matriarch, who adopts a central role in co-ordinating group movements and responses to threats. But recent research has revealed that this is not so with elephant families of Sri Lanka.

“We found out that unlike African savannah elephants, the Asian elephants (elephas maximus) do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership,”’ researcher Dr Shermin de Silva told the Sunday Times.

Adult males are expelled and it is the females, calves and young bull elephants that form social groups. Dr de Silva studied how elephants interact within these social groups particularly observing dominance behaviors in Udawalawe National Park.

Researchers interpret ‘dominance’ as a concept indicated by behaviours such as one individual threatens, shows aggression toward another, or interferes with the other’s actions. Subordinates can be indicated by behaviours such as one individual allowing themselves to be manipulated, actively avoiding another, waiting to approach a resource until the other has moved away etc. “We have also observed specific dominance behavior such as the trunk-over gesture where the dominant puts its trunk over the head/neck/back of the subordinate,” Dr de Silva explained.

The African savanah elephant (loxodonta africana) has a matriarch, usually the oldest female. The whole group depends on the experience her wisdom to locate food and water particularly during droughts. In Africa the elephant also has natural predators such as lions that could kill young calves, so having a leader is an advantage.

But in Sri Lanka, the environment is more stable compared with Africa where food and water historically had not been difficult to come by. The elephants in Sri Lanka do not have a threat from wild predators such as tigers or lions. The researchers think that this frees up elephant individuals to make their own movement decisions, without needing to rely on the knowledge of others, or tolerate being dominated by them.

Having a clear leader also has other benefits. It will prevent unnecessary confrontations or unrest within a group.

“We suggest that in the absence of a dominance hierarchy, the Asian elephants must rely on spatial separation to avoid direct competition and conflict. When two completely unfamiliar groups meet, there can at times be physical aggression (although this is rare). So if they are constrained by being squeezed into smaller bits of habitat where they can’t get away from each other, it might lead to greater stress and conflicts,” Dr de Silva points out.

The findings also challenge other beliefs.

“It has also been sometimes assumed that social units consist of only those individuals observed together at any given time and that capturing the “matriarch” will draw other family members, ensuring their capture or cooperation. Our findings do not support such assumptions.”

These findings can be useful in elephant conservation and management. They may be important for interpreting results of previous management actions such as translocations and elephant drives that alter the social organization of populations of elephants.

Such displacements would not only disrupt long-term social bonds because social affiliates may not be close together at any given time but result in difficulties for the displaced individuals if habitats are already saturated with other elephants. Forced displacement could result in crowding and competition, with likely disproportionately negative impacts to the displaced individuals, the research found.

Dr. de Silva is now attached to the Colorado State University and the Smithsonian Institution. The study was done between 2007 and 2012 in Udawalawe and the findings were published last year. Other experts George Wittemyer and Volker Schmid too, were part of the study.

They say preserving the remaining range and its connectivity for elephants to have healthy, stress free lives should be a priority.

Researcher Shermine de Silva with elephants at Udawalawe

Researcher Shermine de Silva with elephants at Udawalawe

Published on SundayTimes on 15.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170115/news/sri-lankan-elephant-families-dont-have-a-dominant-figure-study-finds-224870.html

Projects endanger remaining forest cover

January 14, 2017 by

Forestry officials responding to recent reports of large-scale destruction of land in Wilpattu National Park deny such damage, while environmentalists charge that deforestation is widespread in the country.

The Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe, denied the existence of new large-scale clearances of forest cover around Wilpattu. “We have taken action against a party who cleared a forest land recently, but it is a small plot. The large-scale clearances that are being referred to took place in 2014,” he said.

Not only forests adjacent to Wilpattu - forests are under pressure everywhere in Sri Lanka.

Not only forests adjacent to Wilpattu – forests are under pressure everywhere in Sri Lanka.

Commentary on social media erupted recently over clearing of forest land north of Wilpattu National Park for settlements. Since then, a presidential task force has been mandated to investigate.

