Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Bye.. bye.. thinner polythene

February 16, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 07.02.2016

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

Yala opens amidst tension after shooting of poacher

October 14, 2015
* Wildlife enthusiasts fear wildlife dept. lacks facilities and rangers
* Poachers have a free run of the park when it is closed for a month, they say

The Yala National Park that was closed for a month during the drought, re-opened on October 7, as scheduled. However, tension prevailed following the death of a poacher during a shootout with wildlife rangers.

The shooting incident on the evening of Friday, October 2, occurred near a waterhole in the Kochchipotana area that borders the National Park near the Katagamuwa entrance.The family and close allies of the poacher have reportedly threatened the wildlife officers resulting in the deployment of Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel at the park.

Following a tip off, wildlife officers raided the area and apprehended a group of poachers carrying firearms. According to the rangers one poacher had attempted to escape by opening fire on them, and the wildlife officers had shot back resulting in the poacher’s death. The other two poachers were apprehended.

Following the incident, the court ordered the remanding of the wildlife ranger who shot the poacher. He was later released on bail. The other two poachers were given bail and investigations are continuing. According to sources in the area, the group are known poachers in the Yala area.

The incident is an eye opener to the fact that poaching continues even in protected areas. Yala Park Warden Asanka Gunawardhena however, said poaching mainly occurs along in the periphery of the National Park and rangers were doing their best to control it within the National Park.

Commenting on the incident, Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said he was happy to see these kinds of raids being conducted to curtail poaching.

He said he believed wildlife officers had every right to shoot in self-defence. He emphasised the need for more such raids and the need to extend support to wildlife rangers.

Park Warden in the early ‘90s, E.Wilson said poachers are sometimes bold enough to infiltrate deep inside the National Park. He said the boundary of the Yala National Park is dotted with several villages and some villagers still pursue poaching as a livelihood. Some poachers camp out in the wilderness for days killing animals that include spotted deer, sambur, mouse deer and wild boar.

However the alarming point about the Kochchipotana shooting was that it occurred around 5.30 p.m., indicating that the poachers could be active even in broad daylight. During the drought the Park is closed each year for one month and wildlife enthusiasts fear that poachers have a free run during this period.

The common belief is that closing the park is good for the animals, giving them a respite from the disturbances of visitors and vehicular traffic to the park.

But some believe that although visitors and jeep drivers need to be disciplined, the visitors are the best protection for Yala wild animals.

They point out that wildlife officers do not do regular patrolling of the park, so regular visits could keep the poachers away at least during day time.

They expressed fears that the Department was lacked sufficient staff to carry out anti-poaching activities. The Sunday Times learnt that there are only about 20 wildlife rangers who can be deployed in such raids as in the case of Yala.

A wildlife enthusiast said many of these rangers are disgruntled and many go home in the evenings, adding that on those days the staff had to do regular patrols on foot.

Leopards are often fallen victims of snares setup for wildboar

Leopards are often fallen victims of snares setup for wildboar

“Everyone knows where the poachers enter from and the areas that require regular patrolling. Poaching methods such as snares can only be detected if patrolling was done on foot,” he pointed out.

He added that Wildlife Staff, including rangers who are supposed to patrol the parks should be regularly rotated from park to park as some of them build relations with the poachers when they are in one place too long.

A wildlife officer who wished to remain anonymous said they faced severe difficulties in cases such as Kochchipotana where they have to get involved in legal battles attend court and seek counsel and representation.

Many have to take leave to attend court, which eventually affects their salary. The poachers and others who conduct illegal activities in the jungles on the other hand often have the blessings of area politicians.

This culture too needs to be stopped in order to find a solution to the problem, he said.

How to stop poaching

A suspected poacher was arrested this week from Akuressa. The police arrested him on a tip off that he was providing venison to hotels in Matara.This shows that poaching is not only an issue in the Dry Zone, but widespread in rainforests and in the Hill country wilderness.

Shooting is just one method used by poachers to kill their prey, but there are other more inhuman ways including wire snares, trap guns, poisoning and hakka patas that are used by poachers. 

The main targets are spotted deer, sambur, other deer species and wildboar. Some would argue that these are not threatened species. But poaching methods such as wire snares and Hakka patas sometimes trap threatened animals.

As the SundayTimes has reported earlier wire snares have become the number one killer of leopard, particularly in the Hill Country.

Even in Yala, a leopard died several months ago by getting caught an a snare. Hakka Patas is the second leading cause of elephant deaths..

Several weeks ago the Sunday Times quoted marine biologist Arjan Rajasuriya who pointed out that to control dynamite fishing, steps have to be taken on land by setting up an effective intelligence network. Such a network is needed to curb poaching of animals as many of the poachers are from villages bordering national parks.
Prof.Sarath Kotagama who served as Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department pointed out that poaching can only be stopped by curbing the demand for wildboar meat.

He blames the lower middle class among whom there is a demand for it. “When people go on trips to Kataragama and other areas they go in search of venison.” His plea to the public is to stop this practice. 

Published on SundayTimes on 11.10.2015

Environmentalists derail garbage train to Aruwakkalu

October 7, 2015
Experts fear EIA report may go to the dustbin, point out major damage to habitat and heritage. 

Garbage disposal has been a major headache for Colombo which generates as much as 1,200 metric tonnes of rubbish every day. The dumping sites, some of them in the midst of residential areas, are also bursting at the seams.

No solution yet for Colombo’s garbage problem: The Meethotamulla garbage dump

 As the crisis aggravated, a new project to collect the garbage, transport it by train and dump it in a Sanitary Landfill in Puttalam emerged as a solution. But environmentalists are now raising serious concerns over the project.

The plan seeks to convert the present garbage dump at Meethotamulla in Kolonnawa into a collection center complete with rail tracks and loading facilities.

The compacted waste will be packed in 20-foot containers and sent by train to the landfill site at Aruwakkalu, just North of Puttalam, about 170 kilometres away from Colombo.

The 30-hectare Aruwakkalu site, leased out to Holcim Cement Company, has many abandoned quarries, from where limestone was extracted by the Cement Corporation some 20 years ago.

The site will be designed to absorb up to 4,700,000 cubic metres of garbage for 10 years in 2 phases.

But to the dismay of environmentalists, the site is within the one mile buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park – a fact that has been highlighted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report.

The document points out that the site is frequented by several wild animals, including elephants and warns that once the garbage comes, it can attract more elephants to the area, aggravating the human-elephant conflict, especially in the fishing village near the site.

The EIA report recommends several steps to prevent elephants and other animals from coming to the area. They include erecting an electric fence and closing up the landfill on a daily basis after the garbage has been deposited.

The forest adjacent to the landfill site is also home for a critically endangered legume crop, a wild relative of ‘Bu-kollu’ (Rhynchosia velutina) which has so far been spotted only in two places in Sri Lanka.

The environmentalists also express concerns over the impact of the project on the Kala Oya/Lunu Oya Estuary which supports the largest, richest, and the most pristine mangrove patch in Sri Lanka and is also just 200 m northeast of the site.

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) says the project is a crime and not worth the cost. He says the solution lies not in dumping garbage at landfill sites but addressing the root cause.

“Go for a zero-waste model promoting recycling. It will be a sustainable solution. Sometimes drastic measures such as banning polythene and plastic might have to be taken – but it will help in the long run,” he said.  Mr. Withanage said the people must also act with responsibility to minimise garbage.

