Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

Winning ‘Wildlife Service Excellence Award’

March 9, 2017

I received the award “Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini”(විශිෂ්ඨ පූර්ණ සේවා ප්‍රසාදිනී) at the Sewa Prasadini Abhises – 2017 (Service Excellence Awards) organized by the Ministry of Wildlife and Sustainable held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) on 3 March (on World Wildlife Day). The awarding ceremony held under the patronage of President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena was organized to honor those who excel in the field of conservation of wildlife.

In addition to the officers attached to Wildlife Department and other institutions under Ministry of Wildlife and Sustainability; a number of environmentalists, zoologists, journalists, Divisional Secretaries and other group representing various fields fight for the conservation of wildlife had been awarded. I received the award “Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini” – which was the second highest accolade in the awarding scheme – mainly for the contribution of ‘Communicating Wildlife’.

Total of 153 was awarded under the four categories mentioned below that had significance in its order:

1) Athivishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini (20 awardees)
2) Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini (about 30 awardees)
3) Vishishta Sewa Prasadini
4) SewaPrasadini

Experts like Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando (renowned Elephant researcher), Dr.Siril Wijesundara (botanist / former head of Botanic Gardens), Jagath Gunawardane (veteran Environment Lawyer), Mendis Wickremasinghe (herpetologist who discovered number of new species) were among the awardees of ‘Vishishta Poorna Sewa Prasadini’ – so personally, I’m feeling really honored to receive this recognition.

For more details, please visit the article on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170312/news/wildlife-officers-conservationists-honoured-for-their-commitment-232412.html

I am taking this opportunity to THANK all those who supported me in this endeavor and dedicate this award to everyone that genuinely contribute in conserving Sri Lanka’s unique Biodiversity past, present and future..!! 

Receiving the award from Minister of Wildlife – Gamini Jayawickrema Perera

Awarding ceremony was held under patronage of president Maithripala Sirisena

With other awardees Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando, Dr.Siril Wijesundara, Jagath Gunawardane

With other awardees Ranjan Marasinghe, Mendis Wickremasinghe and Isuru de Zoysa

The participants


The award විශිෂ්ඨ පූර්ණ සේවා ප්‍රසාදිනී

Sea cucumber hatchery to give momentum to industry while saving species

February 26, 2017

The construction of a new sea cucumber hatchery was initiated in Mannar yesterday at a cost of Rs 180 million rupees, says Nimal Chandraratne, the director general of National Aquaculture Development Authority of Sri Lanka.

Once completed this year, the hatchery will produce a million juvenile sea cucumbers annually, Chandraratne assured.
Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling primitive marine invertebrates closely related to starfish and sea urchin. They have elongated soft bodies resembling the shape of a cucumber or a sausage, giving rise to its common English name. In Sinhala they are called ‘muhudu kudella’ (sea leach). East Asian countries regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy where it is commonly known as bêche-de-mer (literally “sea-spade”) in French, creating a lucrative market.

Sea cucumbers seen at Mannar . Pic courtesy Kumudini Ekaratne, IUCN

Sea cucumbers seen at Mannar . Pic courtesy Kumudini Ekaratne, IUCN

The sea cucumber is a slow-moving animal that allows easy collection, so it was soon over-harvested in many areas. On average, a hectare of sea bottom should have a population of about 30 individuals, but a survey by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, a decade ago, revealed the number has dropped to one or two individuals in some areas, according to senior scientist Ajith Kumara.It is stated that the sea cucumber industry in Sri Lanka is quite old, having been introduced by the Chinese. Some old records mention that processed sea cucumbers appear to be one of the commodities taken to China during the last 1,000 years when trade existed via the silk route. But the demand has arisen sharply with a high price tag, so the industry surged in 1980s in coastal areas. They are dried and the entire processed harvest has been exported to countries like Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan bringing much needed foreign exchange.

In Sri Lanka, 27 different species of sea cucumbers are found, but the high value species are mainly confined to north, east and north-western coastal areas. The war had deterred over-exploitation with restrictions on maritime operations, but the post-war scenario seems to be detrimental to sea cucumbers.

