Archive for the ‘Forests’ Category

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.

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.

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.

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

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

 

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 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140216/news/wallapatta-agarwood-the-new-illegal-million-rupee-racket-85990.html 

The return of the Damselfly after 154 years

August 23, 2013

An animal or plant is considered ‘extinct’, if it has not been recorded for more than a century. The Sri Lanka Emerald Spreadwing (Sinhalestes orientalis) a beautiful Damselfly that had not been recorded for 154 years and thereby considered extinct had made a re-appearance last year. The information about this rediscovery has been published few weeks ago in Asian Journal of Conservation Biology authored by young researcher Amila P Sumanapala and expert on dragonflies M. Bedjanič.

_MG_5773 (c) Salindra Kasun Dayananda

According to Amila the species with its emerald body with yellow markings is easily identifiable. The male damselfly is slightly bigger than the female and unlike other damselflies this species spreads its wings when resting, hence the name “Spreadwing”. According to researchers they are found along slow-flowing forest streams. They invariably hang from the tip of a leaf.

There are 120 recorded species of dragonflies and damselflies, collectively known as order Odonata, in Sri Lanka. Of them 57 are believed to be endemic. Damselflies can usually be differentiated from dragonflies because of their thin, needle-like abdomens and by the way they stretch their wings out when not moving. With few exceptions like the Emerald Spreadwing, the wings of most damselflies are held along and parallel to, the body when at rest. The large eyes of the damselfly differ from those of dragonflies as they are separated.

The Peak Wilderness has recently been in the news with discoveries and rediscoveries being reported from this natural habitat which has now been declared a UNESCO Natural Heritage site. Many scientists believe although Sinharaja is the jewel in Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, the Peak Wilderness could be home to many more unique fauna and flora waiting to be discovered. However, it has been a difficult terrain to research because of its mountainous, slippery and misty conditions.

Water Pollution endangering  this mosquito-killer

A female Sinhalestes orientali

A few decades ago damselflies and dragonflies were in abundance. The insects need a pool of water whether small or big to lay their eggs and for their larval stage.

However, their numbers have declined drastically in recent years due to the pollution of water bodies. In the chapter about dragonflies in RedList 2012 by Dr.Nancy van der Poorten and Karen Conniff the writers point out water pollution as a serious threat to this species. As a result of agricultural production, many chemicals end up in the drains and streams where odonates breed. RedList-2012 also cites an example in Balangoda. For the past five years, the stream has become filled with soap and algae due to increased human population and some species of dragonflies that used to be seen there are no longer found in that body of water.

Damselflies and dragonflies are also bio-control agents as they devour harmful insects. Damselflies like dragonflies are predators and feed on harmful insects including mosquitoes in flight. More importantly, the nymphs (larvae) –of damselflies feed on mosquito larvae.

A male Sinhalestes orientalis. Pix by K. Dayananda and D. Randula

Published on SundayTimes on 18.08.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130818/news/the-return-of-the-damselfly-after-154-years-58434.html 

Eight new shrub frogs discovered from the Peak Wilderness

March 26, 2013

Sri Lanka’s fame as a global amphibian hotspot got a further boost last week with the discovery of eight new amphibian species. The new discovery, takes the number of amphibians found in Sri Lanka to 119 with 103 being found only in this country and was published in the prestigious ‘Journal of Threatened Taxa’. But these unique creatures will be the first line of victims of Climate Change, says researchers. – reports Malaka Rodrigo 

The new species possess unique characteristics that make them distinct from one another and easily identifiable in the field, Mendis Wickremasinghe of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka who made the discoveries with his research team said. However the conservation status of the species except for one has to be seen as “Critically Endangered”, as they were discovered in single locations where their habitats are under threat, he said.

The discoveries were made by the research team during a study of herpetofaunal diversity (diversity of amphibians and reptiles) in the Sri Pada World Heritage site. The frogs were discovered along the trail leading from Palabaddala to the Sri Pada Peak, and the trail from Erathna/Kuruvita to the Sri Pada Peak during phase I and Phase II of the project conducted from 2009 to 2011.

Acknowledging the hard work carried out by the research team that included himself, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Gehan Rajeev, Chathuranga Ariyarathne, Amila Chanaka, Nethu Wickramasinghe, Imesh Nuwan Bandara and Dharshana Priyantha, Mr. Wickremesinghe said they braved the chilly nights and harsh conditions of the Peak Wilderness during the survey. Amphibians are mostly nocturnal creatures and the team guided by GPS locators, cameras and other equipment followed the amphibians in leech-infested territories.

The new species belong to the Pseudophilautus group that includes shrub frogs known as Panduru Mediya in Sinhala. This genus Pseudophilautus consists of 65 known species that are endemic to Sri Lanka. This group of frogs is believed to have separated from India long time ago with their evolution to taking place in isolation in Sri Lanka. Most of the shrub frogs are direct developers that are born directly from eggs, bypassing the tadpole stage. Therefore they don’t need to live near a waterway and can survive on moist cloud forests like the Peak Wilderness.

