Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

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

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.

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

Hillcountry leopard killed in N.Eliya (c) Kasun Pradeepa search of solution for Human Elephant Conflict

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

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

Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing scheme in elephant territory - intensifying the conflict

A housing scheme in elephant territory – intensifying the conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on 20.09.2015 on SundayTimes

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

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

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

Human Elephant Conflict – should all blame DWC..?

September 13, 2015

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

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

Villagers block junction demanding solution to Human-Elephant Conflict

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

Protesting villagers. Pic by Kanchana Kumara Ariyadasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on 16.08.2015 on SundayTimes

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.

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. ( 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.

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.


Environmentalists hope Sirisena will honour pledge

January 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr.Maithreepala Sirisena signing the epledge

Mr.Maithreepala Sirisena signing the pledge

Related story….

Wildlife Dept. probing cases of animals held sans permits 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bandula Barb

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

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

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

‘At first, we were suspicious’

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

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

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

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

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

Wallapatta agarwood the new illegal million-rupee racket

February 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 16.02.2014 

Sri Lanka’s Spiny Eel has slipped away, maybe forever

November 6, 2013

The Sri Lanka Spiny Eel, a freshwater fish that was common in the early ’80s is probably now extinct. This was revealed by Prof.Devake Weerakoon delivering a talk on the Red List, at an event organised by the Open University’s Botany society.  Sri Lanka is home to six species of eel known as ‘aandha’ in Sinhala, given its slippery, slimy nature. The threatened species, the Spiny eel, is scientifically known as Macrognathus pentophthalmos.

Sri Lanka spiny eel’s relative – Marbled Spiny Eel (gan theliya) – WILL THIS SPINY EEL TOO FOLLOW ITS RELATIVE (c) Nadika Hapuarachchie

The Sri Lanka Spiny Eel was categorised as a common freshwater fish endemic to Sri Lanka in studies done in 1932 and 1980. But an islandwide freshwater fish survey conducted by researcher Rohan Pethiyagoda in 1991 failed to record even a single specimen of this eel. This prompted the Wildlife Heritage Trust in 1992 to print an illustrated ‘wanted’ poster that was displayed at leading ornamental fish export companies and inland fisheries centres islandwide offering a reward to anyone who spotted even a single specimen of the Sri Lanka Spiny Eel and another fish that had suffered a similar fate, Labeo Lankae. There were no positive results regarding the sighting of the Spiny Eel and in 2008 Dr. Pethiyagoda published a scientific paper that analysed the fate of this fresh water species.

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) is currently conducting an islandwide fresh water fish survey. But that too has so far failed to collect any data on the Sri Lanka Spiny Eel, Nadika Hapuarachchie of the society said. The Sri Lanka Spiny Eel was categorised as ‘Critically Endangered’ in 1994 and based on the results of latest surveys, the National Red list of Sri Lanka published in December last year reclassified the species as “Possibly Extinct”.

The Sri Lanka Spiny Eel has a slender body like other eels and has got its name for its sturdy fin spine. Another member of this family, the Marbled Spiny Eel (Mastacembelus armatus) is still a commonly found fish. But environmentalists point out that even the population of this common species can dwindle suddenly and regular monitoring is needed to evaluate its threatened levels.

Sri Lanka is known for its rich and diverse freshwater fish comprising 91 species of which 50 are endemic. Sampath Goonatilake of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who has written a chapter on freshwater fish in the National Redlist says that arguably this is the most vulnerable taxonomic group as most of the threatened or endemic freshwater species are found in streams that lie outside the Protected Area Network of Sri Lanka. These habitats are vulnerable to various threats such as forest clearance, gem mining, expanding agriculture, large and small scale hydro projects, exposure to chemical pollutants including agrochemicals and sedimentation due to soil erosion, he said.

Meanwhile, according to the global Redlist 2009, Sri Lanka is placed 14th in terms of percentage numbers of threatened species. This is not good news given that Sri Lanka is a global biodiversity hot spot.

