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New assessment shows Sri Lanka’s amphibians being pushed to the brink

April 9, 2020
  • A recent global IUCN Red List assessment of the amphibians of Sri Lanka has highlighted that 72 of them are threatened with extinction, with 20 critically endangered.
  • Evaluators identified the rapid loss of wet-zone cloud forests as the most immediate threat to the island’s amphibians, and highlighted three priority sites that are uniquely important for their conservation.
  • In recent years, Sri Lanka has recorded the highest number of amphibian extinctions in the world and rediscovered only three of 21 amphibian species previously considered extinct, highlighting the need for more research and strategies for amphibian conservation.
  • Though a small Indian Ocean island, Sri Lanka is recognized as an amphibian hotspot, with 116 species, 90% of them found nowhere else on Earth.

COLOMBO — Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s fourth-highest mountain and considered a holy site for people of multiple faiths, who flock there in their thousands during the pilgrimage season from December to May each year.

The trail to the summit cuts across the biodiversity-rich Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. It was on the edge of this busy trail that herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe rediscovered the Kandyan dwarf toad (Adenomus kandianus), thought to be extinct for nearly 133 years.

Wickramasinghe and his team also rediscovered two more amphibians, the starry shrub frog or Kelaart’s starry shrub frog (Pseudophilautus stellatus) and the webless shrub frog (Pseudophilautus hypomelas), previously categorized as extinct, and eight species new to science from this important habitat.

“The Peak Wilderness Sanctuary is a very significant site for amphibians, but the solid waste generated as a result of the pilgrims polluting the area, specially its waterways, has a direct impact to the amphibians,” Wickramasinghe told Mongabay.

He was instrumental in pushing for the location to be identified as one of three key amphibian conservation priority areas in Sri Lanka, along with the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Knuckles Forest Reserve, during a recent Amphibian Red List Assessment workshop in Sri Lanka.

Back from the dead: These three amphibians assessed as extinct in 2004 were later rediscovered and now listed as critically endangered. From left: the webless shrub frog (Pseudophilautus hypomelas), Kandyan dwarf frog (Adenomus kandianus) and Kelaart’s starry shrub frog (Pseudophilautus stellatus). Images courtesy of Mendis Wickramasinghe.

Local assessment after 15 years

The global IUCN Red List assessment for the amphibians of Sri Lanka brought together more than 25 scientists engaged in amphibian research. It was a chance to share their data to map the distribution and abundance of amphibians to update each species’ conservation status under the IUCN Red List.

The assessment workshop, held from Feb. 17-20, was facilitated by the IUCN’s Amphibian Red List Authority and supported by Dilmah Conservation.

The new assessment has raised red flags over the state of the country’s amphibians. “Of the 116 species currently recognized from Sri Lanka, 72 are threatened with extinction,” Madhava Meegaskumbura, the co-chair of the National Amphibian Specialist Group, told Mongabay. “Twenty of them were assessed as critically endangered; which means that unless recovery programs are designed and implemented immediately, they stand a high risk of becoming extinct.”

The endangered montane hourglass tree frog (Taruga eques) from Knuckles, identified as a key amphibian sensitive site. Image courtesy of Erich Joseph.

Sri Lanka’s first global amphibian assessment was in 2004, when its official count of amphibian species stood at 107 and the assessment showed 54 as threatened and 10 as critically endangered. The 2004 assessment also listed 21 species as extinct because they had not been recorded in more than 50 years, making Sri Lanka one of the countries experiencing a rapid decline in its amphibian population.

The number of amphibian species recorded from Sri Lanka doubled at the next count in 2005, but because work was still in an early phase, there was only limited information on the distributions of many species.

“Today, there are many scientists and conservationists working on amphibians and there is ample data on the distributions of species, populations, population trends and habitats,” Meegaskumbura said. “Also, over a dozen new species have been described during the past 15 years, and these needed to be assessed for the first time, too — so the recent Red List workshop was necessary to inform the conservation efforts of Sri Lanka’s amphibians.”

Experts evaluating the status of amphibians during the red list workshop in Sri Lanka included Lauren Warr and Louise Hobin, IUCN SSC Amphibian Red List Authority Program Officers; Madhava Meegaskumbura, co-chair of the National Amphibian Specialist Group; and leading naturalist and taxonomist Rohan Pethiyagoda. Image courtesy of Dilmah Conservation.

The group also identified the most immediate threat to Sri Lanka’s amphibians as coming from the rapid loss of the island’s wet-zone forests, caused by illegal encroachment.  Declining rainfall, longer dry periods and rainwater acidification, especially in the central hills at elevations above 1,500 meters (4,900 feet), also pose serious threats to the island’s already vanishing amphibian populations. An indirect yet strong threat also comes from chemicals used in agriculture, which are carried into forest regions by the wind and washing into waterways from farms and plantations.

Several shrub frogs endemic to Sri Lanka, including the golden-eyed shrub frog (Pseudophilautus ocularis), have gone from endangered to critically endangered during the past 15 years. Image courtesy of Erich Joseph.

Drastic decline

The populations of several species have undergone drastic crashes in the past 15 years, the scientists concluded. For example, the Nöllert’s toad (Duttaphrynus noellerti), assessed as endangered in 2004, is now considered critically endangered. The reasons for the crash in its population are not fully understood, but it could be due to the drying of rainforest streams and natural pools, or agrochemicals used in nearby homesteads and farms, Meegaskumbura said.

Similarly, several shrub frogs such as the elegant shrub frog (Pseudophilautus decoris), Moore’s shrub frog (P. mooreorum), golden-eyed shrub frog P. ocularis and Stuart’s shrub frog (P. stuarti) have gone from endangered to critically endangered during that same period. These worrying trends suggest that there are serious problems with environmental and conservation efforts, according to the group that carried out the assessment.

While much exploration and research efforts have been carried out, there has been little in the way of conservation initiatives, whether directed at threatened species or the sites they inhabit, according to Rohan Pethiyagoda, a taxonomist and a naturalist who earlier served as deputy chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

Every year, thousands of pilgrims climb Adam’s Peak through this pathway overlooking threatened amphibians living right beside the trail. The waste they generate pollutes the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, while the seasonal illumination of the area impacts the insect populations, the main food source for the amphibians. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

Pethiyagoda, whose team was responsible for describing a large number of new-to-science amphibians in 2005, played a leading role in initiating the recent assessment workshop.

“Despite its small size, Sri Lanka has about 2.5% of the world’s frog and toad species. Sri Lanka needs a scientific conservation framework if we need to conserve these threatened creatures,” Pethiyagoda said.

The assessment workshop also resulted in the revision of the number of amphibian species in Sri Lanka, with four species previously considered distinct being merged into other species. When the assessment workshop commenced, the number of known Sri Lankan amphibian species was 120; following the revisions, the figure is now 116. These revisions, however, still need to be published in peer-reviewed journals to gain global acceptance.

The final outcomes of the 2020 Red List assessment of Sri Lankan amphibians is expected to undergo rigorous technical scrutiny ahead of publication by December.

Banner image of the cheeky shrub frog, or Pseudophilautus procax, a critically endangered species inhabiting the eastern region of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and now showing drastic population decline, courtesy of Erich Joseph. Published on Mongabay 23.03.2020

කොරෝනාවට ගෙදර හිර වෙන කාලය, ගෙවත්තට ම යොමු කරමු

March 22, 2020
Everyone is asked to stay home as a measure to slow down spread of COVID19. The situation is bad, but should we spend time glued to TV, Computer or to mobile phones browsing through the social media etc..? This is indeed a very rare opportunity that children and parents get to spent time together, so shouldn’t we use this time effectively? How about doing some gardening trying to plant vegetables etc. This will also be useful at a time where things get probably worsened with food shortages as the COVID19 crisis worsen..? How about spending this time relaxing, observing garden biodiversity – particularly the birds etc.  My article published on Vidusara covered above. 

Published on Vidusara 18.03.2020. For the .pdf click on this link

යම් අවිනිශ්චිත අවධානමක් සෑම තැනම තිබුනත්, හැකි තාක් ගෙදරට ම වී සිටින ලෙසට අවධානය කෙරුණු මේ ‘කොරෝනා නිවාඩුව’ අපට බොහෝ කළෙකින් අපගේ ගෙවත්තට අවධානය යොමු කිරීමට ලද දුලබ අවස්ථාවකි. ඒ නිසා ‘ගෙවත්තේ ජෛව විවිධත්වය’ ලිපි මාලාව නැවතත් මෙලෙස ආරම්භ කරන නේ, ගෙවත්තේ ඔබගේ අත්දැකීම් විදුසර හරහා බෙදා හදා ගන්නා මෙන් ඉල්ලීමක් ද කරමිනි.

