Archive for the ‘Protected Areas’ Category

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

Plans to setup National Parks at North

May 14, 2015

Conservationists plan for setup new National Parks. Also stresses the importance of genuine and thorough protection for these areas and not simply labelling them “national parks”. 

The government has stretched out a hand of protection of the threatened wildlife across the north, from the ragged ponies of Delft to birds that breed only on a single islet in the Adam’s Bridge chain leading to India. Four new national parks will be set up across the north, the government announced this week. They will cover environmentally sensitive areas in Chundikulam, Madhu, Delft island and the Adam’s Bridge sand islands that belong to Sri Lanka.

Resident breeder not migratory: Nesting Brown Noddy on Adam’s Bridge island. Pic by Vimukthi Weeratunga

Conservationists welcomed the move to protect the north’s unique eco-systems, overlooked for decades due to war and then came under pressure with post-war development plans. The decision was announced by Sports and Tourism Deputy Minister Wasantha Senanayake, who carries responsibility for the Department of Wildlife Conservation while President Maithripala Sirisena is Minister for the Environment.

Delft Island is the only place inhabited by wild ponies believed to have been brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, who used Delft as a breeding centre. There are thought to be around 500 ponies today. The wilderness around the famous Madhu church and the Chundikulam bird sanctuary too will be gazetted national parks.The most unique area to be upgraded to national park status is Adam’s Bridge, a chain of limestone islands between Mannar and India’s Rameswaram island.

It is believed India and Sri Lanka were linked in ancient times and these are the remains of that land mass. There are eight islands on the Sri Lankan side and the furthest of them are very small and go under water at high tide. The third island from Mannar is special as it is used by thousands of seabirds for breeding, said biologist Vimukthi Weeratunga, who carried out a reconnaissance survey with fellow researchers Dr. Sampath Seneviratne and Professor Devaka Weerakoon of the University of Colombo.The team hopes to initiate a long-term study on the breeding ecology and relative abundance of birds of the sand islands. The island in question is less than five hectares but the research team found seven species of terns breeding there, building nests on the sand. Of these, six are listed as endangered species in Sri Lanka since this island is the only known breeding site in Sri Lanka for them, according to their research team.

The researchers also found a brown noddy nest with eggs on this island, which for the first time shows that this bird, thought to be migratory, is a resident breeder. Dr. Seneviratne, who has observed many seabird colonies in other parts of the world, says the density of birds in this island is high. He warned, however, that during the breeding season, fisherman reportedly often raid the island to collect the eggs. This is very disruptive, he said, commending the Navy for trying to give maximum protection to the island.

Prof. Weerakoon also cautioned that if more people start visiting these islands the breeding colonies would be disturbed and birds would abandon the island.
Declaring these Adam’s Bridge islands a national park should be done carefully as it would increase tourism, he said. The focus should be to conserve such remote locations without disturbances.

Conservationists stressed the importance of genuine and thorough protection for these areas and not simply labelling them “national parks”.


Born free and soon they’ll live free under care

February 8, 2014
Wild ponies and donkeys are now our own, says Dept.

After centuries of cruel neglect the feral donkeys of Puttalam and Mannar and the famous wild ponies of Delft are to receive care, with a 100-acre sanctuary to be set up on Delft Island and a conservation area for the donkeys also under consideration. The Ministry of Wildlife Conservation, the District Secretariat of Jaffna and the Delft Pradeshiya Sabha are to start work soon on establishing the pony sanctuary on Delft Island (also known as Neduntheevu).

Ponies on Delft island. Pic courtesy IUCN Sri Lanka

The wild ponies are believed to have been first brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, who used Delft as a breeding centre. There are thought to be around 500 ponies today, roaming in herds. The Sunday Times, in June this year, reported that the ponies need a management plan for their protection and welcomes the move by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

A report published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that the ponies are threatened from the overgrazing of pasture lands due to their numbers and also a large population of cattle. At the height of the dry season there is a high incidence of cattle and pony mortality due to the lack of food and water.

Further, some people capture the wild ponies and brand them on the forelegs with inexpert methods that result in infections, a major cause of death. Department of Wildlife Conservation Director H.D. Ratnayake said the department recognised that the ponies and donkeys, though feral, need protection. Although the animals were introduced species to the island they are now “naturalised” in Sri Lanka, he said, and the department was working on proper management plans for their welfare.

Published on SundayTimes 29.12.2013

Operation starfish to save reef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team fills up buckets of Crown of Thorn starfish

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

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

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

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

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

Coral monitoring programme needed

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

Know the enemy

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

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

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

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

published on SundayTimes on 06.10.2013

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:, 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

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 


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.

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

Amidst beauty and emotion

May 29, 2011

Malaka Rodrigo reports on “Paths to the Peak”, a photographic odyssey to Sri Pada by Ian Lockwood 

As the Sri Pada pilgrimage season ended on Vesak, Ian Lockwood’s exhibition of photographs – a personal overview of the sacred mountain opened at the Barefoot Gallery in Colombo.
As a 15-time Sri Pada climber, I had my doubts whether anyone could capture the mystical beauty of this sacred mountain and the special culture involved with the pilgrimage through a lens.

