Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Land grabbers eye unprotected forests around Sinharaja

November 30, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 23.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161023/news/land-grabbers-eye-unprotected-forests-around-sinharaja-213439.html

Protect these LRC forests immediately – environmental organisations urge president

School children learn importance of protecting environment at BLUE – GREEN event

Environment organisations fear  there is an ongoing attempt to grab forest lands in the vicinity of the Sinharaja forest by individuals and groups.. The scheme came to light when a group commenced surveying around 400 acres of the Delgoda Forest located near the Sinharaja Forest last week. The group claimed they possessed  deeds to the land.

The Sunday Times learned  the Forest Department’s Range Forest Office in Kalawana was able  to stop the activity as no proper documentation regarding land ownership was provided..

Sriyantha Perera of the ‘Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka’ said many fraudulent attempts are being made to grab forest land. In one instance an individual claiming rights to the forest land based on ‘Nindagam Oppu’ claimed to have been issued during the British colonial era in 1940.

According to this old ‘nindagam’ document  the individual claimed he owned an extent of 800 ‘vee kuraniya’ – an old unit of measure used to quantify amount of harvest. This roughly equivalent to 2000 acres according to Rainforest Protectors.

The reality however is that no individual can legally own over 50 acres of land.

Another ruse of the land grabbers is to peruse documents of the Land Registry in an effort to identify land  owners who may have died and those who have left the country, create fake documents and claim ownership. Perera added that with the advent of nature-based tourism, land value in the area had sky-rocketed and this was another reason behind the rush to grab land illicitly.

The Kalawana Divisional Secretary refused to comment on the issue when the Sunday Times contacted her. The Conservator General of Forest, Anura Sathurusinghe said that he also got to know about the attempts to grab forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja and the matter is under investigation.

Meanwhile, the ‘Rainforest Protectors’ has called on government to take over all forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja because the high value of its endemic biodiversity. They added these patches of forest also act as corridors linking the larger rainforest complex, and if destroyed, the already fragmented fragile ecosystem would be adversely affected.

The environmentalists said they recognised difficulties faced regarding forest lands claimed by private individuals. However they pointed out that forest lands belonging to the Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) are forests which can be immediately brought under the protected area network as the  LRC had agreed to transfer the lands to the Forest Department several years ago.

Unfortunately boundary demarcation disputes have slowed the process of transferring the said lands for protecting under the control of the Forest Department.

Forest Conservator General Mr. Sathurusinghe said these LRC lands were now being surveyed, but said that Forest Department has to wait until the survey Department finalised its demarcation.

Environmentalists point out that as there were attempts to grab forest lands in these areas with blessings of the local politicians, it was very important to expedite the process of protecting LRC forest lands.

“There have been instances where lands are grabbed overnight. Why can’t work to protect these forest  lands be expedited? especially when the Environment Minister is the President of the country who enjoys executive powers environmentalists ask.

Meanwhile the month of October is earmarked as ‘Tree Planting Month’ with the campaign spearheaded by the President Maithripala Sirisena himself. As Environment Minister, the President also aims to increase Sri Lanka’s forest cover up to 32 percent from the current 29 percent.

Environmentalists are thus  urging the President to expedite the process of bringing these LRC lands under the protected area network to give them the much needed legal protection necessary to ensure their safety.

Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green EraSpeaking at the opening ceremony of the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” policy initiative, held at the BMICH,  President Sirisena emphasised that should any individual or institution take action to upset the balance of the environment,  government would not hesitate to enforce the laws against the wrongdoers.

While welcoming these sentiments, environmentalists said action rather than words were necessary. They pointed out that approval had been given  for the implementation of environmentally harmful projects such as mini hydro power plants.

Activists who have a joint stall in the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” exhibition, are using the opportunity educate people on how sensitive environments are being destroyed for a negligible amounst of power generated by mini hydro power projects.

The ‘Rainforest Protectors’ also handed over a letter President Sirisena emphasizing need to take timely action to ensure Ministry of Environment, Central Environmental Authority and Sustainable Energy Authority cease issuing permits for future mini hydro projects and urgently appoint a team to investigate issues connected  to existing mini-hydro projects.

The organisation accused unnamed government politicians of attempting to get permission to restart currently halted mini hydro projects which allegedly harm the environment.