රෝගීන් කිහිප දෙනෙකුම සොයා ගැනීමෙන් පසු දැන් ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ත් නව කොරෝනා නැතහොත් Covid-19 වෛරසය පැතිරීම වැලැක්වීම පිණිස පාසල් වසා දමා ඇති අතර, උපකාරක පන්ති මෙන්ම දහම් පාසල් පවා වසා ඇත. රජය සඳුදා සියලුම අත්‍යවශ්‍ය නොවන සේවා ස්ථානයන් ට නිවාඩුව දිනයක් ලබා දුන් අතර සමහර කාර්‍යාල වල සේවකයන් ට ගෙදර සිට වැඩ කිරීමේ පහසුකම් සලසා තිබේ. චිත්‍රපටි රඟහල, ජාතික වනෝද්‍යාන වැනි මිනිසුන් එක රැස් විය හැකි ස්ථාන වසා දමා ඇත්තේ, අත්‍යවශ්‍යම කටයුත්තකට හැරෙන්නට ගෙදරින් පිටතට නොයන ලෙස ද උපදෙස් ලබා ලබා දෙමිනි.

Gardening with family is fun and relaxing

පසු ගිය සතියේ මිනිසුන් කලබලයෙන් වෙළඳ සැල වලට දිවගියේ Covid-19 තවත් පතිරුනහොත් වෙන රටවල මෙන් එක් එක් ප්‍රදේශ යම් කාලයක ට වෙන් කර තබන්නට ක්‍රියා කිරීමක් සිදු වුවහොත්, බඩු හිගයක් ඇති වේය යන බිය නිසාය. මෙහිදී විශේෂයෙන් ම මිනිසුන් කල් තබා ගත හැකි වියලි අහාර රැස් කර ගැනීමට උත්සාහ ගත්තෝය. එහෙත් වියළි අහාර මෙන්ම අපගේ අහාරයට එළවලු, පළා මෙන්ම පළතුරු ද වැදගත් වේ. ඉතින් මෙවන් ආහාර හිගයක් සහිත කාලයකට අපට මුහුණ දීමට වුවහොත්, අපගේ සියලු ආහාර අවශ්‍යතා සපුරාගත් නොහැකි වුවත් ගෙවත්තේ ම පුළු පුළුවන් විදියට ගෙවතු වගාවක් කර ගැනීමේ වැදගත් කම Covid-19 අපට පසක් කල වැදගත් කරුණකි.

ගෙවතු වගාව නිසැකවම ‘ගෙවත්තේ ජෛව විවිධත්වය වැඩි කිරීමටත් හේතුවනු ඇත. උදාහරණයක් ලෙස කතුරු මුරුංගා ගසක් වවුවොත්, එහි බිත්තර දමන සමනලුන් ඔබේ ගෙවත්තට නිසැකයෙන්ම ඇදී එනු ඇත. එළවලු වල මල් පිපෙන කාලයේ ඒවාට මිමැස්සන් වැනි කෘමින් පැමිණෙනු ඇත. (හැබැයි, මෙසේ ගෙවත්තට ඇදෙන සමහර කෘමින් නම් වගාවේ පලිබෝධකයන් විය හැකිය. ස්වාභාවික පලිභෝධනාෂක භාවිතයෙන්, මෙවැනි බොහෝ පලිභෝධකයන් පාලනය කර ගැනීමට උත්සාහ කිරීමට හැකිවේ.)

ඔබත් ගෙවතු වගාව පටන් ගැනීමට කැමැත්තේ නම්, ඒ පිළිබද ව විස්තර බොහොමයක් අන්තර්ජාලය ඔස්සේ සිංහල භාෂාවෙන්ම ලබා ගැනීමේ පහසුකම් දැන් තිබේ. කෘෂිකර්ම දෙපාර්තමේන්තුවේ නිල වෙබ් අඩවිය හරහා මෙන්ම Facebook, Youtube හි තිබෙන විවිධ සමුහයන් ඔස්සේ ඔබට දැනුවත් විය හැකිය. ගෙවතු වගාවේදී ඔබට ඇතිවන ප්‍රශ්නත් මේ සමාජ මාධ්‍ය ඔස්සේ ක්‍රියාත්මක සමූහයන් හි සිටින පළපුරුදු වගාකරුවන් ගෙන් ලබා ගැනීම පහසුවේ.

පැල කිරීමට සුදානම් බණ්ඩක්කා බිජ

පැල කිරීමට සුදානම් බිජ

මිට අමතරව කෘෂිකර්ම දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව යටතේ ක්‍රියාත්මක ‘කෘෂි උපදේශන සේවාව’ 1920 දුරකතනය ඔස්සේ අමතිමෙන්ද ඔබට ගෙවතු වගාව ගැන උපදෙස් ලබාතත හැකිවේ.

ගමන් බිමන් නොගොස් ගෙතුළ ම හිර වී සිටින මේ දින කීපයේ ගෙවතු වගාවට යොමු වීමට අමතරව, ඔබ ගෙවත්තේ ජෛව විවිධත්වය පිළිබදවත් අවධානය යොමු කළ හැකිවේ.

* මේ ගෙවෙන්නේ නිහැරී කුරුල්ලන් මෙරට ගත කරන අවසාන සති කිහිපයයි. පසුගිය වසරේ සැප්තැම්බර/ ඔක්තෝබර කාලයේදී මෙරටට පියඹා පැමිණි නිල්-පෙද බිඟුහරයන් (Blue-tailed bee-eater), ආසියා රැහැන් මාරා (Asian Paradise Flycatcher) වැනි ගෙවත්ත ආශ්‍රිත කුරුල්ලන් තවමත් දැක ගත හැකි වන අතර ඔවුන් සියල්ලක් ම පාහේ මාර්තු මාසය අවසන් වනවිට නැවතත් තම නිජභූමි බලා ගමන අරඹයි.

* ශ්‍රී ලංකාව මේ දිනවල නියඟයකට මුහුණ පා සිටී. දිවා කාලයේ දී දරාගත නොහැකි රස්නයක් තිබෙන අතර, කුරුල්ලන් මෙන්ම අනිකුත් සතුන්ද ජාල හිගයකින් පීඩා විදි. කුරුල්ලන් ට දියබිමට සහ නෑමට වතුර බදුනක් තැබීමෙන් ඔබට මේ කුරුල්ලන් ට උදව්වක් කරන්නා මෙන්ම, ඔවුන් ඔබගේ ගෙවත්තට ම වැඩිපුර ගෙන්වා ගැනීමට හැකිවේ.

* ඉදිරියට එළඹෙන්නේ අවුරුදු සමයයි. අවුරුද්දේ පණිවිඩකරු වන කොහා තම ගීතය ගායනය ආරම්බ කරන්නේ මේ කාලයේ දිය. ඔබත් කන් යොමා අසා සිටින්න, ඔබගේ ගෙවත්ත ආසන්නයේ කොහා තම අවුරුදු ගීත ගායනය මුලින් ම සිදු කරන්නේ කවදා ද කියා.

You can bring birds by giving water to them (c) Fonny de Fonseka

Curfew doesn’t apply for garden birds (c) Mohan Hathnapitiya

You are invited to watch garden birds and share them on the FOGSL FB page

Coral dance of death: Glowing, glowing, gone

March 22, 2020 published on SundayTimes on 15.03.2020.

Sri Lanka’s foremost coral expert, Arjan Rajasuriya, recently received a call from an excited diver friend. “I’ve just gone diving and found varieties of corals that I had never seen, glowing with fluorescent colours. They looked really beautiful,” the friend said.

But the news held no excitement for Mr. Rajasuriya, only sadness. “Look, those are not a new variety of coral: they are just dying corals performing the dance of death,” he explained to his friend.

Coral is created by tiny creatures called coral polyphs, whose hard exoskeletons become part of the coral. To obtain food, these polyps often build a harmonious symbiotic partnership with the zooxanthellae algae, which produce food through photosynthesis and become the corals’ food supplier and also their source of colour.

Increasing temperatures cause the algae to leave the polyps, leaving the latter without food and vulnerable to disease. The coral gradually goes white without the algae and dies – a process called coral bleaching.

Dying corals performing the dance of death

“During this process of coral bleaching some of the corals can appear much more colourful and brightly fluorescent. This is a spectacular sight – but it is only the dance of death of the corals,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.

As the sea surface temperature rises as a result of global warming, corals are at risk of dying everywhere and are the most threatened organisms on the planet, he added.

Coral bleaching is a serious problem in Sri Lanka with the live coral coverage of number of reefs having fallen to just 10-20 per cent of what they used to be. This is a worrying fact globally, with Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, for example, losing more than half of its live coral coverage mainly due to bleaching.

In order to highlight the impact of global warming on fragile coral ecosystems, a global campaign was launched last week on World Wildlife Day, March 3, called “Glowing, glowing, gone”, displaying three new colours symbolising the hues that dying corals take on prior to bleaching.

The campaign was initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme and The Ocean Agency, an international NGO dedicated to marine conservation, partnered by graphic design giant Adobe and the colour design company, Pantone Colour Institute.

In a press release, Adobe described how corals produce brightly-coloured chemicals as a kind of sunscreen against fatally high water temperatures and sun exposure. “This glowing phenomenon, called coral fluorescence, is a final line of defence before the coral dies and bleaches to white. It’s been described as ‘a most beautiful death’,” Adobe said.

