Archive for the ‘Ecosystems’ Category

Save Kirala Kele, a cry from environmentalists

February 22, 2017

In December, a Baillon’s Crake a rare migratory bird to
Sri Lanka was spotted in Kirala kele (c) senehas karunarathna

With World Wetland Day being celebrated on Thursday (February 2) bird lovers here have called to protect the Kirala Kele wetland that recently made headlines due to the sighting of a record number of migratory birds.

Kirala Kele in Sinhala means ‘forest of kirala trees- or a ‘mangrove forest’. It covers an area of 1,800 ha with 310 ha of it being designated a wetland located at the exit of the Southern expressway in Godagama about three km from Matara town.

In December, a Baillon’s Crake a rare migratory bird to Sri Lanka was spotted in Kirala kele. The bird was seen in a particular area of the wetland, and bird watchers flocked to the wetland to see this rare bird. Subsequently more rare migratory birds such as the grey-headed lapwing, turtle dove, comb duck, marsh and even the greater spotted eagle were sighted in a small stretch of the wetland.

Kirala Kele earlier came under the purview of the Southern Development Authority. It was deemed a sanctuary in 2003 and declared as a conserved area under the ‘Sri Lanka – picturesque sites programme’ by a special gazette notification. Kirala kele is made up of different types of wetlands – marshland, mangrove areas, paddy lands, and irrigation canals – as well as numerous home gardens as it borders populated villages. Several encroachments are visible in many areas and concerned environmentalists have brought to attention the urgent need to protect it.

Ruhuna University’s Prof.Saman Chandana Ediriweera who has been researching the biodiversity of Kirala Kele for several years says, ” the area is an ideal wetland habitat for many organisms and can be considered as one of the most valuable conserved areas in the Matara District.” According to a study conducted by IUCN Sri Lanka, 83 plant species, 25 species of fish and 13 mammal species including the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey inhabit Kirala Kele. The study recorded 103 bird species of which 48 were wetland birds and with the recent sighting of rare birds the number would be higher, Prof. Ediriweera said.

He warned that recent human activities within the premises of sanctuary would prove harmful to the ecosystem. He identifies garbage dumping, removal of vegetation, hunting, spread of invasive weeds as major threats to the wetland. Prof. Ediriweera says authorities should take immediate steps to curb these threats and save Kirala Kele wetland.

As Kirala Keleis a protected area, and now in the absence of a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) field office in Matara,    it  comes under the purview of the field office at Kalamatiya.

Other migratory birds like the turtle dove was also spotted
(c) Moditha Kodikara Arachchi

Meanwhile Kalamatiya wildlife ranger Uthpala Adaranga said they regularly visit the sanctuary, but as private lands can exist inside a ‘sanctuary’, they are powerless to stop activities within the sanctuary that could be inimical to its ecosystem. In addition Kalamatiya is located about 50km away from Matara, posing a difficulty to monitor this protected area regularly. Environmentalists in Matara have highlighted the need for a DWC office in Matara so that quick action could be taken when the need arose.

In addition to being an important habitat in 2010 a plan was initiated to promote Kirala Kele as a tourist attraction with World Tourism Day celebrations being held in Kirala Kele. But the drive to promote it as a tourist destination didn’t last long.

Published on 05.02.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170205/news/save-kirala-kele-a-cry-from-environmentalists-227215.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

Projects endanger remaining forest cover

January 14, 2017

Forestry officials responding to recent reports of large-scale destruction of land in Wilpattu National Park deny such damage, while environmentalists charge that deforestation is widespread in the country.

The Conservator General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe, denied the existence of new large-scale clearances of forest cover around Wilpattu. “We have taken action against a party who cleared a forest land recently, but it is a small plot. The large-scale clearances that are being referred to took place in 2014,” he said.

Not only forests adjacent to Wilpattu - forests are under pressure everywhere in Sri Lanka.

Not only forests adjacent to Wilpattu – forests are under pressure everywhere in Sri Lanka.

Commentary on social media erupted recently over clearing of forest land north of Wilpattu National Park for settlements. Since then, a presidential task force has been mandated to investigate.

Sathurisinghe said a survey will be undertaken in Mannar with the intention to declare a wildlife reserve. “Once the area is declared a wildlife reserve, then these settlements too will have to be removed,” he said. The forest lands had been released by the previous government for settlements. But environmentalists say it was illegal and the incumbent Government could act on that basis.

“We should also focus our energies to stop forest clearances in other areas as well,” said Hemantha Withanage of the Centre of Environment Justice. He observes that there is great pressure on officials to release forest land for so-called ‘development’ projects. “So it is important to be vigilant. Forests in the North and East will face a lot of pressure because of development.’’

A recent study, “Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Sri Lanka” done under REDD+ Sri Lanka (REDD stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) identifies three key contributory factors for deforestation —  encroachments, infrastructure development projects, and private agriculture
ventures.