Invasive species big threat 

Invasive fish such as the Thilapila that have been introduced are behind the decline of Sri Lanka’s native freshwater fish. The knife fish (Thilapila) brought to Sri Lanka for aquarium trade has been reportedly introduced in water holes and streams in many areas. A giant knife fish was caught last week at a water hole in Boralasgamuwa.  Praki Bandara who captured this image says the fish weighed more than seven kilograms. 

The Knife Fish is a carnivore’s species that feeds on other smaller fish and their eggs. They are native to South East Asia. The knife fish is a popular aquarium fish because of its rapid growth. When they outgrow fish tanks some people release them to natural waterways, not giving heed to its detrimental effects on the population of other fish. There are instances where knife fish are washed away into natural water holes especially when ground fish tanks overflow due to flooding. Environmentalists urge the public not to release this species of invasive fish into natural waterways as they are harmful to native fish. 

Eel – the slippery freshwater fish

It’s a slippery, slimy creature, and doesn’t fit into the image of what one perceives as freshwater fish. But the eel is a regular fish – that doesn’t look like one. It has a serpentlike head and a snakelike body. The Eel’s body is elongated and flexible. When it swims, it moves in a series of waves. These waves cause each segment of the eel’s body to oscillate in a figure-of-eight. This movement causes the eel to be propelled forward in the water.

According to studies there are about 800 eel species that inhabit freshwater and marine habitats. A majority of eel species are nocturnal. Globally there has been a drastic decline in the numbers of eel species. A research in UK revealed that the European Eel population in the River Thames had fallen by 98% in just five years. This decline could be due to changes in oceanic currents due to climate change, man-made structures such as dams and the presence of certain diseases and parasites, the study revealed.

Another Black Leopard killed in Deniyaya

October 16, 2013
The tragic killing of another black leopard highlights the need for greater conservation – By Malaka Rodrigo 

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ refers to a black panther, Bagheera. This was really a black leopard and even though Badheera was fictitious, black leopards do exist. But are their days numbered in Sri Lanka, is the question that many wildlife enthusiasts pose.

Brutal end: The carcass of the black leopard. Photo Credit: Rukshan Jayewardene 

Another black leopard faced a brutal death in Deniyaya a few days back. Its decomposing body was recovered from a forest patch close to Handford Estate, in the village of Thalapalakanda.

Veterinary surgeon Dr.Tharaka Prasad who conducted the post-mortem said the animal would have died an agonising death after succumbing to internal wounds sustained on getting caught in a wire snare. Poachers had cut off both its forelimbs and a large portion of flesh from its neck area. Even the teeth and claws of the remaining limbs of this black beauty had not been spared.

Wildlife officers were however puzzled that no attempt was made to skin the animal as its coat would have fetched a high price. They believe the animal would have got caught in a trap set for wild boars. But conservationist and leopard researcher, Rukshan Jayawardane who went to the site with Dr. Prasad said the trap may have been set up deliberately to snare the black leopard – or other leopards that frequent the area. He has urged police to find the culprits. There is a local belief that leopard flesh taken from an area that cannot be licked by the animal is good for asthma patients and wearing its claws and teeth a sign of bravery.

Kokila Harindra, wildlife range officer of Kaluthota who was alerted by Deniyaya police said villagers had complained about the stench from a rotting carcass of a leopard. He said the villagers had not spotted the black leopard before. The animal was a mature male leopard about 7 foot long, Mr. Harindra said.

Dense forest: Safer habitat for rare black leopard

In 2009, a black leopard was entrapped in a wire trap in the vicinity of Deniyaya. A few years ago there was was a report of the death of another black leopard in the area of Sinharaja.  Dr. Prasad said in the past six years the Department of Wildlife Conservation received reports of 16 leopard deaths in and around Sinharaja.

