Archive for the ‘Rivers’ Category

Whip-tailed marine beauty spotted in Menik Ganga river

August 30, 2018

Yala is a paradise for spotted animals such as leopard and deer, but the spotty creature found last week in the Manik Ganga near Kosgasmankada was unusual. Published on SundayTimes on 26.08.2018

A party having a dip in the river’s shallows found a long-tailed creature with a disc-shaped body patterned with many small dark spots or reticulations. From one end to the other, it was about 1 foot long. Biologist Rex I. De Silva identified the creature from a photograph sent to him by bather Geemal Harold as a honeycomb stingray or banded whiptail stingray (Himantura uarnak).“The honeycomb stingray is a common marine species in our coastal waters but finding one in freshwater is unusual,” Mr. De Silva said.

The stingray is named after the barbed stinger on its long tail, which is primarily used in self-defence. Rays and skates are flattened fish closely related to sharks. They do not have hard bones like other fish but a skeleton of flexible cartilage such as found in the human ear and nose.

Marine sharks and rays occasionally enter freshwater during spring tides, Mr. De Silva said. In times of drought, when river levels fall, seawater intrudes some distance up rivers at high and especially spring tides. Sharks and other marine species follow the seawater for a considerable distance upriver.

Shark sightings in the Menik Ganga have been recorded over the past 30 years but not sightings of rays.

The disc-shaped body of the honeycomb stingray found by Mr. Harold’s party was about 30.5cm (one foot) in diameter but the species can grow up to 2m (6.6 feet), so the one found in Yala would be a young stingray that decided to have an adventurous journey upstream.

The stingray’s tail, called “maduwa” in Sinhala, which can be three times its body length, was dried and used in olden times as a whip for punishment, the barbs on the tail inflicting great pain.

Shark spotted near warahana 2016 (c) Janaka Karunaratne

Rays are masters at bottom-dwelling. They have eyes on the top of their head/body and so relies on other senses in finding food (crustaceans, small fish, snails, shrimp etc.) on usually murky ocean beds.

Special organs on their face called ampulae allow them to navigate and find prey with electromagnetic signals.

Sadly, stingray numbers are in decline due to over-fishing, habitat loss and climate change. At present, 539 species of ray are on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of endangered species, with 107 classified as threatened. The honeycomb stingray is categorised as “vulnerable”, making this Yala sighting special.

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

January 29, 2017

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

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

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

The CEA has now promised to review the projects.

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

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

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

A mini-hydro being contructed at Mandaramnuwara

A mini-hydro being contructed at Mandaramnuwara

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 29.12.2017 

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Protest infront of CEA

Mini-hydro’s power bulldozes Athwelthota ecology concerns

December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 11.12.2016 – 

Pollution hotspots along Kelani mapped

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

Waste on the river bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A canal bringing pollutants to the river

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on

Flawed approvals of mini hydro projects spell river, land destruction

September 28, 2016

This article was published on SundayTimes on 28.08.2016

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

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

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

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

Protests in Gatambe

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

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

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

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

Regulators reveal holes in their buckets

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

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

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

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

Shark spotted in Menik Ganga

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 16.02.2016 on SundayTimes –

Shark-in-Menik-Ganga-23.01A few months ago, the apex predator of the freshwater riverine habitats, the crocodile, was reported in the sea off Wellawatte; recently the apex predator of the ocean, the shark, was reported in a river. The latest sighting of a shark in a freshwater habitat was reported by a group of wildlife lovers who visited Yala on January 23.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mini hydros: Clean energy comes at high cost to Nature

May 19, 2016

This article was published on 14.02.2016 on SundayTimes

Damming streams a ‘death sentence for many species’ 

Dam being built across the Anda dola. Pic courtesy Rainforest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protect rivers from Sand Mining – environmentalists welcome president’s moves

February 1, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena, who himself took on the Environment portfolio, will halt sand mining in Polonnaruwa from today (February 1).

He has also ordered his officials to evaluate sustainable river-sand mining and look into alternatives.