There are other factors, too. Tree Felling – illicit or otherwise, cultivations, non-timber forest product gathering such as ‘walla patta’, cattle grazing, forest fires, gem mining are among factors that trigger the degradation of forests.

A recent survey by the Forest Department also found out that forest degradation does not necessarily involve a reduction of the forest area, instead it leads to the decline of the quality of the forests.

The REDD report indicates that several factors promote deforestation and degradation. There are plenty of examples where encroachments are made acceptable when governments give permanent deeds, specially ahead of elections. Weak enforcement and monitoring capability, poor coordination among agencies, demands due to population growth are some other reasons. However, political interference has been a major factor in deforestation, according to the report.

Land is needed for development and human settlements. But it is important to identify already degraded lands without sacrificing biodiversity rich forests environmentalists warn. The cost of losing the forest cover could be greater than the monetary value of a project, they say. “Doesa  a strategic assessment and identify zones with degraded lands without rushing to axe forests,” Withanage of the CEJ urges.

Yet more trees to be ripped up under Chinese deal 

More of Sri Lanka’s forest land is being marked out for ripping up under irrigation projects.

The Sunday Times learns that a large area of forest cover is expected to be sacrificed for the Maduru Oya right bank development project due to begin this year.

Maduru Oya is one of the major reservoirs built under the accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme of 1982 that planned to develop 39,000 hectares of agricultural lands in the Mahaweli ‘B’ zone in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts. While its left bank ‘developments’ have been completed, due to lack of funds, work on right bank projects did not begin.

Under the ‘Reawakening Polonnaruwa’ program the work is being revived.

President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Minister of Mahaweli Development and Environment, made a proposal to the cabinet last September. Accordingly, the Maduru Oya right bank project aims to develop drinking water supplies, irrigation, and infrastructure for the socio-economic development in Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Districts.

The project will be financed with loans from the Chinese EximBank and the US$475 million (Rs 70.45 billion) engineering contract was signed last October between the state-owned China CAMC Engineering and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and the Environment.

Conservationists say the project would worsen environmental degradation.

The former director general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sumith Pilapitiya, points out that at least 18,000 hectares of forest land would be destroyed for new settlements and agriculture.

“The President, as the Minister of Environment talks about increasing forest cover in Sri Lanka to 30%, while as Minister of Mahaweli Development, his ministry is destroying over 18,000 hectares of forest lands. The loss of this forest land will certainly aggravate the human-elephant conflict, with elephants guaranteed to destroy crops brought under cultivation under the Maduru Oya right bank development project,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.

There are no winners in such ill-conceived projects. The country loses forest cover, the elephants lose their habitat, settlements are subject to human elephant conflict and farmers are affected when elephants raid their crops.  So why are we undertaking such a project?’’ Dr.Pilapitiya ponders.

There are examples from the past. There were no winners in the Walawe left bank development project, he notes.

“We fool ourselves by making statements such as Sri Lanka is going to increase her forest cover to 30% and destroying what little forest cover we have,’’ Dr Pilapitiya said.

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 

Pollution hotspots along Kelani mapped

December 4, 2016
Communities trained as monitors to prevent another oil spill disaster 

Waste on the river bank

All the main pollution sources along the Kelani River have been mapped by the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) to prevent a repeat of the disastrous leakage of diesel fuel into the river in August last year.

Flowing through highly-populated and highly-industrialised zones the Kelani, Sri Lanka’s fourth-longest river, is also its most polluted waterway. Waste discharge from rapidly-multiplying industries located alongside its banks, agricultural runoff and domestic and municipal wastes, including ad hoc dumping of municipal solid waste, are the main sources of pollution of the Kelani River.

The EFL has studied the river’s most polluted area from Avissawella to the river’s outflow – about 40km.

With financial support from The Asia Foundation, EFL surveyed the river to identify nearby industries that could pose a threat to the health of the river through direct discharge or spills of chemicals and disposal of waste. The survey documented the type of the industry and their GPS locations among other details pertaining to the industry. Data on water quality was also collected.

To set up a factory or large project, an Environment Protection Licence (EPL) needs to be obtained and approval through an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The EFL points out that while existing policy and legislations for curtailing industrial pollution are firm, there is a need for effective enforcement of law and a highly stringent monitoring mechanism to verify all standards are met.

These licences need to be renewed periodically – every one, three or more years – and that is the only time checks are carried out to establish whether an industry adheres to standards. “Unless there is a complaint there is no proper monitoring process of whether these industries adhere to agreed standards,” EFL project coordinator, Dhiya Sathananthan said.

The EFL believes it is vital for the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) to move from being a reactive compliance monitoring (complaint based) body to a proactive compliance monitoring (regular monitoring) organisation.

Aware of the CEA’s current limited resources the EFL is empowering local communities to be environmental monitors, Ms.Sathananthan said. It has carried out a series of training programs for community-based organisations in the highest-impact areas of the Kelani River.