The US$ 107 million landfill site project was approved by the previous government after a cabinet paper was submitted by the then President Mahinda Rajapakse in his capacity as Minister of Urban Development.

Environmentalists fear that just as the previous regime showed scant respect for EIAs and tweaked the findings to do development at ‘any cost’; the present Government also could distort the EIA.

Many experts recognise that the solid waste problem requires an urgent solution but it does not mean creating another environmental crisis.
Due to the limestone base and dynamiting, the base of the solid waste pit could be impermeable.

The leachate will contaminate the pristine habitats of the Kala Oya. Some experts suggest that to minimise the negative impacts, the solid waste should be dumped in the abandoned Holcim pits which are more towards the interior of Aruwakkalu.But the company is not in favour of this suggestion, environmentalists say.

This is why the present site has been selected for the project even though its negative impacts are apparent. It is also feared that uncontrolled dynamiting could damage the bottom lining of the landfill site, paving the way for leakages.

When contacted, a Holcim spokesperson said the quarry was being blasted with permission from the Geological and Mines Bureau and the company was following standard protocols. They said the landfill was a government project and it had nothing to do with it.

However, the project needs approval not only from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) but also from the North Western Provincial Council and the Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) as the site is located within the buffer zone of a national park.

When contacted, CEA Chairman Lal Dharmaratne said the EIA had been submitted to the technical committee and was being evaluated. The EIA is posted on the CEA’s website for the public to send protests and comments before October 13.

Wedi Pitiya: 25 million year heritage site cannot go under garbage 

Palaeobiologists who explore prehistoric biodiversity have joined environmentalists to oppose the Aruwakkalu project as it is likely to harm South Asia’s prime Miocene fossil site.The quarry that Holcim excavates contains fossils belonging to the Miocene era some 25 million years ago. During this era, this area had been a sea bed and the cement raw material that is being dug is in fact calcified fossilised shells or bony remains of many sea creatures which died millions of years ago.

The site known as ‘Wedi Pitiya’ is particularly unique as it is in its vicinity that P.E.P. Deraniyagala documented nearly 40 species of prehistoric invertebrates and marine vertebrates such as Dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles from their bony remains belonging to the Miocene era.

This indicates that ‘Wedi Pitiya’ could in fact be a deeper zone of the sea. The Red Bed which lies above the Miocene Bed also contains stone tools, potsherds, beads and bony remains of prehistoric human habitation dating back to more than 250,000 years.

Considering its place in the history of Sri Lanka and its evolutionary importance to biodiversity in view of possible future finds, the Palaeobiodiversity Conservation Programme under the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Forest Department (to whom the land belongs) and the Department of Archaeology has identified a 300m x 500m area at ‘wedi pitiya’ along with 3 other sites in Aruwakkalu to be gazzetted as a protected area.

This tiny area will be the only remaining Miocene area in Sri Lanka after the Holcim Company has finished mining Aruwakkalu, but sadly a section of ‘Wedi Pitiya’ has been included in the proposed landfill site.

“Aruwakkalu is a gold mine for palaeobiodiversity studies. The excavation for limestone made visible a large cross section of a wall showing the fossil layers and this could easily attract foreign students studying paleobiodiversity to Sri Lanka,” says Kelum Manamendra-arachchie, who is Sri Lanka’s palaeobiodiversity expert.

“The Aruwakkalu site is the only visible Miocene site in Sri Lanka. Its prehistoric artefacts, the traditional fishing village of ‘Gange Wadiya’ and the legend of Kuveni can be utilised to promote ‘geo tourism’. So it is pity that our heritage is going to be covered by garbage,” Mr. Manamendraarachchie said.


“The site is the worst, but concept is good” – Waste Management expert 

The 30-hectare land chosen for the sanitary landfill is the worst possible area in Aruwakkalu, says Solid Waste Management expert Sumith Pilapitiya.

Primarily, the site is too close to Kala Oya, an important water source in the area. Secondly, it is located within the Wilpattu Buffer zone, an ecologically sensitive area.

The site is also close to ‘Gange Wadiya’, the only human settlement in the area and, therefore, the traditional livelihood of the villagers will be disturbed, he explains.

However, unlike many other environmentalists, Dr. Pilapitiya believes that in the absence of a solution to Colombo’ solid waste problem so far, a sanitary landfill at Aruwakkalu could be a good idea only if an alternative suitable site is selected in the same area.

The search for landfill sites within a 50 km radius from Colombo to dump wastes has been going on since 1990 with little or no success amid protests from residents living near the possible sites.

Experts describe this dilemma as typical of the NIMBY syndrome- all want a solution to Colombo’s waste problem, but at the same time they say, “Not in my backyard (NIMBY)”.

This compels the authorities to go for temporary solutions which in turn lead to environmental pollution, the magnitude of which is much bigger than the originally proposed solution. The crisis over the Meethotamulla dump is a classic example.

Aruwakkalu in Puttalam is not a populated area and it has already suffered environmental damage as a result of limestone quarrying by cement companies. Since a suitable landfill site cannot be found closer to Colombo without drawing public protests, this could be a viable option, if the project is properly implemented, Dr. Pilapitiya explains.

To address the concerns raised by some environmentalists, he proposes to select a site further south, more towards new Holcim quarries. “There is about a 15 km stretch of land between the currently selected site and Holcim excavating sites; so there is space for an alternative site,” he says.

Asked about how safe it is to transport solid waste in train wagons, Dr. Pilapitiya says there are specially designed rail rolling stock and containers that will not even let the smell out. He says the authorities should go in for such rolling stock and the cost of buying them could be added to the project.

Considering all these options, Dr. Pilapitiya proposes to make it a National Level project to solve not only Colombo’s solid waste problem but also those of other major cities.

The waste management expert also proposes to sort garbage and compost the perishable waste to minimise pollution and the load to be sent to the sanitary landfill. In this way, the dangerous leachate generated at the landfill site could also be minimised.

People are afraid of sanitary landfills, but if designed and managed properly, a sanitary landfill is good as it will confine pollution within the site, Dr. Pilapitiya says.

Commenting on other solutions proposed for the solid waste crisis, the expert renowned for his waste management work in Sri Lanka and abroad, says some propose incineration that involves the burning of waste material at high temperature as a solution, but garbage in Sri Lanka is largely organic and high in moisture content, and therefore this method is not economically viable.

Another option is plasma gasification – a process in which carbon-based waste is converted into fuel – gas that can be utilised to generate electricity. This has been successfully implemented at small and medium levels to deal with solid waste within a local council area. But Dr. Pilapitiya points to the project’s high human and capital costs and asks whether the authorities could afford it.

“When over 2/3rd of the Pilisaru funded compost plants in the country cannot be operated without odour and flies, I would not advocate sophisticated technology,” he says.

However, if the service provider is from the private sector and has the funds and capacity to sustain a hi-tech project, such an alternative could be explored.

Decision makers should study the waste disposal mechanisms that are being successfully operated in other South Asian countries – this is because the garbage is more or less similar in composition — and take a decision on a proper technology, he advises.

“Under these circumstances, my preference would be for composting the organic portion of the waste and landfilling the residual waste in an engineered, sanitary landfill. If the engineered, sanitary landfill is properly constructed, even if operations slip a little, the pollution can be largely contained,” says Dr. Pilapitiya.