Sathurisinghe said a survey will be undertaken in Mannar with the intention to declare a wildlife reserve. “Once the area is declared a wildlife reserve, then these settlements too will have to be removed,” he said. The forest lands had been released by the previous government for settlements. But environmentalists say it was illegal and the incumbent Government could act on that basis.

“We should also focus our energies to stop forest clearances in other areas as well,” said Hemantha Withanage of the Centre of Environment Justice. He observes that there is great pressure on officials to release forest land for so-called ‘development’ projects. “So it is important to be vigilant. Forests in the North and East will face a lot of pressure because of development.’’

A recent study, “Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Sri Lanka” done under REDD+ Sri Lanka (REDD stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) identifies three key contributory factors for deforestation —  encroachments, infrastructure development projects, and private agriculture
ventures.

There are other factors, too. Tree Felling – illicit or otherwise, cultivations, non-timber forest product gathering such as ‘walla patta’, cattle grazing, forest fires, gem mining are among factors that trigger the degradation of forests.

A recent survey by the Forest Department also found out that forest degradation does not necessarily involve a reduction of the forest area, instead it leads to the decline of the quality of the forests.

The REDD report indicates that several factors promote deforestation and degradation. There are plenty of examples where encroachments are made acceptable when governments give permanent deeds, specially ahead of elections. Weak enforcement and monitoring capability, poor coordination among agencies, demands due to population growth are some other reasons. However, political interference has been a major factor in deforestation, according to the report.

Land is needed for development and human settlements. But it is important to identify already degraded lands without sacrificing biodiversity rich forests environmentalists warn. The cost of losing the forest cover could be greater than the monetary value of a project, they say. “Doesa  a strategic assessment and identify zones with degraded lands without rushing to axe forests,” Withanage of the CEJ urges.

Yet more trees to be ripped up under Chinese deal 

More of Sri Lanka’s forest land is being marked out for ripping up under irrigation projects.

The Sunday Times learns that a large area of forest cover is expected to be sacrificed for the Maduru Oya right bank development project due to begin this year.

Maduru Oya is one of the major reservoirs built under the accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme of 1982 that planned to develop 39,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the Mahaweli ‘B’ zone in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts. While its left bank ‘developments’ have been completed, due to lack of funds, work on right bank projects did not begin.

Under the ‘Reawakening Polonnaruwa’ program the work is being revived.

President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, made a proposal to the cabinet last September. Accordingly, the Maduru Oya right bank project aims to develop drinking water supplies, irrigation, and infrastructure for the socio-economic development in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts.

The project will be financed with loans from the Chinese EximBank and the US$475 million (Rs 70.45 billion) engineering contract was signed last October between the state-owned China CAMC Engineering and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and the Environment.

Conservationists say the project would worsen environmental degradation.

The former director general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sumith Pilapitiya, points out that at least 18,000 hectares of forest land would be destroyed for new settlements and agriculture.

“The President, as the Minister of Environment talks about increasing forest cover in Sri Lanka to 30%, while as Minister of Mahaweli Development, his ministry is destroying over 18,000 hectares of forest lands. The loss of this forest land will certainly aggravate the human-elephant conflict, with elephants guaranteed to destroy crops brought under cultivation under the Maduru Oya right bank development project,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.

There are no winners in such ill-conceived projects. The country loses forest cover, the elephants lose their habitat, settlements are subject to human elephant conflict and farmers are affected when elephants raid their crops.  So why are we undertaking such a project?’’ Dr.Pilapitiya ponders.

There are examples from the past. There were no winners in the Walawe left bank development project, he notes.

“We fool ourselves by making statements such as Sri Lanka is going to increase her forest cover to 30% and destroying what little forest cover we have,’’ Dr Pilapitiya said.

