Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

Building boom endangers sand and gravel resources

April 2, 2017

Sri Lanka’s lawmakers this week approved a proper mechanism to mine sand, gravel, and rocks from lands belonging to the Mahaweli Authority and Forest Department where applicable. The decision aims to ease the demand for these and other building materials.

A cabinet paper states that only lands that are not declared as ‘protected areas’ will be targeted and that mining be done only after an environmental assessment. But environmentalists say the remaining forests should not be vandalized.

The Environment Conservation Trust’s Sajeewa Chamikara says that as soon as the war ended, forests in the north were mined for soil, gravel, and rocks to provide materials for infrastructure such as roads. “This eventually led to a severe water shortage in some of the northern areas and the new approval of mining in forest areas could also lead to such a situation,” he warns.

Environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella, points out the situation is worse in the Gampaha District in the Western Province. “There are a lot of mining activities as these building materials could be easily transported to Colombo due to the proximity. But these mines already contribute to water shortages in the area,” he said. He also says there are no licences for 80 per cent of the excavations. Even those who have licences excavate more than what is allowed.

Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Acting Director General, Sajjana De Silva, said the agency had cancelled more than 100 licences citing violation of conditions during the past few years. He said there are a number of unapproved excavations and that support from other agencies is needed.

He said the daily volumes needed to fill the central expressway exceeds the amount of gravel generated by all licencees.But as controls are tightened, it is creating shortages of building materials.Projects such as expressways and numerous high-rises in Colombo and elsewhere require massive amounts of natural materials.Experts says there is a construction boom in Sri Lanka.

Sand mining at Dambulla

“Finding sand and other materials is the worst headache for contractors,” says the Chairman of National Construction Association of Sri Lanka, Athula Galagoda. He also says that the quality of the sand is poor.

Road Development Authority Chairman, Nihal Suriarachchi also says sourcing gravel for filling purposes is diffcult and it could affect expressway projects.

Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environment Conservation Trust suggests estimating the materials requirements and identifying ways of sourcing before projects are started.

Sand mining at Divulapitiya

GSMB’s former chairman, Dr. N. P. Wijayananda, points out that most of the problems regarding gravel occur because the constructors or suppliers of soil and other material are looking for sources closer to construction sites. It will be cheaper to transport, but will carry a huge environmental cost.

“Find a feasible source of gravel in a central place, do the mining scientifically and transport to the construction site. Yes, the supplier will have to spend more for transport, but environmental damage will be much less,” Dr Wijayananda suggests.

The SundayTimes also asked Dr Wijayananda, what could be a possible solution. He suggests a three-pronged approach – opening up new deposits, using railways to reduce transport costs, and promote the use of sea sand.

He recalled that earlier the sand deposits at Manampitiya were opened up to meet urgent needs.

“The flow of the Mahaweli river causes sand to accumulate around the Manampitiya Bridge in Polonnaruwa, creating a flood plain around it. If we do not use this sand, they will anyway be washed to the sea. The next monsoon will replenish the sand deposits, so sand excavation in this area could be done sustainably,” Dr Wijayananda assures.

He reveals there are other sand deposits between Manampitiya and Trincomalee. But there are no proper access roads and it is not easy to transport from the sites.

“All these excavations have to be done under strict guidelines without deepening the river unnecessarily and without affecting the banks,” Dr Wijayananda said.

He also said that during his tenure at the Mines Bureau discussions were held with the railways on transporting materials, but that it was more expensive. “But if the government is willing, it can amend the rules facilitating cheaper sea sand transport by rail. I’m sure the cost of sand can be reduced by 40 percent,” he said.

Sea sand needs to be properly cleaned. “Europe extensively use sea sand for construction. We need to mechanically clean the sea sand and set standards of minimum salinity levels.”

Published on SundayTimes on 26.03.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170326/news/building-boom-endangers-sand-and-gravel-resources-234121.html

Save Kirala Kele, a cry from environmentalists

February 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projects endanger remaining forest cover

January 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet more trees to be ripped up under Chinese deal 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservationists say the project would worsen environmental degradation.

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

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

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

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

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

Mini-hydro’s power bulldozes Athwelthota ecology concerns

December 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 11.12.2016 – http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161211/news/mini-hydros-power-bulldozes-athwelthota-ecology-concerns-219768.html 

Pollution hotspots along Kelani mapped

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

Waste on the river bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A canal bringing pollutants to the river

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land grabbers eye unprotected forests around Sinharaja

November 30, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 23.10.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/161023/news/land-grabbers-eye-unprotected-forests-around-sinharaja-213439.html

Protect these LRC forests immediately – environmental organisations urge president

School children learn importance of protecting environment at BLUE – GREEN event

Environment organisations fear  there is an ongoing attempt to grab forest lands in the vicinity of the Sinharaja forest by individuals and groups.. The scheme came to light when a group commenced surveying around 400 acres of the Delgoda Forest located near the Sinharaja Forest last week. The group claimed they possessed  deeds to the land.