Ecological survival a shared responsibility

October 10, 2016

World Bank binds communities into visionary project – published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016

Sri Lanka and the World Bank have signed a $US45 million loan to help protect the country’s natural habitat and resources from degradation and over-exploitation. The Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) aims to address key issues in conservation while assisting to improve the lives and livelihoods of neighbouring communities.

ESCAMP was initiated in 2009 when the former Rajapaksa government asked the World Bank for a $US30 million loan. The bank, with assistance of number of experts, come up with a proposal including a science-based action plan to address number of conservation issues including the Human Elephant Conflict (HEC) in selected areas.

Conservationists had high hopes for ESCAMP as a landmark project but in the latter stages of negotiation the Ministry of Finance requested fundamental changes and the World Bank decided to drop the project in 2011, fearing the changes would harm its objectives.

The Sirisena government showed interest in reopening the project and made a formal request. After updating the proposal both the WorldBank and Cabinet signed approval of the project on September 5. Most of the main components remain intact and this time the amount being given is $US45 million.

“The project will improve responsible planning and management of protected areas and other biologically and ecologically important locations throughout Sri Lanka,” said World Bank Senior Environment Specialist and Project Task Team Leader Darshani De Silva.

Importantly, it will create partnerships of environmental guardianship with local communities, she said. “It will help to create sustained linkages with communities living adjacent to protected areas to ensure participation in protection of critical ecosystems and benefit sharing, promote compatible developments within and around sensitive ecosystems, raise quality of visitor services and revenue potential of forest and wildlife resources, while developing the capacity of Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation to deliver on their institutional mandates.”

There are four main components. One is a Pilot Landscape Planning and Management for Conservation scheme in two particular areas in the dry zone and biodiversity-rich wet zone. The second component, Sustainable Use of Natural Resources and Human-Elephant Co-Existence, includes financing the scaling-up of successful human-elephant coexistence pilot projects along with identifying economic incentives for affected communities.

The third component, Protected Area Management and Institutional Capacity, has the biggest funding allocation, $US 24.2 million. It aims at supporting the Protected Area (PA) network, support of nature-based tourism development and strengthening of the institutional capacity and investment capability for conservation and management. Project management is funded as the fourth component.

Conservationists view ESCAMP positively as it clearly looks at long-term solution for many issues including human-elephant conflict. The proposal clearly specifies that project funds should not be used for failed solutions such as elephant drives or the capture and domestication of problem elephants.

The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment will lead the implementation of the project in partnership with the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife. It is expected that ESCAMP will conclude in 2021.

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

A wild elephant attempting to cross the iron barrier along a main motorway in Hambantota (c) Rahul Samantha

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

September 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand up for Conservation: Pilapitiya tells civil society

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

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

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

The packed house for WNPS monthly lecture (c) DailyFT

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

May 19, 2016

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

Scientists and economists debate major step of shifting shipping route

A Blue Whale hit by a ship in Lankan waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hogdeer breeding program bring success

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

Mother hog deer takes care of its new born baby

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

Born free: A hogdeer in Honduwa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International wildcat experts to meet in Sri Lanka

November 15, 2015

Published on SundayTimes on 01.11.2015 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151101/news/international-wildcat-experts-to-meet-in-sri-lanka-169792.html

An international summit on Asian wildcats begins tomorrow in Mount Lavinia as local concerns rise over the number of leopards – Sri Lanka’s most charismatic wild cat – killed in the span of a few weeks, some through reckless driving.

Sri Lanka is home to four wild- cats: leopards, fishing cats, jungle cats and rusty spotted cats all of which are threatened species.

According to the National Red List on Threatened Fauna and Flora, the jungle cat is “near threatened” while the other species are “endangered”.

“As predators, these species are of potentially profound importance to the ecosystems of which they are a part and it is only armed with knowledge of their behaviour and ecology that we can implement effective conservation and management strategies to ensure their long-term survival,” said Dr. Andrew Kittle of the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), ahead of the symposium aimed at sharing research knowledge on wildcats.

The two-day Symposium of South Asian Wild Cats Past and Present will bring together local, regional and international scientists and students to present their work and discuss their findings.