The slithery unwelcome stranger and a pipe snake that escaped death

January 3, 2017 by
The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

The Pipe Snake rescued from Deniyaya. Pic by Minuwan Shri Premasinghe

Holidaymakers in Nuwara Eliya this season were in for a rude shock when a strange slithery visitor was spotted at the iconic Lake Gregory e. Many who flocked there suggested it could be a Cobra and a confirmation later by snake experts that it was infact a juvenile cobra caused shivers that had nothing to do with the weather, to many.

“But if you leave a Cobra alone you don’t need to worry,” said one expert. Although the Cobra (Naja naja) is a lethally venomous snake, it attacks only as a last resort when being cornered or accidentally stepped on. The Cobra when threatened will first display its hood and make a hissing sound in an attempt to scare away intruders. The one found in Nuwara Eliya was a juvenile cobra according to experts.

However, it is not common to find a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya and its environs as many snake species cannot withstand cold weather. “I have never encountered a Cobra in Nuwara Eliya,” said Herpetologist Dr.Anslem de Silva who has conducted many reptile surveys islandwide. Only rough-sided snakes belonging to the genus Aspidura and rat snakes are usually found in cold environments such as Nuwara Eliya.

Our Nuwara Eliya correspondent, Shelton Hettiarachchi said residents believe the Cobra may have ended up there in a goods vehicle from some other part in the country.

Meanwhile, the sighting of a pipe snake has also been reported. Minuwan Shri Premasinghe had sighted this unusual reptile on his way to the Sinharaja rainforest. The Pipe snake in Sinhala is known as the ‘Depath Naya’ with ‘Naya’ meaning ‘Cobra’ and ‘depath’ meaning ‘heads on both ends’ of the body. The Sinhala name was given by locals on observing the Pipe snake’s behaviour when it was agitated– it flattens the lower part of its body and points the tail forward. In this position, the ventral pattern appears like two large eyes with the cloacae appearing like an open mouth.

While making its tail erect the Pipe Snake also tugs its head under the body when facing a predator. This is a defence mechanism where the snake warns potential predators not to come closer. If the predator undeterred by the warning decides to attack, it first targets the ‘fake head’ which is in fact the ‘erect tail’. This gives the pipe snake a vital fraction of time to escape. Even if the tail is injured, it is not as severe than an injury to the head, which is vital for the snake’s survival.

The Pipe Snake is a nocturnal creature and Mr. Premasinghe had seen the snake at around 10 p.m. at Deniyaya. The pipe snake was nearly killed by mortified villagers who tried to attack it with wooden poles and iron rods.

The cobra spotted in Nuwara Eliya. Pic by Shelton Hettiarachchie

“The Pipe snake is a harmless non-venomous reptile and this one was nearly killed by terrified villagers. Only a handful of Sri Lankan snakes are lethally venomous, so innocent snakes too get killed as people do not knowto identify snakes,” said Mr.Premasinghe who pointed out the importance of educating villagers, particularly those living close to biodiversity rich areas such as the Sinharaha forest. Mr. Premasinghe released the Pipe Snake to the rainforest the next day.

The Pipe Snake scientifically categorised as Cylindrophis maculatus is in fact the first reptile described from Sri Lanka in 1754. It is also special as the snake was introduced to the scientific world by Carl Linnaeus who is known as the “Father of Taxonomy”– for formalising the modern system of naming organisms called binomial nomenclature in 1754.

Dr.De Silva states that the average length of a Pipe Snake is 500 mm. The longest Ceylon pipe snake spotted so far has been a 715 mm long female recorded from Deraniyagala in 1955, according to a book written by Dr.De Silva.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/news/the-slithery-unwelcome-stranger-and-a-pipe-snake-that-escaped-death-222494.html

Tsunami alarm network makes island feel safe than sorry

January 1, 2017 by

Prof. Samantha Hettiarachchi

Sri Lanka will never be fully protected from a tsunami, but at least people can feel  safer than in 2004, when 36,000 Sri Lankans who perished had not been warned even though they had a two-hour window to reach higher ground.