A canal bringing pollutants to the river

The workshops aimed to educate local community to improve the river water quality and to minimise any further disasters caused by effluent discharged by industries as well as residents.

“Through these training programs community-based organisations were trained extensively on preventing pollution as well on pollution monitoring and identifying sources of pollution. The workshops saw a positive response, with participants enthusiastic about monitoring pollution discharges along the river and reporting their findings to the CEA, EFL or other environmental organisations,” Ms.Sathananthan stated.

In a report, the EFL has made several recommendations to prevent future pollution of the river. All new industries should be located in designated industrial zones and stand-alone industrial siting should be prohibited. The setting up of high-polluting industries in ecologically sensitive river basins and water-bodies should also be prohibited. The CEA should consider introducing toxicology assessments, the report further states.

In addition to the location of industries, the EFL project team observed a number of canals and drains emptying into the river. Heavy foam was observed in water discharged from some canals, probable evidence of industrial discharge. Canals in urban areas from Peliyagoda to Kelaniya carried domestic discharge.

The Kelani supplies water to the commercial and administration capital of Sri Lanka – about 500,000 people in Colombo and the periphery – so it is important to reduce pollution for the health and safety reasons as well as for the benefit of biodiversity, the EFL said.

Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161204/news/pollution-hotspots-along-kelani-mapped-218910.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.

Expert urges Lankans to recognise value of our forests

October 18, 2016

This article published on SundayTimes on 31.07.2016 will be re-posted here to remind the importance of our forests on this October – National Tree Planting Month. It is also a tribute to the ‘International Research Symposium on Valuation of Forest Ecosystems’ which is an initial step taken by REDD+ to assess the true value of the services silently offered by our forests. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160731/news/expert-urges-lankans-to-recognise-value-of-our-forests-202848.html

Prof.Savithri Gunathilake

Prof.Savithri Gunathilake

The world is losing forest at the rate of 3 million hectares a year according to 2010-2015 figures, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) revealed as World Forestry Week was marked in Rome on July 18-22. Minister Susil Premajayantha attended the Rome forum on behalf of the President of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka needs to pay more attention to the restoration of its own degraded forest land, Emeritus Professor at University of Peradeniya, Professor Savitri Gunatilleke said.

“Forests fulfil a series of ecosystem services, both tangible and intangible, and it is vital that we recognise their importance,” said Professor Gunatilleke, who recently received an award for her contribution of studies of forests in Sri Lanka.

“Methods are being explored to provide monitoring values for different ecosystem services the forests provide, which we take so much for granted. Hopefully this might convince decision-makers why forests need to be conserved,” she said.

Prof. Gunatilleke highlighted the importance of using Sri Lanka’s forest resources sustainably.

“In recent times, a number of forest species with economic value, such as walla patta, weniwel and kothala himbuttu were illegally and unsustainably harvested directly from forests. Over-exploitation threatens their survival so we need to do something immediately to arrest the situation,” she said.

She emphasised the importance of scientific studies to support a strategy to conserve such plants. “If we know the conditions required for their propagation and growth, these plants can be cultivated so that the pressure on plants in natural forests is reduced,” she said.

“Plants such as cinnamon were previously harvested directly from forests but these are now successfully cultivated, so why not do this for the other heavily harvested forest species? It is worth a try,” Prof. Gunatilleke said.

There is emerging molecular evidence now that some groups of rainforest plants such as the ancestors of durians, rambutans and dipterocarps (the hora and thiniya-yakahalu dun group of species) migrated to South-East Asia via the Indian Plate when earth is undergoing changes some 40-50 million years ago.

rays-of-sun-penetrating-cloud-forest

Currently, these ancestral species are confined to south-west Sri Lanka, where an ever-wet climate prevails. “These rainforests are a refuge to these ancestral species as well as a host of others, and hence of great significance to the entire tropical Asian region,” Prof. Gunatillake said.

Her research reveals that about 60 per cent of the tree species in Sri Lanka’s lowland rain forests is endemic but that their distribution is highly localised, with most being quite rare. Continued deforestation and illicit encroachment could threaten the survival of such species, she fears.

These wet zone forests are small in size, very fragile, much fragmented and in constant danger of conversion to other uses. It is important therefore to link these remaining forest patches and restore degraded forests using sound ecological principles, the researcher advises.

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

What price for Nature’s ‘greenbacks’ – the forests?

October 7, 2016

Prof.Nimal Gunathilake

Conservationists are debating whether working out a rupee value for forests would convince money-crunching bureaucrats that preserving them makes more economic sense than stripping woodland for income-producing purposes.

“Many people consider forest as a waste of land where utilising that terrain for other purposes can bring income, also contributing to the national economy. But forests provide other services such as delivering the fresh water we drink and the clean air we breathe whereas if we lose these services it will cost a lot of money to implement costly alternatives,” the Conservator-General of Forests, Anura Sathurusinghe said.