The main objective is to highlight current research. “An important offshoot of this symposium is to identify knowledge gaps that require attention and can be targeted for further/future study and increase collaboration between local and international universities and researchers,” the organisers, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS), said.

The symposium will also highlight this country’s palaeobiodiversity heritage by also focusing on the big cats such as lions and tigers that roamed the jungles of Sri Lanka in the past.

Few scientific studies have been done on the cats of Sri Lanka and the symposium is also aimed at encouraging and establishing a Sri Lankan research base linking international scientists, universities and wildcat lovers, both local and foreign, to conduct research on the small cats of Sri Lanka.

The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrina) has partially webbed toes which enable it effectively to hunt in aquatic systems but does it only live near water? The jungle cat (Felis chaus) has large, tufted ears which allow it to hear the movements of rodents in the grass and pounce, but what else does it eat? The beautiful rusty spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is the smallest wild cat in the world, but where is it found and what are the threats to its survival?

In order to answer these questions, and many more, researchers are working hard to study these elusive species in the wild and their findings will be shared during the sessions of symposium.

A number of internationally acclaimed scientists studying wild cats are expected to attend the symposium. Among them is renowned scientist Dr. David Macdonald, who has pioneered research on the social ecology of carnivores and is founder and Director of Oxford University’s illustrious Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).

The symposium will include four sessions: “Cats of the Past”, chaired by Professor Lars Werdelin of the Swedish Museum of Natural History; “Big Cats of South Asia”, chaired by Dr. Kittle; “Small Cats of South Asia” chaired by Dr. Jim Sanderson, founder of the Small Cat Conservation Alliance; and “Cats of Sri Lanka” chaired by Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala and University of Colombo Professor Devaka Weerakoon.

For more information about attending the symposium, go to http://www.wildcatsasia.com

Wire trap kills another Hill Country leopard

September 28, 2015

Adding to the increasing number of leopard deaths, an adult male, more than 7 feet long, was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, early this week, on September 21, having fallen prey to a wire trap.

The trap had been set up in Toppass village bordering the Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve and was meant to protect the agricultural lands from wild boar.

Wildlife enthusiast Kasun Pradeepa who saw the body of the animal around 9 a.m. on the day it was discovered said the animal would have died around six that same morning.

This death comes even before the dust had settled on the Yala incident, where a speeding vehicle killed a female leopard inside the National Park.He said the snare had tripped around the leopard’s neck and death was either due to suffocation or the snare had snapped the animal’s neck.

Wire traps are known to be the number one killer of the elusive Hill Country leopard. In 2011, a leopard met the same fate in an area close to Toppas. Once the animal gets caught it struggles to break free and this worsens the situation and the animal dies of injuries to the internal vital organs.

“The Hill country is home for a viable leopard population. But wire traps pose a big problem although they are not aimed at killing leopard,” said Anjali Watson who is known for conducting research, along with Andrew Kittle on the Hill Country leopard.

“Wire traps are mainly set up for wild boar that comes to feed on farm lands. Wild boar is the leopard’s main prey, so they follow their path and become easy prey to the traps,” she said.

Unfortunately the land-use pattern of the Hill Country sometimes increases the conflict between leopards and humans, pointed out the researcher.

The Hill country has lots of small forest patches with tea estates in between. So the leopards often use these tea estates to cross from one forest patch to another or sometimes even make it their habitat, thereby making it vulnerable.
(M.R.) Published on SundayTimes on 27.09.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150927/news/wire-trap-kills-another-hill-country-leopard-165662.html

A male leopard was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, having fallen prey to a wire trap. (c) Kasun Pradeepa

A male leopard was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, having fallen prey to a wire trap. (c) Kasun Pradeepa

Top predator in our jungles is no match for human cruelty

September 23, 2015

Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is the top predator in Sri Lanka’s wilderness. But proving that human is more cruel killer, another leopard was killed at Nuwaraeliya on 21st September getting caught into a wire trap setup on boarders of Toppass village located adjacent to Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve – not too far from the town. This hamlet has lots of agricultural lands and it is believe that the trap aimed at wild boar where the leopard had fallen victim to it.

Wildlife Enthusiast Kasun Pradeepa that witnessed the body of the leopard says it is a matured male leopard that is more than 6 ft long. The body was found fresh and not stiff even around 9am, indicating the unlucky big cat get caught in the trap early morning. Kasun says the snare was tripped around leopad’s neck that could suffocate the animal to death or break the neck.