“Only a handful of people have ever witnessed the highly visual spectacle of corals ‘glowing’ in vibrant colours in a desperate bid to survive underwater heatwaves,”  The Ocean Agency founder, Richard Vevers, said in a statement. “Yet this phenomenon is arguably the ultimate indicator of one of our greatest environmental challenges — ocean warming and the loss of coral reefs.

“Glowing corals are a highly visual sign of climate change — an attention-grabbing indicator that we’ve reached a tipping point for the planet. We’ve turned these warning colours into colours to inspire action that everyone can use.”


The new colors

Pantone, Adobe and The Oceans Agency together captured the exact colours of coral fluorescence and named them Glowing Yellow, Glowing Blue and Glowing Purple

Pantone, Adobe and The Oceans Agency together captured the exact colours of coral fluorescence and named them Glowing Yellow, Glowing Blue and Glowing Purple. They say this is the palette of colours of climate change that call “citizens of the world to recognise Earth’s major ecosystems in peril”.

Why worry so much about coral reefs, Arjan Rajasuriya was asked. “Corals are like the canary in the coal mine, acting as an indicator of upcoming disasters,” he replied. “The ocean surface absorbs large amounts of climate change heat, and corals are the first sign of increasing temperatures.

“There will be more catastrophes – the excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make oceans more acidic, and that will also have an impact on fishing,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Unsung eco-warrior gains long-due protection

March 15, 2020 published on SundayTimes 08.03.2020 

Vidattaltivu mangrove forest in Mannar district (c) EFL

A hugely underrated eco-warrior is only now gaining national protection with the first steps being taken to safeguard existing mangrove forests and reclaim lost growth.

Forest Officer Devanee Jayathilaka’s courageous stance in protecting a mangrove patch in the Negombo lagoon has brought welcome media attention to the issue, speakers at this week’s National Workshop on Community-Based Coastal and Marine Ecosystem Restoration said, revealing crucial first steps to protect Sri Lanka’s mangroves.

Mangroves absorb more atmospheric carbon than other trees, making them a critical asset in the fight against global warming.

“The 2004 tsunami was an eye-opener about the importance of mangroves, which protect coastal areas from sea surges by absorbing the raging power of the waves,” Mala Amarasinghe of the Kelaniya University’s Botany Department said. “There were many reports of mangroves protecting villages from the tsunami.

“Mangroves are full of life because they also attract other biodiversity. They are good breeding grounds for fish because their root system provides perfect protection for small fish from predators.”

The Mangrove Task Force approved by Cabinet on January 20 has produced a Mangrove Conservation Policy, the head of the Environment Ministry’s Biodiversity Secretariat, Padma Abeykoon, told the conference, organised by Sri Lankan Youth Climate Action Network Trust.

Gaining approval for the policy was an important milestone, Dr. Sevvandi Jayakody of the University of Wayamba said, explaining that mangroves are seen as areas to be “developed” rather than conserved.

Another problem was that mangroves are considered nobody’s baby as mangrove patches in different parts of the country came under different agencies.

The Forest Department is now working to get the mangroves under its network of protected areas, the department’s Deputy Conservator, Nishantha Edirisinghe, said. He said 76 mangrove patches were declared forest reserves in 2019, with plans to include 12 more this year.

“Sri Lanka set a mangrove restoration target of 10,000ha by 2030. We have already initiated this programme and started a pilot project attempting to restore a few plots of abandoned shrimp farms that were previously mangrove lands,” Mr. Edirisinghe said.

Research in 2017 found that about 1,000-1,200ha of mangroves across 23 project sites have been under restoration.

Dismayingly, the failure rate is huge: only 200-220ha showed successful restoration; nine out of 23 project sites had no surviving plants. Only three sites – Kalpitiya, Pambala, and Negombo – showed a level of survival higher than 50 per cent.

Fresh threats to mangroves were revealed by environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane when he informed the conference about renewed attempts to gain approval for a shrimp farm in Wedithalathivu, in Mannar, which harbours one of the country’s largest mangrove forests and was declared a Nature Reserve in 2016.

Just a year after being declared a protected area, the National Aquaculture Development Authority proposed that a 1,000ha industrial park for farming fish, crabs and exotic shrimp species be established there, involving a fishery with a history of failures across Asia, and a record of widespread destruction of mangroves. That plan is now being pushed again. Mr. Gunawardane said.

Fire at garbage dump at Muthurajawela adjacent to a mangrove patch (c) Dinusha Nanayakkara

Jaw-breakers endangering lives of children and pets

March 7, 2020 Published on SundayTimes on 01.03.2020

Jaw bombs used to harm elephants could also end up being a social issue, activists warn.

Laura, a playful female German Shephard who suffered grievous injuries to her jaw from a hakka patas blast eventually succumbed to the injuries

Children and domestic animals including pets are falling victim to the small explosive devices called ‘hakka patas’.

Recently, a four-year-old pet dog suffered fatal injuries.

Laura, a playful female German Shephard, owned by Amila Sanjeew who lives in Passara, Badulla, had raised the dog in  his wife’s home in nearby Madolsima village.

On February 17, they had ignored what they thought was a firecracker blast, but the following morning they found Laura lying in a pool of blood at their front door.

They rushed the dog to a veterinary surgeon. The dog’s jaw was shattered in four places, and the tongue damaged. Steel rods were used to fix the jaw in a five-hour surgery.

Laura appeared to be recovering but she began bleeding from the nose and started to show signs of paralysis. Her condition worsened and she died on  February 27.

The explosion is believed to have damaged the brain as well.

Hakka patas is not uncommon in Passara.

Sanjeew believes that someone had planted the hakka patas to harm the dog, which usually would not stray further from their garden. “She likes to play with balloons. There were pieces of a balloon in the roof of the jaw. The device had been set up in a balloon,” said Sanjeew.

Hakka patas is a small improvised explosive device made of gun powder and small particles like rocks mixed and tightly packed like a potato. Hidden in food, the explosives are often used to kill wild boar and other animals, but causes collateral damage.

It is only last week that the Sunday Times reported that hakka patas had become the leading killer of elephants in Sri Lanka, accounting for 67 deaths in 2019.

It is mostly elephant calves that are less than 10 years old that suffer, but there also incidents of humans being wounded.

These jaw breakers have wounded children, sometimes fatally.

A 10-year-old boy died in Hambegamuwa in 2016. The boy had tried to bite into one, a media report said.

On February 3, in Deraniyagala, an eight-year-old boy suffered severe injuries to his arm after dashing a hakka patas on a boulder. His 11-year-old sister was also injured.

Mala Ranjani in Ingiriya lost her hand due to a hakka patas explosion in 2015

Both had been  admitted to Avissawella Hospital and the boy was later transferred to Colombo General Hospital.

In October last year, in Wanduramba in the Galle district, an eight-year-old girl was wounded in an explosion along with her brother. She had been playing with an object she found.

A suspect was later arrested with hakka patas.

Meanwhile, the Janasansadaya people’s forum, through a video on their YouTube channel reveals information about a 30-year-old woman, Mala Ranjani in Ingiriya who had lost her hand due to a hakka patas explosion in 2015. Her daughter had found the explosive on their land. Ms Ranjani had tried to prise it open with a knife and it had exploded.

There are wildlife poachers too, who have lost their fingers while attempting to make or setup hakka patas.

Domestic animals like cattle are among victims.

According to Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), villagers often know who makes these explosives.

Sri Lankans should act fast before it causes widespread damage, he said.

Fish, the ignored wildlife on our plates

March 3, 2020

On World Wildlife Day next on 03rd of March, charismatic wildlife such as endangered elephants, leopards and the vulnerable sloth bear will take the stage – but one species is routinely ignored, to our peril.

Diverse fish species on a common malu lella

There will be protests to protect forests such as Wilpattu, Sinharaja and even mangroves. “But are we concerned enough about the conservation of marine species and the marine ecosystems that support them?” questioned Nishan Perera, marine biologist at the Blue Resources Trust.

“As a society, we do not traditionally consider fish as wildlife, only as food. This perception has become a block in conserving our marine resources,” he said in an address to the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society.

The popular yellow-fin tuna (Thunnus albacares), locally known as kelawalla, is now “near-threatened” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Its cousin in the Atlantic Ocean, the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) is already categorised as “endangered” due to overfishing. Many species of sharks and rays are termed “vulnerable”.

“endangered” fish species such as hump-head wrass (Cheilinus undulates) end up on our plates.

According to the Red List, overfishing has pushed two families of rays, wedgefishes and giant guitarfishes in Sri Lankan waters to the brink of extinction, their populations declining more than 80 per cent in the past 45 years.

Sadly, these fish are not even being targeted by fishermen but simply caught most often as bycatch – captured accidentally in nets. Most rays and sharks are slow breeders.

Rays are a threatened species, but a large number of them are killed everyday. Pic courtesy Daniel Fernando

“I dive in many places around Sri Lanka and witness a lot of illegal fishing activity,” Mr. Perera said, citing over-large nets, dynamiting and bottom-trawling among such illegal fishing methods.

“We shouldn’t be sympathetic towards these fishermen. Stringent measures have to be taken,” he urged.