“It is often a big challenge to communicate this value to politicians and officials who mainly understand the value of everything in monetary terms and demand forest land for other development work,” Mr. Sathurusinghe said at a press conference organised by REDD+ Sri Lanka regarding the forthcoming International Research Symposium on Valuation of Forest Ecosystems and Their Services to be held in Colombo on October 18.

REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is an effort to identify value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries.

“Tagging a value” for services provide by an ecosystem such as a forest is a modern concept. Ecosystem services are broadly divided into four categories: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits. The concept aims at putting a price tag for these services which helps to convey their values in monetary terms. Hence the price that has to be paid by destroying that particular forest is highlighted.

“We know about ‘provisioning’ values of forests such as the value of timber, but other services are often taken for granted,” said forests expert Professor Nimal Gunathilake. He explained the aims of the research forum were to share the existing knowledge on forest ecosystem services valuation, identifying new methodologies and identifying the drawbacks.

Conservator General of Forests Anura Sathurusinghe

Ecosystem valuation can be difficult and controversial, and economists have often been criticised for trying to place a “price tag” on nature. At the forum, a question was raised whether communicating the value of individual forests to the general public is prudent as people could start exploiting natural resources such as in the case of illegally stripping forests of “walla patta” trees and smuggling the resin-rich wood overseas.

Mr.Sathurusinghe revealed that a recent review of forests showed degradation was a bigger concern than deforestation. Deforestation means conversion of forest to another land use type while degradation is deterioration of the standing vegetation in density, structure and species composition due to human activities and natural causes.

The four main causes of deforestation are encroachment, infrastructure development projects and private agriculture ventures while drivers for forest degradation include illicit felling of trees, cattle grazing, forest fires, gem-mining, quarrying, forest undergrowth cultivations such as cardamom and non-timber forest product gathering such as weniwel or walla patta. A REDD+ Sri Lanka report states Anuradhapura is the district with the highest levels of deforestation and forest degradation.

Deforestation is taking place at a relatively higher rate in the dry zone due to the many development projects now occurring there. Experts cautioned that dry zone forests are as important as wet zone forests.

ecosystem-inforgraphics

Published on SundayTimes on 02.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161002/news/what-price-for-natures-greenbacks-the-forests-211050.html

Top international award for Peradeniya scientist

October 1, 2016
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Prof. Savitri Gunatilleke with her PhD “guru”, Prof. Peter Ashton, and her husband, Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke, holding the plaque for the award of an Honorary Fellowship of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC), the premier global organisation with a mission to foster scientific understanding and conservation of tropical ecosystems, has awarded its 2016 Honorary Fellowship to Professor Savitri Gunatilleke, Emeritus Professor at the University of Peradeniya.

Prof. Gunatilleke is the first Sri Lankan to receive this award, made at the ATBC’s 53rd Annual Congress in Montpellier, France last month.

The award is given to researchers who have demonstrated life-long distinguished service to science and have been an inspiration and role model for younger scientists and students of tropical biology.

The ATBC said Prof. Gunatilleke’s selection was unanimous, with nominations including researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, India, France and Indonesia.

Founded in 1963, the ATBC Honorary Fellowship Award is considered one of the highest accolades a researcher in the field of tropical biology can receive, with more than 80 scientists around the world being honoured so far – of whom only six have been women.

The main area of Prof. Gunatilleke’s research has been the Sinharaja rainforest. In the 1970s, the Sinharaja forest was logged by the state forestry enterprise. Her research and conservation promotion contributed in large part to the eventual designation of the Sinharaja as a World Heritage Site.

Prof. Gunatilleke graduated with a first class honours degree in Botany from the University of Ceylon in 1969. She completed her MSc in Ecology, and also obtained her PhD – on a paper entitled “The Ecology of the Endemic Tree Species of Sri Lanka in Relation to their Conservation” – in 1975 from the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of the world-renowned tropical forest expert, Professor Peter Ashton.

“In fact, I wanted to study plant pathology – the science of studying causes and effects of plant diseases – but Professor B.A. Abeywickrama, then head of the Botany Department at Peradeniya, suggested I study forest ecology. It was a decision that changed my academic career,” she said.

The higher studies were challenging for the shy research student. “Quite frankly, I had not been to a forest when I started my PhD studies and I hardly knew how to identify different plants in the field. So I had to learn fast but luckily I had supportive local supervisors,” Prof. Gunatilleke.

She pays tribute to her undergraduate teachers, professors M. D. Dassanayake and S. Balasubramaniam, who helped her tremendously to gain this knowledge during her formative years.

As the distribution patterns of Sri Lanka’s endemic tree species growing in the different lowland climates unravelled during her Ph.D. field research, Prof. Gunatilleke’s bond with the forests grew. She pays tribute to her team of field researchers and field assistants for her success.