The fact that of them three were black leopards means there could be more in the area, Dr.Prasad said adding that they were initiating a study on these rare species. Childers Jayawardane, a wildlife officer wrote about sighting a black leopard as far back as 1948 in Yala Block III. He also recalled seeing another black leopard at Banawalkema 30 years later.

However, black leopard sightings have not been recorded recently in the dry zone, and it is believed that the darker environs of a dense forest helps the black leopard to survive, says Rukshan Jayawardane. Pointing out that there maybe more leopards outside the protected wildlife areas he pointed out that conservation programmes should encompass these areas too.

Anjali Watson – a leopard researcher who has studied leopards in the wet zone and the hill country says the biggest threat to leopards in general and the rare black species is the lack of protected areas in the wet zone and hill countries unlike in the dry zone. As a result habitat fragmentation, poaching and indirect snaring can go unnoticed.

She said black leopards even in other countries are found mainly in dense forest areas. The reason being the darker and more secluded habitat of rain forests allow a melanistic leopard to survive more easily and reproduce, passing on the recessive gene of melanism. In the dry zone where the habitat is more open they are less likely to survive into adulthood.

Who are these black beauties? 

The black leopard belongs to the same species of leopards found in Sri Lanka, scientifically known as Panthera pardus kotiya. This species has been tagged as ‘Endangered’ by Red List 2012.

What differentiates a black leopard from a normal leopard is its black coat that is a result of a condition called melanism where the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin develops. This is similar to the condition of an albino where the absence of melanin makes an animal lighter coloured. 

Zoologists say this is caused by a melanistic recessive gene and on close inspection the usual leopard spots are visible even on a black leopard. Scientists also say two leopards with normal coats have a one-in-four chance of producing a black-coated cub, if both mother and father have the recessive trait for melanistic form. Other big cats such as jaguars who have this melanistic form are commonly referred to as black panthers.

Published on 06.10.2013 on SundayTimes 

Operation starfish to save reef

October 7, 2013
Volunteers dive at Pigeon Island to protect the corals from a carnivorous predator – Malaka Rodrigo 

Armed with improvised spears, the team clad in scuba gear, were submerged in the clear waters off Pigeon Island. Seeing an area where corals were destroyed, they descended like sharks that had spotted their prey. Taking aim, they speared the starfish that was the cause of the destruction.

The thorny interloper: Starfish that have been removed from the coral reef 

Pigeon Island is one of Sri Lanka’s two Marine National Parks and it is prohibited to hunt any creature in this sanctuary. But Wildlife Officers too supported this mission as the ‘Crown of Thorn Starfish’ are extremely destructive to the corals, feeding on the microorganism polyps that build them. According to marine biologists, the number of COT in the Pigeon Island reef began increasing last year exceeding the threshold of their natural occurrence, hence the need for action to control the damage.

“We came to know about the outbreak at Pigeon Island and as conservation oriented underwater explorers, we wanted to organise a programme to remove the COTs on Pigeon Island Coral Reef,” Upekshi Perera, President of the Sub Aqua Club said.

It was no easy task as some of these creatures are hidden inside the corals. The starfish also has protective thorns that are venomous. The recommended method of removing the COTs is by injecting Sodium bi-sulphate using syringes with long needles, but the team had to come up with other methods.

Travice Ondatje of Nilaweli Beach Hotel who is also a member of Sub Aqua Club was the mastermind behind creating the team’s main weapon – the ‘broomstick spear’. “It was simply a broomstick with a five millimetre steel rod (used for concrete) tied to one end,” Travice said. The team had taken time to learn how to manoeuvre the improvised spear.

The team comprised 12 divers from the Sub Aqua Club and three from the Ypsylon Dive Centre that also provided some of the dive equipment. Forming three teams, they had done two dives – each taking one and half hours. Teams moved in semi circles inspecting the corals on the southern part of the reef. One diver held ‘plastic laundry bins’ to collect the starfish speared by the other members.