I’ve seen people pushed to the brink of exhaustion by the marathon climb; devotees who stand in the freezing cold at the peak waiting to catch a glimpse of ‘sun service’ in the morning and also the Sacred Mountain’s breathtaking beauty, but all these doubts were banished when I stepped into the Barefoot Gallery last week. I felt like I was climbing Sri Pada for the 16th time surrounded by very real people with real emotions. That was the closeness that Ian Lockwood’s “Paths to the Peak” – a photographic odyssey to Sri Pada had captured so amazingly.

Peak at starlight and mist
Sri Pada Maluwa at dusk and (below) Pause: Ratnapura steps
Sacred flame
Lockwood on Sri Pada

The exhibition captures the link between the Sacred Mountain and the people. Ian had climbed Sri Pada 18 times carrying all his heavy photographic equipment to record the ecology, landscape and culture on Sri Lanka’s most sacred mountain, experienced along different pathways. Thus the exhibition is not restricted to scenic shots, but full of different kinds of photographs – portraits of people, the landscape, panoramic views of the peak from different angles and much more.

The portraits cover many aspects of the climb and the rituals associated with it. As everyone knows, the climb is a difficult one. The photograph titled “Pause” is a classic illustration of Ian’s ability to capture human endurance on the climb. This is a woman so exhausted on the west slope of Sri Pada which is one of the steepest sections of the Ratnapura path – a final test of endurance for pilgrims. Another frame “Sacred flame” shows a family at the summit temple, tired faces filled with devotion. In “Prayers” we see devotees worshipping all the way even before reaching the summit. In many photographs Ian has captured the softer side – younger people extending a helping hand to the seniors as they trudge on wearily.

Ian is fond of black and white photographs and the exhibition has plenty of them. “I chose to present many of the images in black and white because of the nuanced ability of black and white to depict landscapes and portraits without the clutter and confusion of colour. Colour is useful and certainly some photographers have a real talent for using it as a medium. I try to use black and white to depict a personal view of a deeper connection to the earth and people,” he says adding that he feels the use of black & white gives him the opportunity to be in command of the final product as much as possible. “Black and white has always been a “higher” medium to express deeper connections in the natural and human landscape.”

The exhibition also gives visitors a brief insight to the unique biodiversity of the mountain which has been named an UNESCO World Heritage site last year. Ian is a geography teacher and had designed an informative map illustrating different Sri Pada pathways and their geographical location.

Maps and text panels created by him indeed support the educational aspects of the exhibition. Sri Pada also has an issue with garbage and Ian had even included a subtle message through one of his photographs urging viewers to be more responsible on their visit.

Originally from Boston, Ian’s family has been living and working in South Asia for four generations. Ian is currently a teacher of Geography and Environment Systems at the Overseas School of Colombo. Prior to this he worked in Bangladesh and India and has published numerous articles and photo essays on India’s Western Ghats, exhibiting in Dhaka, New Delhi, Mumbai and New York City.

“Paths to the Peak” will be on until June 5 at the Barefoot Gallery, Colombo 3. For more of Ian’s photography and writing see

Sri Pada: Its significance

There are many paths to the sacred peak of Sri Pada, a mountain of immeasurable significance in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Sri Pada commands a striking position in Sri Lanka’s rich physical geography and culture and is perhaps one of the best-documented mountains in South Asia.

In its early records the pyramid-shaped peak is referred to as Samanalakanda (the mountain of butterflies). The name “Sri Pada,” of course, refers to the sacred or resplendent impression of a footprint, which crowns a large granite boulder on the summit.

“Peak of Adam” was the name given to it by early Muslim traders and it was well documented by medieval travellers such as Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. In colonial times, this was simplified to Adam’s Peak, the name on most maps and with which many outside of Sri Lanka are familiar. – Ian Lockwood

Published on SundayTimes on 29.05.2011


Don’t stump the ‘Stumpies’ of Hambantota

February 27, 2011
Ambitious new strategies are being planned to achieve Human Elephant co-existence in Hambantota.
Last Sunday, World Cup cricket fever officially embraced Sri Lanka with the inaugural match witnessed by a packed crowd in the new 35,000 seat Hambantota Cricket Stadium. Dressed in blue, the mascot of the tournament – Stumpy the little jumbo was seen walking in the grounds waving a bat, while the TV footage captured its real life counterpart, a wild elephant at the boundary of the stadium in the background of surrounding scrub jungle.The International Cricket Stadium is only one of the major development projects that indicates Hambantota’s transformation from an impoverished small sleepy hamlet to a national centre of Sri Lanka. An international harbour, airport, economic zones, tourism facilities etc are being developed, drastically changing the landscape.

There is already Human Elephant Conflict in Hambantota, but with the projected level of development, this conflict can escalate as witnessed in the Mahaweli regions such as the North Western Province. But the situation is not altogether bleak for the Hambantota jumbos. An ambitious plan is being carried out to take Hambantota development on a different path to co-exist with elephants. Usually the elephants are an afterthought to any development plan, but in this development plan, their traditional home ranges have been left for them.