Resources are not always aimed at priority interventions. A prime example, Mr. Perera said, was the case of several teams being deployed to protect the southern elephant seal from the Antarctic that came accidentally into local waters while not using similar efforts to curb everyday violations of fishing around Colombo.

“Building innovative public-private partnerships, empowering local communities to help with surveillance and monitoring, and increasing communication and networking are cost-effective ways of improving management,” Mr. Perera said in his lecture, delivered on February 20.

“This has been done in many other developing nations such as Maldives, Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Philippines, and Fiji.

“Increasing funding alone will not solve the problem. Many past conservation projects have resulted in large sums of money being spent with little to no change on the ground.”

There is little enforcement even for the protected marine sanctuaries, Mr. Perera said, pointing out that the Department of Wildlife Conservation lacked manpower and direction to conserve marine wildlife.

Mr. Perera said Sri Lanka needs to declare more marine protected areas to lessen the damage from unsustainable fishing but admitted this was not easy.

“The recent declaration of a small area of around 950ha as the Kayankerni Marine Sanctuary was opposed by the fisheries lobby even though only a few fishermen actually fish within the sanctuary, and it was agreed to allow limited, regulated fishing within the sanctuary,” he said.

Almost 99 per cent of the east coast remained open to fishing and the areas under protection were very small.

Protected areas can act as breeding grounds, with excess fish moving outside the protected area and having positive impacts on fish catches in the long term. This is well documented in other countries, Mr. Perera said.

Horrifying rise in ‘jaw bombs’ brings agonising death to jumbos

February 29, 2020
Playful baby elephants were half of casualties ..!! 

The female elephant calf was thirsty. Standing in the shallows of a water hole at dusk, it hurriedly sucked water into its trunk. It then curled its little trunk toward its mouth in an attempt to quench its thirst but there wasn’t a proper mouth to take in the trunk: the calf had lost his tongue; the small, fleshy base of what used be his tongue made a futile effort to guide the water down his throat.

The three-year-old elephant’s upper mouth palate had been totally smashed, creating a large wound that was infected. Its jaw and teeth were all blasted and the torn lower lip was rotting, attracting swarms of flies.

This has been the sad plight of victims of the little jaw bombs – illegal improvised explosive devices often hidden in food to explode in mouth when an unwary animal munches them. The bombs are commonly called hakka patas – hakka meaning jaw and patas denoting the sound of a blast.

The veterinary surgeon and team of the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s (DWC) Central Wildlife Region rushed to Nildandahinna area in Walapane after villagers told them about the injured calf.

They found it standing on the bank of the Uma Oya, sedated it, cleaned its mouth and provided saline as the suffering animal was weak: it was unable to eat or drink.

The vet, Dr. Akalanka Pinidiya, also injected strong antibiotics against infection in the injuries but he clearly knew the elephant would not survive its wounds.

“It is actually nearly impossible to successfully treat a hakka patas victim,” Dr. Tharaka Prasad, who heads the DWC’s veterinary unit said. “Our veterinary surgeons are helpless in most cases and can just employ painkillers until certain death ends the victim’s agony.”

The Anuradhapura wildlife range is one of the worst hotspots for hakka patas. The veterinary surgeon in charge of the range, Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe, said he had encountered hundreds of hakka patas victims during his 15 years of service.

“We saved the lives of only a handful of hakka patas victims, those that had minor injuries,” Dr. Jayasinghe said.

Hakka patas are a relatively new threat to Sri Lanka’s dwindling elephant population, with the first victims recorded around 2008.

The improvised device is made by mixing gunpowder with tightly-packed small stones or other hard materials. A chewing motion makes the hard bits grind against each other and set off sparks that ignite the gunpowder.  

Because the device is tightly packed the pressure makes an explosion. This explosion is usually powerful enough to kill its main target, wild boar, but larger animals such as elephants do not die instantly.

Hakka patas became the main cause of elephant deaths in 2017 and 2018, overtaking the deaths by gunshot wounds. In 2019, out of a total of 395 elephants killed, hakka patas deaths were high as 67, only four fatalities short of the 71 gunshot deaths.

Data from the wildlife department shows a sharp decrease in elephants dying from gunshots in 2010-2013 and a sharp increase of hakka patas mortalities during the same period. These deaths have kept increasing.

Last year, 67 elephants fell victims to hakka patas and, tragically, half – 35 – were less than 10 years old.

Hakka patas deaths are the main cause of deaths for elephants less than five years of age: 14 baby elephants less than five years were victims of hakka patas last year, 13 of them being male. Elephant experts point out that male elephant babies are more playful and curious about their surroundings.

In 2016, a 10-year-old boy in Hambegamuwa died when a hakka patas exploded in his mouth. On several other occasions, children playing with hakka patas laid for animals suffered injuries when the devices exploded.

It is not easy to apprehend the culprits who set these explosive devices, DWC Director-General Chandana Sooriyabandara said.

“When an animal is killed using a gun or poison, poachers leave some traces but in case of these explosive devices, it is extremely difficult to trace culprits as the victims are often found in a different area from where the devices were placed,” Mr. Sooriyabandara said.

Also, unlike when using a gun, it is easier for offenders to hide or throw away these little devices when they encounter law enforcement officers, he added.

Elephant researcher Dr. Prithviraj Fernando stressed that the issue must be addressed both from elephant conservation and anti-poaching angles since these devices are mainly set up for wild boar.  

“The only way to address the issue is to use peer pressure to try to stop poachers from using this inhumane killing method,” Dr. Fernando said.

The Centre for Environmental Justice conducts a number of awareness campaigns in hakka patas hotspots for schoolchildren, using temples as venues, to raise awareness of the agony of deaths caused by these disguised explosives.

Experts say the problem could be alleviated by using intelligence networks in villages. Hakka patas cannot be made by everybody: there is a technique to making them and only a few people in a village would have the skills; most often, other villagers know who is responsible.

It is suggested that police or the Civil Defence Force to be authorised to set up such intelligence networks.

Another hakkapatas victim (C) Dr. Vijitha Perera

Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja rainforest reserve to be quadrupled in size

February 29, 2020
  • The Sinharaja Forest Reserve in southern Sri Lanka will be expanded fourfold through the incorporate of surrounding forests into the protected area.
  • The new reserve will span 36,000 hectares (88,960 acres), and will help conserve a biodiversity hotspot known for being home to a treasure trove of rare species found nowhere else on Earth.
  • Current threats to Sinharja and the surrounding forests include encroachment, hunting, logging, and gem mining.
  • As a forest reserve, the UNESCO World Heritage Site will allow for both the protection of the rainforest and sustainable and non-destructive forestry activities that are key to the livelihoods of local communities.

The Sinharaja rainforest harbors high endemism. Image courtesy of Vimukthi Weeratunga.

Published on Mongabay on 17.12.2020

Colombo – Sri Lanka plans to quadruple the size of the protected area inside its last viable rainforest, in a nod to the ecological significance of the region. The Sinharaja Forest Reserve currently spans 8,864 hectares (21,903 acres) in the island’s southwest and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 because of its rich and unique plant and animal life.

Over the years, however, this prime lowland rainforest  and the areas surrounding it have faced multiple threats, ranging from illegal logging and cardamom cultivation, to unauthorized settlements and gem mining. To counter this fragmentation of the forest, the Sri Lankan government has opted to incorporate surrounding forests into the reserve, effectively increasing the size of the protected area four times to 36,000 ha (88,960 acres).

The proposed expansion was signed last month by Maithripala Sirisena during the final days of his presidency, and is now awaiting formal notification via gazette.

Sri Lanka has two different types of protected areas: one managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the other by the Forest Department. Sinharaja falls under the jurisdiction of the latter, and the newly expanded area will be formally declared as part of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, to be governed under the Forest Ordinance.

The forests that surround it harbor similarly high levels of biodiversity and endemism as the core area, and the importance of bringing these forests under the protected area network was identified years ago. The National Conservation Review (NCR) published in 1997 proposed 12 such satellite forests to be declared as protected area for their conservation value. Known as the Sinharaja Adaviya (Sinharaja Range), this would create a contiguous forest complex comprising the existing reserve and the neighboring forests of Ayagama, Delgoda, Dellawa, Delmella-Yatagampitiya, Diyadawa, Kobahadukanda, Morapitiya-Runakanda-Neluketiya Mukalana, Warathalgoda, Silverkanda, Handapanella, Gongala and Paragala. Much of these have been proposed for absorption into the protected area under the new scheme.

Thilak Premakantha, a conservator with the Forest Department, told Mongabay that it took a long time for the demarcation of new boundaries, starting in early 2000. Generally, a gazette notification declaring a protected area runs into one or two pages, but the new gazette declaring the expansion of Sinharaja is 80 pages long. The draft is now being finalized, pending a vigorous process of verification of GPS coordinates, which is expected to delay the publication of the gazette notice by a few more weeks, Premakantha said.

The culmination of the years-long process will be a vindication of the strenuous work of local scientists and recognition that their recommendations have been given serious consideration, said Nimal Gunatilleke, emeritus professor at the University of Peradeniya. Gunatilleke was among the long-term campaigners calling for greater protection of the Sinharaja region, including through his opposition to a mechanized logging project in the 1970s there to produce plywood.