Later, she tied the knot with another academic in the field, Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke. “Nimal has been of great strength to me,” she said, adding she was lucky to have a research partner at home.

Prof. Gunatilleke was a pioneer in taking university students to the field for forest studies. Earlier, the practice was that even forest ecology had been taught in the classroom without stepping into a forest.

When asked why that practice could not continue, she was persuasive. “Sri Lanka’s forests are among the best ‘outdoor laboratories’ to study biological diversity. But it was a time that the university had limited resources so we had to push the administration to convince the importance of these field studies,” Prof. Gunatilleke said, recalling the time she introduced “multi-day” field courses to her students.

Prof. Gunatilleke has a long history of mentorship of a younger generation of Sri Lankan tropical scientists, with a number of them serving in reputed international and national institutions.

Savitri  Gunatilleke is an outstanding role model for scientists in Sri Lanka and women scientists in particular. Apart from her academic work, which is evident from her many influential publications, she also committed herself to the advancement of ecology and conservation in Sri Lanka’s development. She has been a member of Sri Lanka’s National Man and Biosphere committee and helped to prepare the country’s Biodiversity Action Plan (1997) to name but two of many contributions.

Prof. Savitri observing tree crowns in Hakgala Botanic Gardens.

Prof. Savitri observing tree crowns in Hakgala Botanic Gardens.

Flawed approvals of mini hydro projects spell river, land destruction

September 28, 2016

This article was published on SundayTimes on 28.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

Mini hydro power plants set up in sensitive areas can cause environmental damage and harm the biodiversity and ecosystem of forests, groups campaigning to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and the environment have warned.
The Environmental Foundation Limited and Sri Lanka Jalani said this week that there are deficiencies in the approval process of plants sited in protected as well as ecologically-sensitive areas. They suggest that policy guidelines be developed on where such plants can be built.

Trees are felled, river banks are cleared causing erosion and and rocks are blasted to build these plants. Debris chokes the rivers.
A mini hydro power plant is built by building a weir (dam) to collect water which is then channeled to generate less than 10 megawatts. Already 145 such units are in operation and it is understood that more than 100 are being developed or under evaluation.

The Initial Environmental Examination is the main assessment that determines whether the environmental clearance should be granted for such plants. But there are serious inaccuracies or omissions, Dr Sevvandi Jayakody of Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries of Wayamba University, said. “Many of these IEEs contain a dubious list of animals and plants with important species present in the area missing. It is clear that those who conduct the IEEs either do not have proper subject knowledge, do it in a hurry, or biased.”

Rather than doing IEEs on a single project basis, it is important to assess the environmental impact on a whole stretch of river to assess the collective impact on the river, she said.

Protests in Gatambe

Regulations require that a free flow of water in a river must be ensured to help maintain the ecosystems downstream.
“But we have serious concerns on accuracy of calculations of the amount of water that needs to be released as environment flow. Who ensures whether the flow is constantly being monitored day and night?” asked Dr Jayakody emphasizing the importance of regular post-monitoring of operations of mini hydro plants.

Prof Ivan Silva who has a Phd in river ecology, said mini hydro power plants may help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but one must take into account the destruction caused by the felling of trees to build projects.

Sections of river that dry out can also create water pools that could generate methane, which is a worse than green house gases.
Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane, pointed out the need for more serious environmental impact assessments for mini hydro power plants in highly environmentally-sensitive areas. He also questioned the ethical integrity of some experts who conduct IEEs while sitting on panels that approve projects.

“Our aim is not merely to block the development process, but to make them sustainable,” EFL’s director, Shehara De Silva summed up.

Regulators reveal holes in their buckets

The Sunday Times contacted Sustainable Energy Authority, Director General, Ranjith Pathmasiri, who noted that most viable hydro power projects have been completed and the authority is at present focusing on solar and wind power. Referring to its role in commissioning of mini hydro power projects, he said the main responsibility was to grant an energy permit for engaging in and carrying on of an on-grid renewable energy project.

The Central Environment Authority carries the main responsibility for environmental aspects of mini hydro projects, he said. 

CEA Director General K. H. Muthukudaarachchi accepted there could be some issues with Initial Environmental Examinations handled by regional offices. He said that it has been decided that assessments for projects in sensitive areas be handled by the head office. Action will taken against projects where deficiencies are found.

When asked about post-monitoring of projects, the CEA head said it had to be a shared responsibility. The CEA does not have capacity to monitor by itself, he added.

Sinharaja’s slithering new beauty

September 26, 2016

A new creature has been found in the Sinharaja rainforest, surprising experts who believed the well-researched forest had few secrets left.

Hidden from sight high in the tree canopy is a new and vividly-coloured snake now revealed by veteran herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe in an article published this week in the prestigious science journal, Zootaxa.

“The snake lives in the canopy of the forest and that could be the reason it eludes the eyes of researchers who frequent Sinharaja,” Mr. Wickramasinghe explained. He had first seen the snake as early as 2001 while conducting other research and had continued to search for this snake afterwards, managing to spot just six such specimens.