There has long been small-scale sand mining in the flood plains around Manampitiya Bridge in Polonnaruwa but operations rose sharply some years ago as demand for river sand increased and organised goons entered the market.

Sand from the banks of the Mahaweli River also began to be removed illegally on a large scale.

The flow of the Mahaweli causes sand to accumulate around Manampitiya Bridge in Polonnaruwa, creating a flood plain around it. These special features have created several villus, creating a flood plain harbouring wildlife.

Given its high biodiversity and strategic importance the area has been declared one of the four national parks set up under the Mahaweli Scheme.
The removal of sand, however, poses a huge threat to the national park.

The flood plain is a rich feeding ground for elephants and important as a grazing ground in the dry season. It serves as an elephant corridor for jumbos moving between Wasgamuwa and Somawathiya national parks.

If the villus go dry, the elephants that feed on the nutrient-rich grass could start raiding the nearby villages, increasing human-elephant conflict, say wildlife officers, urging an end to sand mining in the flood plains.

River-sand mining has been regulated by the Mines and Minerals Act since 1992 but illegally mined sand continues to come onto the market.
With the intention of providing a monitoring mechanism on sand transportation the law was amended in 2004, making it mandatory to obtain a permit to transport sand but it is alleged there are many loopholes in the law that allow gangs to continue their rackets, bribing law enforcement officers in the process. During the previous regime there was an attempt to abolish the existing rules.

Sand mining in Polonnaruwa is being carried out by a well-controlled mafia and no unknown intruder was even allowed to visit the area by the thugs who operate the racket.

Given these factors, environmentalists welcome the new Environment Minister as it would be easier to implement conservation decisions as the Minister is also the head of the country. Mr. Sirisena held the portfolio from 2005 to 2007 under the previous regime.

Wildlife money makers only?

Environmental groups – reported in this paper last week as urging that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) should be placed within the Ministry of Environment – are frustrated that it has instead been assigned to the Ministry of Tourism.
“The main function of the Wildlife Department is to conserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. But assigning the DWC to the tourism portfolio suggests that wildlife are considered only as money-makers,” one concerned environmentalist said. 

Researchers gift 3 new endemic fish to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity

December 15, 2013

Santa comes with gifts in the festive season – and this is for all of us: researchers have gifted three new species of fish to add to the already impressive list of freshwater fish in Sri Lanka, strengthening the country’s status as a global biodiversity hotspot. The new species emerge from Halmal Dandiya and Hora Dandiya and have been classified under genus Rasboroides (genus is a categorisation of species that have similar characteristics).

Rasboroides palida

The discovery has come from the island-wide freshwater fish survey carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) and Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Secretariat (BDS). The aim of the survey was to study the prevalence of Sri Lanka’s endemic fish in their “type locations” – the place in which any species is first discovered and scientifically identified. The operation had two objectives: by studying the fish decades after their discovery in the same location allowed scientists to see if any changes had occurred in the intervening period and also to assess their conservation status.

As part of this survey, the endemic Halmal Dandiya or Sri Lanka Golden Rasbora (Rasboroides vaterifloris) discovered in 1930 in Ilukwatte, Gilimale was studied. Researchers also caught Halmal Dandiya from streams in other locations and carefully studied them. A specimen found in Kottawa, near Deniyaya showed characteristics distinct from the fish originally found from Gilimale.

Rasboroides rohani

“This has made us study the fish deeply and we found astonishing differences that encouraged us to carry out further research. This ended up in our separating two new species,” said WCSG President Madura de Silva.

The fish found in Kottawa Kobala forest reserve was named Rasboroides palida for its pallid colour. The other fish, discovered in Sooriyakanda, has been named as Rasboroides rohani to honour Rohan Petiyagoda who has carried out extensive research on Sri Lnka’s freshwater fish.

The research also established the existence of Sri Lanka Blackline Golden Rasbora or Kaluiri Halmaldandiya, scientifically known as Rasboroides nigromaginata. This fish was first identified in 1957 by a German, Meinken, based on specimens he found in his country. He pinpointed the source location of the fish as Sri Lanka, but this species has never before been reported alive in its natural environs.