The researchers named these amphibians after eight individuals who play a role in protecting the environment or the conservation of wildlife. Among them are leading ecologists and botanists, Dr.Channa Bambaradeniya, Dr. Siril Wijesundara, Dr.Nihan Dayawansa and environmental activist Jagath Gunawardane. Wildlife officers Y.G.P. Karunarathna, Vijith Samarakoon have also been honoured while a leading surgeon and ardent naturalist Dr. Newton Jayawardane too has been recognized.

One of the frogs has been named after Veera Puran Appu (1812–1848) a freedom fighter who stood up to the might of the British rulers.

FrogsGrahic

The researchers rate the Peak Wilderness as one of the most threatened habitats of Sri Lanka as its unique cloud forest is surround by tea plantations that are rapidly encroaching the forest. In addition pilgrims to Sri Pada due to ignorance contribute to the pollution of this virgin forest. Attempts to build a helipad at the summit, and moves to introduce a cable car system have been condemned by environmentalists and researchers. The latter group fears that the unique biodiversity of the Peak Wilderness will be lost, even before it is discovered.

However, Climate Change will be a greater threat to all these amphibians they fear. Most of the Amphibians need right level of moisture for their survival. But global warming will change these parameters and even a slight change will make a big impact for these environmentally sensitive creatures also known as environmental indicators. Unlike reptiles or birds, which have hard-shelled eggs, amphibians have jelly-like, unshelled eggs that cannot survive desiccation. Amphibians also need moist climates to reproduce, and this makes them extremely sensitive to climate variabilities, he calls.

The frogs in high mountain areas are highly vulnerable to climate change claims the researcher. Many of Endemic Sri Lankan frogs live on cloud forests such as Peak Wilderness and Hortan Plains. It is feared the global warming will elevate the moist cloud drying the soil on lower areas. Other larger animals could move to other areas and adopt, but small creatures and largely immobile frogs would not be able to survive. Other factor is many of these frogs already lives in highest grounds, so they will have no place to move, making these creatures live in higher level the most vulnerable as when their habitat dries or warms, they have nowhere left to go. Other fact is that mountains are cony shapes and as you go higher, there are little living space. So there will be limited ecosystems for these frogs to survive.

Mr. Wickrememsinghe said their ongoing survey at Peak Wilderness would lead to more discoveries in the future, adding that he was grateful to the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment, Nagao Natural Environment Foundation, and Dilmah Conservation for funding the survey.

Published on SundayTimes on 24.03.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130324/news/eight-new-shrub-frogs-discovered-from-the-peak-wilderness-38266.html

First ‘International Forest Day’ celebrates today

March 21, 2013

Today, 21st March, is the International Day of Forests. The importance of the forests has increased in this era of Climate Change as forests are perhaps the greatest Carbon Sinks that removes atmospheric Carbon Dioxide leading the way of the fight against Global Warming.  This date was agreed by the UN General Assembly in November last year so that every year there would be one day set aside to “celebrate and raise awareness” of forests.

Forest(c) Greenpeace

Forest is a valuable Ecosystem (c) Greenpeace

Sri Lanka is considered as a global Biodiversity Hotspot and the diversity of life in forests contributes much for claiming this prestigious status. The Tropical Wet Lowland Evergreen Rainforests and the cloud forests (tropical moist evergreen forest) in hill country of Sri Lanka is home for about 80% of the Endemic fauna and flora of Sri Lanka. But sadly, majority of the protected areas of Sri Lanka are from Dry Zone despite the  remaining forests in Wet Zone and central highlands are severely threatened by Encroachment.

Forget the little creatures inhabit in this habitats. Forests perform lots of valuable Ecosystem Services that helps to regulates lots of systems support humanity and our survival.

First of all, forest regulates the climate. Statistics show that forests store nearly 300 billion tonnes of carbon in their living parts. This is roughly 40 times the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels. Deforestation accounts for approximately the same amount of climate pollution as all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined. So, from a climate point of view it’s better to keep the GHGs where they are by preserving and protecting the forests, says Greenpeace.

The world’s fight against climate change has placed a special emphasis on protecting the world’s remaining forests. This has given rise to a concept called “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD). According to this mechanism, there is a set of steps designed to use market/financial incentives to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from deforestation and forest degradation.

In simpler terms, REDD is a mechanism to financially reward commitments by developing forested nations to stop deforestation/forest degradation and enhancing forest carbon stocks that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing the more important role of forests, this programme has become REDD+ where the ‘plus’ goes beyond deforestation, also including the role of conservation, sustainable management aiming to protect forest biodiversity too.

REDD implementation is expected to take place in a post-2012 climate regime, and global level discussions are currently being held to finalize the mechanism. The World Bank and the United Nations have launched a programme (REDD readiness) to support developing countries to develop capacity to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and to implement a future REDD mechanism.