Published on SundayTimes 04.10.2015 search of solution for Human Elephant Conflict

September 20, 2015
DWC concerns should be welfare of jumbos, says top elephant researcher – Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando 

With the new Government’s manifesto promising a solution to the human elephant conflict, the new Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera says he will treat it as a priority, calling for a report by Tuesday.

Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

Many blame Wildlife Officers for not providing a viable solution to the problem. However, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) alone cannot provide a solution, points out Sri Lanka’s foremost elephant researcher Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando.

The solution for the HEC can only be brought about by the main stake holders of this issue – the people affected by the conflict itself – becoming the main players in its mitigation.

Everyone expects the DWC to act, but it does not have the network, capacity, access to funding or the relationship with people, required to effectively manage a problem that has worsened in many parts of the country.

Instead the people affected, together with agencies responsible for the people’s welfare and governance and development should be the main players in finding a solution, says Dr. Fernando.

The main concern and responsibility of the DWC should be the welfare of the elephants, he asserts.

While over 200 elephants fall victim annually, pushing them to ‘endangered’ status, about 70 human lives are lost due to elephant attacks. However, as much as 80% of these deaths are preventable, emphasises Dr. Fernando, taking the Samagipura incident, where a provincial journalist was killed, as an example.

In each incident there are two parties involved – the human being and an elephant. As an elephant cannot be made to understand the problem or to look for a solution, it is the human who should be responsible.

Housing scheme in elephant territory - intensifying the conflict

A housing scheme in elephant territory – intensifying the conflict

Similarly in cases of crop raiding or destruction of houses, appropriate steps should be taken to prevent such occurrences. If crops are cultivated in an area where elephants roam, they will raid the crops unless preventive measures are taken.

Many people store paddy in their houses, resulting in the elephants breaking into their houses. The Government can assist people to construct protective fences or give priority to buying paddy from areas at risk.

Electric fences have been the traditional solution to the problem, but other alternatives have been used such as beehives, palmyrah fences and spiky lime to keep elephants away from human settlements and crops. However, these take up a lot of effort and resources or have limited success.

Hence Dr. Fernando thinks properly established electric fences are still the most effective way to keep elephants at a distance. However, most fences are erected demarcating protected areas such as National Parks managed by the DWC, while in many places the other side of the fence is Forest Department land.

Such inappropriate use of fences results in fences inside forests with elephants on both sides of the fence. Such fences are difficult to maintain, communities cannot and will not play a part in maintaining them and very soon they become non-functional.

Instead, human settlements and permanent cultivations should be protected by fences and people who are benefited by such fences need to take the responsibility for maintaining them.

Hambantota which experienced rapid development under the previous government is elephant country. With assistance of radio collars, Dr. Prithiviraj’s team in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation identified the area that is critical for elephants.

These findings were taken into consideration in the Strategic Environmental Assessment conducted under the auspices of the Urban Development Authority and the Central Environmental Authority.

The zoning plan developed under the Strategic Environmental Assessment identified the areas suitable for development, and demarcated the area that was critical for elephants as a Managed Elephant Range (MER) so humans and elephants can co-exist together in the Greater Hambantota area with little conflict. But this plan was not implemented as Dr.Fernando said that there are lots of unplanned developments disregarding the zoning plan and continued encroachment for cultivation and settlements in the MER area.

The elephant expert also repeated that translocation or elephant drives would not solve the HEC. Even establishing elephant corridors will have limited success, if implemented without obtaining actual data of elephant movement in an area.

The concept that elephants constantly migrate from one forest to another covering large areas is an outdated concept that belongs to the colonial era, whereas modern research has shown that elephants in Sri Lanka do not migrate long distances but have limited home ranges of 50-500 square km in extent, to which they show a high level of attachment.

Dr. Fernando and the team were the pioneers of observing elephant movements using satellite collars that proved Sri Lankan elephants are not migratory. However, within a home range there are places or routes that elephants use to cross from one area to another or to cross a main road etc. and these need to be established as ‘Elephant Corridors’.

Blocking of such ‘corridors’ by development or encroachment causes increase in HEC as elephants then have to cross in spite of the development or through alternative routes, which brings them into conflict with people. So Dr. Fernando suggests more research to understand elephant movement patterns before establishing these corridors.

Meanwhile Sri Lanka already formulated a National Policy for Elephant Management and Conservation in 2006 with consultation of experts in the field and the participation of all the relevant line agencies, led by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Many see this as comprehensive enough to provide sound suggestions with a scientific base to address the HEC and elephant conservation. However, this remains only a document, as it was not implemented.

So without reinventing the wheel, updating this National Policy, which is now a decade old and looking at addressing the issue on a scientific footing would be the thing to do, says the elephant expert.

Finding why the National Policy for Elephant Management was not implemented too should be a priority, as otherwise, new efforts too will end up in the ‘hamas pettiya’.

Published on 20.09.2015 on SundayTimes

Elephant on Mattala Road - a frequent encounter (c) Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

Elephant on Mattala Road – a frequent encounter (c) Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

Human Elephant Conflict – should all blame DWC..?

September 13, 2015

Last week, provincial journalist Priyantha Ratnayake was killed by a wild elephant while he was filming the beast that came to a village. Nearly 50 human deaths are reported annually as a result of intensified Human Elephant Conflict (HEC). Prime responsibility of taking care of the Elephants is with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). But can they solve the issue of HEC on their own..? Should all the blames goes to DWC..?? 

This is my article written on 2011 about the issue aftermath of a protest by villagers over someone got killed by a wild elephant. 

Villagers block junction demanding solution to Human-Elephant Conflict

Short-term elephant drives not the answer say conservationists adding that villagers must cooperate more with Wildlife Dept. – By Malaka Rodrigo
Residents of the area blocked Palagala junction last week, demanding a solution for their Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) issue. About 1,500 villagers gathered at this junction on July 20, protesting the death in the last two months of 7 villagers killed by elephants, according to media reports. Traffic from Kekirawa, Galewela and Mahawa was blocked, causing severe inconvenience to the public. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) had to assure the villagers that they would relocate the troublesome jumbos and for the protesting villagers to disperse.

Protesting villagers. Pic by Kanchana Kumara Ariyadasa

This was not the first time villagers blocked roads in protest. It is now becoming a common occurrence to bring a victim’s body to the road or, to the Wildlife Field Office, demanding a remedy to their life-threatening issue.

Apparently, the Wildlife officers’ immediate solution is relocation of the elephant. But elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando points out that the present form of mitigating the HEC is very much from the human perspective, and it only worsens the problem.

In the long term, it is detrimental to the very people it is meant to protect. He emphasises that people and politicians need to understand that translocation or elephant drives are not long term solutions.

Experts also point out that the DWC cannot be alone held responsible for the HEC. HEC is a very complex issue with multiple causes fuelling it, resulting in the annual loss of at least 200 elephants and 50 people.

Even though scientific evidence clearly indicates that translocations or elephant drives don’t work, the DWC opts for the easy way out, when political pressure and people pressure override scientific evidence.

Manori Gunawardena, another elephant conservationist also points out that elephant management decisions such as drives are politicized, and therefore, will not mitigate the conflict in the long term.
The DWC usually engages in HECs only after development plans have been drawn up. For example, the resettlement process in the North and East are under way, but elephant conservationists haven’t noticed any plan in place to minimise potential HECs.

Manori pointed out that the resettlement plan is based on land tenure, from as long ago as the early 80’s. But most of these ‘original places’ became jungles and now a rich wildlife habitat. People have no choice but to settle there, in dense forest, along with leopards, bears, elephants etc. Nowhere in the resettlement process do they address the elephant factor, complains Manori.