This week, on December 26, 2004, Sri Lanka along with many other Asian nations, was hit by a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. The mammoth wave was generated by an undersea earthquake off Sumatra Island and it took two hours to reach the southern and eastern shores of Sri Lanka.

“Unlike in the past, Sri Lanka is now equipped to issue an early warning in a short period of time,” assures Anusha Warnasuriya, the deputy director of forecasting at the Department of Meteorology. It is responsible for issuing tsunami warnings. An accurate forecast can be made with the assistance of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWMS), she said.

By 2004, other oceanic regions already had a tsunami warning system. But the Indian ocean region did not have such a mechanism. So the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was agreed to at a United Nations conference in January 2005. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System became operational in late June 2006 with the leadership of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

A Sri Lankan expert made a major contribution to the warning system.

Moratuwa University Department of Civil Engineering Professor Samantha Hettiarachchi was elected vice chairman of the IOTWMS in 2015 and in October 2016 appointed acting chairman.

“This warning system consists of several seismographic stations relaying information and Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami buoys that are capable of sensing an upcoming tsunami wave. By also assessing rises in sea-level recorded by the tidal wave gauges, the computer simulation models in regional tsunami service providers can predict of a tsunami,” Prof Hettiarachchi explained.

Currently India, Indonesia and Australia serve as regional TSPs and when an earthquake occurs, the central agency of each country receives an alert. “TSPs issue warnings only to designated bodies and not to other agencies or the public. In Sri Lanka, the met department and the Disaster Management Centre receives information about a tsunami. The met department is the official designated body to receive and disseminate information in consultation with the Disaster Management Centre,” Prof Hettiarachchi elaborated.

The met department’s Warnasuriya said alerts are received from all three TSPs. “Assessing all these warning issued by IOTWMS, our director general in consultation with other stakeholders take a quick decision to issue a warning according to the risk level. The rest of the ground level work such as evacuations are then mainly taken care of by the Disaster Management Centre,” she said. Since 2005, the met department has been tasked with being the central agency to receive tsunami alerts.

Sri Lanka is separated  into 13 coastal forecast zones and sirens have been setup at highly vulnerable places. Tsunami-related evacuation drills had been done on March 29, 2005, September 17, 2007, and April 11, 2012.

“Education, awareness, preparedness, early warning, and response at the country level is essential. Evacuation plans, too, need to be clear. Regular drills are important,” Prof Hettiarachchi advises.

He points out that Sri Lanka is definitely safer against a tsunami threat than in 2004. But due to the nature of the tsunami threat Sri Lanka can never be completely safe, so the island must remain vigilant, he added. Sri Lanka had been slow to conduct national vulnerability studies, but it is an exercise that can help to save lives and property, Prof Hettiarchchi recommended.

He also points out need to protect natural coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes to help minimise potential damage from tsunami and other ocean waves.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/news/tsunami-alarm-network-makes-island-feel-safe-than-sorry-222503.html

Multiple tools used to warn of tsunami

All mobile phone users can be alerted by text messages in the event of a tsunami, a disaster management official says. This is in addition to a warning towers in coastal areas. 

“Now we have setup 77 tsunami warning towers covering the most vulnerable coastal areas of Sri Lanka. There is also one on Delft islands and these can be remotely activated to issue a warning with a siren and message in all  three [main] languages,” said Pradeep Kodippili, the deputy director of the Disaster Management Centre. “But tsunami towers are only one mode of disseminating information to the public.’’

The centre said it has set up a network linking all the key government agencies and assigned pre-defined tasks to be able to act quickly. “We have our own radio frequencies to communicate with all the key agencies and also have the ability to issue an SMS similar to the ones issued by the President to all mobile users,’’ Kodippili said.

“The centre also has a vehicle equipped with communications channels and other necessities, so even if our building is damaged, we are in a position to coordinate management of a disaster,’’ he added.

Any person can register with the centre’s alert system by dialling #117 and by following the instructions. An app called ‘Disaster Early Warning Network – DEWN’ can also be downloaded.

