Famed snake rescuer killed by rescued cobra

September 28, 2016 by

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

This article was published on 16.08.2016 on SundayTimes. May it be a tribute to Amal Wijesekara’s silent service of rescuing countless number of snakeshttp://www.sundaytimes.lk/160807/news/famed-snake-rescuer-killed-by-rescued-cobra-203978.html 

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

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

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

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

Flawed approvals of mini hydro projects spell river, land destruction

September 28, 2016 by

This article was published on SundayTimes on 28.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

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

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

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

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

Protests in Gatambe

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

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

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

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

Regulators reveal holes in their buckets

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

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

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

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

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

September 26, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand up for Conservation: Pilapitiya tells civil society

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

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

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

Sinharaja’s slithering new beauty

September 26, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

treesnakegraphic-449x1024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160918/news/sinharajas-slithering-new-beauty-209050.html

Repertoire: Mendis’ book wins awards at State Literary Awards 

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

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

repertoir

A Thought for World Environment Day 2016…!!

June 5, 2016 by

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

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

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

Shark spotted in Menik Ganga

May 19, 2016 by

This article was published on 16.02.2016 on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/extinct-shark-spotted-in-menik-ganga-182906.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. De Silva also launched a comprehensive book on sharks last year, with illustrations by prominent wildlife artist Jayantha Jinasena. Copies could be purchased from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Department of Zoology, University of Colombo (call 2592609 or email fogsl1976@gmail.com

 

Mini hydros: Clean energy comes at high cost to Nature

May 19, 2016 by

This article was published on 14.02.2016 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/mini-hydros-clean-energy-comes-at-high-cost-to-nature-182949.html

Damming streams a ‘death sentence for many species’ 

Dam being built across the Anda dola. Pic courtesy Rainforest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A whale of a problem; Saving sea giants or saving industry

May 19, 2016 by

Article published on 07.02.2016 on SudayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160207/news/a-whale-of-a-problem-saving-sea-giants-or-saving-industry-182223.html

Scientists and economists debate major step of shifting shipping route

A Blue Whale hit by a ship in Lankan waters

There was heated debate over the problem of saving whales off Sri Lanka from ship strikes as a three-day forum last week heard the faster speeds at which ships now travel pose a heightened danger to these huge endangered creatures.

A major maritime organisation, however, declared none of its members had ever experienced a ship strike on a whale
A busy shipping route runs through the ocean off southern Sri Lanka which has been identified as an area in which the giant blue whale and many other whales are found in abundance all year around.

A proposal by conservationists to shift this shipping route, known as the Dondra Head Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), 15 nautical miles (nm) southward is hotly opposed by shipping industry representatives who argue the country’s economy would suffer if this were to happen. Some conservationists too question a shifting of the shipping path.

Last week’s consultative forum organised by the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) focused directly on this issue under the title, “The Environmental Health of the Ocean: First International Expert and Stakeholder Conference on Marine Mammals with special Reference to the issue of Ship-strikes and the IMO Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head”.

The Chairman of the Scientific Sub-Committee on Ship Strikes of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Dr. Russel Leaper, said whenever a whale path overlapped a shipping route ship strikes were possible. As ships become bigger and faster, the time a whale has to dodge an approaching ship decreases so ship strikes have become an increasing threat to whales, Dr. Leaper explained.

Dr. Thilak Priyadarshana of the University of Ruhuna and a group of international researchers who published a paper last year called “Distribution patterns of blue whale (Balaenopteramusculus) and shipping off southern Sri Lanka” advocate moving the shipping lane.

Whale researcher Dr. Asha de Vos too believes the whales off Mirissa are vulnerable to ship strikes. She said the blue whale population off southern Sri Lanka is unique as the whales appear to be staying in our waters throughout the year, a fact that could be attributed to a rich feeding ground.

Dr. de Vos showed the forum photographs of the whale that carried into harbour in 2012 and the horrific underwater images taken by photographer Tony Wu showing a blue whale carcass with a gash cut by a propeller on its tail that could have come from a ship strike.

“Less than 10 per cent of ship strikes are getting reported as the dead whales could sink or be found at a bad stage of decomposition after long time drifting and the reason for the death cannot be confirmed,” she said. “In some cases, in particular involving large vessels, captains might be unaware that a collision with a cetacean has occurred,” Dr. de Vos explained.

“The whales are in these nearshore areas because these areas are productive and have food. Imagine if there was a bus driving through your kitchen, how would you feel? You would have to go there to get food despite the danger of getting hit.

“The solution to this problem is simple. Shifting the shipping lanes a few nautical miles south of its current position will not really affect the shipping industry but will have huge gains for a species that is very valuable to our economy.

In fact, shipping lanes have been shifted to stop ship-whale collisions in many other parts of the world, so Sri Lanka is not doing anything out of the box or innovative. We will just be doing what is right,” Dr. de Vos stated.

Shipping industry representatives at the forum said they feared moving the shipping route would harm associated industries.

The close proximity of the shipping route to the southern coast of Sri Lanka, in between the two major ports of Galle and Hambantota, brings the opportunity of business from ships passing near the service ports, said Captain Ranjith Weerasinghe of the Company of Master Mariners.

“But ‘out of sight’ would result in ‘out of mind’, so a shift would affect Sri Lanka economically,” he told the IOMAC forum.

“Currently about 1,000 ships per month call for services off the port of Galle as a direct result of having the Traffic Separation System in our coastal proximity.

If this route shifted 15nm it would make the westward passage from Rondo Island coming out of Malacca straight through the Bay of Bengal a direct course to the north of the Maldives, making that the obvious position for shipping services, losing Sri Lanka an opportunity,” Captain Weerasinghe pointed out.