In theory, this can bring multiple benefits to Sri Lanka so it is worth evaluating the opportunities of REDD and getting ready before it is too late. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol which is a global agreement to reduce green house gas emissions also held similar promise, but Sri Lanka was late to act on it. Are we on top of this new forest initiative ?

The UN-REDD Programme initially works with nine member countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America: Bolivia, Congo, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. It was announced that Sri Lanka has been admitted to the ‘United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) Programme’ in October 2009. Since then Sri Lanka has been granted observer status to the UN-REDD programme and is currently in the process of doing the ground work for REDD.

Image on deforestation. Courtesy UN REDD

“Getting ready for the REDD is not an easy task, but the REDD-Readiness process alone will provide benefits to Sri Lanka,” says Conservator of Forests of the Forest Department Anura Sathurusinghe who is also the REDD focal point for Sri Lanka.

There is much data and information to be collected before formulation of REDD projects. The first phase of REDD-readiness includes formulating of National REDD Strategy development, capacity building, institutional strengthening along with many other pilot activities.

An accurate national inventory of forest resources of the country is essential information needed for the REDD programme as it will help in estimating the amount of carbon contained in these forests. This carbon measurement process has already started with a team of experts currently evaluating the carbon stocks of different forest types in Sri Lanka. Other than the forests, agricultural lands such as rubber, coconut and forest plantations (such as Eucalyptus) and also home gardens are studied through different methods to estimate their stock of carbon.

Experts also point out the many drawbacks that could hinder the success of these REDD mechanisms including cost of certification, lack of a comprehensive database on quantification of GHG emission reductions by existing forests and some areas of the process that are still not clear etc.

That some of the forests are managed by the Forest Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation which is now outside of the Environmental Ministry also would require coordination between ministries.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane agrees that the REDD initiative could bring benefits to the country by reducing deforestation if properly implemented. He pointed out that the government will also be bound to protect the forests as a result of the agreement.

Many of Sri Lanka’s leading environmentalists were against the previous attempt to introduce the Tropical Forest Conservation (TFC) Act by the United States which proposed the swap of debts for protection activities of Sinharaja forest. “TFC was between two countries which was not transparent, while REDD will be governed by an international agreement; so there is no complaint at this stage although we need to evaluate future developments carefully,” Mr. Gunawardane said.

Kanneliya absorbs more carbon than Sinharaja

Prof. Janendra Costa, has already completed the estimation of carbon absorption rates of Sinharaja and the Kanneliya-Dediyagala-Nakiyadeniya (KDN) forest complex. The total carbon stock of Sinharaja is 305 metric tons of carbon per hectare while KDN records 312. Carbon stock is the amount of carbon in the standing biomass (mass of organic matter) of the forest at a given point of time.

It is the result of carbon sequestration over a large number of years where the Carbon sequestration rate is defined as the amount of carbon that the forest would absorb (through photosynthesis) and retain during a given period of time.

It is the carbon sequestration rate (through absorbing atmospheric CO2) that is important for REDD+ because it is the parameter that represents the contribution from a forest to climate change mitigation. This annual carbon sequestration rate (metric tons of carbon per hectare per year) is 8.953 in KDN while in Sinharaja it is 7.403.

An interesting finding is that the total annual carbon dioxide absorption rate (million metric tons of CO2 per year) of KDN is higher than the Sinharaja Man and Biosphere forest reserve.

Prof. De Costa points out this is primarily because KDN is located in a slightly warmer environment, which receives a slightly greater amount of solar radiation (both of which are because KDN is located slightly closer to the Equator), which enables a slightly greater photosynthetic rate. The research also revealed Sinharaja absorbs 2.52% of Sri Lanka’s total annual CO2 emissions and KDN absorbs 3.26%.

In comparison to the CO2 absorption rates of these two tropical rainforests, Prof. Costa expects the CO2 absorption rates of the dry zone forests and montane forests (e.g. Horton Plains, part of Knuckles and the Peak Wilderness) to be lower.

He suggests that in the dry zone forests, the tree density is lower and because of the warmer temperatures a greater percentage of absorbed carbon would be released again due to greater respiration.

So let’s all understand the value of forests and protect them – if not for Biodiversity; for our own sake..!!!

Message of the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity on Occasion of International Forest Day

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110102/Plus/plus_01.html

Weni wel the local paracetamol in market hot water

March 10, 2013

Forest officials and experts have expressed serious concern over illegal and unchecked harvesting of weni wel, Sri Lanka’s age-old multi-cure herb, by racketeers and profiteers driven by the high demand for it. �Recently, forest officers in Thawalama arrested four people who were transporting without a permit some 700 kg of weni wel. Thawalama forest officer Sunil Kaluthotage said the suspects pleaded guilty when they were produced before a magistrate.