The team fills up buckets of Crown of Thorn starfish

At the end of the day, the team had removed 181 Crown of Thorn Starfishes – double the number we thought we could achieve, said Dharshana Jayawardane, dive officer of Sub Aqua Club. The density of the COT on top of stag horn corals was more, he added.

Dr. Malik Fernando, an expert on Sri Lanka’s marine life and founder member of the Sub Aqua Club said there are COT outbreaks once in a while and intervention is required to manage them. Coral ecologist Arjan Rajasuriya praised the work done by the Sub Aqua Club members highlighting the need for such an exercise annually. Government agencies should organise a programme to facilitate volunteers as diving is a costly exercise, he said.

The worst outbreaks were in the 1970s and early 80s. Not only the East coast, but many other areas too have been infested and thousands of COTs had been removed under the guidance of Dr. de Bruin, a Research Officer attached to the Department of Fisheries, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

Mr. Rajasuriya said that there can be various reasons for a COT outbreak. More nutrients in the water and removal of fish that prey on COT and also the warming oceans could provide optimal conditions for COT larvae to thrive.

Upekshi further added that Pigeon Island is a tourist attraction and unless we take care of such habitats, there will be nothing to showcase in time to come. She was grateful for the support that Nilaweli Beach Hotel and Ypsylon Dive Centre gave them. The Sub Aqua Club is planning to do this as an annual event, she said, happy that they had done their bit for Pigeon Island.

Coral monitoring programme needed

According to IUCN Red Data, Corals are one of the most threatened species in the world. Corals are useful for many reasons even in breaking the power of unexpected sea surges such as a Tsunami.  Some years ago NARA had a coral- monitoring programme and NARA chairman Dr. Sayuru Samarasundara said the agency plans to re-commence it next year.

Know the enemy

The crown-of-thorns (Acanthasterplanci) receives its name from venomous thorn-like spines that cover its upper surface like the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus. An adult starfish can grow up to 35 cm (14 in). They usually have 21 arms but this number can change from population to population, points out Arjan Rajasuriya.

Their spines are stiff and very sharp. The adult crown-of-thorns is a carnivorous predator that usually preys on reef coral polyps. It climbs onto a section of living coral using its large number of tube feet and flexible body and fits closely to the surface of the coral, even the complex surfaces of branching corals. It then extrudes its stomach out through its mouth over the surface to virtually its own diameter. 

The stomach surface secretes digestive enzymes that allows the starfish to absorb nutrients from the liquefied coral tissue. This leaves a white scar on the coral skeleton which is rapidly infested with filamentous algae. 

An individual starfish can consume up to six square metres (65 sqft) of living coral reef per year according to Wikipedia.

published on SundayTimes on 06.10.2013

Indian govt. floats Sethusamudram Canal project again ?

September 18, 2013

The controversial Sethusamudram Canal project is back on the Indian government’s agenda under pressure from some Tamil Nadu Political parties such as the DMK the Indian Media reported recently. This in turn has raised concern among environmentalists in Sri Lanka.

The project aims at shortening the sea route between India and Sri Lanka by dredging the canal as the sea is not deep enough for ships to navigate. Environmentalists are concerned that the project will destroy Adam’s Bridge, a natural chain of limestone shoals. According to the Hindu epic Ramayana the bridge also known as Ram Sethu was built by Prince Rama’s monkey army led by Hanuman. The project was started in 2005, but soon got into troubled waters as both environmentalists and many Hindu political parties such as the Hindu nationalist party BJP opposed it.

SethusamudramGraphicEnvironmentalists point out that the project would be detrimental as it would disturb the Gulf of Mannar one of the world’s richest marine biodiversity spots. The Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar is already a Marine National Park that was recognised as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB) in 1989. Research is underway to declare Sri Lanka’s side too as an MAB.

The proximity of the maritime boundary suggests that Sri Lanka must be wary of trans-boundary effects of the Sethusamudram canal, NARA founder chairman and specialist on Marine Affairs in the region Dr. Hiran Jayewardene has warned.