Time ticks by for tragic painted-snipe chicks

December 26, 2016 by

Wild and free – time in the outdoors for the orphaned chicks.

Published on SundayTimes on 25.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161225/news/time-ticks-by-for-tragic-painted-snipe-chicks-221787.html

Many tragedies that Sri Lanka’s precious wild creatures face do not often make the news, unlike human road traffic fatalities. Heart-warming tales of survival are rarer still.

While a road traffic accident last week claimed the lives of 12 innocents, including 10 from the same family in northern Chavakachcheri,  two new-born greater painted-snipe chicks became survivors of an accident where the father and a newborn perished – yet another reason that drivers should not become assassins.

The Wildlife Conservation Department’s Hikkaduwa office handed over the two chicks to the  Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle and they are now being cared at the Hiyare animal hospital, which has a rescue and rehabilitation program.

WCSG president Madura de Silva suspects that the chicks would have hatched a few days earlier. Volunteers at the animal hospital have fed the chicks with worms and the response has been good after initial difficulties. Painted-snipes usually feed on insects, worms, crustaceans, molluscs and seeds.

Volunteers have also gradually introduced the chicks to the outdoors.

“Their chances of survival are not high, but we are trying our best to save them,” de Silva said. “If they can get through the critical period, then we will try our best to rehabilitate them with an aim of releasing them.’’ The chicks could be introduced to the care of a domesticated ground-dwelling  bird such as a hen, so that the orphans  can pick up survival skills.

The greater painted-snipe (rostratula benghalensis) have long beaks. They are a brightly-coloured ‘snipe’ like bird. Painted-snipe inhabit swamps, marshes and even undisturbed sections of paddy fields. They are more active at night. Chicks are buff coloured and have black stripes running along their body length. The coloration helps keep them camouflaged.

In parenting,  the female, which is more colourful and larger, nurtures the chicks, but the male also shares responsibilities such as helping to incubate the eggs, experts say. The female is  known to initiate courtship and may also mate with more than one male.

A volunteer feeds an orphaned painted-snipe chick. Pix by Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

The unlucky painted snipe male and a chick

Yala elephant gulps tourist’s bag with money and travel docs

December 26, 2016 by

December 2012: Gemunu looking for food

Gemunu, Yala National park’s iconic tusker has a bad habit of stealing food from visitors. What initially started off as begging for food, with time Gemunu became more aggressive– standing in the path of safari jeeps until it was given some food or sticking his trunk inside the jeeps and stealing food.

However, things went wrong this week for Gemunu when it put its trunk into a jeep in which a German couple was riding in and picked up a bag, thinking there would be a bagful of food. But instead the couple watched in horror and disbelief as Gemunu downed the bag containing cash and the travel documents.

It is reported that the tourists reported the incident to Wildlife officers so that they could obtain a letter as proof to claim insurance and get their travel documents renewed.

As Gemunu gets bolder wildlife experts worry that a fate far worse than gulping a bagful of of money and documents awaits the elephant. In addition to Gemunu there are other elephants being fed in Yala and other forest reserves of Sri Lanka. Sithulpawwa – a famous Buddhist temple located in Yala is also frequented by a tusker in search of food.

While feeding wild animals started with good intentions, people should understand it would ultimately have a negative impact on wild life – even resulting in possible fatalities, points out Prof.David Newsome of Murdoch University of Australia who studied nature-based tourism and its impact on wildlife in many different parts of the world. “Every case of feeding wild animals is different, so each needs to be carefully analysed to provide a lasting solution,” Prof. Newsome said.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Prof. Newsome gave the example of  Fraser Island in Australia where tourists closely interact with the dingo – a wild dog found in Australia. Things changed drastically when a boy was killed by dingos. Wildlife officers had to kill a number of dingos in Fraser Island following this incident.

An army soldier shoot to air to make Gemunu let go a jeep in 2013 stirred controversy in 2013.

An army soldier shoot to air to make Gemunu let go a jeep in 2013 stirred controversy in 2013.