A biodiversity hotspot

Described in 2016, the Sinharaja tree snake (Dendrelaphis sinharajensis) is found only in the depths of the rainforest where many other species are yet to be discovered. Image courtesy of Mendis Wickremasinghe.

Researchers helped Sinharaja be recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, identifying more than 60% of its trees as endemic and many of them as rare. They also estimate the forest reserve is home to more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many birds, insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

According to Gunatilleke, in addition to its biodiversity significance, Sinharaja has tremendous value in terms of ecosystem services. “For example, the headwater of few of Sri Lanka’s main rivers such as Nilwala and Gin Ganga are enriched by the water that flows into them through the forests of the Sinharaja complex. So if not for biological diversity, we should protect these forests for our own survival,” he said.

In Sri Lanka, a forest reserve has similar status to a national park, both of which are managed by wildlife conservation authorities and where research and nature-based tourism are permitted. But unlike a national park, a forest reserve is potentially open to human activities, under a stringent permit system, thus allowing non-destructive forestry activities that are central to the livelihoods of communities living adjacent to the forests, Premakantha said.

This map shows the areas to be added to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve through a pending gazette regulation. Image courtesy of the Sri Lankan Forest Department.

Expanding the forest reserve in Sinharaja to include neighboring forests would help stave off a number of threats such as encroachment, hunting, logging, illegal gem mining, and overharvesting of forest products such as agarwood. “The new declaration would provide much-needed legal backing for the protection of these forests which contain high value of biological diversity,” said botanist Suranjan Fernando. “However, the next step is to ensure practical enforcement. With the expansion of the reserve area, the land extent that is to be monitored by forest officials is extensive. So it is important to establish more presence to ensure enforcement.”

Suranjan said villagers living close to Sinharaja need a sustainable management plan that would support the conservation aim of creating corridors to link the forests, to prevent fragmentation.

“These villages in between forest patches would require the setting up of planned home gardens which in turn can support the biodiversity corridors,” he said. A key crop cultivated in the area is tea, but tea plantations aren’t considered ecological friendly. Finding alternative livelihoods for tea growers living adjacent to the forests is a vital next step, Suranjan said.

The area is dotted by a number of traditional villages whose residents depend on a number forest services. These include the tapping of the kitul flower to collect syrup to make treacle and jaggery sugar, the harvesting of rattan climber for the production of natural cane, and the collection of herbs and firewood.

These traditional activities do no harm to the forest, and have allowed the villagers to live sustainably in the rainforest for centuries, Premakantha said, and thus should be encouraged over other, more destructive, practices.

“These villagers lived in harmony with nature, deriving many benefits from the forests,” he said. “It is poverty that converts some of them to engage in illegal and harmful practices.”

Banner image of a white monkey from the Sinharaja Forest Reserve in southern Sri Lanka, courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle.

Antarctic seal in town – Let it be free..!!

December 23, 2019 published on 15.12.2019 on SundayTimes

It seems the elephant seal from the Antarctic might be here for Christmas, continuing to attract crowds and cause traffic jams in Colombo. The southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) that was first spotted on November 20 off Unawatuna has been resting on rocks off Wellawatte and Kollupitiya in Colombo, creating traffic congestion along the Marine Drive as curious crowds gather to watch it.

The closest colony of southern elephant seals is 6,500km from Sri Lanka, in Antarctica. This seal, which has apparently been driven here by ocean currents, is resting on Lankan beaches while going through what is termed a “catastrophic moult”.

“The moulting is an annual process for elephant seals go through and that is why its face has strips of fur falling off. This will happen all along its body, and the moult takes about four weeks,” marine mammals expert Dr. Asha de Vos of Oceanswell said.

“During this period the animal is basically shedding hair and skin, making it look pretty scabby but also making it pretty grumpy – please respect its need for space,” Dr. de Vos said.

She applauded navy and wildlife officers for controlling the crowds to give the seal rest.

When the seal was first sighted off southern Sri Lanka, it was speculated that the animal was sick as it was often seen passively resting on rocks. There was an attempt to capture it to check its health, but Dr. de Vos said the animal was healthy.

“The information going around that the animal is sick is not accurate. We have continued to monitor its body condition and have been talking with seal experts in the USA and South Africa who work with these species.

“Our assessment is that this animal is healthy and going through a completely normal process, so leave it alone,” Dr. de Vos appealed.

As the moulting process may take few more weeks to complete, it is thought the Antarctic seal will celebrate Christmas in Sri Lanka before heading back home or wandering the seas.

No respite from onlookers

The Southern Elephant Seal spotted on the beaches in the stretch between Kollupitiya and Wellawatte is being disturbed by curious onlookers who are attempting to feed the animal, take pictures and touch it.

In the absence of any wildlife officials to protect the animal, people were also seen throwing small stones or pebbles at the animal to gain its attention before snapping a picture.

At times Navy personnel who were present were able to keep the public away, but in their absence the people were seen getting closer to the seal and trying to touch it.

The seal, at times was seen taking evasive action to avoid the crowds by getting back into the water and surfacing from another spot, but only to be disturbed by onlookers all over again.



Bambalapitiya beach: The seal continues to attract crowds. Pix by Amila Gamage











Antarctic seal in ‘catastrophic moult’: Expert

December 9, 2019 published on SundayTimes on 08.12.2019

The southern elephant seal from Antarctic polar regions continued its mysterious way around the coast this week, visiting Colombo on Friday for several hours and resting on rocks off Kollupitiya beach before returning to the water. Experts pleaded with the public not to disturb the Experts pleaded with the public not to disturb the creature as it was undergoing a traumatic but natural moulting process, shedding fur and skin.

The southern elephant seal on the Kollupitiya beach on Saturday (c) Damith Danthanarayana

Southern elephant seals live in cold Antarctic regions and observers were mystified when this seal was initially spotted on a beach off Unawatuna on the south coast on November 20.

Since then it has made appearances around the coast, and in the days before reaching Colombo was seen at Lunawa on December 4, and prior to that in Wadduwa for two days and, before that, in Ahungalla on December 1.

Wherever the seal came to rest, locals gathered in numbers to photograph the unusual sight, sometimes disturbing the animal which lies passively on rocks.

Photographs taken by the paper’s Galle correspondent, Sugathapala Deeyagahage, indicated that the seal’s skin was damaged. The photographs were sent by The Sunday Times to noted veterinarian Dr. Claire Simeone of the Marine Mammals Centre in California, for her analysis.

Dr. Simeone, an expert in seal rescue and treatment, said the seal appeared to be moulting, a natural process whereby seals shed old skin annually to make way for a new one.

“Some seal species moult all of their fur and the top layer of skin over a short period once a year,” Dr. Simeone said. “Elephant seals come onto shore for a brief period to complete this normal step so that a new, clean coat can be revealed.”

Moulting is a normal process for many other species. The most familiar example is snakes, which shed their skin periodically. Some insects and spiders moult by shedding their rigid exoskeleton to let the organism grow. Birds shed old, worn feathers to replace them with fresh plumage. Cats and dogs shed fur in warm weather.

“While most animals, like pet dogs, shed hairs year-round, elephant seals do it all at once,” Dr. Simeone said. “The process is so abrupt that it’s called a ‘catastrophic’ moult. Because the animal is susceptible to the cold during this period it spends the entire month ‘hauled out’ on land.”

“During this time it spends most of the time dozing and lazily flipping sand onto itself in an attempt to manage body temperature. It doesn’t eat and may lose up to 25 per cent of its body weight. Please do not attempt to move it back into the ocean,” marine mammals expert Dr. Asha de Vos of Oceanswell added. 

Dr. Simeone said the catastrophic moult process is very taxing for the animal, so it was best to give this seal plenty of space to rest.

An expert on southern elephant seals, Dr. Greg Hofmeyr of the Port Elizabeth Museum in South Africa, states that when moulting, the old skin of the elephant seal starts to peel off like wallpaper.

He said the first real evidence of the moult is often seen behind the front flippers and around the eyes, and the entire moult takes about four weeks, with the two weeks in the middle being the most intensive.

Dr. Hofmeyr said when seals come ashore for the moult they will typically move a few times to select a good spot, and then lie in that spot for three to four weeks unless they are disturbed.

“Since the seal in Sri Lanka looks like it is in good condition, I don’t think that the moult will be an issue for him,” Dr. Hofmeyr said assuringly.

He suggested a group of volunteers be formed to keep people away from the seal. “Perhaps keep people 20m away, though the response of the seal will determine whether the distance is suitable. We used this system to guard an adult ellie seal and pup over 20 days in October-November this year. Since she was nervous, we had to keep people 100m away,” Dr. Hofmeyr said..

Dr. de Vos warned that as the moulting process is intensive the seal could feel vulnerable and threatened and become aggressive if anyone went too close to it.

“We continue to ask that people maintain a distance of at least 25m from the seal to give it sufficient space to go through this important lifecycle event,” she said.

Dr. de Vos requested any updates on the seal’s progress to be sent to of Oceanswell through @OceanswellOrg on Facebook and Instagram.