“None of our 275 members, the vast majority of Master Mariners of Sri Lanka, whose sea experience ranges from 12-40 years of sailing, has had a ship strike on a whale ever,” Captain Weerasinghe declared.

Based on the University of Ruhuna study, the NGO, Friends of the Sea, lobbied to push the Sri Lankan government into submitting a proposal to shift the shipping route last year but the government wanted to study the proposal further.

“It is true that we need to conserve the whales, but we should also look at our national interest,” said IOMAC Secretary General Dr. Hiran Jayewardene. He called it as a campaign to prevent ships coming to the ports of Sri Lanka.

“We need hard facts to evaluate whether ship strikes are a very frequent occurrence off southern Sri Lanka that can affect the blue whale population,” he said. “Even if we move the lane further south, what is the guarantee that it will not affect other populations of whales?” Dr. Jayewardene said.

The Director of Research of the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), Howard Martenstyn, also said there was not enough evidence to determine the ship strikes is a major threat to whales off Mirissa. Commenting on the 2012 incident where a Bryde’s whale carcass was dragged into harbour on the bow of a vessel, Mr. Martenstyn said that could have been a drifting dead whale carried by the ship.

He said the photograph of a gash wound on the whale could not definitely show whether the whale died due to ship strike or whether a drifting dead whale had been struck with a propeller.

Mr. Martenstyn pointed out there was no significant increase of carcasses found on the southern coast, saying if the whales off Mirissa were regularly hit the number of dead whales found in these areas should show an increase.

Dr. Russell Leaper of the IWC said the accuracy of Sri Lankan whale ship strike records would be reviewed by a panel of international experts over the next few months before being entered into the IWC database and this would resolve some of the confusion between researchers in Sri Lanka over these records.

“Compared to other areas where shipping lanes have been moved to reduce risks to whales, Sri Lanka has a very strong case,” Dr. Leaper said. “Of all the whale and ship strike problems I have worked on in other areas this is probably the clearest case of the highest risk and also the most straightforward action that could reduce risk.

“We see that moving the passing shipping further offshore could only benefit Sri Lanka. As well as protecting whales it would greatly reduce the risks to whale watching vessels. This is an accident waiting to happen which would have serious consequences for Sri Lanka’s tourist industry.

“Shipping safety would also be improved with lower risk to coastal fishing boats, lower risk of collisions between large ships and less chance of oil spills along the coast. It also allows more space closer to shore for ships using Sri Lankan ports.”

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, who led an aggressive media campaign to brand Sri Lanka for whale-watching, said whale-watching generated much more money than whale watching bookings alone would suggest as customers used the full spectrum of accommodation and other services.

“So whale watching is now a key element for tourism in the south and any move to protect these whales is welcome by the tourism industry,” he said. “The Indian Ocean blue whale population is low due to extensive illegal whaling in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s.

Furthermore, like many long-lived animals, population recovery can be slow. Therefore every individual that is saved by reducing ship strikes will help conserve these intelligent and sentient beings and help the livelihoods of people in the south,” Mr. Wijeyeratne said.

Sri Lanka’s whalesNineteen whale species have been recorded in Sri Lankan waters by the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), and there are in total 28 species of marine mammal, including dugong, off our shores.There are two kinds of whales: those with teeth and those that are toothless but have special plates called baleen to filter food. The giant blue whale is a baleen whale. The sperm whale, the largest toothed whale, can live in super pods of more than 100 creatures, a spectacular sight.

Off Mirissa, once in a while, are sightings of orcas or so-called killer whales. This is probably the most intelligent marine mammals and, sadly, is often a feature in large aquariums, trained to perform tricks. They have won hearts in films such as Free Willy.

Whales are slow breeders so if a number of individuals are killed in a short period of time the recovery of the population is slow.

Bye.. bye.. thinner polythene

February 16, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 07.02.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160131/news/polythene-baddies-hammered-from-tomorrow-181304.html

A man who supplies sili sili bags to shops in Pettah

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) will from next month systematically begin raiding the manufacturers and sellers that do not comply with the ban on polythene less than 20 microns in thickness.

“In January, we made some raids and those found guilty had been given chance to adjust to alternatives. But from February onwards, we will take legal action against those who do not comply,” a CEA spokesman warned.

The manufacture, sale or use of polythene less than 20 microns in thickness was banned from 2007 under the National Environment Act under the directive of President Maithripala Sirisena while he was the minister of environment but the law has until now not been properly implemented.

The thickness of polythene sheets is measured in microns – a unit resembling 0.001 millimeter. These thinner polythene sheets are mostly used in shopping bags or “sili sili bags”, lunch sheets and other packaging materials.

Any form of polythene or plastic takes hundreds of years to decay, polluting the environment, but thinner polythene is more evil as it cannot be recycled. Burning it causes the emission of poisonous gases such as dioxin, so such polythene ends up in garbage dumps.

Dumped bags clog the drainage system, creating floods. Animals such as cattle also feed on polythene bags found on rubbish heaps and become ill or die.

Easy to transport: A day’s shopping all in ‘Sili sili’ bags

The water collected in these disposed bags and wrappers can collect rainwater, making breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue. Polythene dumped in waterways finds its way into the ocean, choking and killing marine life.

According to a survey conducted by the Environment Ministry 72 per cent of villagers and 49 per cent of people in urban areas in the Western Province use polythene lunch sheets.

In total, about 500,000 metric tonnes of polythene and plastics are imported into Sri Lanka with 70 per cent of this going into domestic use while 30 per cent is used in export-related industry.

The positive side is that about 40 per cent of the plastics and thicker polythene is being recycled. The CEA currently has six recycling plants in operation and two more awaiting commissioning.

About 160 firms involved in plastic recycling are registered with the CEA and this number is expected to increase.