Prof. Newsome who was in Sri Lanka recently commented on the Yala incident when he delivered the key-note address at the 21st International Forestry Symposium organised by the University of Sri Jayawardanepura annually.

“I’m not going to visit Yala as a tourist again,” prof. Newsome said. “Every wilderness has its limits in tolerating visitors and Yala being Sri Lanka’s most popular National Park needs an action plan immediately. Quality of the visitor experience is more important and just don’t forget ‘word-of-mouth’ is quicker in this era of social media – so in future tourists may avoid Yala” prof.Newsome,” said reiterating what local experts have been saying for sometime.

“Take a step back, review the situation properly, take informed decisions leading to sustainability of Yala to make sure its status as both a haven for animals as well as a tourist destination,” the expert on ecotourism advised.

This video shows Gemunu’s bold behavior in search of food and signs that a worse disaster is in the making – 2013.

Close encounter: Gemunu looking for food inside a jeep in 2013 - A thrilling, but scary view from inside Pic by Riaz Carder

Close encounter: Gemunu looking for food inside a jeep in 2013 – A thrilling, but scary view from inside Pic by Riaz Carder 

Published on SundayTimes on 25.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161225/news/aussie-expert-calls-for-action-plan-for-yala-following-gemunus-money-gobbling-incident-221783.html 

 

Whiskered native – handle with care

December 25, 2016 by
New Catfish Mystus nanus

New Catfish Mystus nanus

In this season of giving, scientists studying biodiversity at the University of Peradeniya have offered Sri Lanka a gift that generations will want to remember – two new species of catfish endemic to the island.

One specimen is scientifically named as Mystus nanus with its latin name ‘nanus’ meaning ‘dwarf’ as the fish is comparatively small, growing between 8 centimeters and 10 cm. The other, is named as Ompok argestes, where ‘argestes’ refers to its range meaning ‘southwest’ indicating its presence in the southern wet zone.

Both these catfish were earlier thought to be native to Sri Lanka and India, but based on scientific findings, researcher Hiranya Sudasinghe determined they are separate species. The species in Sri Lanka only inhabits the island. Sudasinghe told the Sunday Times that he had visited South India to study the Indian catfish in same area where these species had been first detected.

Experts Rohan Pethiyagoda, Dr Kalana Maduwage, and Dr Madhava Meegaskumbura assisted the researchers. Studies also established the existence of another catfish species named Callichrous ceylonensis, earlier identified as a different species.

New Catfish Ompok argestes

New Catfish Ompok argestes

Catfish are a diverse group of ray-finned fish, with their fins being webs of skin supported by bony or horny spines. Catfish have two or four pairs of barbels and its resemblance to cat’s whiskers resulted in them being called that name. They inhabit the dark depths of rivers and muddy environments. They are also mostly nocturnal carnivores.

There are nearly 3,000 known species of catfish in the world and with the new discoveries, now there are nine different catfish species in Sri Lanka. The largest freshwater fish in Sri Lanka is also a catfish known in Sinhala as Walaya(shark catfish) which can grow up to a meter in length. “But now this large catfish is very rare, so its even categorised as endangered in the Red List of Sri Lanka published on 2012,” said Sudasinghe.

Hiranya Sudasinghe

The largest species of catfish is the Mekong catfish with the largest recorded measuring nearly three metres in length according to some reports.

Several exotic catfish species are popular aquarium fish with the most popular in Sri Lanka being the iridescent shark catfish, native to the rivers of Southeast Asia. It appears to glow because of its slimy skin.

Catfish are also known to be able to survive long out of the water. Some species move to a different water source, when their water hole dries up. They use their rigid pectoral fins as stilts to move. In Sri Lanka, both the walking catfish and stinging catfish are noted for being able to crawl on land.

Catfish do not have scales, but spines on dorsal and pectoral fins provide protection against predators. These spines can be locked into place so that they stick outwards. The hunga or stinging catfish as its name suggests, need to be handled with caution as it has venom glands linked to the fin spine that can deliver an extremely painful sting.