She points out that the DWC lacks the capacity to assist and implement conflict mitigation at this level with the development authorities, which will create another warfront of HEC in North. At a Stakeholder workshop on HEC, initiated by Born Free Foundation, it was pointed out that the protests were not regular and took place only if a next of kin was a victim.

It was pointed out that villagers were anything but cooperative of the DWC’s efforts at mitigation of HEC, preferring to sit it out on the sidelines, while expecting the DWC to go it alone. The villagers’ apathy towards cooperating with the DWC, even went to the extent of pilfering wires connected to the electrified fence, for its sale afterwards.

Sri Lanka has much scientific data to manage HEC, with the drafting of the National Policy for the Conservation and Management of wild elephants in Sri Lanka, several years ago. But this is yet to be implemented. Sri Lanka’s conservationists also had high hopes that the US$ 30 million World Bank (WB) loan for Ecosystem Conservation & Management Project would facilitate new conservation oriented programmes to alleviate HEC in the long term.

However, the Ministry of Finance informed the WB that this project did not address the development priorities of the government, and suggested modifications to the project design and the inclusion of additional activities which were not conservation oriented.

This resulted in the loan’s cancellation and with that went the efforts of the scientists. HEC needs a well-planned conservation approach, and if the Government and the policymakers are not willing to address the problem in conservation terms, these kind of protests are inevitable. The DWC alone will not be able to provide a solution.

Environmentalists urge to bring state agencies relating to the Environment under one ministry

September 3, 2015

the government is in the process of setting up portfolios for the new ministries, environmentalists yesterday urged that state agencies primarily relating to the Environment be brought together under one ministry. The Environmental Collective that convened a press conference suggested that the folowing ministries be brought under one portfolio . Those include : Department of Wildlife Conservation, Forest Department, Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department, Central Environment Authority, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Marine Environmental Protection Authority, Gem and Jewelry Authority and Wildlife Trust.

During the previous regime, many of the government agencies and departments related to the Environment had been split and assigned under different ministries. Even the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Department of Forest Conservation that should have been working  hand in hand were split, making co-ordination a problem. The DWC was at one time assigned to the Ministry of Economic Development, meanwhile, the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) is under the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development.

Even after the presidential election, the split continues where DWC was assigned to Ministry of Sports and Tourism while Environment ministry was bundled with Ministry of Mahaweli Development directly under the purview of President Maithripala Sirisena. Environmentalists are urging the government to bring all the agencies together.

envPublished on TimesOnline – web version of SundayTimes on 03.09.2015

Celebrating Biodiversity with කොස් කොත්තු & පොළොස් කට්ලට්

May 24, 2015

The world celebrates International Day for Biological Diversity each year on 22nd of May. In Sri Lanka atleast 3 events were held to mark this important day paying attention to the Earth’s Biological Diversity.

The main event was organized by the Ministry of Environment (Biodiversity secretariat) and Ministry of Agriculture commissioning a food outlet ‘Hela Bojun’ that promotes food made out of healthy ingredients closer to nature. The president of Sri Lanka, Mr.Maithripala Sirisena inaugurated the ‘Hela Bojun’ outlet. කොස් කොත්තු (Kos Kottu) – kottu made of Jack, පොළොස් කට්ලට් (Polos Cutlet), samabala rotti – balanced rotti are some of the interesting food items being served at ‘Hela Bojun’ which will be open for the public.

A lecture on ‘Biodiversity and Development’ and ‘Biodiversity and Foods’ too were delivered by prominent experts in the field. Minister of Agriculture and other senior officers of the department were among those present.

Later, the website of Sri Lanka UN REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. “REDD+” goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation, and includes the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

The Business and Biodiversity Platform with the assistance of Dilmah Conservation organized a lecture on the theme “Biodiversity Imperative” on the evening of the Biodiversity Day. The Young Zoologists Association (YZA) based at zoo also conducted 3 day awareness session on Biodiversity to mark the special day.

BioDiv Day - Aturaliye Rathana Thero BioDiv Day - from Dr.Siril's talk bioDiv Day - Kos Kottu BioDiv Day - Polos Cutlet 1. Launching of REDD website - LOW RES 2. Minister launching the REDD Web.- LOW RES 4. audience 5

More on the International Day on Biological Diversity, visit this link


Tour of Trees in Colombo

May 17, 2015

Today morning (17th.May) the National Trust Sri Lanka (NTSL) conducted a Tour of Trees in Colombo making the participants aware of the varied selection of large trees that are hardly noticed within the city environment.

Though urbanized, Colombo still has lots of large trees where some of them are over 100 years. Vihara Maha Devi Park (formerly Victoria Park) and its suburban environs are home for many such large trees and participants of this Tour of Trees got the chance to have a guided tour to study the trees in this area. The tour was conducted by Architect Ismeth Raheem who is also a naturalist. It had drizzled briefly, but the rain gods were tolerant on the participants today morning.

Here are some of the moments from the Tour of Trees..!!

DSCN8940 Tour of Trees - Ismath decscribing a Kalumediriya tree Tour of Trees - A majestic Nuga Tree - good Tour of Trees - Section of trees of Vihara Maha Devi Park 2 DSCN9015 Tour of Trees - Feeling a Nelli tree Tour of Trees - Ismath at final wrap up 2 Tour of Trees - Vihara Maha devi park


Lanka safe from major quakes but “home” plate is splitting

May 6, 2015

Geologists claim Sri Lanka has very little chance of experiencing a major earthquake but point out the importance of preparedness given the disaster in Nepal.

A bulldozer clears debris from collapsed houses following the earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal. REUTERS

An earthquake usually occurs when two blocks of the earth suddenly slip past one another, hit each other or break apart as a result of tension caused by prolonged energy build-up.

Geologists believe the Earth’s outer layer consists of seven or eight major plates (and many minor plates), known as tectonic plates.

These plates move a few centimeters annually, with pressures building at the edges until suddenly that energy bursts forth.

Nepal is located at the edge of where the Indo-Australian plate meets the Eurasian plate and many geologists had warned about the possibility of a major earthquake.

Sri Lanka is in the middle of Indo-Australian tectonic plate so the country’s vulnerability for a major earthquake is lower, says L.R.K. Perera a senior lecturer at the Department of Geology at the University of Peradeniya.

Smaller earthquakes can, however, occur anywhere and most tremors don’t even register on the seismic meters, he added.

There are signs that the Indo-Australian tectonic plate is splitting but this is occurring about 500km away from Sri Lanka’s southern coast and the country might not experience a major impact, says geologist Prof. C.B. Dissanayake.

Yet the possibility of minor to medium earthquakes is significant due to this new development, and Sri Lanka’s vulnerability from such a scenario comes from the definite threat of tremor-induced landslides, Professor Dissanayake added.

The highland terrain of Sri Lanka is highly unstable and landslides can be easily triggered even with a minor tremor, he said.

The head of the Landslide Research and Risk Management Division at the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) K.N. Bandara, said research is being carried out into soil liquefaction in different areas of the country. Liquefaction is the process of loose soil acting like a liquid during an earthquake making the buildings and structures sink into sand.

Previous research carried out by Moratuwa University’s Geo-Technical Team under the guidance of Dr. Nalin De Silva revealed the eastern region of the country has soil more vulnerable to liquefaction, making the area more vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes.