Worryingly, 60 per cent of the plastic and polythene used domestically ends up in garbage.

The authorities hope the ban on thin polythene will be effective. In Bangladesh, which banned the use of polythene bags in early 2000, media reports say polythene is making an illegal comeback.

A change in consumer attitude is key to the success of the strategy. Experts recommend the widespread teaching of the 3R principles: Refuse, Reuse and Recycle.

As consumers, we all have the power to refuse a polythene bag when it is not necessary and we can carry reusable bags.

Big demand: A shop that sells only ‘sili sili’ bags in Pettah. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Toxic frog joins elite endemic club

February 16, 2016 by
The Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog and below, the tadpole of this frog

The Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog and below, the tadpole of this frog

Mihintale is recognised as one of the world’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries, so it is fitting that a new frog found to be endemic to Sri Lanka has been named after Mihintale to honour its ancient values.

“On top of being a historic sanctuary, Mihintale is also the point of unison for two ancient cultures, when Mahinda Thera (Son of Indian Emperor, Asoka) met Dewanampiya Tissa (the king of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka) in 246 BC. Hence we named the frog Microhyla mihintalei”, Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura, who led the research team, said.

This frog is now officially called the Mihintale narrow-mouthed frog (Microhyla mihintalei). The specie is found mainly in the lowland dry zone and also has a small presence in some parts of the Wet Zone. The specimens these scientists used for their study lived near Mihintale.

As its name implies, the frog has a narrow mouth that restricts its diet to smaller prey such as termites and other ants. It is reddish in colour and a little bigger than Microhyla ornata (ornate narrow-mouthed frog) the other species in Sri Lanka that can be confused with this species. The females are bigger – up to 2 inches, while males can be 1.5 inches.

Being in proximity, Sri Lanka and India share many wild species. But as a result of thousands of years of separation due to the sea barrier, Sri Lankan populations of a number of amphibians evolved to become unique to the island.

Tadpole of Microhyla mihintalei – MadhavaM

The Mihintale frog had been previously considered to be a species called Microhyla rubra that is widespread in India and Sri Lanka.

Being a dry zone species, the Mihintale frog has to wait for torrential rains to breed. They lay floating layers of eggs on the surface of rainwater pools. The tadpoles have to be lucky to become transformed into frogs before the water pool runs dry.

The skin of this frog is toxic, so many predators avoid it, giving the species a greater chance of survival.Unlike other endemic frogs, the population of Mihintale frog is considered stable.

The reporting of this endemic species is yet another success story of joint research by Sri Lankan and Indian scientists. The discovery was published in the Zootaxa journal with research being carried out by graduate students Nayana Wijayathilaka, Sonali Garg, Gayani Senevirathne, Nuwan Karunarthna under the supervision of Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura of University of Peradeniya and India’s frog expert, Prof. S.D. Biju.

There are 118 frogs and toads in Sri Lanka and with the new member, 102 of them are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Published on SundayTimes on 31.01.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160131/news/toxic-frog-joins-elite-endemic-club-181321.html

MS blows hot against global warming with ‘Sri Lanka Next’

February 16, 2016 by

Published on SundayTimes on 10.01.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160110/news/ms-blows-hot-against-global-warming-with-sri-lanka-next-178263.html

President Maithripala Sirisena launched an ambitious campaign to fight global warming, following last month’s global agreement reached to reduce emissions.

Named ‘Sri Lanka Next: Blue-Green Era’, the ceremonial launch took place at the BMICH on January 6 with schoolchildren and invitees in attendance. At the event, President Sirisena and those present read out a pledge to do whatever is necessary in the fight against global warming, and maintain the temperature increase under 2 degrees centigrade.

The audience pledge to fight against global warming. Pix by Indika Handuwala

The pledge further says Sri Lanka will also endeavour to keep it under 1.5 degrees centigrade. The ‘Sri Lanka Next’ campaign will propel the nation into the next level of sustainable low emission development paradigm, where opportunities arising from the emerging new green and blue economy would be tapped.

Scientists predict human induced global warming triggered by excess greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide will make the world hotter by several degrees if nothing is done.

The temperature rise is already being experienced through many extreme weather events triggered by it. Hence, the Paris climate talks ended with both industrialised and developing countries agreeing to cut emissions.

Sri Lanka’s greenhouse gas emissions are considered negligible, compared with industrialised countries, yet, ‘Sri Lanka Next’ promises a low carbon path for Sri Lanka to ease global warming.

Hence, our main focus would be towards adaptation, to confront the bad impacts of climate change.

The key focus of this national initiative is to ensure that Sri Lanka as a nation shift towards clean renewable energy and divests itself of fossil fuel consumption in the industrial and transport sectors.

President Sirisena at the event

The President recently re-introduced tax exemptions for electric cars, in trying to gain this goal.

But Sri Lanka is to set up another coal power plant in Trincomalee under Indian pressure, which will hurt this ambitious campaign warn energy experts.

A series of weeklong events, post launch of ‘Sri Lanka Next’, have been organised for Environment week which falls in the first week of June.

It will consist of a conference, exhibition and symposium on the Blue-Green Economy, followed by a film festival and a student-led event.

President Sirisena, who is also the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, vowed to personally steer the campaign in conjunction with the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the Forest Department’s REDD+ initiative, together with Department of Wildlife Conservation, the National Climate Secretariat (NCS) and all other relevant Government institutions, the Private Sector and international agencies.

However, the most important aspect is not just promises but the need to implement them, remind environmentalists.
The ‘Sri Lanka Next’ campaign website can be accessed on http://srilankanext.lk/

A message on protecting the environment: Children perform an item

Wreckers of underwater treasures must be stopped

December 13, 2015 by

Fish are being dynamited as they shelter in the historically important shipwrecks scattered around Sri Lanka’s coastline, damaging valuable eco-systems and putting tourist earnings at risk.