Rasboroides vaterifloris still found in Gilimale

The discoveries have not ended there. The Horadandiya (Rasboroides atukorali) was declared a fish endemic to Sri Lanka in 1943 but an Indian researcher published a paper in the 1990s claiming that it came from India, so it was taken off Sri Lanka’s list of endemic fish. The research team thoroughly examined the features of both the Indian and Sri Lankan species and concluded that both countries have different species of Horadandiya, which reinstates the fish on Sri Lanka’s list.

The research findings were authored by Sudesh Batuwita, Madura de Silva and Udeni Edirisinghe in the latest edition of the international journal Ichthyological Exploration of Freshwaters.

Published on SundayTimes on 15.12.2013

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

November 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invasive species big threat 

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

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

Eel – the slippery freshwater fish

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

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

Environmentalists not in favour of breeding rare fish for export

January 25, 2013

Environment watchers are angered by plans to legalise the breeding of rare fish and the cultivation of rare water plants for export. They say the Ministry of Economic Development, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and other government agencies are working together to amend the relevant laws – by Malaka Rodrigo

Malpulutta. Courtesy Galle Wildlife Conservation Society

The export proposal covers eight endemic freshwater fish and 13 endemic water plants. Six of the named fish are “critically endangered” and the other two are “endangered”, according to the 2012 National Red List for Sri Lanka. The Red List is an international classification of the world’s threatened animal and plant species. The water plants include two varieties of “kekatiya” (Aponogeton), seven varieties of “ketala” (Laginandra), and four water plants known as “athi udayan” (Cryptocoryne).

The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG), which has conducted an islandwide survey on freshwater fish, says these fish are too rare to be subjected to a breeding programme. In 2009 and 2012, the society visited areas where, according to previous surveys, the rare fish could be found. A fresh survey noted that most of these rare fish species were not to be found at most of these sites.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane fears that the export plan could set a risky precedent. Allowing the legal breeding and export of these rare fish could encourage profiteers to hunt for these same fish in the wild.

But the Live Tropical Fish Exporters Association of Sri Lanka says the breeding and export of these rare fish would overall boost lucrative freshwater fish exports from Sri Lanka. At a recent press conference, the association pointed out that Sri Lanka is the loser after restrictions on the breeding of endemic species had led to rare fish being smuggled out of the country and bred elsewhere for profit.

Freshwater fish authority Samantha Gunasekara sees no problem in breeding rare fish, so long as it is done properly and scientifically, and is closely monitored. Mr. Gunasekara, who works for the Customs’ Biodiversity Protection Unit, says that many endemic fish that have completely disappeared from Sri Lanka are being bred in other countries.

The government has appointed a committee to oversee the fish breeding programme. It includes the Department of Wildlife Conservation; the Forest Department; the National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA); the Botanic Gardens Department, and Sri Lanka Customs.Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle president Madura de Silva said fish breeding exercises tended to produce “less colourful” fish than the same species caught in the wild. He feared that exporters would prefer fish caught in the wild.

According to the 2012 National Red List on Conservation Status, one in two species of Sri Lanka’s 91 freshwater fish species risk going extinct in the wild. The most vulnerable freshwater fish are found in streams lying outside the Protected Area Network. These streams are prone to pollution and habitat loss.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.01.2013

Sri Lanka’s endemic fish peddled around the world with little monitoring

July 26, 2012

Stone Sucker, among others under threat due to high demand for beauty treatments

Freshwater fish, some that have been named only in the recent past are under threat due to over fishing for export, an official warned. Among these fish the stone sucker is the most threatened.

While beautiful fish such as bulath hapaya, le tittaya are in high demand in the aquarium trade, the Stone Suckers have become the most widely exported freshwater fish, Samantha Gunasekara of Sri Lanka Customs’ Biodiversity, Culture and National Heritage Protection Division said during the inaugural session of South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) last month.