Prematurely harvested weni wel stems being dried.

The case was the latest addition to the series of detections made in the area. �Mr. Kaluthotage said that during the past 12 months, at least six illegal ‘weni wel’ cases were reported from his range alone and this showed that haphazard harvesting was on the rise to meet the demand for weni wel in the market.�Locally known as weni wel, weniwelgata or ban wel, the plant has Ayurvedic medicinal properties. Described as the Ayurvedic equivalent of paracetamol, weni wel is a much sought after herbal cure for ailments ranging from common flu to tetanus. It is a key ingredient in the famous Pas Panguwa.

Known as ‘False Calumba’ in English and coscinium fenestratum scientifically, weni wel is a woody climber commonly found in Sri Lanka’s lowland wet forests such as Sinharaja and Kanneliya. The plant is also native to South India, Cambodia and West Malaysia. �But unchecked harvesting of weni wel, which takes decades to reach maturity, has raised alarm among experts. They say that some plants take 30 years to mature to the level which gives it a ‘geta’ or knotty appearance – a sign that indicates that it was of best quality.

The herb is also used in a range of commercial products including soap, creating a big demand for it. �Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke, an expert on forests, said he believed that the demand for it in the market had led to unchecked and premature harvesting of weni wel.�“While we can be happy that a traditional herbal product has found new and emerging markets both locally and overseas, can the resource base cope with the current and projected demand?” he asked, stressing the need for a thorough research to find the right balance.

“As biology researchers of both timber and non-timber forest products, we realised this need several decades ago. We have been studying the weni wel’s biology and ecology as well as its propagation and cultivation in a number of habitats with a view to reducing the extractive pressure on the wild populations,” he said.

Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke warned that if this current level of extraction was permitted, weni wel would soon, if not already, be on the list of threatened plants of Sri Lanka.
The eminent botany professor said he had seen large stocks of dried weni wel stems along the Kukule-Molkawa road, ready for transport. He said the people had told him that they had paid for their permits to harvest them.

Prof. Gunatilleke said that since weni wel grew better in partial light and was commonly found in degraded forests and forest edges, the plant could be grown in pine forests in the wet zone and in home gardens. He said the weni-wel plants that were planted at the edge of Sinharaja on experimental basis reached harvestable level within 15 years or so with no fertiliser added, though the quality would have been better if the harvest had been done much later.

A common sight along the Kukule-Molkawa road

The professor welcomed a recent suggestion by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa to set up a forest in every village.�“This concept of ‘one forest for one village’ would be an excellent proposition in managing local ecosystems while providing benefit to the local people. At the same time, it would also be worthwhile to consider how the existing pine plantations could be converted into forests of native plants, both timber and non-timber species,” he said adding that this would help enhance biological diversity and ensure environmental security.

“On our part, we have shown that this could be done in the lowland wet zone using suites of such species of ecological and rural economic importance in Sinharaja and Hantana demonstration plots. More such studies are needed, if we are to conserve and utilise our rich biological heritage, bringing in tangible benefit to the local communities,” Prof. Gunatilleke said.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.03.2013 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130310/news/weni-wel-the-local-paracetamol-in-market-hot-water-36197.html

Sri Lanka could be in path of world’s longest insect migration

October 21, 2012
Public asked to watch out for mass movement of dragonflies

Last year same period: Waves of Dragonflies were reported from the west coast and other areas. The world’s longest insect migration was documented from India-Maldives-Africa and this observation hints Sri Lanka too could be a hub in its path. Public support is sought this year to unravel this mystery�

On October 20 last year a large swarm of dragonflies were spotted in Sri Lanka’s west coast by a bird watcher Nashath Hafi. The insects had been seen heading south from areas including Moratuwa and Kollupitiya. Subsequent investigations confirmed this unusual influx of insects

A Globe Skimmer Dragonfly found last year soon after the wave of dragonflies

Speaking to the Sunday Times Sarath who lives by the coast in Dehiwela said, “the cloud of dragonflies took a few hours to pass our area. The insects were everywhere and some even ended up inside houses”. Members of the fishing community at Dehiwela helped to catch a few dragonflies that were still hovering around.

An investigation into the phenomenon by consulting biologists revealed a possibility of a mass migration of dragonflies spanning India – Maldives and all the way up to East Africa. The path covers a distance of around 14,000 kilometres and could be called the world’s longest insect migration.

Maldivian-based biologist Dr. Charles Anderson initially revealed the amazing phenomenon based onthe dates the dragonflies appear in the Maldives and India.

The Maldive Islands lack surface freshwater as the soil absorbs all rainwater. This indicated that dragonflies which spend their larvae stage in fresh water cannot breed in these tropical islands. Yet, every year millions of dragonflies appeared in the Maldives which the biologist who had been living in the islands for many years found puzzling. He also noted the insects appeared in the Maldives in October.