This period is proved to be not good for top predator in our jungles as the Nuwaraeliya leopard death was reported even before settling of the dust of the Yala incident where a speeding vehicle killed a female leopard inside National Park.

The wire traps become the number one threat, particularly to the elusive Hill Country leopards.  Visit the link to read 2011 article published on SundayTimes about the Hill Country leopards that fallen victim to wire traps regularly. In June, 2011 the leopard got killed was also from Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110619/News/nws_20.html

Hillcountry leopard killed in N.Eliya (c) Kasun Pradeepa

Hillcountry leopard killed in N.Eliya (c) Kasun Pradeepa

..in 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 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150920/news/solution-to-man-beast-conflict-lies-with-stakeholderstop-researcher-164878.html

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

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

Murder of a mermaid

September 18, 2015
Police inquiry into rare dugong killed in Mannar

Police are investigating the tragic killing of a dugong, the rare creature possibly believed to be a “mermaid” in olden times, in Mannar after the Navy came across a group of fishermen chopping up the mammal’s flesh on South Bar beach.

A local resident, Mohammed Haleem, said the Navy handed over the culprits to police and wildlife officers last week, and that they are out on bail.

tail side of the dugong (c) Mohamed Haleem

Carcass of slain dugong in Mannar – photo by Mohamed Haleem

Dugongs are sometimes hunted but they also fall victim by being inadvertently included in fishing catches or drowning after being entangled in mist fishing nets or falling victim to dynamite fishing. The cause of the action that killed the Mannar dugong is unknown. Its vital organs have been sent for analysis.

Also known as sea cow or muhudu-ura (sea pig) in Sinhala, kadal pandi in Tamil, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal that primarily feeds on seagrass. Dugongs were hunted openly for their flesh and oil decades ago and their population plummetted.

In the 1970s, legal sanctions to protect dugongs were incorporated into legislation but rarely enforced. It is a known secret that still several animals are still killed annually, researcher Dr.Ranil Nanayakkara said.

The Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay are the last known hideout in Sri Lanka and India for these elusive beings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List on threatened species categorises the dugong as “vulnerable to extinction”.

The dugong population in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka could be “critically endangered”, points out the IUCN Sri Lanka’s country office’s Marine and Coastal Thematic Area Coordinator Arjan Rajasuriya.

A mermaid related to an elephantThe dugong, referred to as a sea cow, sea pig and even sea camel by different communities, is scientifically close to elephants. These mammals can stay underwater for six minutes without surfacing.
It is also claimed that the legends of mermaids have been inspired by dugongs and manatees as they sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water. With forelimbs containing five sets of finger-like bones and neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads, it is possible that
dugongs and manatees could be mistaken for humans
from afar.

In global terms, there are more stable dugong populations in places such as off Australia but if quick action is not taken the species’ future is indeed bleak in our local waters.

Dugongs are long-lived, and animals as much as 70 years of age has been recorded. But it is a slow breeder, giving birth to a single calf after an 18-month pregnancy. The mother dugong then looks after the calf for more than one and half years. So the kiling of even a few dugongs can have serious implications.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) confirms that the dugong is already extinct in several island states and suffering steep declines in at least a third of the areas where it is found.
It is ironic that the dugong at Mannar was killed just when a new project to protect dugongs and their seagrass ecosystem had begun, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

 Dynamite fishing poses grave threat

Vankalai reef destruction from blast fishing (c) Arjan Rajasuriya

Illegal dynamite fishing is common on many parts of the east coast, and a marine researcher said his team heard dynamite blasts almost every day while surveying the Vankalai coral reef, located in dugong habitat.
It is not known how many dugongs are killed in blast fishing, which destroys underlying ecosystems such as corals in addition to killing all living creatures within range of the blast.
A pair of fully-grown dugongs were killed by dynamiting in 2010.