The Stone Sucker (Garra ceylonensis) known as gal padiya in Sinhala is an endemic fish that latches onto ones feet in freshwater habitats. They nibble the skin, giving a ticklish feeling. This is because they feed on the dead tissue of the skin. This natural exfoliation process has created a huge demand for this type of fish in countries such as Hong Kong.

These fish are put into fish spas and are used for popular beauty therapies such as pedicures and manicures. Popularly known as as Dr.Fish; various types of fish including Sri Lanka’s Stone Sucker is peddled around the world. Giving statistics Mr. Gunasekara said in 2005, 62,486 stone suckers and in 2005 50,370 stone suckers had been exported. He said although they still abound in running freshwater streams, if the present trend of over exploitation continued, the Stone Sucker will face the same fate as many other freshwater fish.
According to Mr. Gunasekara freshwater fish are the most widely traded wild species from Sri Lanka.

According to 2007 figures that appear in his recent book ‘Export Trade of Indigenous Freshwater Fishes of Sri Lanka’ wild freshwater fish supply over 98% of the export requirements for the ornamental fish industry. Of the 53 species exported nine species, including seven endemic species are considered nationally threatened. Among the threatened species two of them the Devario pathirana and Macrognathus pentophthalmos are critically endangered. Mr. Gunasekera also pointed out that the revenue earned from the export of endemic freshwater fish amounts to only 0.16% of the income gained in the ornamental fish trade, therefore its destruction is unwarranted even if you look at it purely from the financial aspect for the country.

Garra fish cleaning a foot for free in a stream in Knuckles

Mr. Gunasekera said the Customs’ Biodiversity Protection unit had raided many illicit shipments of freshwater fish being exported. Although there is legislation to regulate the freshwater ornamental fish trade, there are drawbacks in its implementation. He said even the Fisheries Act per se had loopholes, as anyone who got a permit could export freshwater fish.
Another major drawback was the lack of a monitoring body.

Mr. Gunasekera also said inadequate research in the field of aquaculture development has led to a failure in determining suitable captive breeding techniques for endemic freshwater fish species that are in high demand for the export trade.

The Sri Lankan ornamental fish trade makes up 4% of the world supply and environmentalists point out if the country is looking at building this trade more freshwater fish should be bred.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.07.2012

Suspect croc gets swung around

April 26, 2012
An alleged killer crocodile captured with great difficulty by a wildlife team is rejected by the Dehiwala Zoo and finally released into the Yala National Park – Malaka Rodrigo reports from Matara
A 12.2-foot male saltwater crocodile, the reptile believed to have killed an 18-year-old Matara schoolgirl, was captured last Sunday (April 15) by a team of young environmentalists and wildlife officers.
Led by Dr. Tharaka Prasad of the Wildlife Department, the team set up a baited box trap designed for the purpose on the banks of the river Nilwala, some 100 metres from the spot where the girl had been seized by a croc.The trap was submerged and camouflaged with twigs and branches. The team meanwhile set up camp in a nearby school, Malimbada North. To ensure that the reptile, if trapped, would not die in captivity, the team kept a 24-hour watch, intermittently checking the trap, day and night. Crocodiles are cold-blooded creatures that need to regulate their body temperature by moving its body; it could be fatal for a croc to remain confined in a close space indefinitely.

Wildlife officers and volunteers struggled to subdue the 12.2 foot crocodile. Pix by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk

Dedicating their Avurudu vacation to the cause, the team waited patiently, fearing angry villagers might trap the crocodile themselves and kill it. The giant Ragama crocodile that was caught recently died as a result of blows sustained and also injuries caused by the hook used to bait the amphibian.

The crocodile was captured on Sunday morning, three days after the trap was set. The powerful reptile thrashed around furiously as the team dragged the box trap on to land. News spread fast, and in minutes a crowd of villagers had gathered to view the reptile.

When the Sunday Times came on the scene, a police team was in place to control the crowd and keep the villagers of Malimbada clear of the trapped croc. The next stage of the operation was to get the croc out of the box trap, and tie it down to be taken to another location. The moment the trap was opened, the crocodile attempted to rush into the water. The team tied its tail and strapped the animal around the neck and gaping mouth. Some sat on the croc to clam it while it was tied up.