The soil in Colombo is not so that bad as the sand is mixed with other particles such as clay, Dr. de Silva said.

The Sunday TImes learned that another research team led by Moratuwa University is preparing building codes to be considered in building earthquake-resilient buildings.

The level of damage by an earthquake depends on where it happen as even a moderate earthquake can make lot of damage in a populated area where a very powerful earthquake in unpopulated area would not cause much harm.

Protect rivers from Sand Mining – environmentalists welcome president’s moves

February 1, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena, who himself took on the Environment portfolio, will halt sand mining in Polonnaruwa from today (February 1).

He has also ordered his officials to evaluate sustainable river-sand mining and look into alternatives.

There has long been small-scale sand mining in the flood plains around Manampitiya Bridge in Polonnaruwa but operations rose sharply some years ago as demand for river sand increased and organised goons entered the market.

Sand from the banks of the Mahaweli River also began to be removed illegally on a large scale.

The flow of the Mahaweli causes sand to accumulate around Manampitiya Bridge in Polonnaruwa, creating a flood plain around it. These special features have created several villus, creating a flood plain harbouring wildlife.

Given its high biodiversity and strategic importance the area has been declared one of the four national parks set up under the Mahaweli Scheme.
The removal of sand, however, poses a huge threat to the national park.

The flood plain is a rich feeding ground for elephants and important as a grazing ground in the dry season. It serves as an elephant corridor for jumbos moving between Wasgamuwa and Somawathiya national parks.

If the villus go dry, the elephants that feed on the nutrient-rich grass could start raiding the nearby villages, increasing human-elephant conflict, say wildlife officers, urging an end to sand mining in the flood plains.

River-sand mining has been regulated by the Mines and Minerals Act since 1992 but illegally mined sand continues to come onto the market.
With the intention of providing a monitoring mechanism on sand transportation the law was amended in 2004, making it mandatory to obtain a permit to transport sand but it is alleged there are many loopholes in the law that allow gangs to continue their rackets, bribing law enforcement officers in the process. During the previous regime there was an attempt to abolish the existing rules.

Sand mining in Polonnaruwa is being carried out by a well-controlled mafia and no unknown intruder was even allowed to visit the area by the thugs who operate the racket.

Given these factors, environmentalists welcome the new Environment Minister as it would be easier to implement conservation decisions as the Minister is also the head of the country. Mr. Sirisena held the portfolio from 2005 to 2007 under the previous regime.

Wildlife money makers only?

Environmental groups – reported in this paper last week as urging that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) should be placed within the Ministry of Environment – are frustrated that it has instead been assigned to the Ministry of Tourism.
“The main function of the Wildlife Department is to conserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. But assigning the DWC to the tourism portfolio suggests that wildlife are considered only as money-makers,” one concerned environmentalist said. 

Environmentalists hope Sirisena will honour pledge

January 20, 2015

The lack of a minister for the environment in the new government has dismayed environmentalists even though they largely view the change in regime as being beneficial.

Just days before his election, President Maithripala Sirisena signed a public pact presented by the Environment Organisations’ Collective (EOC), and the grouping hopes the new leader will honour the terms of the pact, which includes a pledge to stop abuse of natural resources and ensure their protection.

The omission of an environmental minister at this week’s ministerial swearing-in ceremony puzzled many and raised doubts as to whether the new government is serious about tackling environmental issues.

Sources close to the government say Athuraliye Rathana Thero’s name emerged as a suitable candidate for the postEnvironment Pledge signed by My3 but the Thera’s decision not to accept any ministerial posts had prevented the naming of another person for the portfolio in the time available.

The sources have assured the conservation lobby that a strong person would eventually be named environmental minister.

The environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunawardene, who was continuously critical on issues during the Rajapaksa government, said the most important thing was to establish the rule of law, and when this broader issue was resolved action on environmental matters would start falling into place.

He said illegal work that disrupts the environment should be investigated and those responsible should be held accountable. Many projects went ahead without proper Environmental Impact Assessments such as the development of a Port City in Colombo, and these projects should be reassessed by capable people, he said.

Hemantha Withanage of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) stressed the need to bring together departments and institutes relating to environmental matters.

During the previous government, even the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Department of Forest Conservation that had to be working hand in hand were split into two ministries, making co-ordination a problem. The DWC) was at one time assigned to the Ministry of Economic Development and for while operated without a director-general. Meanwhile, the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) is under the Ministry of Defence.

Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environmental Conservation Trust pointed out that the previous government oversaw unnecessary land-grabbing amounting to nearly 200,000 acres. The baby elephant abduction racket has been another injustice that went on unabated. There were incidents where there was enough evidence to frame charges against culprits but no action had been taken.

Mr. Chamikara issued a press release recently saying even the Auditor-General’s report stated that at least 14 elephants had been captured from the wild. This week, the Department of Wildlife Conservation team raided a property and confiscated a baby elephant kept by a powerful figure in the previous government, Sajin Vass Gunawardene, but he produced a permit to get the elephant released.

With the complex political situation, some of those who stand accused by environmentalists of offences are now supporting the government, so vigilance was needed to make sure investigations were fair and unbiased.

Mr.Maithreepala Sirisena signing the epledge

Mr.Maithreepala Sirisena signing the pledge

Related story….

Wildlife Dept. probing cases of animals held sans permits 

The Wildlife Department has opened investigations into cases where animals have been held illegally without permits from the Department.
Following a complaint received by the Department, officials visited a location in Ambalangoda on Monday to inspect documents relating to an elephant allegedly held by MP Sajin Vass Gunawardena.

A Wildlife Department officer who visited the place on Monday said the animal was inspected but the documents were not available for perusal.Though the animal should have been taken into custody after informing a magistrate or the animal placed under guard of at least two Wildlife officials and a veterinary surgeon, those involved in the inspection had left and returned the following day.

Hikkaduwa Park warden Asanka Gunawardena said he had the authority to take the elephant into custody but it was too late to take the animal to courts, as the twelve officials present along with the veterinarian could not tackle the elephant without tranquilising it.

On the following day a set of documents was shown to the Wildlife officials. The elephant had been purchased from a monk for a million rupees.
An official said at first glance the permit appeared to be valid, but there were certain discrepancies in the documents produced and the Wildlife Department would have to take a decision. The discrepancies related to the previous records of the animal, including details of the mother-elephant and the pedigree of the animal.

Meanwhile Wildlife Department sources told the Sunday Times learns that a deer from President’s House has been relocated to the Horagolla National Park. The young fawn about a year old was found when Wildlife officers inspected the premises. The sources also said that the fawn was very healthy and tame but was hesitating to eat grass. Meanwhile the Department had received complaints that there were two elephant calves at Temple Trees. Wildlife Director General H.D.Ratnayake was not available for comment.

Previous incomplete audit queries about animals held without valid permits are to be probed. 

The Auditor General in a recent report said there were too many contradictions in the explanations given by the Wildlife Department officials to his queries.

There is controversy over the documents of some elephant owners including that of Ajith Gallage who was one of the owners checked by the Audit Department. The Auditor General had sent a letter to the Wildlife Director General pointing out that the background of the photos of the elephant calf taken in 2008 at the previous owner’s place and at the new owner’s place in 2012 were similar. It said that the description of the animal such as the height too had not changed.