Blast fishing Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Marine and Coastal Thematic Area, said dynamite fishing occurs particularly in around Errakkandy, north of Nilaweli, and around Batticaloa and Kalmunai. It is also commonly practised by fishermen in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, Mr. Rajasuriya said.
He witnessed the destruction the dynamite caused to the corals underwater. “If explosives are used at close range while the researchers are under water they could cause severe injuries. We had to chase the blast fishermen away in order to do our work,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.
Constant sea patrols can prevent blast fishing only to a limited extent so Mr. Rajasuriya believes this matter has to be pursued mainly on land to prevent explosives going into the hands of fishermen.
Trying to arrest culprits at sea is difficult as there are many ways they could evade arrest, such as by dumping the explosives when the authorities are spotted. It is also difficult to prove that a haul of fish had been killed with the use of dynamite.
“We need to turn our attention to land and find out how these fishermen get explosives. A good intelligence network and consistent action could effectively seal off the sources of dynamite,” Mr. Rajasuriya said. 

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150913/news/murder-of-a-mermaid-163945.html

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. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110731/News/nws_18.html 

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.

Yala was no sanctuary for this leopard

August 30, 2015
More animals die so that we can ride in comfort 

In more sad news from Yala, the body of a female leopard was found on Friday inside Yala National Park itself, on the verge of the Jamburagala road. The body had no apparent scars but the postmortem revealed the leopard died due to a broken neck (spinal code). There was evidence that some elephants had passed through the area in which the leopard was lying but it was unlikely that the death could have been due to an attack by elephants as adult leopards never confront elephants.

It is probable that the leopard died after being hit by a speeding vehicle, Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake said. No culprit has been nabbed yet but there will be an investigation about the death of this leopard, he said.

The female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala National Park

Female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala (c) Janakafb Janu

Yala is the busiest national park in Sri Lanka with its key attraction being the leopards. The safari jeep drivers and other visitors always want to see a leopard so any leopard sighting is swiftly communicated through mobile phones to other jeeps that then flock to the area for a glimpse of the prized big cat.

The park is closed every day at 6 p.m., so jeeps that go deep into the jungle without a sense of the time, speed their way toward the exit at closing time, and this could lead to accidents like this. This is not the first leopard killed by speeding vehicles inside Yala National Park. In 2011, a leopard was killed by a speeding vehicle and since then, several animals too has been reported killed by speeding vehicles.

Mobile phones are a big factor in these Mad Max-type situations in Yala as they are used to pass on the message of leopard sightings. Heeding requests from conservationists, the DWC, in collaboration with mobile phone operators, in experimenting with cutting off service inside the park, Mr. Ratnayake revealed.

The network was switched off on alternate weeks this month. The leopard death occurred during a time when phones were active, according to local sources, indicating that a total blackout could improve the situation to some extent. It is, however, the responsibility of visitors not to allow the jeep to speed up for the sighting of a leopard. Jeep drivers speed in order to give tourists a better sighting, which will mean a bigger tip, so ask them not to speed up, conservationists say.

Local sources say that as many as five leopards have died this year in Yala due to various causes. A leopard was killed a few months ago in the buffer zone in Dambewa after being caught in a wire trap. The remains of another leopard was found near Rathmalwewa in Yala about a month ago.

Earlier this week a tourist bus hit a herd of deer on the Kirinda-Yala road, reinforcing concerns that the road has become a death-trap for wildlife as its newly-carpeted surface allows motorists to speed. No carcasses or wounded deer could be seen on the road after Wednesday’s accident but blood on the road indicated that several animals could be badly injured.

It was dark at the time of the accident and the wounded animals sought refuge in the jungle. Conservationists worry that even if these deer do not die as a direct result of their injuries the wounds could become infected and make the animals less mobile,making them easy prey for predators.

Last drop of water - trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda - Palatupana - Yala road on 21st of Aug

Last drop of water – trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda – Palatupana – Yala road on 21st of Aug (c) Sampath Galappaththi

On August 21, a deer was hit and killed by a motorist who sped off without waiting to be identified, leaving the animal suffering by the side of the road. It was the ninth deer known to have been killed in the past three months since that stretch was resurfaced to provide a comfortable ride for park visitors, local resident Sampath Galappaththi said.

The fact that large animals like deer are being killed on the road indicates smaller animals and birds are being killed in larger numbers, unnoticed.

Mr. Galappaththi revealed that carcasses of nightjars, a nocturnal bird, have become a common sight on the road.
Mr. Ratnayake said he was aware of the problem. He said that as the road comes under the Road Development Authority, the DWC would hold talks with the authority to find a solution. In the meantime, he urged motorists to be careful when driving on roads bordering on or passing through through wilderness areas.