The Sunday Times learned  the Forest Department’s Range Forest Office in Kalawana was able  to stop the activity as no proper documentation regarding land ownership was provided..

Sriyantha Perera of the ‘Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka’ said many fraudulent attempts are being made to grab forest land. In one instance an individual claiming rights to the forest land based on ‘Nindagam Oppu’ claimed to have been issued during the British colonial era in 1940.

According to this old ‘nindagam’ document  the individual claimed he owned an extent of 800 ‘vee kuraniya’ – an old unit of measure used to quantify amount of harvest. This roughly equivalent to 2000 acres according to Rainforest Protectors.

The reality however is that no individual can legally own over 50 acres of land.

Another ruse of the land grabbers is to peruse documents of the Land Registry in an effort to identify land  owners who may have died and those who have left the country, create fake documents and claim ownership. Perera added that with the advent of nature-based tourism, land value in the area had sky-rocketed and this was another reason behind the rush to grab land illicitly.

The Kalawana Divisional Secretary refused to comment on the issue when the Sunday Times contacted her. The Conservator General of Forest, Anura Sathurusinghe said that he also got to know about the attempts to grab forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja and the matter is under investigation.

Meanwhile, the ‘Rainforest Protectors’ has called on government to take over all forest lands adjacent to Sinharaja because the high value of its endemic biodiversity. They added these patches of forest also act as corridors linking the larger rainforest complex, and if destroyed, the already fragmented fragile ecosystem would be adversely affected.

The environmentalists said they recognised difficulties faced regarding forest lands claimed by private individuals. However they pointed out that forest lands belonging to the Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) are forests which can be immediately brought under the protected area network as the  LRC had agreed to transfer the lands to the Forest Department several years ago.

Unfortunately boundary demarcation disputes have slowed the process of transferring the said lands for protecting under the control of the Forest Department.

Forest Conservator General Mr. Sathurusinghe said these LRC lands were now being surveyed, but said that Forest Department has to wait until the survey Department finalised its demarcation.

Environmentalists point out that as there were attempts to grab forest lands in these areas with blessings of the local politicians, it was very important to expedite the process of protecting LRC forest lands.

“There have been instances where lands are grabbed overnight. Why can’t work to protect these forest  lands be expedited? especially when the Environment Minister is the President of the country who enjoys executive powers environmentalists ask.

Meanwhile the month of October is earmarked as ‘Tree Planting Month’ with the campaign spearheaded by the President Maithripala Sirisena himself. As Environment Minister, the President also aims to increase Sri Lanka’s forest cover up to 32 percent from the current 29 percent.

Environmentalists are thus  urging the President to expedite the process of bringing these LRC lands under the protected area network to give them the much needed legal protection necessary to ensure their safety.

Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green EraSpeaking at the opening ceremony of the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” policy initiative, held at the BMICH,  President Sirisena emphasised that should any individual or institution take action to upset the balance of the environment,  government would not hesitate to enforce the laws against the wrongdoers.

While welcoming these sentiments, environmentalists said action rather than words were necessary. They pointed out that approval had been given  for the implementation of environmentally harmful projects such as mini hydro power plants.

Activists who have a joint stall in the “Sri Lanka NEXT – Blue Green Era” exhibition, are using the opportunity educate people on how sensitive environments are being destroyed for a negligible amounst of power generated by mini hydro power projects.

The ‘Rainforest Protectors’ also handed over a letter President Sirisena emphasizing need to take timely action to ensure Ministry of Environment, Central Environmental Authority and Sustainable Energy Authority cease issuing permits for future mini hydro projects and urgently appoint a team to investigate issues connected  to existing mini-hydro projects.

The organisation accused unnamed government politicians of attempting to get permission to restart currently halted mini hydro projects which allegedly harm the environment.

Wildlife desperate for water

October 12, 2016
Safe waterholes dry up, driving animals into human areas 

Poachers are heavily active during the drought – Hambantota

As the drought worsens, not only humans but wild animals too are suffering, reports Malaka Rodrigo

A family living in Hathporuwa, Sooriyawewa, had an unexpected visitor early morning on September 20 – an eight-foot crocodile. The family alerted Hambantota wildlife rangers who promptly responded. Later the same day, the same team of rangers had to rescue another croc, a 9.5 footer, from an agro well in Meegahajadura. As the smaller water holes dry up, wild animals looking for water are increasingly straying into human settlements.