So Dr. Anderson investigated the concentration of dragonflies in other areas.�He noted the dates dragonflies arrived in the Maldives and India demonstrated that the insects travelled from southern India –a distance of some 500 – 1000 km. Subsequent investigations also revealed an increase of dragonflies in Seychelles islands in Africa and the arrival dates in the Seychelles matched with a possible mass migration.

Dr.Anderson based on his data calculated the Dragonflies first appear in the capital city of Maldives on 21st of October on average. Quite interestingly the wave of Dragonflies was observed in Sri Lanka on 20th October highlighting the possibility that the island too was part of the path of the India-Africa dragonfly mass migration.

Checking photos of the species of dragonflies found in Sri Lanka Dr.Anderson was able to confirm it was the same species known as Globe Skimmer, or Wandering Glider, scientifically categorised as Pantala flavescens.

A Dehiwala resident showing a dragonfly caught on the beach

The biologist also noted the dates of arrival of dragonflies and occurrence coincided with the southward passage of the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) which creates certain wind patterns that could assist dragonflies in their journey across oceans.

The Meteorological department confirmed the ITCZ would cross Sri Lanka next week. So it is likely that this year’s mass movement of the dragonflies could occur in next few days.

Inspired by this mass movement of dragonflies, the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) that studies bird migration has launched a MigrantWATCH programme.

It calls on members of the public who may notice the mass movement of dragonflies, to note down the date and time of observation, the location, the direction they fly and the approximate number of dragonflies if possible.

All data should be sent to MigrantWATCH program via email at: fogsl@slt.lk, by post: MigrantWATCH, FOGSL, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo, Colombo-03 or by telephone via Nos: 2501332/ 0712543634.

New species of dragonfly found in Sri Lanka�

Sri Lanka is listed with having 118 species of dragonflies of which 43 are endemic to the country. Recently a new variety was discovered by Nancy van der Poorten – a well known researcher into dragonflies who made the discovery from Kudawa at the western edge of Sinharaja rain forest.

The new Dragonfly – Macromidia donaldi pethiyagodai

The variety belongs to a genus referred to as Macromidia. Genus is a categorization of species that has similar characteristics and this is the first time a dragonfly of this genus has been discovered from Sri Lanka.

The species similar to a species found in India’s Western Ghats is separated from its Indian cousin by a distance of 750 km and could therefore be endemic to Sri Lanka.

Researchers however point out, until certain aspects of the Indian dragonfly are studied in detail, it would not possible to confirm the differences scientifically.

Until such time the latest discovery of Dr. Nancy van der Poorten has been designated as a Sri Lankan subspecies and named Macromidia donaldi pethiyagodai, honouring Rohan Pethiyagoda who made several discoveries of new species.

Published on 14.10.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/121014/news/sri-lanka-could-be-in-path-of-worlds-longest-insect-migration-16409.html

Fires consume 15, 000 acres of forest and grassland

September 5, 2012

The past 150 days, between April and August, have been marred by more than 155 fires. These fires are mostly the result of human carelessness, rather than any monkey business. But as Changing Climate will also prolonged the droughts, Sri Lanka may have to be ready for more forest fires in the future. In return wildfires will contributes for Global Warming writes Malaka Rodrigo 

The Ramayana legend says that when the Sinhala soldiers captured Hanuman, they set the Monkey King’s tail on fire. In revenge, Hanuman jumped from roof to roof and set the entire Sinhala kingdom on fire.

It may seem that a similarly angry entity is responsible for the spate of fires that have broken out across the drought-hit country. More than 155 forest fires have occurred in the past 150 days, according to Disaster Management Centre (DMC) spokesperson Sarath Lal Kumara. That amounts to almost one fire per day.

Locals join in Disaster Management Centre check fires

Between April and August, fires destroyed 15,000 acres of forest and grassland. Most of the forest fires occurred in the Badulla, Moneragala and Nuwara Eliya districts.

The worst fire this year raged through jungle between Ohiya and Pattipola early last month. The fire destroyed 1,500 acres of forest and even disrupted hill country train services. The fire could have been started by something as small and insignificant as a lighted cigarette butt thrown from a passing train. The second biggest fire occurred in the Knuckles Range, where more than 500 acres of jungle were destroyed. “The long spell of drought has fuelled the fires,” Mr. Kumara told the Sunday Times.
Whenever a forest fire breaks out, the DMC works with the local community and local administration to fight the flames. The Sri Lanka Air Force has frequently flown to the rescue by dropping water from aircraft to control fires in inaccessible areas. Fires have also broken out in catchment areas near tanks and reservoirs.

These recent forest fires have not destroyed native forest cover, according to Professor Nimal Gunathilake of the Department of Botany, at the University of Peradeniya. The areas affected are either grassland or plantations of eucalyptus or pinus.
Almost all forest fires in Sri Lanka are “man-made” – sparked by human action, through accident or design. Forest Department sources say farmers sometimes set dead grass alight to clear land to grow fresh grass for cattle, and these fires can spread to adjacent forests. Farmers also burn down degraded forests to clear land for cultivation purposes.