Underwater grave: Dead fish at the site of the British Sergeant wreck. Pic by Nishan Perera

Blast fishing is one of the most destructive fishing practices, used to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. The explosion destroys underlying habitat such as coral reefs that supports fish as well as other marine life.

Fishermen detonated explosives in the wreck Orestes, also known as Tango Wreck, which lies off Hikkaduwa, according to divers posting on the SubAqua Club forum.

A few months ago, another incident was reported by diver and marine expert Nishan Perera who took photographs of many dead big and small fish floating near the British Sergeant wreck off Passikudah after a dynamite fishing explosion. The wreck suffered some damage and nearby coral had been broken.

“On that day we reached British Sergeant around 9am and there was some fish floating on the surface, gasping for air,” said Thusitha Ranasinghe, an amateur diver who witnessed the destruction.

“We immediately knew that the ship wreck has been dynamited a few minutes ago and that the fishermen had left when they saw us coming.

“When we dived there were a lot of dead fish on the seabed and trapped on the deck of the sunken ship, and a lot of half alive fish trying to keep their buoyancy and gasp for a last bit of air,” he added.

There could be more than 200 shipwrecks around the coast, about 50 of which can be reached by diving, according to the comprehensive Dive Sri Lanka website.

Five hundred years of trade, commerce, conflict and war from the time of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British resulted in a vast amount of shipping traffic all round the coast and a corresponding high number of wrecks, Dive Sri Lanka states.

Most of these wrecks have been located, including world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, which was sunk off Batticaloa.

Shipwrecks creating special underwater attraction providing shelter for marine life becoming potential to be steady magnets for dive tourism that is still in at fancy level.

There is also the danger that fishermen dynamiting a wreck might do so carelessly while there were divers underwater. The Editor of Dive Sri Lanka, Dharshana Jayawardena, recalled one such incident, “It was scary.

It sounded like a tank exploding underwater, and the foreign tourists who were underwater with us were really scared. Fortunately, the dynamiting happened about 1km away, but the tourists with me swore they would not come again to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jayawardena said.

“The dive industry in Sri Lanka is poised to grow hugely so this will have some real impacts on our international standing and ability to compete in the international dive market quite apart from the terrible environmental consequences” said Naren Gunasekera, who is lobbying to stop blast fishing.

Statistics show there are 23.7 million certified scuba divers in the world with 2.7m going on diving holidays. They are reportedly big spenders so this niche tourist segment would be economically beneficial but if we destroy our corals and shipwrecks there wouldn’t be anything to attract the tourists, Mr. Gunasekera points out.

A sunken ship turns to an artificial coral reef, providing living and breeding habitat for enormous amounts of marine life. Dynamiting these shipwrecks for their fish and the metal is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Dynamite is not only used on coral reefs and shipwrecks, it is being thrown into nets where large schools of fish are caught in order to prevent the fish tearing the net. Marine mammals such as dolphins and even the endangered dugongs are reported to be killed by dynamiting.

Sadly, because the destruction happens underwater, only divers can see the damage. It is important that the authorities understand the issue and take action to stop it, marine activists say.

It is, however, very difficult to carry out raids at sea to nab blast fishing culprits as they are highly organised, using mobile phones to convey alerts of approaching navy or police boats and dumping the evidence.

The fish die mostly of the shock wave, hence there is no physical damage that helps to prove they have been killed by blast fishing.

“Action to stop blast fishing needs to be taken on land, not at sea,” says Arjan Rajasuriya who was formally at National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

“Find out how these fishermen get dynamite and take action to stop it at source.”

As blast fishing is widespread, happening daily in many parts of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajasuriya points out that those who illegally acquire a huge amount of dynamite should in any case be considered a threat to national security.

“In the same way that police and security forces nabbed the terrorists during the time of war, a good intelligence network is needed to find the source of the dynamite supplies and then stop them getting them into the hands of fishermen,” he said.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.12.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151213/news/wreckers-of-underwater-treasures-must-be-stopped-174949.html

The underwater crime scene - fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

The underwater crime scene – fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene - fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene – fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

A butterfly guide this season to inspire time with nature

December 13, 2015 by

Butterfly watching – also called butterflying – involves the observation and study of butterflies. With the main aim of popularising interest among the public, the Butterfly Conservation Society of Sri Lanka (BCSSL) will be launching the photographic guide ‘Field Guide to Butterflies of Sri Lanka’ that has more than 600 photos and illustrations of all of the 247 butterflies of Sri Lanka including the 26 endemics.

The guide is authored by a trio of young butterfly enthusiasts Himesh Jayasinghe, Sarath Sanjeewa Rajapakse and Chamitha de Alwis. Writing the foreword, butterfly expert Dr. Michael van der Poorten says he is impressed with the authors’ scientific field skills.

He introduces the young trio as butterfly researchers who understand the importance of careful observation, recording accurate field notes and making the proper identification. The guide is also a compilation of 15 years of field research by authors.

Through the photographs, the authors help even an amateur to distinguish butterflies from many different angles. The photos also show behaviour and living habitat of each species in most instances. “Some butterflies feed on fruits, some others on odd foods like bird droppings. Some butterflies perch at the bottom of leaves – We carefully handpicked the best photos that helps anybody to identify butterflies,” said Jayasinghe.

In 2013 the authors together with other butterfly enthusiasts formed the Butterfly Conservation Society, the first such organization in Sri Lanka aimed at studying butterflies and moths. They used different media to reach out to butterfly enthusiasts in the country and conducted several field studies on butterflies with previously unknown information about butterflies, their distribution, their larvae, host plants and feeding. The second edition of the pocket guide will be richer in content and not be a reprint of the first edition published in 2013 say the authors.