The Sunday Times learns that there was another audit inquiry about the approval of four elephant licences by forging signatures of Wildlife Director General Dr. Chandrawansa Pathiraja. Mr. Pathiraja told the Sunday Times that he found his signature was used in an ownership document. He said the document was not signed by him and had sent a letter in this connection to former Wildlife Minister Vijith Wijayamuni Zoysa. 

How researchers co-opted a remote village to save rare fish

July 27, 2014

An attempt by villagers and wildlife enthusiasts to save a rare fish from extinction is a rare ray of hope amid the gloom of the gradual loss of biodiversity.

Last week, ignoring blood-sucking leeches, dozens of volunteers got their hands dirty and pants wet on the muddy banks of the Galapitamada stream, known to be the only habitat of the critically endangered Bandula Barb. They cleaned the stream and planted ketala aquatic plants on the edges of the stream to enhance the breeding habitat and give much-needed protection for this small fish.

Bandula Barb (Pethia Bandula) is one of the rarest and most endangered fish in Sri Lanka as it can only be found in a 2.5km stretch of a small stream in the Kegalle district. Their present count is just over 1000, so the threat to their existence is enormous.The habitat rehabilitation work held last Sunday was organised by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with the assistance of the Toyota Environmental Fund. This two-year project began in 2013 in accordance with the Bandula Barb Recovery Plan drafted by the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Secretariat of Ministry of Environment in 2007, looking into empowering the villagers to conserve the fish as the area is totally outside any protected areas. Habitat enrichment and the introduction of the fish into other habitats are part of this Conservation Plan, being implemented under the guidance of Professor Devaka Weerakoon.

The data on the drastic decline of Bandula Barb emerged through research carried out by Hasula Wickremasinghe in 2003 as part of her MSc research. In 1991, the fish “catch rate” – a technique used to measure fish population – as 15-100 but in 2003 it sank to 0–5. This is an 80 per cent decline of the population. Ms. Wickremasinghe and Sampath Goonathilake, prepared the Bandula Barb recovery plan under the guidance of Prof. Weerakoon.

In May 2013, a total of 598 Bandula Barbs were found. This number increased to 1073 in December that year, raising hopes that the species can recover but more work has to be done to get the population stable, according to experts.

The volunteers of the Aquatic group of the Young Zoologists Association (YZA) were the leading force behind last Sunday’s activities. The team planted native trees along the stream bank together with the participation of the villagers. As the climate in the area is expected to be drier with repercussions of climate change, it is hoped these trees could provide a lifeline to the stream, keeping it from going dry.

This stream in which the Bandula Barb lives flows between paddy fields and rubber estates so the agro-chemicals used in the paddy fields have become the main threat to their survival.

“So the IUCN tried to convince the villagers of the importance of turning to organic farming. We linked them with an organization supporting organic paddy cultivation and we are happy that the paddy fields adjacent to the stream areas turned into organic cultivation areas where agro-chemicals are not used,” said Naalin Perera, IUCN Programme officer, Biodiversity, pointing to the lush paddy fields.

The IUCN also organized a workshop on freshwater fish for the village youths. This included a field visit to Kithulgala to observe the freshwater fish and methods of observation as well as techniques of counting.

The village youths became involved in the counting of number of Bandula Pethia in the stream in a survey conducted in December last year. A total of 1073 fish were recorded, an encouraging result for the conservation team. Mr. Perera also commended the enthusiasm shown by the village youth on learning more details about the freshwater fish.

The IUCN team has also reintroduced a population of Bandula Pethia to an isolated area close to Galapitamada. A wall was built under the project to prevent Bandula Barb being washed into the nearby paddy fields during heavy rains. The IUCN hopes the the effort to save the Bandula Barb from extinction will be successful. 

Bandula Barb

The Bandula Barb was discovered in 1991 by Rohan Pethiyagoda. Communicating through email, the expert on fish reveals that he first saw the Bandula Barb in an aquarium at the home of Rodney Jonklaas around 1987. Mr. Jonklass named the fish Bandula Barb because these specimen were given by Ranjith Bandula, an ornamental fish collector.

Mr. Jonklass thought it was a subspecies of the fish we now know as Pethia reval, or that it was a hybrid between Pethia reval and Pethia nigrofasciatus, the so-called Bulath Hapaya. Both those species too, occur in the same Kelani River basin as the Bandula Barb.
However, Mr.Pethiyagoda realised that that this could be a new species and his research with Maurice Kottelat ended in recognising the fish as a valid new species to science. This was later confirmed in 2012 through DNA analysis done by Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura at Peradeniya University.

Mr. Pethiyagoda said no one knew the reasons for this fish having such a narrow ecological niche. “It is certainly unusual given that there is apparently nothing to prevent the species from dispersing further down the stream,” he added.

‘At first, we were suspicious’

“We are proud to have Bandula Pethia in the village as the fish made our quiet hamlet a famous place. Lots of people and collectors visited our village after getting to know the importance of this fish, but we haven’t allowed anyone to steal the fish,” said Ranjith Amarasiri, a villager who works with the researchers. “Even our children are protective of the fish and don’t allow outsiders to take them out,” Ranjith said, sharing a story of how a village child protested when outsiders tried to take away a specimen of Bandula Barb.

It is the vigilance of the villagers that helped the Bandula Barb to survive through these difficult times where exploitation, invasive species and pollution threatens Sri Lanka’s freshwater fauna.

“When I first visited Gapapitamada in 1987/88 the local people had no idea this fish existed or that it was special,” said Rohan Pethiyagoda who described the fish scientifically.

“They were initially strangers and didn’t say anything to us,” said Sarath Weerakkody, a villager who initially helped to build the link between villagers and conservationists. “When they combed the stream and started to catch fish we grew suspicious. Some youth who became angry and even threw stones at these researchers. But they came and explained to us about the fish and we also began to realise the importance of the fish,” said Mr. Weerakkody.

The effort of the villagers of Elpitiya, Hapudoda and Rabbidigala to prevent the extinction of the Bandula Barb could be a unique conservation model to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.

WATER – A forgotten lifeline of Avurudu

April 14, 2014

Today, is the traditional New Year of Sri Lanka (celebrated mainly by Sinhalese and Tamils – hence’ Aluth Avurudu’ as it called in Sinhala). Except for the song of the Koel – all the other Nature’s symbols of Avurudu including the crimson blossoms of Erabadu, ripen Kadju Puhulam, Olinda and Panchi games are now getting a rare sight. Likewise traditions related to water has become another set of customs that has been faded away.


Drawing water from a dug well (c)

I still recall my childhood where Avurudu was different than today. It was changing times in early ‘80s, yet many of the Avurudu customs were practiced in my village. With few days to Avuduru our houses have been washed those days as a custom. Mopping with wet broom has become the way to clean your floor nowadays, but the whole house has to be washed by water before the Avurudu on a self-imposed Avurudu ritual of our village community. The floors were either not tiled those days, so washing the whole floor infact meant ultimate cleaning to welcome the prince of Avurudu.

The kitchen which was already been heavily used in the making of Avurudu kevili and also a centric piece of upcoming events was the place lots of cleaning required. There were no fancy chemicals available for cleaning that time, so Coconut husks are been used to wipe out the patches and layers of dirt accumulated in the floor over last year. Though it could have been a difficult task for my parents, this ritual of washing the house provided us play time bringing first cycle of avurudu fun. We didn’t have pipe-bourn water on those good old days, so had to use the hand dug water well for all the household water needs. Usually our task was to fetch water from the well and bring them to the house.