Hunters start fires to drive animals out into the open. The Ohiya fire could have been sparked by a lighted cigarette butt thrown from a train or dropped by someone walking through a forest. The burning of debris by labourers working on highways and railways is another fire hazard. Not everyone stops to think about the death toll of wildlife that fall victim to forest fires. A jungle fire is a death trap for any slow-moving animal. Last week, villagers rescued a python from a forest fire.

As the climate change is threatened to make the droughts prolonged in the future, the forest fire hazard is predicted to be increased fears experts. Particularly in America and Australia – where large wild fire is already frequent – it is predicted the increasing climate will make the droughts prolonged than in the past. This is backed by research and the US Space Agency – NASA too among them who try to decipher the mystery of increasing wildfires around the globe.

The relationship between wildfire and Climate Change is mysterious and fueling one another. As Climate Change increase wildfire, the results of wildfires contribute to Global Warming as wildfire emits lots of Green House Gases. Wildfire burns both living and dead organisms and called as Bio-mass Burning. Dr. Joel Levine, a biomass burning expert at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, talking to NASA pointed out that Biomass burning accounts for the annual production of some 30 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide – hence forest fire is a culprit in aggravating Global Warming.

“What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate” calls the experts.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite shows fires around the world. Credit: NASA

Published on SundayTimes on 02.09.2012 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/120902/news/fires-consume-15-000-acres-of-forest-and-grassland-10742.html

Hakgala in harm’s way

April 26, 2012

Hakgala is Sri Lanka’s only highland Strict Nature Reserve. But this important ecosystem has been encroached and Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) has gone to courts against this illegal encroachment. The authorities agreed to take steps to take action against the encroachment and the case has been settled in 2008. But the action promised by authorities has not been taken so far, so EFL has opened the court case again. Herewith I’m posting the article I’ve written on 2008 about the Hakkagala issue www.sundaytimes.lk/080907/Plus/sundaytimesplus_01.html 

 

Legend has it that Hakgala was King Ravana’s pleasure garden where he kept the beautiful princess Sita whom he had abducted from India. Today, visitors to the hill country rarely miss out on a visit to Hakgala and while walking around many wonder what lies behind the fences of the Botanical Gardens.
Only few realize that it is the Hakgala Strict Nature Reserve (SNR), a montane cloud forest, as important as the rainforests of Sinharaja or Knuckles in terms of biodiversity and watershed capacity.

Like any other SNR, Hakgala is restricted to all but those who are involved in scientific research and even they can enter only with a special permit obtained from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC).

Even amidst all this protection, the Hakgala SNR (declared in 1938, Hakgala is one of three Strict Nature Reserves and is the only one in the wet zone, the other two, Ritigala and Yala Block II, being in the dry zone) is under serious threat due to land-grabs and encroachment, problems that have dogged it for decades.

Picture showing the extent of the encroachment- Courtesy- Nuwara Eliya Nature Protection Society

These were some of the shocking disclosures at a recent forum organized by the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) to launch ‘Hakgala Under Threat – A Review of Conservation Status and Management Needs’.

As much as 25% of the Hakgala SNR has been encroached on, a survey by EFL has revealed. This is indeed an alarming trend considering the fact that Hakgala is also protected by another law which prohibits the granting, leasing or otherwise disposal of state lands over 5,000 ft in altitude. Hakgala being above 5400 ft, therefore, also comes under this protection.

However, encroachers at Hakgala include the Ambewela cattle farm, Warwick tea estate and other small-scale cultivators who have occupied sections of it.

According to the Management Plan drawn up in 1999 by the DWLC, 16% or 182.88 ha of the Hakgala SNR, were claimed to be under encroachment. A 2006 survey has found that there are 152 encroachments, excluding the Ambewela farm, covering about 50 hectares.

“But the boundaries considered in this survey are not those of the original survey plan. They include a much smaller area for Hakgala,” EFL officials point out. EFL claims that the figures cited by DWLC are massive underestimates of the current encroachment problem which its own survey has indicated as covering 150 ha and involving at least 200 households. This together with the encroachments by the Ambewela farm doubles the DWLC figure.

Encroachment by the Ambewela farm had begun a few decades ago, with even a survey plan of 1945 by the Survey Department including sections of the Hakgala SNR as part of the farm. This error had been the starting point of the large scale encroachment of Hakgala, states the report issued by the EFL.
Hakgala, environmentalists point out, is part of the Central Highlands Forest Complex which has been identified as being of the highest national importance for watershed protection by the National Conservation Review. It plays a particularly significant role in maintaining stream-flow over the year, especially dry season flows while also acting as a ‘water tower’ for the Uva Basin and the Uma Oya. Therefore, degradation of Hakgala will affect the whole country.