Drought break for wildlife
The Yala National Park will be closed for one month from September 7. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) announced this week that Yala, the country’s mostly visited national park, is closing during the height of the drought to ease the pressure on the animals from visitors. The break also gives an opportunity to repair infrastructure in the park. The tradition of closing the park at this time started in colonial days when the park was a game reserve providing hunting opportunities. 

Youths band together to protect elusive fishing cat

August 29, 2015

On the heels of last week’s story of innocent animals dying in collisions with speeding vehicles is a positive report of young people erecting road signs to prevent Sri Lanka’s second-largest wild cat falling prey to careless motorists. The first signs went up last week at Gannoruwa and Haloluwa critical fishing cat death sites in the Kandy district.

The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), commonly known in Sri Lanka as hadun diviya, is the second largest wild cat in Sri Lanka and grows up to two and half feet in length. As the name implies, its primary meal is fish so it is found near wetlands or river ecosystems.

The international Red List on Conservation Status of Animals and Plants lists the fishing cat as “endangered”, just a few steps away from extinction.Fishing cats die on the roads due to their territorial behaviour as they move daily through a specific area. Most forests are now fragmented, so inevitably fishing cats need to cross roads, making them vulnerable to collision accidents, explained Ashan Thudugala of the Small Cat Conservation Alliance.

Mr. Thudugala, who spearheaded this project, said that based on data gathered over the past 18 months his group identified stretches of roads at Gannoruwa and Halloluwa as extremely prone to collisions between vehicles and these wild cats.

The fishing cat is a lovely animal but has earned a negative reputation in local communities as, being opportunistic hunters, they often raid poultry farms. Local populations of fishing cats are under threat due to poisoning, hunting pressure, and habitat destruction. Mr. Thudugala released a fishing cat that had become entangled in a wire trap in Polgolla a few weeks ago, indicating wire traps too could be a growing problem for this threatened wild cat.

The fishing cat lives hidden in many habitats where they co-exist with humans, so Mr. Thudugala and the team organise awareness programme and youth camps to change the public’s views about this elusive cat that lives close to them.
The first awareness session was held earlier this year for schoolchildren and the second for a selected number of university students who later began assisting the project.

At present, the Small Cat Conservation Alliance is focusing its study and data-gathering on fishing cats in the Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Kegalle districts but is planning to expand efforts islandwide. Mr. Thudugala is thankful to those who supported the road sign project; they include personnel at the Department of Zoology at the University of Peradeniya, officers of the Road Development Authority, the police, and the in Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Such road signs will be placed throughout the country to protect this magnificent creature.

Instead of cursing the darkness, it is always better to light a candle – so the effort by Ashan Thudugala and his team to save these threatened animals is indeed commendable.

Saving wild cats in the concrete jungle

The “small leopards” often reported to be seen crossing roads and running around Colombo’s remaining wetlands are, in fact, fishing cats – a very rare phenomenon as fishing cats are usually not found in densely populated areas anywhere in the world.

To find out how many fishing cats live in these urban areas and whether the population is healthy and, most importantly, to come up with a plan to conserve these fishing cats from rapid development, the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) launched the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project.

The first phase of the study, in 2006, resulted in confirmation that there were, in fact, fishing cats in urban wetlands. The results were breathtaking as the camera traps set by the research team revealed a very healthy population of fishing cats in Colombo’s urban wetlands.

The project is observing and recording the movement patterns and behaviour of urban fishing cats, Anya Ratnayake, a young EFL scientist, said. Researchers are using camera traps and have placed an electronic collar on a fishing cat to track its movements.
While post-war development is rapidly turning Colombo into a concrete jungle, the remaining urban wildlife remind us that we still have a chance to become a “garden city”, harbouring green areas that give urban wildlife a chance to survive.

“The fishing cat can be the flagship species to raise this awareness among people and as an ‘umbrella species’ to conserve other biodiversity in the urban areas through good urban planning that integrates green areas,” said globally-renowned conservation scientist Dr. Eric Wickremanayake, who is involved in the wild cat conservation project.