He has named the new snake the Sinharaja tree snake or Sinharaja bronze-backed snake.

treesnakegraphic-449x1024

The Sinharaja tree snake is a beautiful reptile with a unique colour pattern of prominent cross-bars in black and white and a red neck. It has a dark purple tongue. It has a slender body, rounded pupils, enlarged vertebral scales, and a head distinct from the body.

The live specimen Mr. Wickremasinghe photographed was recorded 15m high up in trees near Kudawa. “I was on top of a small cliff so the tree canopy was at eye level when I spotted the beauty,” he said, recalling his chance encounter.

The snake is active during the day and lives in the trees. Its large pupils give it very good eyesight, and Mr. Wickremasinghe believes sight, more than scent, is used to hunt prey. The snake could be feeding on geckos, lizards, skinks and could be laying its eggs in tree hollows.

The holotype or the single type specimen upon which the scientific description and name of a new species is based was unfortunately a member of the species run over on the road near Mederipitiya. Mr. Wickramasinghe preserved it in formalin and then began the painful scientific process of comparing it with specimens of other snakes to make sure it was not, in fact, already known to science.

Mr. Wickremasinghe assigned the snake to the genus Dendrelaphis and gave it the scientific name Dendrelaphis sinharajensis. In Sinhala, it is called Sinharaja haldanda and in Tamil, Sinharaja komberi.

The Dendrelaphis genus has 44 members around the world. There are six bronze-backed snakes in the country, three of them endemic. Although they share many common features, the colour pattern of Sinharaja tree snake makes it easily distinguishable from its close relatives.

The Sinharaja tree snake is rarely sighted, so it is likely to be rare, Mr. Wickramasinghe said, stressing the need for more research into the species.

Habitat loss and forest fragmentation could affect this species directly as it need trees to survive. But, sadly, the axe of destruction moves at the boundaries of the Sinharaja forest.

With the new discovery, Mendis Wickremasinghe has scientifically described 23 new species – two snakes, 11 amphibians, seven geckos and three skinks. He hinted that another discovery is on the way, so keep checking The Sunday Times for another new species very soon.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160918/news/sinharajas-slithering-new-beauty-209050.html

Repertoire: Mendis’ book wins awards at State Literary Awards 

Mendis Wickramasinghe is an outstanding wildlife photographer and his maiden coffee-table book,Repertoire, won two awards at the recently-concluded State Literary Awards, commended for presenting scientific information in a simple manner and for Kasun Pradeepa’s excellent layout.

Those interested in buying a copy should contact 0767 987 688 or purchase the book at a special rate from book fair stall no: L-379 of the Wildlife Trust. 

repertoir

Shark spotted in Menik Ganga

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 16.02.2016 on SundayTimes – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/extinct-shark-spotted-in-menik-ganga-182906.html

A few months ago, the apex predator of the freshwater riverine habitats, the crocodile, was reported in the sea off Wellawatte; recently the apex predator of the ocean, the shark, was reported in a river. The latest sighting of a shark in a freshwater habitat was reported by a group of wildlife lovers who visited Yala on January 23.

While travelling to their campsite in the evening they passed a bridge over the Menik Ganga that flows across Yala. The slow-flowing water in this part of the river is shallow and one of the group members spotted a large fish.

“That is a shark!” shouted Isuru de Soyza, pointing it out to the others before it swam away. Senehas Karunaratne, armed with a camera, had only a split of second to click before the shark took refuge under the bridge.

“The shark was about three feet long and quick in the water,” commented Mr. Karunaratne.

Rumours of sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga have been around for a while and Mr. de Soyza claimed to have seen one in the same section of the river a few months ago.

Photographic evidence of sharks in the Menik Ganga first came from a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG). While conducting an islandwide freshwater fish survey at the Menik Ganga about 7km upstream from the coast they spotted a shark in shallow, crystal-clear water about three feet deep.

They netted the shark and carefully brought it out of the water to take measurements. The shark was about three feet long. After photographing it, they released it back into the water.

The WCSG survey team had three more sightings of sharks in the Menik Ganga and the Kumbukkan Oya, closer to Kumana.
Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on sharks, Rex I. de Silva, was sent the WCSG photo for examination and identified the shark as a variant of the Pondicherry shark (Carcharhinus hermiodon).

This species lives in the Indo-Pacific region from the Gulf of Oman to New Guinea, with most records from the coastal waters of India. The International IUCN Red List of threatened fauna lists the Pondicherry shark as “Critically endangered – possibly extinct”.

The Red List states that the shark was last recorded in 1979. Rex de Silva, however, states that the shark has been recorded in small numbers in Sri Lankan seas since the mid-1980s with the species’ presence in Sri Lankan waters first documented by himself in 1988.