He points out that continuous dredging would result in soil being deposited on the bottom habitats such as coral and sea grass beds. Dr.Jayewardena also highlighted the need to conduct our own research in the area to get a better understanding of its ecological characteristics.

The Indian Supreme Court issued a ruling to suspend the operations, but according to Indian media, the central government was planning to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court to get the green light for the project.

This was is in spite of the R.K. Pachauri Committee, appointed by the government after the Supreme Court asked the government to explore an alternative route, pointing in its report that the project was not viable, the Indian media reported.

Let’s solve environment problems together, says expert

Dr.Hiran Jayewardene has called for a joint scientific body between India and Sri Lanka to protect the biodiversity of the Gulf of Mannar and its surrounding areas. Pointing out that some of the issues such as the problem of Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters using bottom trawlers resulting in the destruction of marine habitat and the Sethusamudram project had political implications for both countries and science may be able to provide an answer to these complex issues.

“A jointly managed regime with required conservation concerns may be a way out. This would allow scientists on both sides to work together to address and understand the environment allowing for sustainable use. Confidence building and finding alternative approaches such as conservation and ecotourism that can bring added value and much needed development alternatives to the area could be achieved through such a joint effort,” he said. 

Published on the SundayTimes 15.09.2013


Not only milk powder; mind about hidden poison in vegetables too..!!

August 26, 2013
Study shows farmers overuse pesticides; calls for speedy action and monitoring scheme Some cultivators grow pesticide-free vegetable for their consumption – by Malaka Rodrigo 

Reports of dicyandiamide (DCD) and whey protein allegedly found in milk powder have sparked widespread panic among consumers, but little do they know that vegetables they consume are equally if not more contaminated, according to a recent study on the use of agrochemicals by farmers.

The report based on an extensive survey in the upcountry says that although it has been advised that farmers should not use any chemicals 14 days prior to the harvesting of vegetables, some farmers do not follow this safety rule. Some 30% of upcountry farmers apply pesticides until 7-10 days before harvesting although some of them knew the harmful effects of agrochemicals, the report prepared by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI) says.

Fit for human consumption? Vegetable plots in Nuwara Eliya

In a shocking revelation, the report also says that about a quarter of the famers surveyed maintain agrochemical-free vegetable plots for their own consumption.  This dual approach adopted by these farmers, the report says, raises the question whether they are knowingly poisoning the consumers.

The report emphasises the urgent need to monitor pesticide residues in vegetables in the market.  The report titled “HARTI Policy Brief on Minimising the Damages of Pesticides” is based on a field research conducted in the Badulla and Nuwara Eliya Districts among 240 randomly selected vegetable and potato farmers.

Only the main hill country crops potato, bean, leeks and cabbage were handpicked for the investigation by the HARTI researchers; but the outcome has been scary.  Drawing attention to recent findings that linked the excessive use of agrochemicals by paddy farmers to the mystery Chronic Kidney Disease in the North Central Province, the report notes that vegetable also could contain arsenic and other harmful residues of agrochemicals.

The research also highlights the ignorance of farmers who overuse or misuse agrochemicals. According to the survey, nearly half of the upcountry famers apply pesticide as a precautionary measure even before any appearance of symptoms of pests or disease.
“The upcountry’s misty wet environment makes vegetable plants prone to pest attacks and fungal diseases. Farmers take their own decisions as to what pesticide to use and how frequently it should be used. Usually they end up in spraying an overdose,” said M.M.M. Abeeyar who led the team of researchers and authored the report together with M.T. Padmajani and M.A.C.S. Bandara.
Farmers who spoke to the Sunday Times said pesticides had lost their strength and often the instructions given on the label of the bottle were not useful.

Cabbage farmer Chamly complained that his crop was being attacked by a pest these days, but the pesticide he used was not answering. “The instructions on the label asked us to mix 28 units. We even doubled this dose – but the problem still persists,” he complained.
Pesticides Registrar Anura Wijesekera said they were testing on the quality of pesticides at the point of import. He advised the farmers to stick to the dose mentioned on the label.