Another interesting fact about cat fish is that many can produce different types of sounds by rubbing their fins.

Habitat loss is a threat to this freshwater fish. Walaya and Ankutta are already tagged as endangered, and two other catfish as ‘near threatened’. Experts urge that freshwater habitat that remain be protected.

The invasive ‘tank cleaner’ catfishKnown colloquially as ‘tank cleaners’ – the suckermouth catfish has now become an invasive species in a number of waterways in Sri Lanka. It native range is tropical South America, but it has become a popular aquarium fish due to its ability to clean algae from fish tanks. The fish are sold when they are small but with their feeding habits, they can quickly overgrow the tanks. Owners then release them to local waterways.

“Be responsible and never release your aquarium fish to any natural waterway,” appeals Subasinghe. This he, says can cause an imbalance in the ecology of the island’s freshwater habitats.

Sri Lanka's largest freshwater fish - වලයා (Wallago attu)

Sri Lanka’s largest freshwater fish – වලයා (Wallago attu)

List of catfish species found in Sri Lanka 

* Mystus nanus: endemic (the new discovery) – Sri Lankan Striped Dwarf Catfish (conservation status – LC)

* Mystus ankutta: endemic – Sri Lanka Dwarf Catfish {Endangered – EN}

* Mystus gulio: long-whiskered catfish; Anguluwa, {Least Concern – LC}

* Mystus zeylanicus: endemic – Sri Lankan yellow catfish {Least Concern – LC}

Family: siluridae

* Ompok argestes – endemic (about 30 cm) (conservation status proposed as near threatened)

* Ompok ceylonensis – endemic (about 30 cm) (conservation status proposed as least concern)

* Wallago attu – shark catfish – Walaya in Sinhala (about 1 m – rare) {ENDANGERED – EN}: This is the largest freshwater fish in Sri Lanka

Family: claridae

* Clarias brachysoma – walking cat fish – (- Magura) endemic (about 50 cm ) {Near Threatened – NT}

Family: heteropneustidae

*Heteropneustes fossilis : Stinging catfish, (- Hunga) (about 30 cm) {Least Concern – LC}

Invasive

* Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus – suckermouth catfish

* Clarias batrachus – marbled catfish: Most popular in the aquarium trade

*Iridescent shark catfish – pangasianodon hypophthalmus

Stinging catfish (හුන්ගා) Heteropneustes fossilis

Stinging catfish (හුන්ගා) Heteropneustes fossilis

Walking catfish (මගුරා) Clarias brachysoma

Walking catfish (මගුරා) Clarias brachysoma

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161218/news/whiskered-native-handle-with-care-220972.html

Curious humans take upside down view of orange-hued flyer

December 25, 2016 by

Beauty becomes a curse – a painted bat becomes a public attraction in Eppawala, Madiyawa 2012 – pure harrasment to the little creature (c) Internet

An attractive bat that is rearely seen, is best left alone if you find one hanging from a tree in your garden, researchers have appealed following media reports that have generated a buzz.

This week, news reports said an orange colored bat had been sighted in Thalgaswewa, Kanthale at a corn farm by its owner. After a three-hour struggle, the creature had been captured, the reports added. Amused villagers gathered en masse to take a look at the unusal specimen.

“This is not a new species, but a painted bat, scientifically categorized as kerivoula picta. It is a beautiful bat with a body color of bright orange with black wings and orange along the fingers. They also possess long, wooly, rather curly hair,” bat researcher Prof Vipula Yapa of the University Colombo said. The painted bat is a small creature with body length of between three centimetres and 5.5 cm. It feeds on insects.

“This bat can be found mostly in the low country dry zone – specially in areas such as Udawalawe and Embilipitiya, where there are banana plantations. During the day time, these bats hide among withered banana leaves,” says another bat researcher Gayan Edirisinghe. “Because the painted bat is mostly associated with banana plantations, it is also known as by the Sinhala name ‘visithuru kesel wavula’.