There was a round of applause from the villagers once the creature was finally subdued. The creature was then taken to the Malimbada North School, followed by the crowd. “We could have caught the animal earlier if the villagers had not disturbed the animal,” said team member Sujeewa Chandana. “When you disturb an animal’s habitat, it moves away. It takes a few days before the animal returns to its home ground.”

Unlike the Ragama crocodile, this crocodile did not suffer any ill-treament at the hands of its captors. In fact, the villagers took turns to pour buckets of water on the reptile to prevent it from getting dehydrated.
As the reptile was being removed from the village, the rescue team had to take it past the home of Nuwanthika, the schoolgirl victim. Her parents stood looking on, tears in their eyes. The mother was heard to say, “Please take away it from here.”

There were reports of the safe house or enclosure for Nilwala Ganga crocodiles was to be set up in Kirala Kele, a few kilometres away, and that the captured crocodile could meanwhile be accommodated at the Dehiwala Zoo.

The rescue team was already on its way to the zoo, and was close to Colombo, when they received a message that the Dehiwala Zoo could not accept the crocodile. The team was forced to turn back. Their only option was to head to the Yala National Park, where the saltwater crocodile was released into the wild.

Published on SundayTimes on 22.04.2012

Indian team happy to help set up safe-house enclosure for crocs

April 26, 2012

A second saltwater crocodile made news last Thursday when it was captured at sea and brought ashore in Matara. The reptile was seen drifting in the shallow waters of the sea and fighting the waves.

The Matara Disaster Management Centre captured the crocodile.Wildlife Officer R. Gurusinghe, of the Kalamatiya Range Office, arrived at the scene and confirmed the crocodile appeared to be sick. The reptile was brought ashore and later released in the Yala National Park. According to the Kalamatiya wildlife office, the crocodile was 14 feet long.

Animal experts say most crocodile attacks are preventable, and it is only a few rogue animals that attack humans. Attacks by crocs average less than five a year. In contrast, elephant attacks account for an average 50 human deaths a year, and there is an even higher death toll from snakebite. Dogs were responsible for 43 people dying from rabies last year.

Dozens join in rescue operation to save croc that was in difficulty in the seas off Matara.

The dengue mosquito killed over 100 persons in the same period, but crocodile attacks capture the attention of the public due to their fear of reptiles.

Crocodiles are an important link in healthy ecosystems. Crocodile expert Dr. Anslem de Silva told the Sunday Times that the Nilwala River is one of the last refuges of the saltwater crocodile. Killer crocs should be confined in a designated crocodile enclosure that has been proposed in Muthurajawela and Kirala Kele in Maytara, he says.

Dr. de Silva, who is vice-chairman of the Crocodile Experts for Asia of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says that introducing saltwater crocodiles found in other areas to Yala can cause an imbalance in the ecosystem. Yala is also home to the freshwater or mugger crocodile, the other crocodile species in Sri Lanka.

The much bigger saltwater crocodiles could kill the smaller mugger crocodile in the fight for food and space, Dr. de Silva said. Like the elephant, the crocodile has homing instincts. Relocated crocodiles are known to make their way back to their home grounds, crawling distances of up to hundreds of kilometres.

The proposed enclosure for killer crocs would be a better solution, Dr. de Silva. said. In India, there is a facility for crocodiles that has become a world-famous tourist attraction. The Sunday Times spoke to Romulus Whitaker, founder of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology. The MCBT is a reptile zoo and herpetology research station, south of Chennai, in Tamil Nadu.

Mr. Whitaker confirmed that man-eating crocs were probably best kept in captivity, provided the enclosures were suitable for the animal.

The Madras Crocodile Bank has been rearing and breeding thousands of crocs of 18 different species for the past 37 years. If Sri Lanka is to set up a captive croc facility, it should send a team of responsible officers to visit the Madras Crocodile Bank and they will be happy to assist in providing training in handling crocs in captivity, he said.

Published on SundayTimes