He said pesticides varied and some took time to act and this was probably why some farmers question their strength and overuse them. With the correct dosage, the pest problem could be effectively dealt with.  Dr. Wijesekera, however, noted that the quality of pesticides in the market should also be monitored.

Sarath Fernando, an official of the advocacy group, Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR), said the dearth of agriculture officers to advise farmers had aggravated the problem.  “Farmers just get advice from pesticide dealers or decide on a pesticide by following their neighbours. Earlier, there were enough agricultural officers to instruct farmers,” he said.

Mr. Fernando said vegetable could be grown successfully and profitably without any use of agrochemicals.  The activist said agrochemicals killed both useful and harmful insects and the long term use would enable the pests to develop resistance to them.
Besides these direct harmful effects, agrochemicals also pollute waterways and groundwater sources.

The HARTI report recommends the setting up of pest clinics to advise farmers on the correct use of pesticides and alternatives methods.  Following the Sunday Times report last week, several experts welcomed the Agriculture Minister’s move to authorise state officials including those in the health sector and Grama Niladharis to take legal action against those resorting to the indiscriminate use of pesticides and those who encourage this practice.

They also say there should be a mechanism to monitor and stop the sale of vegetable with pesticide residues. Until such steps are taken, consumers are advised to wash vegetables properly to minimise the harm.  Pesticides are more harmful than DCD in milk powder, the experts say. They ask why the government is not taking prompt action in the same way it acted on the milk powder case.

Promote ‘Green Band’ pesticides 

The Government banned the sale of some pesticides a few months ago. But upcountry farmers say the other pesticides are not as effective as the banned products.

Pesticides are colour coded based on their hazard levels and Class I pesticides or “Red band” pesticides are banned in Sri Lanka. Although Class II and Class III pesticides are largely used in Sri Lanka, farmers are advised to use the Class IV or ‘Green Band’ pesticides which are considered ‘least harmful’.

Green Band pesticides are effective as other class of pesticides but they take more time to attack the pests and are expensive. Therefore, farmers usually go for pesticides that give instant results.

Will overuse of agrochemicals bring another ‘Silent Spring’?

The impact of agrochemicals to biodiversity has long been established.  Rachel Carson’s study – which came out as a famous book ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 — showed how the use of DDT affected birds. She found out that the DDT that passed onto birds through the food chain made the shells of the eggs thin. Thus they broke prematurely due to the weight of the mother bird and this was identified as the cause for the decrease in the bird population.

But there can be lots of unknown impacts. The ‘National Red List 2012 on Conservation Status of the Fauna and Flora’ launched last year explains the possible impact of agrochemicals on animals and plants in Sri Lanka. The species associate in freshwater are the most vulnerable, according to the Red List.

It says the heavy use of agrochemicals has contributed to the population decline of at least two species of endemic fish, pethiya bandula and aplocheilus dayi (uda handaya) and several species of other fish. Even the washing to the pesticide tanks in waterways also affects these fish.

The excessive use of agrochemicals also poses a threat to the orchid populations, the Red List’s chapter on Orchids states. Pesticides’ impact on orchid pollinators in turn affects many other plant species. Amphibians, freshwater crabs, freshwater plants, dragonflies, reptiles, spiders, dung beetles are some of the other species that are affected by agrochemicals, according to the Red List.

Application of insecticides and weedicides should be carried out in a manner that would have the least effect, especially on pollinators such as bees – the Red List says. Measures such as application of insecticides prior to flowering and at a time of the day when bees are less active on flowers would minimize their exposure to such chemicals, it says.

All pesticides approved for release in Sri Lanka should be assessed for impact on non-target organisms and the environment in general, and the labelling of such products should include information on environmental safeguards, it recommends.

Published on SundayTimes on 25.08.2013