The publisher– the Butterfly Conservation Society is still a young organisation but its membership is growing steadily. Most importantly, the members are very active in the field. They meet every last Saturday of the month at the University of Colombo to share their knowledge and listen to a lecture on butterflies. Field visits are organised regularly. The only qualification to join the society is an interest in butterflies!

The Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Sri Lanka – second edition will be launched on Saturday, December 19 at 4 p.m. at the Meteorological Department Auditorium, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7.

The guide will be available at a special price of Rs.1500 at the launch. The Butterfly Conservation Society can be reached on 0718181225 or butterflycssl@gmail.com for queries on the book and membership.

published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151213/plus/a-butterfly-guide-this-season-to-inspire-time-with-nature-174499.html

Butterfly Pocket Guide - await pupation Butterfly Pocket Guide Cover front Butterfly Pocket Guide 2 Butterfly Pocket Guide 4

Moving whales out of the fast lane

December 13, 2015 by
Missed chances in preventing ships from killing mighty mammals 

Image of whale came to Colombo harbor by attached to a ship

Sri Lanka missed a November 27 deadline to submit a proposal to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that would save endangered whales off the south coast from being killed or maimed in the busy shipping lane offshore that is also a feeding ground for the giants.

Known as “ship strikes”, these accidents are a growing concern in the seas off the southern coast where one of the world’s largest shipping route cuts across rich blue whale habitat.

Some marine biologists propose shifting this shipping lane 15 nautical miles southwards as a solution but shifting a shipping route is difficult and needs much coordinated international action – and Sri Lanka is anxious not to damage its business interests.

A country wanting an international shipping lane moved had to apply to the IMO for permission by November 27 for consideration next year but lobbying by conservationists failed to move the Sri Lankan government.

The international NGO, Friends of the Sea, launched a campaign to persuade the government to submit a proposal to the IMO before this deadline but the Merchant Shipping Secretariat, the shipping administration arm of Sri Lanka, which has to make this request formally to the IMO on behalf of the government, was immovable – at least for now.

“We welcome any move to save whales but we also need to look after the economic impact of shifting the shipping routes leading to the Hambantota and Colombo ports,” the Director-General of Merchant Shipping, Ajith Seneviratne, said.

“A special committee of stakeholders such as National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) and other researchers will be set up to evaluate the need and we will move forward accordingly,” Mr. Seneviratne said.

Body of blue whale hit by a ship on Sri Lankan waters (c) Tony Wu

Body of blue whale hit by a ship on Sri Lankan waters (c) Tony Wu

Ceylon Shipping Corporation Executive Director Dr. Dan Malika Gunasekera warned of the economic implications of such a move.

The shipping lanes cross a feeding ground, said the former NARA head, Dr. Hiran Jayawardene, who was instrumental in the creation of the international Traffic Separation Scheme at Dondra Head through the IMO in 1980 to reduce the risk of oil tanker collision and avert marine pollution on the south coast and tourist beaches.

Dr. Jayawardene said he had tried to find a way to mitigate ship strikes on whales when he had been chairman of NARA but the previous regime had blocked him, concerned that this could harm its pet project, the Hambantota Port.

The Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC) and the Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Marine Mammals (CRIOMM), which operates under his guidance, will continue studies on ship strikes in Sri Lankan waters, Dr. Jayawardene said.

The Friends of the Sea based its push on a research paper led by Professor Thilak Priyadarshana Gamage of the University of Ruhuna that revealed the world’s highest densities of blue whales were observed in the current shipping lanes, peaking along the westbound shipping lane.

Dr. Gamage’s research, based on whale sighting reports on 35 survey days, suggest risks of ship strikes could be reduced by 95 per cent if shipping were to transit 15 nautical miles further offshore.

Blue whales usually migrate but the blue whale population off Lanka’s southern coast stay year around, so protecting that habitat is vital.

Two leading whale researchers, Asha de Vos and Anouk Illangakoon, also agree that ship strikes are the major problem for the blue whales off the south coast but they want more research to be done on correlating whale deaths to ship strikes, and on the secondary effects of moving sea lanes, before a request is put to the IMO.

Ms. Illangakoon worries that unregulated whale-watching activities harass the whales and drive them further offshore right into the shipping lane.

She says sighting and stranding data (information on whales found washed up on beaches) before and after the inception of commercial whale-watching indicate there has been a change in areas of sea where whales are found and a corresponding increase in fatal ship strikes along the southwest coastline.

Although these findings are based on limited data she recommends that human activities are quickly regulated to mitigate adverse impacts on these endangered blue whales.

Ms. Illangakoon wants more research to be carried out on whales and links to ship strikes before proposing a change in shipping routes.

“My reason for saying so is that the waters around Sri Lanka (not just in the south) are prime marine mammal habitat containing a multiplicity of species and they are not all confined to coastal waters.

Whales certainly do occur well beyond the current shipping lane and we might create another problem or exacerbate the present problem by blindly shifting shipping lanes,” she said.

Ms. de Vos, who has long been researching blue whales off Mirissa, says ship strikes are the biggest threat to these whale pods and is positive that she can come up with recommendations next year regarding a shifting of the shipping lanes.

“My work is really focused on reducing the risk of ship strikes from occurring and I am working very hard to scientifically show what alternatives we have,” she said.

“At the moment, the science I conduct uses field data and remotely-sensed data to build simulations that can give us a sense of where the whales are most at risk and how much at risk they might be.

“I am very excited that we are on our way to getting some great results that can help with important management decisions of this nature not only in Sri Lanka, but also in other parts of the world where whale strikes are a known problem,” she said.

When whales occasionally wash up dead on our beaches it is difficult to ascertain whether they died from ship strikes or of another cause.