“The research being done by Anya and Ashan [Thudugala] will provide us with insights into the ecology and behaviour of this threatened species. We can then use this knowledge to integrate the habitat use and ecological requirements of fishing cats into urban planning and try to keep some of the natural habitats such as the wetlands and associated green areas along the waterways in cities, including in Colombo,” said Dr.Wickremanayake, pointing out that carnivores are losing ground all over the world as habitat is being lost and fragmented.

If you happen to come across a fishing cat, whether it crossed the road in front of you, was in your garden, in a marsh or a national park, or dead or injured at the side of the road, email the details to anya@efl.lk

Published on 16.08.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150816/news/youths-band-together-to-protect-elusive-fishing-cat-160903.html

Innocent animals die because we speed through their habitat

August 9, 2015

A doe and her fawn were killed last week by a speeding vehicle near Yala. Although roadkill is frequent in wilderness areas this accident brought tears to all those who shared the images of helpless animals lying gasping for breath on the side of the road.
A man who saw the dying animals a few minutes after they were hit said the accident occurred around 8.45 a.m. on July 27. The vehicle sped off, leaving the mortally-wounded mother and her baby, but the driver was nabbed later on. The witness, Sampath Galappaththi, who is involved in the travel trade in Yala, said this was the fifth deer hit by vehicles along this stretch of the road in July.

This route, linking Kirinda to Yala, used to be a roughly tarred road, and its uneven surface did not encourage drivers to speed, which limited animal casualties. Now, however, the road is being carpeted and vehicles are speeding on it, making it a death trap for unwary animals.

Local sources revealed the road from Kirinda through Palatupana to Yala will be carpeted upto the Yala National Park ticketing office. This stretch of the road cuts across the Nimalawa Sanctuary, so many smaller animals are probably already being killed daily, the toll unrecorded.As the road network around the country improves, particularly through wilderness areas, there is a higher chance of accidents to animals. When vehicles are driven at high speed the impact is often deadly for the animal. It is also important to understand that animals live not only in protected areas but also roam in forests in other areas.

Sri Lanka can learn from countries such as the United States and Australia where tunnels have been built under highways to allow animals to pass from one side of the road to the other without risking their lives in traffic. Experts warn that with new highways and growing population densities around the world roadkill will increase. They urge people not to throw food out of the windows as this attracts animals to the roadside.Sadly, there have been few studies about the impact of roadkill in Sri Lanka. Research surveying only reptiles and amphibian mortality on a 3km stretch of a highway crossing the Nilgala forest area recorded 552 individual animal species killed for the study period of 48 days.

The young researchers, Sameera Suranjan, Sujan Henkanaththegedara and Thasun Amarasinghe, found 72 species of herpetofauna including 53 reptiles and 19 amphibians among the roadkill. Of this, 19 species (26.3 per cent of the total) were endemic to Sri Lanka and 22 species (30.5 per cent) were listed nationally as being under threat of extinction.

Not only small, slow-moving animals but also the largest land animals, elephants, are being hit by vehicles on several occasions.Sri Lanka needs to develop its road network but it is important to minimise animal deaths. Most of these accidents are preventable, so it is important to identify the stretches where roadkill is high. Speed limits, warning signs and speed bumps are among immediate remedial actions that can be taken. It is time to review the prudence of building roads through protected wilderness areas.

Ultimately, it is the duty of all who drive through these areas to be vigilant and drive carefully.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150809/news/innocent-animals-die-because-we-speed-through-their-habitat-160069.html

Environmentalists fight Wilpattu clearance in court

August 6, 2015

On 4th of August, it was reported that The Court of Appeal issued notice on Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to appear in court on September 16 following a writ petition filed against illegal removal of forest cover and illegal re settlement in Wilpattu National Park. (http://www.dailymirror.lk/82059/rishard-issued-notice-on-wilpattu-issue). Here is my article published on the SundayTimes on 24th of May, 2015.

Environmentalists to fight Wilpattu clearance in court

Despite President Maithripala Sirisena’s order to stop the clearance of forests in the Wilpattu area, the row over the forests dragged for another week with Minister Rishad Bathiudeen justifying his actions while environmentalists fought back, insisting the clearances were illegal.
The problem of illegal resettlement inside Wilpattu National Park surfaced earlier this month with social media and other groups sharing outraged messages about the resettlement.