Commenting on these sightings on the “Sharks of Sri Lanka” Facebook page, Mr. De Silva said it was important to differentiate between a shark in freshwater from a shark in a river.

“In times of drought, when river levels, fall seawater may intrude some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species may follow the seawater intrusion for a considerable distance up river, so although they are in a river they will still be in salty or semi-saline water.

When the salt water recedes the marine species follow it back to the sea. A shark in freshwater, on the other hand, is usually present farther up a river beyond the reach of salt water. As mentioned above, the shark photographed by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle to date remains the only record of a shark from freshwater in Sri Lanka.”

Mr. de Silva states that anecdotal evidence over at least 30 years suggests that there are sharks in the Menik Ganga, but these sharks were not identified although speculation about their identity was sometimes offered.

Literature indicates that Pondicherry sharks do not grow much longer than about 3.3 feet and hence are not a threat to humans.

Sharks are not blood-thirsty man-eaters as Hollywood movies depict, so the presence of sharks in the Menik Ganga simply adds an interesting element to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and is nothing about which to feel panic.

A fisherman in Hikkaduwa caught a 12-foot, 350kg shark, reports last week said.

The shark was caught in deep ocean about 20 km from shore. Inspecting footage of the specimen, shark expert Rex De Silva provisionally identified it as a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Pondichery Shark in Menik Ganga (c) Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle

Help for identifying a sharkAltogether, 61 species of shark have been found around Sri Lanka, however there could be more varieties living in our waters. Shark expert Rex de Silva maintains a Facebook group called “Sharks of Sri Lanka” and welcomes public sharing of images for identification purposes.

When forwarding images for identification it is best that a full lateral view (side view) is submitted as correct identification often depends on the relative positions of the fins, size and position of gill slits etc.

“I appreciate that obtaining a lateral view will not always be possible in which case any image is better than none and I am pleased to note the great interest in our sharks among lay persons,” Mr. De Silva states.

Mr. De Silva also launched a comprehensive book on sharks last year, with illustrations by prominent wildlife artist Jayantha Jinasena. Copies could be purchased from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Department of Zoology, University of Colombo (call 2592609 or email fogsl1976@gmail.com

 

Mini hydros: Clean energy comes at high cost to Nature

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 14.02.2016 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160214/news/mini-hydros-clean-energy-comes-at-high-cost-to-nature-182949.html

Damming streams a ‘death sentence for many species’ 

Dam being built across the Anda dola. Pic courtesy Rainforest

Mini hydro plants, touted as clean energy power sources, are destroying eco-systems in some areas, experts warned.

In Sri Lanka, large hydro power potential has all been fully utilised and what remains are opportunities for small or mini hydro power. These smaller plants are blocking streams, threatening freshwater fish and the fragile ecosystem in these water sources, a conference heard last week.

The Dams, Rivers and Freshwater Fish in Sri Lanka conference was organised by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) to focus particularly on threats to Athwelthota feared from a proposed mini-hydro power plant.

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream.

Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law. But the change in flow is a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat, said Samantha Gunasekera, an expert on freshwater fish and orchids who until recently headed the Customs Biodiversity Unit.

“Different fish need different micro-habitats,” Mr. Gunasekera said. “For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water. But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely. With flow changes the PH value [acid levels] of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.”

“Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,” WCSG member Madhura de Silva said.
In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams, Mr. de Silva said. “Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.”

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost, Mr. Gunasekera fears.

He emphasised the importance of considering the collective effect of all the mini-hydro power plants on a stream or a river when carrying out environmental assessment.

Many streams have been marked as potential for building mini-hydro projects and already about 37 are in construction or evaluation phase, revealed CEJ member Hemantha Withanage.

Environmentalists revealed the damage caused by a number of these projects, among them the mini-hydro plant being built crossing the Anda dola in Dellawa forest close to Sinharaja rainforest and a plant at Koskulana in the northern Sinharaja buffer zone.

The Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka says these projects will damage the Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest complex.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana, the Rainforest Protectors say.

Anda Dola, a tributary of the Gin Ganga in the Neluwa Divisional Secretariat in Galle district, is the latest victim of the rapidly multiplying mini-hydro projects throughout the wet zone.

The weir and a 2.5 km section of penstock (concrete channel) has been constructed within the Dellawa rainforest, which is ecologically part of the Sinharaja Rainforest Complex. Due to construction happening within the protected forest reserve and negligence in part by the developer, the project is said to be causing massive environmental destruction affecting the stream, rainforest, soil and endemic fish in the region.

The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardene said project in such an environmentally sensitive area needs to undergo proper environmental assessment.

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) bears a significant responsibility to make sure Environmental Impact Assessments are being conducted thoroughly and to make certain the recommendations of the EIAs are being implemented. CEA chairman Professor Lal Dharmaratne said his institute would take action against those who violate the law.