It is not known with certainty how many whales have died after being hit by ships and disappeared into the deep.

“It is very difficult to conclusively find out the reasons for death whales. Often the carcases that washes ashore are badly decomposed.

Those that washed nearshore in good condition are cut by people in search of amber,” says Dr.Rekha Maldeniya, a research officer attached to NARA.

Professor Gamage’s paper, published earlier this year, states that there was an increase in instances of blue whales being washed up dead on Sri Lanka’s southern and western beaches: there were nine in the two years to 2012 and several of them had injuries consistent with being hit by ships.

In that period, 15 whales – of them, 11 blue whales – are thought to have died from ship strikes around the island. From January to May last year four blue whales were found dead on our beaches with the cause not known with certainty.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson revealed that the recently-concluded Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Council of Ministers that met in Indonesia in October took a decision to have a regional workshop on whales and carry out research in Sri Lanka.

The IORA Centre of Excellence, housed at the Institute of Policy Studies, is to organise the workshop, which will also discuss conservation and the whale-watching industry in the region.

The Sunday Times contacted the IMO to clarify Lanka’s chances of obtaining a shift in the shipping route in order to prevent whale strikes.

The IMO said the United States, Canada and Panama had previously submitted ship re-routeing requests in order to protect marine mammals and these had been adopted by the IMO.

Sri Lanka still has a chance to submit a maximum six-page proposal of a by December 25 but it is unlikely the country would do so, and it appears the opportunity will have to be taken next year.

With several researchers working on similar objectives, it is important that there is a co-ordinated effort to build a case to the IMO.

Protecting this population of blue whales will be beneficial for Sri Lanka, not only for the whales’ value in Nature but also for economic values as the whale-watching industry depends on the continued presence of these prized cetaceans.

Why can’t whales escape ships? 

Asha de Vos answers an oft-asked question: being good at manoeuvring in water, cannot whales get away from ships bearing down on them?“Sometimes the whales might not see the ship as an oncoming threat because the ocean is so noisy and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the ship is coming from,” Ms. de Vos said. Noise pollution can disorient the whales.

They could also be engaging in activity that is important to their survival and concentrating more on that than on moving out of the way of oncoming traffic. For example, if they are in an area with lots of good food, the drive to forage could override the need to move away from the noise. Or they could be mating.

A whale might not hear the oncoming vessel until it is too late due to the “bow null” effect. Since a ship’s engine is located at the back of the vessel, if the vessel is large, a “bow null” effect is created that means the bow blocks the noise of the engine from whales that are in front of the vessel.

She wears my ring, say UK bird researchers

December 2, 2015 by

A bird found with a ring on Puttalam lagoon last week caused puzzlement over the link between the ring and the bird. The ring was etched with the words “British Museum London” and bore other markings that were meaningless to many people.

One erroneous report stated, “London Museum bird accidentally lands in Sri Lanka with a ‘Stolen Ring’” and said the ring was silver.

Second ‘ringed’ bird in Chillaw photographed by Supun Perera

Second ‘ringed’ bird in Chillaw photographed by Supun Perera

But the bird neither visited Sri Lanka accidentally, nor had it stolen a ring. It has been identified as a lesser crested tern (Thalasseus bengalensis), a common winter migrant to Sri Lanka that can be seen this time of the year.

The ring was a piece of metal sealed around its leg by researchers in order to monitor its movement. The ring is not silver but made out of a light, non-corrosive alloy.

Bird ringing, also known as bird banding, is used by ornithologists to study the species. They catch a bird and fasten a uniquely numbered ring on one of its legs that helps to distinguish the bird individually.

The band states where the bird was ringed, and this shows experts who might find the bird elsewhere the path of its migratory flight.

The ring of the bird found in Puttalam was numbered DE65264. Following the website marked on the ring. http://www.ring.ac, The Sunday Times contacted the ringing team.

Pic by Hiran Prinkara Jayasinghe

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO), which ringed this bird, said it had ringed this bird on June 22, 2012. The bird had been a juvenile at the time.

The researchers said the bird had been ringed at Al-Jarim Island in the Persian Gulf near Bahrain.

The island has a large breeding populations of bridled terns and lesser crested terns, so the bird found in Sri Lanka could have been born on that island in the Middle East. Sri Lanka lies 3700km from the ringing site.

Ringing began more than 100 years ago to study the movements of birds. While it continues to generate information about movements it also allows us to study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to breed as adults, as well as how many adults live from year to year and how many birds disperse to different breeding sites.

Collection of this information helps us to understand why bird populations increase or decrease- vital information for conservation.

The BTO organises bird ringing in Britain and Ireland and said that each year more than 900,000 birds are ringed by some 2,500 highly-trained ringers, most of whom are volunteers.

Ringing has yielded fascinating information to the BTO. The bird that travels the furthest, it found, is an Arctic tern that travels 18,000km.

BTO researchers recaptured a Manx shearwater in July 2003 and found it had been ringed as far back as 1953, making it the known longest-living wild bird at 55 years.

The lesser crested tern found in Puttalam is now in the care of the Department of Wildlife’s Anuradhapura office. Veterinarian Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe says the bird is being treated for a leg injury.

Another ringed lesser crested tern found earlier this month could, according to the data it was carrying, have been ringed by a team from Iran.

Published on 29.11.2015 on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151129/news/she-wears-my-ring-say-uk-bird-researchers-173154.html (please note that the captions of the ‘second bird ringed at Chillaw got mixed up in the printed and web versions of SundayTimes that mentioned it as ‘The ‘ringed’ bird in Puttalam’. The photo credit should goes to Supun Perera.

 Lanka bird ringing programmeSri Lanka now has its own National Ringing Program conducted by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

This programme centered at Bundala started in 2002 and has resulted in the ringing of a large number of birds, particularly migrant birds.