The painted bat usually flies out of its hiding place as dusk falls to begin hunting for food. They may often visit home gardens, but because people are not observant, they rarely notice the bat. But when they see it, this often leads to attempts to capture the creature in the mistaken belief it is a new species. Usually, it leads to the death of the creature.

The Kanthale bat found this week had been due to be handed over to the Department of Wildlife Conservation office in Kanthale. But when the Sunday Times contacted the office, no one had not heard of it.

“The painted bat is not that common, but they should be left alone. People should not try to catch them. Handling them badly can lead to death,” bat researchers plead. “It is also illegal to catch them.”

The painted bat is categorized as ‘near threatened’ by the Red List 2012. Sri Lanka is home to 30 different bat species. Nearly 20 of them feed on insects. These bats help to control the insect population.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161218/news/curious-humans-take-upside-down-view-of-orange-hued-flyer-220966.html

painted-bat-kerivoula-picta-in-its-ideal-habitat-c-gayan-edirisinghe

Painted Bat (Kerivoula picta) in its ideal habitat (c) Gayan Edirisinghe

Painted bat hit on vehicle Kanthale - Trinco stretch in 2011 (c) 2 Devsiri Peiris

Painted bat hit on vehicle Kanthale – Trinco stretch in 2011 (c) Devsiri Peiris

 

Mini-hydro’s power bulldozes Athwelthota ecology concerns

December 11, 2016 by

Environmentalists say yet another mini-hydro power project approved this week overlooks the irreparable damage being done to ecologically-sensitive areas in the country.But enviromental authorities defend their decision to approve the latest project in Athwelthota in the Kalutara district.

After reviewing objections by environmentalists about the negative impact on the Athwelthota Palan Ganga ecosystem, the Central Environment Authority approved the plant.“The CEA’s decision is not right,” insisted Hemantha Withanage, the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Environmental Justice. He had complained to Pesident Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the Minister of Environment under which the CEA operates.

The Athwelthota Palan Ganga originates from the Sinharaja forest as
a tributary of Kukuleganga

The Sunday Times has learnt that the presidential secretariat had instructed the secretary of Mahaweli Development and Environment to review and report back. President Sirisena has repeatedly claimed he is committed to environmental protection, so Withanage is hopeful that he will walk the talk.

The Athwelthota Palan Ganga originates from the Sinharaja forest as a tributary of Kukuleganga. It is a living laboratory for scientists and is seen as the last hideout for a number of important and rare freshwater fish. Two point endemic fish species –

Martenstyne’s Goby and Rasboroides nigomarginatus have been recorded only in the Athwelthota environs. It is also a popular bathing spot.CEA Chairman Lal Mervin Dharmasiri said the project site borders a forest under the purview of the Forest Department. While the department is the apex approval body, the CEA’s consent was needed. Following CEJ’s complaints, the CEA withdrew its consent and met all the stakeholders including the developer. Everyone agreed to further review three points that the mini hydro could harm – aesthetic value, the waterfall and point endemic fish.

“We got the Survey Department to measure the height of the waterfall, an academic at the University of Kelaniya gave a report on the aesthetic value, while the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) surveyed the fish. But all the results were negative. Although there are some endemic and other freshwater fish, the point endemics could not be found at the location,” Prof Dharmasiri said justifying the approval.

He also adds that politics was not at play at the CEA. The report on the aesthetic beauty argues that local residents did not mind the project because 22 people had died over the past 50 years at the Athwelthota waterfall. Withanage said he was shocked that the destruction of the waterfall had been justified, “because some people use this location to drink alcohol.”

He believes it would be a crime to destroy Athwelthota for the sake of a 1 megawatt hydropower generation plant when more environmental friendly alternatives are available. Withanage complains that it is unfortunate CEA has no conservation mindset.

Published on SundayTimes on 11.12.2016 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161211/news/mini-hydros-power-bulldozes-athwelthota-ecology-concerns-219768.html