Soil erosion will cripple large-scale hydro projects like Uma Oya and Rantambe by reducing water inflow. The sediments which will be deposited in the waterways due to soil erosion will flow down to the reservoirs causing problems.

Meanwhile, environmentalists explain that the area currently used as grazing lands have pastures with imported grass seeds that are alien to the area.

The threat of these grasses spreading in the SNR as invasive species is enormous, in the light of most national parks battling with invasive species. The close presence of cattle to wild animals could result in wild animals being vulnerable to pandemics like the hoof and mouth disease.

Concerned over the degradation of the Hakgala SNR and no action by the DWLC, the Environmental Foundation had stepped in, filing legal action against the DWLC in 1988 over illegal encroachments. While recognizing the 1938 boundaries, the court had ruled that attempts to bypass the legal provisions that afford the Hakgala SNR the highest protection should be disregarded and ordered the DWLC to remove all encroachers. Despite the DWLC giving an undertaking to court, no action had been taken to remove the encroachers.

Once again in March 2006, EFL had filed another case to halt further encroachment immediately and remove the present encroachers. The respondents – DWLC, Divisional Secretaries and other government institutions – had agreed to act but once again nothing had happened.

DWLC Director-General Ananda Wijesooriya told the forum that the department is working to remove illegal encroachers. However, the largest encroacher – the Ambewela farm — is not considered at this stage.

World Bank representative Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya emphasized the need for other government departments that are more powerful to support the DWLC. “It should be a collective effort, otherwise the DWLC will get isolated. We have seen this happen in the past.”

“Hakgala is an important ecosystem and it is important to protect it before irretrievable damage is done to the Strict Nature Reserve,” said environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene.

Sound of axe rings death knell for Lanka’s forests

January 3, 2012
2011 ends and 2012 begins with the destruction of yet another mangrove forest.
The past year, 2011, was declared International Year of Forests by the United Nations. The message was sent out to all countries. Sadly, this message has not been taken seriously in Sri Lanka. Last year was not a good year for forests here, and the year ended with the news that yet another forest is being destroyed – one of the few remaining mangrove covers in Puttalam.

Mangrove land cleared and filled in Puttalam for hotel project.

A five-acre plot of mangrove along the west coast, in Kurukapane, Arachchikattuwa, in Puttalam district, is being cut down to make way for an 80-room hotel. The hotel will be built by a Colombo-based hotel group.

According to Sajeewa Chamikara, of the Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT), much of the mangrove covering has been cleared and filled. No Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was obtained for the project, which makes the cutting of the mangrove covering illegal, even if the land is privately owned.

Under the law, any construction project covering one hectare and above requires an EIA evaluation.
There is a general misconception that mangroves are of no value. Most of these mangrove lands do not have a clear ownership.

The Kurukapane mangrove forest is state-protected land, and comes under the purview of the Forest Department. This stretch of forest, previously under the Divisional Secretariat control, was officially made the property of the Forest Department in a special circular sent out by the Ministry of Environment in 2001.

The Divisional Secretary for the area had written to the Forest Department, asking it to intervene and stop the destruction of the Kurukapane mangrove forest. But no investigation has been conducted by the Forest Department. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Puttalam district has the country’s largest mangrove cover, at 3,210 hectares, but these areas are under heavy pressure from development activities.

The boom of shrimp farms in Puttalam and Kalpitiya in the ’90s resulted in widespread destruction of mangroves. Most of the shrimp farms have been abandoned.

Residents, mostly fishermen, are doing their bit to save these mangroves. Villagers who did not want their names mentioned said the hotel company project has the “backing” of local politicians.

2011 was one of the worst years for the environment

The past year – 2011 – will go on record as one of the worst years for the country’s environment, with increased destructive activity. The Dole banana farm, which encroached on the Somawathiya National Park, adjoining the Sinharaja, Bogahapattiya-Soragune golf course, was only one of the many environmentally destructive activities that were highlighted in 2011.

Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said the number of environmentally destructive activities, the amount of damage done by these projects, and the unseen political “backing” that usually accompanies environmental destruction, all increased in 2011.

Mangrove Cover in Coastal Districts

District Hectares
Puttalam 3210
Jaffna 2276
Trincomalee 2043
Batticalo 1303
Kilinochchi 770
Hambantota 576
Mulativ 428
Gampaha 313
Galle 238
Ampara 100
Colombo 39
Kalutara 12
Matara 7

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2012 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/120101/News/nws_18.html

Banana farm on national park land dismantled: A win for conservationists

December 2, 2011
By Malaka Rodrigo
The Dole Lanka banana farm that was set up on land belonging to the Somawathiya National Park (SNP), has been dismantled. According to sources, farm machinery has been removed, and young banana trees cleared from a 500 acre area on the east bank of the Mahaweli River. The farm had extended outside the Kandakaduwa Farm area leased to the company.