Migrant birds start arriving in Sri Lanka around the middle of August, ahead of the winter in their native lands. After spending around six months in Lanka they return to their breeding grounds towards the end of April the following year.

The ringing exercise takes place four times a year – three during the migratory season and one in July. The three migratory season operations are conducted at the start of the wintering period (September to October); in mid-winter (December to January), and the end of the wintering period (March to April).

Birds are captured with “mist nets”. The operation usually starts at dusk with these large nets being set up on a lagoon. The nets are checked periodically and the entangled birds are taken into the camp for ringing. 

The bird is measured, weighed and interesting marking noted. Then a small metal ring with is attached to its leg with marking stating that the bird had been tagged in Sri Lanka.

The programme is now 10 years old and is expected to bring interesting results in the future. During the most recent ringing camp, researchers found a white-browed bulbul ringed 10 years ago.

You can see it; the ‘fire’ in his photographs

December 1, 2015 by
A coffee table book, The Children of Eden – Tribute to Sri Lanka’s Wildlife, by Rajiv Welikala, will be launched on December 5 
Young tuskers (c) Rajiv Welikala

“I consider Sri Lanka as one of the last Edens left on earth and wildlife as its true children. So I want to make my maiden book a lasting tribute to the beauty of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage,” says Rajiv Welikala who will launch his coffee table book along with his wildlife photography exhibition on December 5.

“Children of Eden- a tribute to the wildlife of Sri Lanka”, the coffee table book contains 120 of the best images Rajiv has captured over 17 years.

Sleeping leopard on white sand

Sleeping leopard on white sand

The images cover a vast variety of species, from the more charismatic and iconic members of Sri Lankan wildlife such as leopards, elephants, bear, and whales to smaller members such as birds and lizards. A few landscape shots illustrate what this Eden looks like.

Rajiv’s special interest in tuskers is evident as the book features more than 10 photos showcasing some of Sri Lanka’s magnificent tuskers such as the elusive Wilpattu tusker ‘Megha’, Kawdulla’s giant tusker ‘Enigma’ and the late Siyambalangamuwa tusker.

The young tuskers and playful elephant calves are truly Children of Eden.

We see some fine wildlife photography regularly. So how do you take a photograph that still impresses? Writing the Foreword to ‘Children of Eden”; promoter of Sri Lanka’s wildlife and well known wildlife photographer Gehan De Silva Wijeyeratne answers this question.

Who is more curious ? The Owl or the photographer?

“It is about light, composition and the right moment. Some things never change and the elements of what makes an arresting image stand true.

Whilst technology and the strengthening of disposable incomes may make access to photographic opportunities more democratic, great photography still comes from ‘fire’–the fire within the soul, one that burns intensely, with a passion for nature and a commitment to seek, to wait, and to take great photographs”.

Mr. Wijeyeratne adds that the answer to the above question lies within images of Rajiv’s boook.

A Thomian, Rajiv says, “Joining the college’s Wildlife Society was a turning point in my life, which would determine my lifestyle and passion to this day.

The club would organise a camping excursion to a national park every term holiday. I had always wanted to capture the moments I experienced in the wild and show it to my family back home. This motivated me to start photography at a young age.”

Rajiv received his first camera, a second hand Yashica when he was 13. “I practised and honed my skills in photography over the years, as well as gradually upgrading my camera equipment thanks to hand me downs from my father.

I try to learn from the work of seasoned photographers, but most ideas come about by trial and error. Every trip into the wild teaches me something new, and I firmly believe that we never stop learning,” says Rajiv.

He also advises the new generation who aspire to be wildlife photographers to think differently and try out new ways to capture those moments in the wild.

However, the welfare of the wildlife must come first and it is important not to disturb the animal. Follow wildlife photography ethics even if it means compromising the best photo opportunity, Rajiv advises.

Eurasian Hopooe - You can sense the puff of dust as it dust bathes

Eurasian Hopooe – You can sense the puff of dust as it dust bathes

Many photographers rarely take the effort to describe their interesting experiences in the wild, but Rajiv shares them through his blog http://wildlifediaries.blogspot.com .

The book will also feature many interesting anecdotes and stories of Rajiv’s experiences, adventures and encounters throughout the years, which makes interesting reading for wildlife enthusiasts and casual readers alike.

The book launch and exhibition of the ‘Children of Eden’ will be held on December 5 from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Harold Peiris Gallery, Lionel Wendt. The exhibition is open to the public.

Lizard

Lizard

Seated bear in Yala

Seated bear in Yala

HI RES - Megha - An elusive Wilpattu Tusker - Rajiv's favorite Tusker photo

Majestic and wild: ‘Megha’ – The elusive Wilpattu Tusker

Rajiv Welikala

Rajiv Welikala

 

Budget allocates Rs 4,000 million to Environment sector

December 1, 2015 by

budget

Budget 2016 has an allocation of Rs 4,000 million for the environment sector for three years, to resolve the human-elephant conflict and conserve Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity.

The Sunday Times learns that the Government will seek these additional funds through a World Bank project interest-free loan of US$ 30 million, which did not materialise during the previous regime.

This 5-year initiative called ‘Eco-system Conservation & Management Project’ is to improve the management and stewardship of Sri Lanka’s sensitive ecosystems in selected locations.

Expectations among environmentalists are high that it will enhance conservation and bring benefits to the people.

A large portion of the project’s funding is to initiate innovative programmes that would reduce human-wildlife conflict through co-existence, while enhancing the management of Protected Areas for both conservation as well as nature-based tourism,

Another important component of the project is to strengthen the institutional capacity of the Forest Dept and Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

Currently, more than half of DWC’s budget goes to mitigate human-elephant conflict (HEC), which environmentalists insist is also important, while action is also being taken to protect other threatened species as well, an area the project also expects to shed some light on.