A settlement in the area (above) and trees being cutdown

Mr. Bathiudeen, the Minister for Science and Industry, who was put in the hot seat, asserted that if it were proved that he had given out lands belonging to the Wilpattu National Park he would resign.
Environmentalists visiting the area clarified that the lands distributed were not part of the Wilpattu National Park but an associated forest called Kallaru Forest under the custodianship of the Forests Department. A small section of the Wilpattu North Sanctuary under Department of Wildlife (DWC) had also been given out.

“The lands that are distributed are not part of Wilpattu National Park but are important forest reserves connecting the areas often used by elephants. So these settlements will only create human-elephant conflict,” said environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara.
He said the giving out of this forest land for human settlement had commenced in 2012. The clearances had been stopped temporally in 2013 and recommenced in 2014. A total of more than 2,500 acres had been cleared, he alleged.
Earlier this week, the senior officers of the Forests Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation and Environment Ministry also explained their actions to the media. The lands had been released for settlement under pressure from ministers of the previous government.
Hemantha Wiithanage of the Centre for Environment Justice (CEJ) further revealed that the land had been distributed as part of the former government’s pet project, Uthuru Wasanthaya but that the process was illegal.

“The CEJ is in the process of filing a case against the Forest Department, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Central Environment Authority and District Secretary,” he revealed. The case alleges that officials of these ministries had been forced by politicians to bend rules.

A settlement in the area (above) and trees being cutdown

At an event organised by the Ministry of Environment to commemorate the International Day for Biological Diversity May 22, the former head of the Botanical Gardens Department, Dr.Siril Wijesundara reminded participants about the importance of forests in the country’s north.

“The forests in the northern areas play a very important role regulating the north-east monsoon so it is very important to protect the remaining forests,” he said. Irrespective of such warnings, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environmental Conservation Trust said, his organisation had information that there were plans to give out more forest lands in the north for development and resettlement.

Environmental experts point out the need of an integrated and sustainable approach to development. Soon after the war was over in 2009, the Integrated Strategic Environment Assessment for the Northern Province (ISEA) was carried out by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) and the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) with assistance of the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP).

The ISEA mapped the areas that can be used for development and the areas that should be left alone for their ecological values.
Dr. Ananda Mallawatantri, who took a leading role in this study, said ISEA was a unique concept in post-conflict development by any standards but that its recommendations of ISEA had not been fully adopted.

With increasing population and competition for natural resources between humans and animals, proper management of forests is vital.
Continued encroachment into northern forest areas will result in suffering for both wildlife and human settlers. Wildlife, particularly, will be on the losing side, and the harm they will suffer could be many times greater than that caused by the war.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150524/news/environmentalists-to-fight-wilpattu-clearance-in-court-150562.html

Energy – Make it Bird Friendly..!!

May 14, 2015

On World Migratory Bird Day this weekend (9-10 of May), Sri Lanka celebrates the 200 birds that migrate to the island annually and become an important part of this country’s biodiversity. These birds fly thousands of kilometres, even crossing great oceans, in order to reach their destinations during the two-way journey. They are vulnerable to dangers lying in their path that could bring devastating results even though the sites at their destinations are protected.

World Migratory Bird Day was declared to raise the awareness of these special creatures and the threats they face. “Energy – Make it Bird Friendly” is this year’s theme to highlight the harm faced every year by millions of migratory birds which struggle with the massive expansion of energy generation and distribution.
Collisions and electrocution due to power lines as well as barrier effects from energy infrastructure can cause death and displacement. Wind farms could be particularly disruptive if set up across migratory routes.

“We need clean and cheap power that doesn’t pollute environment, so we should find ways to minimise damage and keep monitoring the impact of energy infrastructure once it is set up,” said Devaka Weerakoon, Professor of Zoology at the University of Colombo.

Poster2015_English_for_download

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150510/news/wild-north-gets-govts-helping-hand-at-last-148433.html

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

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150118/news/environmentalists-hope-sirisena-will-honour-pledge-131167.html

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.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150118/news/wildlife-dept-probing-cases-of-animals-held-sans-permits-131135.html 

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.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140727/news/how-researchers-co-opted-a-remote-village-to-save-rare-fish-108595.html 

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.