The Somawathie National Park covers land drained by the Mahaweli, in the North Central and Eastern Provinces. The decision by owners Dole Lanka Pvt Ltd to shut down the farm marks a victory for conservationists, who had lobbied intensely to have the land cleared of illegal encroachment. The farm came to public notice when environment organisations, supported by the media, including the Sunday Times, highlighted the encroachment.

Young banana plants that have now been removed by the The Dole Lanka banana farm Company

While the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Ministry of Agrarian Services and Wildlife maintained that park land had not been encroached upon, activists and conservationists produced World Wildlife Fund (WWF) satellite images to prove that the disputed area occupied by the banana farm did indeed extend into the national park.

“We are extremely pleased with the turn of events and the prompt manner in which Dole has acted in this instance, which we trust will serve as an example to other organisations that are presented with evidence of infringements in law governing public assets,” said Wardani Karunaratne of Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL).

EFL had lobbied directly with Dole Food Inc. EFL is affiliated to the Wildlife and Nature protection Society (WNPS); Wilderness Area Protection Foundation (WAPF), and other conservationist groups. All were concerned about the unauthorised clearing of forest land within the national park.

In September, EFL and other conservationists had met a Dole Asia representative and presented their case. After conducting its own investigation, Dole Asia acknowledged that the cultivated area was within park premises. On November 16, Dole Asia confirmed that all banana farm operations had been withdrawn from the area.

According to environmentalist Sajeewa Chamikara, the farm should be outside the one-mile buffer zone around the Somawathie National Park. This is a legal requirement, under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance.

While praising the Dole Food Company for showing responsibility and responding accordingly, Mr. Chamikara said there was a danger that other commercial interests may be eyeing the abandoned lands, and that vigilance was required.

The conservation community of Sri Lanka has appealed to all investors to first conduct studies on the legality and environmental sustainability of any business moves that involved use of land around the country, especially forest land.

 Published on SundayTimes on 27.11.2011 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/111127/News/nws_17.html

Hit-and-run leopard killing enrages animal lovers

November 22, 2011
Mobile phones and speeding vehicles are the latest enemies to invade animal territory.
Malaka Rodrigo reports
Visitors to wildlife parks have a responsibility to protect the wildlife they are so eager to see. Excessive eagerness, compounded with callous disregard for basic road safety rules and consideration for others, can result in the kind of hit and run tragedy that occurred recently when a speeding vehicle killed a leopard within the Yala wildlife sanctuary. Images of the roadkill shocked and enraged the public, and animal lovers in particular.The latest enemy to invade protected wildlife terrain is the mobile phone – a piece of technology visitors are increasingly using to alert other visitors when they have sighted a rare animal, usually a leopard.
Whenever a leopard is seen, mobile phones are plucked out and messages sent, and minutes or seconds later, convoys of speeding safari trucks and cars rush to the scene – a spectacle that belongs to crowded urban areas, not to a wildlife sanctuary.

The leopard that was found dead in Yala recently. Pic by Spencer Manuelpillai

Irresponsible vehicle owners who disturb animals and threaten their existence is a growing problem, and one that is tarnishing the genuine wildlife experience, animal lovers say.

On a “good day,” hundreds of vehicles can be seen heading into Yala, and they usually keep to routes known for leopard sightings. The instant a leopard is seen, mobile phones are plucked out, messages are conveyed, and the race is on.

Animal lovers are calling for a total ban on mobile phones within wildlife premises, or at least an order prohibiting mobile phone use by visitors. Activists have also called for the shutting off of mobile phone transmission towers in the neighbourhood of a sanctuary. They suggest that the transmission towers be switched off during sight-seeing peak hours, from 6:00 am to 9:00 am and from 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm.

Vimukthi Weeratunge of Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) is on the team that is working on an action plan for Yala.

He said even trackers were calling for regulation of the Yala transmission tower. Mobile phone operators have no problem with switching off transmission towers at designated times, he said, as long as the Telecommunication Regulation Commission (TRC) gives its approval. It is up to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Sri Lanka Tourism to follow up and see the matter through.

Vipula Wanigasekera, acting director-general of Sri Lanka Tourism, told the Sunday Times that mobile phone connectivity was vital inside a wildlife reserve in case of emergencies, and that awareness-raising and the promotion of proper “road” behaviour, was the answer.

Meanwhile, no action has so far been taken regarding the hit-and-run killing of the Yala leopard.

Tharindu Jayasinghe, secretary of the Yala Jeep Drivers’ Association, said it was unlikely that a driver of a safari vehicle registered with the organisation, was responsible. He believed the death was likely caused by visitors who had booked a Yala bungalow or set up camp inside the game reserve.

Others interviewed by the newspaper said the death could have been caused by vehicles arriving early that morning from Yala Block II.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.11.2011 http://sundaytimes.lk/111120/News/nws_10.html