Environmentalists had high hopes for this project in 2011 when, at its final stages, the then Finance Ministry Secretary P.B. Jayasundara reportedly wanted drastic changes to the project which would have affected the project’s sustainability in the long run.

The World Bank felt it would compromise the project’s very aims of finding lasting solutions to conservation issues, and withdrew the project. Several key conservation groups wrote to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to intervene and prevent unnecessary influence on the project, but to no avail.

The Sunday Times learns that the new Government had, had several rounds of talks with the World Bank to revive this project, and a few weeks back had submitted an official request seeking same.

Reliable sources indicate the signs are positive and the inclusion of a Rs 4,000 million commitment for the Environmental Sector is a sign that the Government is confident of securing this project, whose budget has now increased to US$ 40 million.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.11.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151122/news/eco-friendly-budget-allocates-wb-aided-rs-4000-million-to-environment-sector-172527.html 

Hogdeer breeding program bring success

November 30, 2015 by
Mother hog deer takes care of its new born baby

Mother hog deer takes care of its new born baby

Tiny deer once thought to have been lost to Sri Lanka forever have a toehold on existence with the birth of a fifth baby to a small group kept under protection.

Born free: A hogdeer in Honduwa

The deer live on an island sanctuary in the Lunuganga set up two years ago by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG).

Known as vil muwa or gona muwa in Sinhala, hog deer (Axis porcinus) is identified as a “critically endangered” species by the National Redlist of Threatened Flora and Fauna.

In 2013, the WCSG set up an area on the island of Honduwa in the Lunuganga to raise hog deer in wild conditions as the first step in a long-term conservation program to ensure the species’ survival in Sri Lanka. Eight deer, five female and three male, live in this three-acre haven.

All but one of a previous litter died of weakness due to premature birth.

WCSG President Madura de Silva said all the hog deer at the Honduwa sanctuary are animals that had been handed over to the WCSG’s Wild Animal Rescue Centre at Hiyare at Galle.

He explained their sad history: “Many hog deer are hit by speeding vehicles while others suffer injuries due to attacks by predators such as feral dogs and water monitors.

We try to release the adult animals in the vicinity where they are found but baby hog deer, which have to be hand-fed, cannot be released back to the wild. The first generation of the Honduwa herd consists of such rescued animals.”

The species was believed to have become extinct until a few animals were spotted some decades ago.

There are four species of deer in the country: spotted deer, sambhur, barking deer and hog deer. Unlike the others, the hog deer is believed to have been introduced to Sri Lanka.

The animal is not even found in South India, so one theory is that ancestors of this deer might have been accidentally or deliberately unloaded when Galle harbour was used as a transit point in early colonial times.

Hog deer are found mainly in the Elpitiya, Balapitiya areas around Galle.

The animal prefers scrub jungles closer to marshy habitat and has also adapted to living in the cinnamon estates spread around the area.

Its relationship with cinnamon farmers is not cordial as it eats the tender parts of the cinnamon plant. As cinnamon plantations do not have the kind of undergrowth found in jungles the little deer, which stand just 60-70cm tall at the shoulder, can be easily spotted by predators.

Habitat loss is the hog deer’s main threat. The young are easy prey to dogs and water monitors (kabaragoya).

The first two weeks after birth is critical for baby hog deer as they are particularly vulnerable to predators. Female hog deer keep their new-born hidden in the tall grasses that grow around marshy land.

The two hog deer first brought to the Lunuganga sanctuary in 2013 had been attacked by water monitors in separate incidents and treated at the Hiyare rescue centre before being taken to the island sanctuary.

They had been only a few weeks old when found injured; one had a fractured leg. The baby animals were first bottle-fed and then hand-fed with grass and plant shoots.

Although their parents are hand-raised, the newborn fawn in the Honduwa sanctuary will be kept wild as much as possible without human interaction.

Mr. de Silva revealed that the WCSG is trying to obtain an area belonging to the Agriculture Department in the hog deer habitat declared as a larger protected area into which wild hog deer can be can released.

Such a reintroduction program cannot be carried out in a haphazard way, he said, adding: “If we get an opportunity to release these second-generation hog deer to be living free in the wild we might first release a couple with radio collars and monitor their movements to make sure of their survival”.

The hog deer rehabilitation and rescue programme began in 2009 at the Hiyare Wildlife Rescue facility, with support from the Nations Trust Bank. The island of Honduwa is under the guardianship of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust which is collaborating with the WCSG in this project, which is being supervised by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Michael Daniel of the Bawa Trust said the island is safe for hog deer. “There is no chance that feral dogs will infiltrate the island,” he said. “The facility is also fenced in order to keep the other predators at away.”

Mr. Daniel said the hog deer in the facility are monitored but their guardians “keep their distance in order to make the second generation wild as much as possible”.
Published on SundayTimes on 15.11.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151115/news/high-five-for-a-tiny-survivor-171696.html

Barking deer too need protectionTwo barking deer kept caged in poor conditions were discovered by authorities in the past fortnight.

One person in Avissawella was taken into custody. The other deer was found at Madolsima in Badulla, living in a very small cage and in unhygienic conditions.

Barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak, known as weli muwa or olu muwa in Sinhala), are widespread in Sri Lankan jungles, commonly in the lower hills. Like the hog deer they are small and do not, like the larger deer species, roam in herds but in pairs or alone.

They prefer open area on the edges of forest. The deer’s call resembles a bark, usually sounded to indicate the presence of a predator.

Barking deer are found in Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan and several countries in south-east Asia and are listed as “near-threatened” by the National Redlist of Threatened Fauna.