The well was located about 30 feet away from the house, so we get soaked when the task is still halfway. Sometimes we make nasty throw splashing water all over at the time we had to take a shout from parents. But parents who shout on other days for playing with water are tolerant on getting ourselves soaked, so we enjoyed this watery custom very much.

‘Ganu-denu’ with water

Washing of the house was only the first direct Avurudu ritual been practiced with water, but there were more to come. Soon after finishing the eating at auspicious time brings the ‘ganu-denu’ tradition of doing the first transaction of the New Year. I can still recall I went to our dug well with my father, throw a coin to the well and fetched a bucket of water to mark the ‘ganu-denu’. Few jasmine flowers too has been thrown into water to mark the occasion. Though mother earth would not expect any payments for the service it rendered, this has symbolized our gratitude to the well which is the most important lifeline that helps to quench all our water needs through. So getting the well too into the Avurudu rituals was a really meaningful tradition.

But then, we had moved to Colombo. There were no water well, but we had the luxury of the pipe-bourn water in the city. Last year when made my Avurudu visits to meet relations, I’ve visited our well that has been a center of Avurudu activities long ago. My heart sank seeing the neglected state of water well which was once a lifeline. There were wild shrubs surround it. The petals of flowers and dried leaves seeped through the mesh that has been put on top covering it. There were dengue inspectors looking for mosquito breeding grounds, so my neighbor has put some ‘guppy’ fish who had multiplied in numbers.

Building a hand dug well

Building a hand dug well (c)

Our water well just reminded me a retarded, unshaven old man that has been completely neglected. I remember how much we care about the well those days. We used to completely empty the water well during dry season when water is limited and cleaned it properly. The sand in the top layer of the floor bed that contains particles accumulated over the year too has been removed. A freshly prepared charcoal and few jasmine flowers were put down into the well as we believe those had water purification qualities. After this cleaning, the well looked like very clean like giving its annual shave and haircut.

I had second thoughts last year that we should do this cleanup again. But neighbor stopped us. “Water in our wells is polluted. So these are now not in drinking conditions” he said. It was found some chemicals from a nearby paint factory have been carelessly released to the bare soil contaminating the ground water. Water wells dug by hand draws water from the first layers of ground water which could be the most affected with pollution. So this should be the case in many areas in Sri Lanka too.

Many of us had made the water wells into garbage pits, when pipe-Bourne water reached our houses. It was sort of a marking of the development for and filling-up the well symbolized some sort of a step up of the social hierarchy for many. But there is also some traditional knowledge linked with water wells. Our grandparents knew how to find the best location on their lands to dig the water well. They came to this conclusion by looking at specific plants grown in different areas in the garden. They knew trees like Kumbuk makes the water more purify and keeps water cool. They also knew that charcoal has water purification qualities. And they also had the techniques to dig the ground and make its walls safe. So it is not only the water well that disappears with our change of livelihood. It is whole traditional knowledge too will be lost from next generation.

Avurudu traditions moving away from our traditions with water always make a void. So perhaps, Avurudu season could be the best time to pass this knowledge to the next generation – perhaps that could be the least minimum we could do to preserve these changing traditions..!!

(The New Year dawned few hours ago and this is my ‘First Post’ for the New Year)

Wallapatta agarwood the new illegal million-rupee racket

February 16, 2014

An attempt to smuggle out wallapatta agarwood worth Rs. 12 million was prevented by vigilant Customs officers last week.

The offender had 16.8kg of the substance concealed in his baggage, Samantha Gunasekara of the Customs Biodiversity Protection Unit said. It had been cleaned and considered to be grade 1 quality. The offender was at Bandaranaike International Airport to board a Bangalore-bound flight. Preliminary investigations revealed that he was only a carrier, and investigations are underway to find the source of the agarwood.

Agarwood is a product of the wild tree, wallapatta, and it is illegal to own or take out a forest product without permission but because of its high value criminals collect and export it illegally. Wallapatta is scientifically classified as a sub-canopy tree growing in wet zone forests as well as in home gardens in these areas. The tree creates a resin called agarwood in its core as a reaction to a fungal infection, and this is used as a base for perfumes.

Perfumes produced using agarwood are expensive because of the resin’s scarcity, so a wave of illegal felling of wallapatta has been reported, several dozen cases from different parts of Sri Lanka in the first weeks of 2014.

In the latest case, Morontuduwa police arrested three men for cutting down a wallapatta tree and transporting in a van. Because the agarwood has to be exported illegally, stringent measures have to be put in place to nab the offenders who mastermind this racket.

Only some wallapatta trees affected by fungi manufacture the agarwood resin. Since there is no way to detect whether a wallapatta tree is secreting agarwood, trees are being felled indiscriminately for quick profits. Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke, who has studied the growth of wallapatta, warns that extensive removal of large mature trees could affect the survival of wild wallapatta trees, already categorised as “vulnerable” to extinction on the National RedList.

Prof. Gunatilleke points out that investigation of the tree’s reproductive ecology and low-cost propagation methods of wallapatta were needed to restore the growth of the tree in the forest and to increase domestic growth to reduce pressure on this rapidly dwindling natural resource. The Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) said regulations to protect wallapatta have been drafted. He said the cultivation of wallapatta would be encouraged under stringent monitoring conditions.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.02.2014 

Care for a bear? Villagers pluck terrified animal from tall tree

December 13, 2013

An epic rescue mission this week to save a sloth bear screaming in pain from a poacher’s wire trap stands in glad contrast to news of threatened species – such as the recent case of a black leopard – being killed by poachers. The sloth bear was first spotted by a villager in his chena in the Aliwala area of Sithulpawwa in Yala. The animal, possibly disoriented by pain from the wire snarled around his body is thought to have climbed all the way up a palu tree that is nearly 30 feet tall.

And down came the bear. Pic by Janath de Silva

The bear could not climb down and was screaming, so the villagers informed Wildlife Officers who rushed to the scene.
The problem was that the panicked bear showed no sign of getting down from the tall tree. The area veterinary surgeon Dr. W.A. Dharmakeerthi was called in but it was judged too risky to shoot the bear with a tranquilliser dart as it could have fallen to its death.

Ignoring the risk of being mauled, two villagers volunteered to bring the bear down from the tree if it was tranquillised, so Dr. Dharmakeerthi decided to have a try. It was not an easy task to target a bear up a tall tree but Dr. Dharmakeerthi, a veteran wildlife veterinarian, took aim and fired the tranquilliser drugs.

In a few minutes the bear had stopped moving, and the two men who had volunteered to bring it down quickly climbed the tree to bring down the animal before it could fall. There was a risk that the bear had not been completely sedated but with the noble aim of saving the life of a bear that had fallen victim to human cruelty the two men kept on with their mission.

After making sure the bear was completely unconscious they tied a rope around it and then carefully descended with the now completely unconscious creature. There was a general sigh of relief when the bear was brought to earth. The vet and wildlife officers removed the wire trap entangled around its belly and treated its wounds. The bear was a well-grown animal aged around 10 years and weighed about 50kg.

The sloth bear has been released to a safer patch of forest. Dr. Dharmakeerthi said it was the first time he had taken part in a “bear rescue”. He said many animals, including a number of leopards, had fallen victim to wire traps set up mainly to kill animals such as wild boar.

published on SundayTimes on 01.12.2013 

Young Zoologists bring out the beauty of the wild

November 6, 2013

The annual wildlife art exhibition together with the wildlife photographic exhibition by the Young Zoologists Association (YZA) will be held this week.