Team hunted down hidden quarry in Jaffna’s rugged terrain

December 9, 2019

Remnants of war were still evident in 2014 when this team launched its search operation in the Jaffna peninsula. Members combed the territory, checking muddy marshes, waterholes, beaches, thorny scrub jungles and abandoned facilities; they moved carefully across the rugged landscape, turning rocks, lifting decaying logs and even fallen palm leaves in their path.

Bombed out pits-turned freshwater pools have become home to Uda Handya fish (Killifish). Pic Sameera Karunarathna

They conducted the operation both in daytime and by stealth at night, maintaining silence and listening for movements and sounds from those disturbed by their presence. They chased down those trying to flee.

This team was, however, not a search party looking for caches of weapons or landmines but a group of herpetologists studying the reptiles and amphibians in the Jaffna peninsula.

Altogether, 44 species of reptiles and 15 species of amphibians were found, including 18 that had not previously been reported from Jaffna. The documented tally of the peninsula’s reptiles and amphibians now stand at 85 species.

The findings of the team, consisting of Majintha Madawala, Thilina Surasinghe, Dinesh Gabadage, Madhava Botejue, Indika Peabotuwage, Dushantha Kandambi, Sameera Karunaratna and well-known herpetologist Dr. Anslem de Silva, were published this week in the Russian Journal of Herpetology.

The team had some pleasant surprises.  “Soon after we landed from the boat on Delft island and had just started turning over fallen palm leaves we found 15 saw-scaled vipers, known as weli polanga in Sinhala.

“They are all venomous snakes, but it was a happy start for herpetologists like us,” study author Sameera Karunaratna said.

The last battles of the three-decade-long war took place at Nandikadal Lagoon and that is where the research team found the rare Beddome’s striped skink (Eutropis beddomei), a beautiful red skink that moves rapidly.  

“It is so fast and makes sudden moves to elude pursuers so you’d need at least a team of 10 people to catch one,” said Mr. Karunaratna, laughing. “The good news is that there is a healthy population of this skink.”

Among other special findings, the research team found a green whip snake (ahatulla) which is not common in this area.

Mr. Karunaratna said there is considerable urban biodiversity in Jaffna. “We found soft-shelled terrapins and hard-shelled terrapins in the drainage of Jaffna town itself,” he said. “We also found some empty shells that indicate they would have been targeted for meat.”

He said the team’s field survey was based on four field visits covering 12 days, so the area covered was small.

“The fact that we managed to find this many reptiles indicates that Jaffna and northern Sri Lanka could harbour even more reptile species,” Mr. Karunaratna said.

“Our study will provide a basic foundation for conservation planning and future research,” he said.

Eutropis-beddomei (Beddome’s stripe skink) found in Nandikadal

Fish find home in artillery holes
 Huge pits created by artillery explosions that pockmark the landscape of the peninsula show the intensity of the bloody war fought in the north – but many of these pits are now nurturing colourful life.The pits, which range from 15m in diameter to several perches in extent, become artificial pools when filled with rain, herpetologist Sameera Karunaratna said.

“We found varieties of killifish species known as ‘uda handaya’ in these earth depressions that act as artificial pools now,” Mr. Karunaratna said.

“There are dozens of them in the area and in drier periods the shallow areas dry out but water remains in the deeper sections, giving a lifeline to the fish.”

Killifish are small creatures that are short-lived and lay eggs. Some lay their eggs where floating plants grow while others bury them in the sand of the pools they inhabit. When the pools dry up the fish die but when rains return and the pools fill up, the eggs hatch and life begins again.

Science should guide the peninsula’s growth plans
With the new government in power, many expect a fresh wave of development in the Jaffna region but experts are urging that this does not follow the previous pattern of ignoring environmental concerns.Development became the priority for northern Sri Lanka area when the civil war ended in 2009.

In order to prevent initiatives backfiring over lack of environmental planning, the Central Environment Authority (CEA), in collaboration with the Disaster Management Centre and the United Nations Development Programme, carried out an “Integrated Strategic Environment Assessment for the Northern Province” (ISEA-North), with work beginning in 2009 itself, prior to the resettlement of people displaced by the war.

Its purpose was to accelerate economic growth by identifying freely available land and resources for development while providing a framework to protect environmentally and culturally sensitive areas.

Information gathered from stakeholder agencies allowed researchers to identify sensitive and disaster-prone areas where development should be restricted or managed. Further, the study identified more than 200 new archeological sites.

Areas suitable for development activities such as industry, agriculture, ecotourism and other ventures were identified and mapped, with the most sensitive forests, wildlife, marine, coastal and archaeological areas excluded. After completion in 2012, the plan was reviewed in 2014.

The Sunday Times learns that some aspects of this comprehensive strategic plan have been largely disregarded. Analysts said wasting this effort was a pity, pointing out that overseas observers had specially visited Sri Lanka to learn from the ISEA-North process and UN has recognised the participatory scientific approach as a model for rebuilding in crisis/conflict situations. The report can be downloaded from the CEA website,

As nesting season begins, Sri Lanka’s olive ridley turtles face myriad threats

December 6, 2019
  • With the main nesting season for olive ridley sea turtles getting underway, the species faces a range of threats in the waters and beaches of Sri Lanka.
  • The country’s navy recently rescued 32 turtles trapped in shrimp fishing nets in the island’s north.
  • Marine turtles in Sri Lankan waters often end up entangled in nets, posing a serious threat to their survival.
  • Sea turtles worldwide are seriously affected by the fisheries industry, with millions killed every year.  published on Mongabay on 04.12.2019

COLOMBO — The Sri Lankan Navy has rescued 32 sea turtles that were likely being reared for their flesh, highlighting just one of the key threats to turtles migrating through this Indian Ocean island at this time of year.

A naval patrol on Nov. 24 in the Gulf of Mannar, which separates Sri Lanka from India, initially identified a turtle trapped in a shrimping net. A team of sailors deployed to rescue the animal discovered more turtles trapped in the net. In all, they rescued 32 sea turtles, among them olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas).

Removing a fishing hook from a turtle. Image courtesy of the Turtle Conservation Project.

Though turtles are frequently trapped by accident in fishing nets, it appears likely these animals had been caught elsewhere and corralled in these shrimp pens, according to navy spokesman Isuru Sooriyabandara. He told Mongabay that a patrol two days earlier, on Nov. 22, had seized 4 kilograms (9 pounds) of turtle flesh from a boat close to the same location, raising the prospect that local fishermen were keeping the turtles for later consumption.

Sri Lankan waters are home to five of the seven species of marine turtles: the green turtleolive ridleyhawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).

It’s the first two, however, that account for nearly the entire population of nesting turtles in Sri Lanka: 68 percent are green turtles and 30 percent olive ridley turtles, according to the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA). While the peak nesting frequency for green turtles in this region runs from February to April, the period between November and March is prime time for olive ridleys, which flock in the hundreds of thousands to beaches around the Bay of Bengal, including parts of Sri Lanka, to nest.

A turtle flipper seriously damaged by getting caught in a fishing net. Image courtesy of the Turtle Conservation Project.

But the rise in turtle numbers during this time of the year leads to a spike in hunting of the animals by local fishermen — a trend that navy spokesman Sooriyabandara said authorities were vigilant about.

Still, fishing nets set in the Gulf of Mannar and elsewhere accidentally catch a lot of turtles, especially in the final quarter of the year as they migrate across Sri Lanka waters to their breeding grounds, according to Thushan Kapurusinghe, the project leader of the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) in Sri Lanka.

Entangled in fishing nets

The TCP conducted its first olive ridley rescue program from September 1999 to March 2001, in a bid to save turtles entangled in nets. It hired a boat and followed fishermen as they went fishing at dusk. The nets were checked throughout the night for possible entanglements, and any turtles found were immediately released. Over the two and a half years of the project, a total of 278 olive ridleys were rescued, comprising 157 females, 86 males and 35 whose sex was undetermined.

“The monitoring was strenuous, as a fishing net could extend several kilometers and these are laid on considerable distances to prevent turtles from getting entangled. So only a portion of fishing nets could be monitored by the TCP boat each night,” Kapurusinghe said, adding that the real rate of entanglement was likely much higher.

The front flippers of this hawksbill turtle found in Kosgoda was badly damaged due to a cut caused by a fishing net, so they had to be amputated. Image courtesy the Turtle Conservation Project.

Lalith Ekanayake, the chairman of the Bio Conservation Society (BCSSL), which also focuses on turtle conservation, said that while entangled turtles are able to keep their head up to breathe, the turtles that get caught deeper underwater are at high risk of drowning. Even those saved from the nets don’t always get away clean; many suffer injuries from the nylon mesh of the fishing nets, sometimes so severely that they require amputation of their flippers.

The IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Marine Turtles Specialist Group also recognizes the impact of fisheries as the biggest threat to marine turtles, while other threats include hunting, egg extraction and other pressures. “The turtles virtually everywhere are impacted by fisheries, especially longlines, gill nets and trawls. Millions of turtles are killed indirectly by fisheries every year worldwide,” said Roderic Mast, co-chair of IUCN-SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group. Fishing nets that have been lost, abandoned or discarded at sea, known as ghost nets, pose the worst of fishing threats to turtles, Mast told Mongabay.