Yala opens amidst tension after shooting of poacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leopards are often fallen victims of snares setup for wildboar

Leopards are often fallen victims of snares setup for wildboar

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

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

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

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

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

How to stop poaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 11.10.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151011/news/yala-opens-amidst-tension-after-shooting-of-poacher-167383.html

The saltie that terrorised Rawatawatte

September 18, 2015
Neighbours woken in the wee hours by the news that a croc had entered their garden hoped it was just a bad dream. Malaka Rodrigo reports 
A resident of Dharmaratne Avenue in Rawatawatte, Moratuwa, was returning home after his night shift around 2 a.m. when his van’s headlights picked out something that looked like a slowly moving log. Disturbed by the sound of the vehicle the “log” came to life, lunging to the side of the road and entering a neighbour’s garden. The resident got home and told his father, D. Perera, who telephoned and alerted the neighbour to the presence of the trespasser.

The police were called on 911 and with the Pereras and their neighbours began a search with torches. Soon the trespasser was found, lost and equally or more terrified than the search party – a 7.2-foot saltwater crocodile. The police and residents managed to corner the croc near a wall and called the Department of Wildlife Conservation. One person also alerted a croc expert, Avishka Godahewa, who lives close by. Mr. Godahewa, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Crocodile Specialist Group, is permitted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation to handle wild crocs.

Guess who came to the garden? A 7.2-foot saltwater crocodile

Guess who came to the garden? A 7.2-foot saltwater crocodile

With the department’s approval, he rushed to Rawatawatte to take care of the intruder. Although a fearsome predator, the Rawatawatte croc was a frightened beast in unfamiliar, hostile territory.

After checking out the croc, Mr. Godahewa decided how it should be captured and carried out the rescue mission with the assistance of his father. The croc was not tired and had plenty of fight left in it, so capturing it was not an easy task as the onlookers’ safety had also to be considered; the whole neighbourhood had by now gathered to see the croc. Mr. Godahewa tied up the crocodile and took it quickly to a safe croc habitat. As soon it was released the croc rushed to the water in relief at returning to familiar territory.

Sri Lanka is home to two species of crocodile: the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) or geta kimbula in Sinhala, is larger than its cousin, the mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) or hala kimbula. The Sri Lankan population of saltwater crocodiles is considered endangered and some of the wetlands such as the Weras Ganga and the Lunawa lagoon in Colombo are the last hideouts of this species in the Colombo suburbs. Hence, even though it is a feared creature, it is important to protect the remaining individuals.

“I was woken by the SOS call from a panicked neighbor,” he said of that day, August 29. “I don’t call them nuisance croc calls but croc rescue calls as otherwise terrified people continue harassing the crocs, even killing them,” he said.Twenty-year-old Avishka Godahewa, the youngest member of the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group, has so far rescued about 10 crocodiles from the Rawatawatte area.

Dharmaratne Avenue is a highly residential area and the nearest water source is about 300-400 metres away. The crocodiles have a habit of leaving their waterholes at night to go in search of food or other waterholes, Dr. Anslem de Silva, the country’s foremost expert on the reptiles, said.

Three more crocs were rescued in Ambalantota in the Hambanthota District in the past few weeks. One had trespassed into a home garden close to its waterway while the other two had become entangled in fishing nets laid in a small village tank, the Nonagama Wewa. All three were mugger crocodiles. Wildlife officers caught them safely and released them to the Udawalawe tank.

Capturing the crocodile was not an easy task

‘Gaddafi’ catcher was here to train local croc hunters

Steve Irwin’s famous Crocodile Hunter episodes shown on television made catching a croc look easy but it is an extremely dangerous job: a simple mistake could cost the hunter a limb or his life. 

To help Department of Wildlife Conservation officers learn how to catch and rescue trapped or straying crocodiles training seminars were held recently led by internationally-acclaimed crocodile hunter, Peter Prodromou.
Mr. Prodomou has worked in Uganda with Nile crocodiles. He became famous for catching a killer croc called Gaddafi that accounted for three lives in Uganda. Before catching this croc, Peter used methods such as placing a dummy of a human child to check which croc attacked first in order to single out the culprit responsible for the attacks. 

In Sri Lanka, soon after an attack, people hurriedly put out bait to catch a crocodile that comes close to the area. While this might snare the real culprit as crocs are usually territorial, there is a higher chance that one that is not responsible for the attack gets caught.
During the training, Mr. Prodomou showed the wildlife officers easier techniques such as using floating baits to catch a nuisance croc. The training was organised for the DWC by Avishka Godahewa, together with his brother, Avinda, and a colleague, Mafas Mohammed, both of whom are also members of the Crocodile Specialist Group. 

from the training on how to catch a croc

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150913/news/the-saltie-that-terrorised-rawatawatte-164034.html

Environmentalists fight Wilpattu clearance in court

August 6, 2015

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

Environmentalists to fight Wilpattu clearance in court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour of Trees in Colombo

May 17, 2015

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

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

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

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