A study funded by the Mangroves for the Future, carried out for six months between October 2013 and June 2014 by the University of Jaffna, found that the population is depleted in the Jaffna Lagoon. According to the study of 29 sites in the Jaffna Lagoon only10 locations had any sea cucumbers. The total in the 10 sites was only 360 individuals. But another survey between 1980 and 1981 recorded 20-160 individuals of high-value sea cucumber species per square metre.

The sea cucumber species called sandfish (holothuria scabra) that has higher value in the market is now categorized as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List of threatened fauna. So the industry is doomed to collapse without intervention.

Against this backdrop, the sea cucumber farms are being introduced in Sri Lanka. A number of farms are already operating and the Mannar hatchery will help produce juveniles for farms.

Chandraratne of NAQDA said that holothuria scabra, that has a high demand, will be bred in the hatchery. The creatures will be artificially bred. At present there is a privately-owned hatchery and another operated by NARA.

Chandraratne said there are plans to establish a sea cucumber farm in Nainathivu and more hatcheries later.
NARA’s inland aquaculture and aquatic resources division researched to develop technology for breeding sea cucumbers since 2011 at their Kalpitiya field station independently.

Scientist Kumara said it was difficult to distinguish male and female sea cucumbers, so about 50 individuals are put into a tank and given a thermal shock by increasing the temperature of the water in the container and cooling it down quickly. This results in the male sea cucumber releasing sperm. Then the female starts to release eggs.

One female releases several million eggs, but very few hatch, Kumara explained.
Kumara said they are working closely with the community to protect the sea cucumber fishery by releasing some of the hatched juveniles into the natural environment.

Fisheries expert Dr Steve Creech, emphasized the importance of having a management strategy for Sri Lanka’s sea cucumber fishery to save the free living population. He recognizes the issue of open access for Sri Lankan sea cucumber fisheries that will further deplete the natural living species. So he suggests there should be harvest control strategies based on annual assessment of the status of the stocks. Dr Creech thinks that sea cucumber farming is a good development with low impact on the environment and ecosystem and fishing.

Published on SundayTimes on 26.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170226/news/sea-cucumber-hatchery-to-give-momentum-to-industry-230528.html

FISHERMEN, 302 SEA CUCUMBERS SEIZED
Fourteen fishermen were arrested by the navy on February 20 for illegally gathering sea cucumber. They were arrested in the Keeramunal area and 302 sea cucumbers, a dinghy, and diving gear were seized. They were handed over to the fisheries inspector at Kilinochchi the navy said. The navy has often intercepted smugglers bringing sea cucumbers from India, mostly in dried form. Due to over-harvesting, India banned gathering of sea cucumbers from the wild, so racketeers are not allowed to export the sea cucumbers through India. It is believed they are selling their stocks to Sri Lankans who can re-export taking advantage of loopholes in regulations.

Sea cucumbers seized by Navy in Northern seas

Sea cucumbers seized by Navy in Northern seas

Humphead wrasse killing stirs calls for protection and spearfishing ban

February 1, 2017

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

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

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

Humphead wrasse is a popular target of spear fishermen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groupers too threatened due to spearfishing 

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

 

Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Endangered  

 

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

Tomato Grouper – threatened by spearfishing

Blue and Yellow Grouper 

Blue and Yellow Grouper

Giant Grouper

Giant Grouper

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

 

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

January 29, 2017

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

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

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

The CEA has now promised to review the projects.

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

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

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

A mini-hydro being contructed at Mandaramnuwara

A mini-hydro being contructed at Mandaramnuwara

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

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

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

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

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Minneriya gathering may turn sour for elephants

January 29, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

NOTE:

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

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

..sections of following articles also highlighted the issue.

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

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

 Small creatures of Moragahakanda get a helping hand

Pix by Kanchana Kumara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drones – a handy tool in trained, trusted hands

January 29, 2017

A drone being prepared for a habitat mapping operation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spear-fishing threatens Giant Coral Fish

January 25, 2017

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

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared last week

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

A Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Group of Hump-head Wrasse (c) Nishan Perera

Mini-hydro’s power bulldozes Athwelthota ecology concerns

December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes 25.09.2016 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160925/news/dont-leave-conservation-solely-to-wildlife-dept-former-dg-pilapitiya-209687.html

“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.

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