All marine turtle species found in Sri Lanka are listed as endangered on the country’s National Red List and are legally protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act. But laws alone can’t address the threats, Ekanayake said, adding that there needs to be greater awareness among fishing communities about their role in the issue. Both the BCSSL and the TCP run awareness campaigns about the importance of marine turtle conservation.

A sailor rescuing a juvenile green turtle from a shrimp net in the Gulf of Mannar, northern Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of the Sri Lankan Navy.

Turtle nesting sites abound all around Sri Lanka, with the major nesting beaches on the western, southwestern and southern coasts. There’s a rapid decline of turtles all over the island, Kapurusinghe said, especially the leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead varieties.

“For example, the Rekawa nesting site [in the south] hasn’t seen a leatherback turtle in two years or a hawksbill in four years, which is alarming,” Kapurusinghe said.


Banner image of a turtle stuck in a fishing net. Image courtesy of the Bio Conservation Society.

Allow Elephant Seal to rest before risky journey home back to Antarctica

December 6, 2019 published on 01.12.2019 and on 24.11.2019

The southern elephant seal pup spotted at Unawatuna a fortnight ago continued to resurface off adjacent beaches: it was seen resting on rocks at Midigama on November 23, near Polwathumodara bridge in Weligama on the 26th and on successive days at Ahangama, Dewata in Galle and Mahamodara bridge in Galle.  

It is thought the animal is in distress and disoriented as the waters around Sri Lanka are much warmer than the water they naturally live in the deep Antarctic.

As the animal is resting passively on rocks it was assumed at first that it was wounded or ill. The navy and some fishermen attempted to capture the seal to check its condition but they found it to be fit and strong when it pulled a net away from them and escaped.

The Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Chandana Sooriyabandara, said officers would not try to catch the seal again.

“Let it be free in our waters. Let the animal decide what it wants,” he said.

The problem is that local residents gather whenever the seal surfaces to gain a glimpse of the unusual visitor, some of them going very close to it to take photographs and video.

Marine mammals expert Dr. Asha de Vos asked for the seal to be given space to rest.

“Elephant seals live in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions so its native range would be several kilometres away from home. He is lost but might soon try to start finding its way back. It needs rest before starting its journey back,” she said.

She also warned about safety. The seal looks passive and does not move until people get very close. “But if threatened, the seal can be dangerous as it could pounce back, biting,” Dr. de Vos said.

The southern elephant seal is the largest seal species in the world with males weighing as much as four tons.

Experts believe this individual could have begun its long journey from a seal colony on Kerguelen Island in the north Antarctic, 6,400km from Sri Lanka.

Marine watcher Ranil Nanayakkara said photographs of old wounds on the seal indicated it could have been travelling for several months.

“Those rounded wounds on its back could have been caused by bites by cookie-cutter sharks,” he said. These sharks, which can grow to 22 inches, live in warm waters so this could indicate that the seal spent some time in warm waters, Mr. Nanayakkara said.

Mr. Nanayakkara warned that deeper waters around Sri Lanka would also not be safe for the seal on its return journey as there could be killer whales, which often hunt seals. 

“Perhaps the seal had been forced to change its normal route in an attempt to escape such attacks and became caught in a current that dragged it all the way to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Nanayakkara said.

A ranger at the Hikkaduwa DWC office, Uthpala Adaranga, said there was a danger of the seal becoming entangled in fishing nets as it came close to shore, and he appealed to fishermen and other locals to alert rangers if the animal was seen or found in distress.

Marine mammals veterinary surgeon Claire Simeone of the Marine Mammals Center in the United States said elephant seals eat squid and deepwater fish, and finding this prey might be a challenge for an seal this far from home.

Dr. Simeone said southern elephant seals only come onto land twice a year, to mate and for their fur to moult. While it is rare for them to come farther north than the sub-Antarctic islands where they live, there have been cases where seals have been spotted on beaches in South Africa or Brazil. There was a sighting of Southern Elephant Seal in Oman, the furthest until now in tropical waters.

Lester presents ‘Brush with birds’

December 1, 2019 Published on SundayTimes on 01.12.2019

Well known wildlife artist and leading naturalist Lester Perera is getting ready for his next exhibition,  ‘Brush with Birds – the frozen moments from the wild’. About 50 paintings using mixed media, pen and ink, watercolour and acrylic on canvas would be featured covering raptors, shore birds, forest birds including the birds that are endemic to Sri Lanka.

He uses his brush to capture them on canvas, he smiles and “as a birdwatcher, when I visit the wilds, I do literally ‘brush’ with birds letting my eyes pass through gently observing without disturbing them,” says Lester explaining the exhibition title.

A well known bird artist who has been featured as a guest artist in prestigious international exhibitions held in the UK and France, in 2005, Lester donated some of his paintings to be auctioned at the British Bird Watching Fair in Leicestershire, with the proceeds going to the conservation of birds in the Orient.

‘Brush with Birds’ is Lester’s 10th exhibition in Sri Lanka. He had his last exhibition, ‘Wild in Ruins’ in 2014 on a different theme, painting birds and nature in archaeological sites such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Most of the paintings in ‘Wild in Ruins’ were in black and white, but ‘Brush with Birds’ brings birds to life in colour.

“For me, visiting the wilderness is like a visit to a religious place which calms me. I look at every detail and freeze those moments in my mind like someone taking a picture. Even a dead branch has a lot of detail to pay attention to,” he says.

“Brush with Birds” will be at the Harold Peiris gallery of the Lionel Wendt on December 6, 7 and 8 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Entrance is free.


Young eyes on nature

November 29, 2019 published on SundayTimes on 24.11.2019

“Young Eye on Nature” the annual wildlife photography exhibition and “Kin Wild” the annual wildlife arts exhibition by the Young Zoologists Association (YZA) will be held on November 28, 29 and 30 at the J.D.A. Perera Art Gallery, Colombo 7.

‘Kin Wild’ -the exhibition of wildlife paintings and sketches is the longest running wildlife art exhibition in the country. The Young Zoologists Association established the ‘Wildlife Arts’ group in 1989 to assist youth talented in drawing.  YZA held the first wildlife art exhibition in 1990 and since then it has been an annual event.

YZA initiated its wildlife photography exhibition to showcase the talent of its young members who chose photography as a media to capture the beauty of nature long before the digital age of photography. YZA groom the youth who aspire to be wildlife photographers teaching them techniques, while guiding them to take the ethical path. Its members use wildlife photography as a tool to raise awareness among the public on the need to conserve nature.

YZA is conducting Wildlife Art and Wildlife Photography classes every Sunday at the National Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala. The best art and photographs by its members chosen through a selection process will be showcased at these exhibitions.

Entrance is free for these exhibitions.



Elephant seal native to Antarctica spotted for first time in tropical Sri Lanka

November 27, 2019

Published on Mongabay on 26.11.2019

  • A juvenile southern elephant seal from the Antarctic region was recently spotted off Sri Lanka’s southern coast.
  • The seal appeared exhausted, and while there have been calls to capture it to assess its health and/or raise it in captivity, experts recommend leaving it alone and giving it time to find its way back home.
  • The species has rarely been recorded venturing into tropical waters.
  • In its native habitat, it’s threatened by the melting of the pack ice on which it breeds, as a result of global warming.

COLOMBO — Uthpala Adaranga, a ranger with Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation  (DWC), was initially doubtful about the call he received of a seal spotted near Unawatuna, off the country’s southern coast on Nov. 20. He assumed, as had happened in the past, that it was another case of misidentification, given that the tropical Indian Ocean island lies well beyond the native range of seals. But to Uthpala’s surprise, it was a seal — a marine mammal never before recorded in Sri Lankan waters.

The seal, about 2 meters (6 feet) long, spent all day on Dalawella Beach, drawing a crowd of onlookers. Wildlife officials together with navy and police personnel had to cordon off the beach to allow some resting space for the animal.

The very next day, the seal disappeared, only to resurface two days later on Nov. 23 near Midigama Beach, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) farther south. This time, it was seen resting on rocks, offering a better view to observers, including of visible signs of old wounds. When a navy team attempted to capture the seal to assess its health, it disappeared again and has not been seen since.

Using amateur video shared on social media, marine biologist Asha de Vos identified the animal as a southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina), named for its nose that resembles an elephant’s trunk. The largest seal species in the world, the southern elephant seal spends most of its time near Antarctica, only reaching land twice a year to mate and to molt.

De Vos told Mongabay that this individual seal could be from an elephant seal colony from one of the islands off Antarctica, possibly the Kerguelen Islands. That means it would have had to swim about 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) to get to Sri Lanka — a feat that’s possible with the aid of ocean currents.

“Seals are active swimmers, but it’s hard to speculate why this individual swam this far north, leaving its native range. The individual found in Sri Lanka looks exhausted and would have reached the beach for some rest,” de Vos said.