Managed elephant reserve

It is estimated that about 300 – 400 elephants inhabit the greater Hambantota area. This is about 10% of Sri Lanka’s total elephant population. The first step of the exercise was to identify the general home ranges of elephants in the Hambantota area. The research was carried out over the past two years collaboratively by the elephant biologists of the Centre for Conservation & Research (CCR) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Under the project, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, well known elephant researcher had collared a selected number of elephants from different elephant herds in the area.

The collars were fitted with transmitters that emit signals every few hours captured through satellites. The elephants’ locations were marked on a map to shed light on their movements.

This ‘Elephant Map’ with a boundary proposed as a Managed Elephant Reserve (MER) was submitted to the team of experts designing the new Hambantota landscape for human settlements, industries and tourism infrastructure. Other members of this Strategic Environment Assessment team were consultants on Urban Planning, from the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and Central Environment Authority (CEA). They then demarcated special zones for development excluding the areas heavily inhabited by elephants.

Their two-year survey was interesting, says Dr. Fernando. The team collared five elephants from different herds in Hambantota after a preliminary study. They are named Thaga, Sakunthala, Sapumali, Uma, Valli and Wanamali. With this data, Dr. Fernando’s team could clearly identify their home ranges. This area is demarcated as Managed Elephant Reserve (MER). “With the concept of MER, both human and elephant can co-exist in areas designated for them,” said Dr. Fernando.

The elephants can also be a big tourist attraction. “A region where the development vision embraces viable conservation values by using the best available information and innovative planning,” said Manori Gunawardena, wildlife biologist and conservationist who also studied the Hambantota elephants.

Failed elephant drives

Hambantota is encircled by protected areas – Udawalawe, Bundala, Lunugamwehera and Yala, so it could be asked why these elephants cannot be driven to these already existing National Parks?
Elephant Drives have been proven a failure, ironically in Hambantota itself. To facilitate agriculture in Hambantota through the Walawe Left Bank irrigation project, the Wildlife Department was asked to move elephants to the nearby Lunugamwehera National Park.

In 2006, an elephant drive was conducted to chase away a herd of an estimated 100 elephants inhabiting this 600 area selected for development. But 250 elephants came out from the jungles indicating how little is known about the elephant ranging patterns. The elephants driven and confined to the Lunugamwehera National Park faced a worse fate than when roaming near human settlements. Lunugamwehera has an adequate extent of land, but the elephants did not disperse evenly in the park, staying closer to the electric fence penning them which created a resource shortage The fate of these 250 or so elephants in Lunugamvehera National Park is uncertain.

Dr. Fernando estimates there are about 300-400 elephants still in Hambantota. If the 2006 elephant drive which cost Rs.160 million was successful, then how could there be such a large number of elephants remaining in Hambantota, questions Dr Fernando highlighting that the elephant drives are a failure.

“Only the young and some herds mainly consisting of females could be moved by the elephant drive. The large male pachyderms who are really the trouble makers remained in the area,” pointed out the elephant biologist. “Like the humans, elephants too are attached to their homes and those who have higher instincts also returned.”

The proposed MER is aimed at getting development away from the elephants’ path. It is proposed the existing villages and other development projects in the area remain, but not expand. Electric fences will be set-up around these facilities and villages. Mattala Airport will be the only mega scale project located in this MER. An area of 800 ha is demarcated for its first phase and a management plan is set up not to increase the conflict with elephants in the area.

Signs of encroachment

However, the biggest challenge facing this ambitious Human Elephant Co-existence project is the encroachment inside the newly conceived Reserve. People want land for cultivation, house plots, and some indulge in just plain outright land grabbing. Already there are farmers who pump water from the Walawe West Bank project and start irrigation work in an unplanned manner. Although the MER allows existing practices such as rainfed agriculture, it cannot sustain elephants if the habitat is splintered, fenced and diverted further for human use. But if the local politicians too support these encroachers, the whole effort will be pointless.

“This is a really good opportunity to highlight that development and conservation can go together in sustainable manner. There is lots of development on the way and if it is not done in planned manner, it will create a severe Human Elephant Conflict in southern Sri Lanka,” warns Dr. Fernando. The team leader Prof. N. Ratnayake, who is an expert on town planning stresses that lots of effort has been put into the plan.

Here lies a golden opportunity for the planners to showcase innovation in sustainable development providing a global example on Human Elephant Co-existence even amidst massive development.

Whom to conserve – DWC elephants or FD elephants?

Traditionally, electric fences were erected surrounding the National Parks managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). But on the other side, the adjoining lands too are forests that belong to the Forest Department (FD).

So there are often elephants living on both sides of the fence. But with the new proposals by elephant experts, this distinction seems to be disappearing and the electric fences are going to be moved to the Forest Department lands, giving the elephants more breathing space. This will be a big positive for elephant conservation points out Dr. Prithviraj Fernando.

Published on SundayTimes on 27.02.2011