IMG_8506_1 (1)

‘Kin Wild’ -the exhibition of wildlife paintings and sketches by the Young Zoologists is probably the longest running wildlife art exhibition in the country. The Young Zoologists Association established the ‘Wildlife Arts’ group in 1989 to assist talented wildlife artists who study wildlife through the society’s other programmes. YZA held their first exhibition in 1990 and since then it has been an annual event.

YZA members study different wildlife groups through the regular education programmes held each Sunday afternoon at the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela. The YZA has five study groups focusing on birds, mammals, reptiles, aquatic life and flora. Members who are mainly students get the chance to study the animals and their behaviour. Wildlife photography and art classes are conducted as special study groups held on Sunday mornings.

The Young Zoologists’ Association was established in 1972 by former Zoo Director and renowned conservationist Lyn de Alwis, who saw the need to promote an interest in the study and conservation of nature among young people.

Over 100 of the wildlife paintings/sketches and wildlife photographs will be on display at the exhibition at the J.D.A. Perera Gallery of the Faculty of Visual Arts at 46, Horton Place, Colombo 7 on November 8,9 and 10 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

some of the wildife arts and photographs that will be on display…

Sambur at Horton Plains

An owlet

Drawing - Yellow-eared Bulbul



Published on 03.11.2013 on SundayTimes

Down to earth in soil fertility with bio-fertilisers

October 7, 2013
Imported destructive agrochemicals make way for home grown solutions that are eco friendly and harmless – by Malaka Rodrigo 

The harmful impact of misuse and overuse of agrochemicals have been highlighted in articles published in the Sunday Times in the past few weeks. As an alternative, use of bio-fertilisers which is a method of directly applying living microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to fertilise the soil is becoming popular among farmers, even though these too have to be used with care, point out experts.

Research activites pertaining to vermiwash being carried out at the IFS, Kandy

“Bio-fertilisers are a good nature-friendly way of enriching soil with nutrients by establishing natural nutrient cycles. However, as many foreign bio-fertiliser products are being introduced to farmers, without being tested, there is a risk of introducing harmful organisms too into the country,” warns Prof. Gamini Seneviratne of the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS), Kandy. “These harmful micro-organisms can be invasive, spreading fast and causing enough damage,” he added.

Numerous species of soil bacteria which grow on or around roots, stimulate plant growth. Some of these microorganisms such as Rhizobium bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil and Pseudomonas Bacteria makes Phosphorus soluble, so plants can easily absorb them. Strains of these beneficial soil micro-organisms cultured in laboratories, come into the market as a bottled liquid. These bio-fertilisers can be mixed with compost and used in organic farming or as a supplement for chemical fertilisers. This can reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by at least by 25%.

In Sri Lanka, already there are companies producing bio-fertilisers. However, companies that import bio-fertilisers need to be closely supervised, as they cannot guarantee that imported bio-fertilisers are harmless. Hence, there should be a mechanism to monitor the quality and safety of the imported bio-fertilisers, emphasizes Prof. Seneviratne.

The IFS researcher stresses that the country can benefit from bio-fertilisers, because they are low cost, renewable sources of plant nutrients which can reduce use of chemical fertilisers. Prof. Seneviratne also revealed that an IFS project conducted in collaboration with the Tea Research Institute (TRI) is on the verge of introducing a new, patented formula of bio-fertiliser known as “Biofilmed bio-fertilisers” (BFBF), which has been rigorously tested for more than eight years.

Trials with tea revealed that the new fertiliser can actually reduce use of chemical fertiliser by 50%. It is to be introduced for commercial development by the end of the year. Developing BFBFs for other crops is under way. There are bio-pesticides too, which use similar techniques, but Dr Anura Wijesekara of the Pesticide Registrar’s office confirmed that Sri Lanka does not import bio-pesticides.

‘Vermiwash’ is a solution that contains extracts of earthworm enriched soil. The ‘Green Revolution’ initiated in the 1960s had promoted agrochemicals usage which Sri Lanka embraced. But once convinced of the ill-effects of agrochemicals, agro experts are returning to nature’s way. Earthworms to return fertiliser to the soil

At school we are taught that earthworms are a part of soil biodiversity that help enrich soil fertility. But, to promote the green revolution, we continue to use agrochemicals which kill these friendly creatures. Realising the important services earthworms provide to the soil, agricultural experts have experimented in getting the services rendered by these earthworms, into a specific fertiliser.

“Vermiwash’ is a liquid extract from soil worked on by earthworms. This contains friendly microbes and enzymes that stimulate plant growth,” Dr Gamini Hitinayake of Peradeniya University said.

A microbiological study of vermiwash has revealed that it contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria too. It is therefore an effective way of getting the nutrients back into the soil.

It contains enzymes- secretions of earthworms, which would stimulate the growth and yield of crops, and even develop resistance in crops.

Pointing out that vermiwash was not difficult to make and could be used for home gardens, Dr. Hitinayake gave the following steps:

  • Make small holes at the bottom of a barrel or large container mounted on a little platform.
  • Introduce soil containing earthworms into the container.
  • Introduce drips of water from the top onto the earthworm-rich soil, while collecting the runoff water from the bottom.
  • Mix this with water and apply to the crops.

Published on SundayTimes on 29.09.2013

Severe water shortage looms in Jaffna

September 27, 2013
Climate change, over-extraction of groundwater due to resettlement and with no rivers flowing through the peninsula, its aquifers are fast depleting 

The first elections in Jaffna since the war ended was held yesterday with many political promises. However, experts point out a water shortage silently looming in Jaffna, that will affect the people beyond these political promises.  The fact that Jaffna will face a severe water shortage in the future, if water extraction is not managed, has been revealed by a study done by Jaffna University’s Department of Agricultural Engineering. No river flows across the Jaffna peninsula.

Hence, the groundwater in the limestone aquifer is the main source of water for the area. Aquifers are underground layers of rock that are saturated with water that can be brought to the surface through natural springs or by pumping. The extracted water must be replaced by new water to replenish or recharge the aquifer. But in Jaffna, this recharge rate is 0.57 million cubic metres (MCM) of water, while the extraction rate is 0.66 MCM, according to research done by M. Thushyanthy and C.S. De Silva. So, Jaffna’s limestone aquifer will become depleted over the years, these water experts fear.

Rapid development of agriculture, economy and increase of population due to resettlement, creates greater withdrawal of water. Especially, water extraction for agricultural purposes will impact Jaffna’s water resources, according to this study.
However, this situation is not only restricted to Jaffna. Sri Lanka’s aquifers located in other areas will also face similar issues, says Water Resources Board (WRB) Director General R.S. Wijesekare.

He fears the changing rainfall patterns due to Climate Change will impact Sri Lanka’s groundwater aquifers. Not only the drought, but intense rain during a short period of time, will also disturb groundwater recharging cycles, as it will not allow rain water to leach down, but runoff quickly into rivers. The presence of buildings prevents rainwater from leaching, hence leaching in urban areas is severely reduced, which slows down groundwater recharge, while groundwater extraction for commercial purposes is increasing. Hence, a solution needs to be found for the future, point out water experts.

At least for the Jaffna aquifer, the Jaffna University researchers recommend the establishment of an institution for a groundwater regulatory framework, to optimise its usage by controlling its overuse.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.09.2013