Greg Hofmeyr, the curator of marine mammals at Port Elizabeth Museum at Bayworld, South Africa, and a specialist on southern elephant seals, confirmed that southern elephant seals are known for migrating long distances of thousands of kilometers between sub-Antarctic islands and their foraging areas in the Southern Ocean. Many younger animals have an exploratory phase in their life, and the individual spotted in Sri Lanka could be one, he added.

But he said the seal sighting in Sri Lanka, so far away from the species’ native range, was unusual, as seals in general are rarely recorded near the equator.

In 1989, a southern elephant seal was spotted off Oman. It was shot dead for identification purposes. Hofmeyr said there had also been seal sightings in the Mascarene Islands, close to Madagascar, but still about 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles) south of Sri Lanka.

These seals aren’t considered threatened because they occur in several populations, many of them large, some of them growing, and none of them isolated. But global warming has become the main threat to their existence, manifested in the loss of the pack ice habitats in which they breed, Hofmeyr said.

‘Give it space’

With the confirmed sighting, the question now for conservationists and officials in Sri Lanka is what to do about the elephant seal. The species is perfectly adapted to the Antarctic cold, and the tropical waters around Sri Lanka would be too harsh for it. There have been calls to capture it and house it in a zoo, although it’s not clear that Sri Lanka has suitable facilities.

“We do not have facilities to accommodate an animal that swims thousands of kilometers and dives thousands of meters in search of food. My advice is to give the animal space, so it can rest and then begin its journey back,” de Vos said.

Claire Simeone, a conservation veterinarian at the California-based Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates seals, said the seal in Sri Lanka could find it difficult to survive in the warmer waters, but that keeping it in captivity would be harder.

“Ideally, the seal’s health should be evaluated by a veterinarian familiar with the particular species,” she told Mongabay. “If the seal is sick or injured, rehabilitation at a zoo or an aquarium could be helpful. But unfortunately, it is challenging to provide the conditions needed for this species in a zoo for its entire life, because they can dive to more than 2,000 meters [6,600 feet] deep. Elephant seals eat squid and deep-water fish and finding this prey might also be one of the challenges to an animal this far from home.”

Simeone suggested the best thing to do would be to give the seal some space. Whether it’s sick, injured, or just resting, the animal will be further stressed by human harassment. “While this seal is indeed quite lost, it is possible that it just needs to rest before going back home,” she added.

She said people should not approach the seal, as it is a wild animal that can bite if it feels threatened. Though it appears exhausted and passive, seals can quickly and turn dangerous if confronted.

Chandana Sooriyabandara, the director-general of the DWC, said there were no plans to capture the seal unless its condition looked particularly bad. “We will let it be our visitor and stay freely in our waters,” he added.


Banner image of the juvenile southern elephant seal resting near the Midigama coastal area in southern Sri Lanka, courtesy of Ravindra Kumara, Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri Lanka



From jungles to the city: Lankan wilds in perfect symphony

November 26, 2019

“Wildlife photography shouldn’t be about the ego that is attached to it. It isn’t about the equipment we use, or how many more animals we see compared to others. It is about our connection with nature” – these words truly echo through the pages of ‘Symphony of Serendib’ – the coffeetable book to be launched by wildlife photographer Erich Joseph.

Erich Joseph

“Symphony of Serendib” is Erich’s first book and will be launched at his maiden photography exhibition to be held from November 29 to December 1 at the Harold Peiris Gallery of the Lionel Wendt. Erich who works in the IT field always felt the urge to explore nature and capture its unique moments in his spare time. He bought his first camera in 2007 and his first DSLR camera in 2010 when he began taking his photography seriously.

The book contains over 200 pages that feature not only a wide array of animals, but also some breathtaking scenes of different wildernesses across Sri Lanka. He has a particular passion for birds, tuskers and leopards, but these attractive animals are interspersed with species like frogs, mantises, spiders, lizards, insects and other creatures that are often overlooked. Like a master musician who has skills to build his symphony over little things, Erich captures these usually non-charismatic animals from different angles giving the viewer fresh perspectives. A common bird like the Red-vented Bulbul looks like a ballet dancer performing in the rain to his symphony. Of note are his photos of the elusive leopard in Horton Plains and many rare migratory birds – even from the city of Colombo.

The Symphony of Serendib follows a geographical trail starting from the central hills  mainly featuring Horton Plains and then moving down to Haputale, Ella to the Sinharaja rainforest. He then showcases photographs taken in Uda Walawe, and moves to Galgamuwa, Kalawewa, Wilpattu and Yala.

Writing the foreword of the book, veteran wildlife photographer Namal Kamalgoda states that the cross-section of images from the highest regions of our country down to the coast, showcasing the diversity in location and subjects is remarkable. There is also a refreshing array of landscapes, often ignored by wildlife photographers, but Erich has the eye not to miss them. “One of my favourite images is of the Ghost Crabs, like a wall of aliens. Even a shrew and a mouse have been represented in the book and there are lot more ‘small stuff’ like this to enjoy,” Kamalgoda writes.

The innocent eyes of a leopard cub

In his book, Erich shares the painstaking efforts and sometimes disappointments he had to bear in capturing these unique photographs.

There is sadness to his symphony as a number of his favourite tuskers that he photographed had been killed and their memories are restricted to photographs.

The book contains several black and white photographs particularly featuring leopards and elephants. “Black and white can bring an artistic touch, giving character to otherwise a pretty ordinary photograph,” says Erich.

The coffee table book ‘Symphony of Serendib’ is priced at 8,500 but visitors to the exhibition can purchase it for the special price of Rs.6,000.

The Symphony of Serendib exhibition is open to all.

Ghost Crabs, like a wall of aliens – Chundikulam beach

 A mossy labyrinth – Horton Plains National Park

Comb ducks in Colombo

Elephants in Kalawewa – Black & White adds an artistic blend  

Butterfly boom sees crowds of yellow visitors suddenly appear

November 17, 2019 Published on SundayTimes on 17.11.2019

A swarm of Lemon Emigrants (c) Dr.Michael van der Poorten

Sri Lanka is experiencing a butterfly boom these days with even suburbs of congested cities such as Colombo seeing an increase in the fluttering visitors.

Many of them belong to the yellow Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona) species that traditionally begin a seasonal movement at this time of year, says butterfly expert Rajika Gamage.

Mr. Gamage, who is observing butterflies in the Thanamalwila area, said about 70 per cent of what he is seeing are Lemon Emigrants and about 10 per cent the Common Leopard and Lesser Albatross species.

Many reports are also coming in of clouds of butterflies such as the Crimson Rose out at sea, several nautical miles from shore. Renowned lepidopterist Dr. Michael van der Poorten confirmed butterfly movements have been observed from the Mannar area westward out to sea and from the Trincomalee area eastward out to sea.

A Female Lemon Emigrant (c) Michael van der Poorten

Until the mid-80s when, for reasons ranging from deforestation to pollution the phenomenon disappeared, it was customary to see thousands of butterflies appearing in clouds in Sri Lankan skies from February to April.

As this is the season of pilgrimage to Sri Pada mountain, Buddhist folklore had it that the butterflies also visited the mountain to pay homage to Lord Buddha. Thus the mountain was given another name, Samanala Kanda or “butterfly mountain.

“Indeed, many butterflies of several species are seen flying towards and up the mountain and are sometimes found dead at the top,” said Dr. van der Poorten.

Lemon Emigrants make this seasonal movement, as do many other species such as the Common Albatross, Lesser Albatross, Pioneer, Common Gull, Blue Tiger and Common Banded Peacock, he said.

Lesser Albatross

In 1949, the lepidopterist, L.G.O. Woodhouse, reported 69 species in this migration but now fewer species are seen, Dr. van der Poorten said.
He explained that seasonal movements occur soon after a boom in butterfly populations, which often happens soon after rainfall breaks a drought.

“A drought can reduce populations of both butterflies and their prey. But when the right conditions arrive the butterfly population can recover fast, leading to a boom,” Dr. van der Poorten said, adding that science knew little about these migration patterns or their causes.

Rajika Gamage said butterfly migrations occur throughout the year but only come to public notice when there is a boom in numbers.

“Continuous rain could help plants to grow lots of tender leaves that could provide healthy host plants for caterpillars to feed on, resulting in a boom,” Mr. Gamage said.

Himesh Jayasinghe of the Butterfly Conservation Society of Sri Lanka said society members are sharing reports of butterfly sightings on Whatsapp and these will be analysed to identify migration patterns.

The most extravagant butterfly migration occurs on the American continent when thousands of Monarch butterflies make an annual migration.

These swarms, unlike those found in Sri Lanka, including those that go to Sri Pada, return home after their seasonal migration.

While these swarms – officially a swarm of butterflies is known as a kaleidoscope of butterflies – eventually return home they are then made up of new butterflies. It takes as many as four to five generations to complete the full journey all the way back up to Canada and the US as the Monarchs’ lifespan can be just two to five weeks.Each year, millions of Monarch butterflies leave their summer breeding grounds in the North Eastern United States and Canada and travel almost 5,000km to reach overwintering grounds in Mexico.

Lemon Emigrants in Matara