Hambantota wildlife rangers also revealed an increase in elephants infiltrating villages and raiding crops as the drought progresses. Most of the small tanks in the pockets of forest patches had dried out so animals – particularly elephants – were moving to the remaining water sources such as Bandagiriya Wewa.

These, however, are now surrounded by cultivations, most established illegally, so the elephants now have to move through villages to get to the water, intensifying the chance of human-elephant conflict.

The dry period is a merry time for poachers. They use inhumane methods such as poisoning the remaining waterholes, bringing death to the unsuspecting animals.

The wildlife rangers and Special Task Force police nabbed three poachers at Kadawara Wewa in Hambantota this week, finding the bodies of two spotted deer they had killed. They also found different kinds of traps set up near the waterhole to capture wildlife – mainly deer.

Deer and other small animals have other new threats. As safe waterholes dry up they have to venture into more open areas. Groups of feral dogs learn to hunt these weakened animals. Hambantota wildlife officers this week found a dead deer that had been attacked by feral dogs.

The media officer of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Hasini Sarathchandra, said the department was arranging more patrols in protected areas during this dry period but with a large pockets of unprotected areas outside national parks and only a few dozen wildlife rangers available for deployment it was impractical to expect matters to improve as the drought continued. Not only Yala, near Hambantota, but also Wilpattu and Kumana are experiencing drought.

Yala National Parks Warden D.P. Siyasinghe said this is the typical dry period Yala experiences every year. “Many of the small water pools have gone dry but there are number of large tanks and rock pools that still contain water. The department is also putting water into some of the waterholes and, with the use of solar power, some waterholes get water pumped from the river that still has water,” he said.

The Sunday Times learned that the DWC with support from Linea Aqua, last year rehabilitated a number of tanks inside Yala that helped to increase water capacity and retention so that rainwater is held for a longer period.

Some wildlife experts are of the view that drought is a natural process and we should not interfere too much with it. Late Childers Jayawardene, who was Yala Park warden in the late ’70s, earlier said “drought is nature’s way of maintaining life”.

“Drought eliminates the sick and weak animals. Next year, after the drought, what we have is a healthier animal population. Drought is nature’s way of maintaining life,” Mr. Jayawardene said. Hence mechanisms to minimise the damage from drought should be carefully considered.

Elephant expert Dr. Prithviraj Fernando pointed out that food was a bigger concern than water during a drought. An average elephant spends 16-18 hours a day grazing as it requires about 150kg of food, so a dry period is a testing time for elephants particularly restricted into a smaller area.

Releasing of 9.5 feet croc fallen into a Agri well in Meegahajadura - Hambanthota on 20.Sept

Releasing of 9.5 feet croc fallen into a Agri well in Meegahajadura – Hambanthota on 20.Sept

Dr. Fernando pointed out that many of the national parks have more elephants than their vegetation can support during drier period, so it is important that animals be able to roam in adjacent forests to assuage their hunger. As the national parks are surrounded by electric fences, however, the elephants’ movements were restricted.

“Sadly some of these fences erected between national parks and wildernesses belong to the Forest Department. It is important these fences be readjusted if we need to have a healthy elephant population in national parks such as Yala and Udawalawe,” he advised.

Dr. Fernando also said the plan to keep the Minneriya tank at spill level throughout the year for irrigation should be reconsidered in order to manage habitats for elephants in drier periods.

Hundreds of elephants in the area gather during the dry season around the Minneriya tank bed to feed on fresh shoot of grasses that come up as the water level recedes. If the Minneriya tank was at spill level all year round a large amount of these grasslands that emerge during the dry season will be submerged, depriving elephants of this nutrition-rich fodder.

Without this fresh source of food during drought, conflict will increase, Dr. Fernando warned, urging authorities to rethink the strategy.

The drying water holes

Drying out water holes

Mini hydros: Clean energy comes at high cost to Nature

May 19, 2016

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

Damming streams a ‘death sentence for many species’ 

Dam being built across the Anda dola. Pic courtesy Rainforest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bye.. bye.. thinner polythene

February 16, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 07.02.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160131/news/polythene-baddies-hammered-from-tomorrow-181304.html

A man who supplies sili sili bags to shops in Pettah

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) will from next month systematically begin raiding the manufacturers and sellers that do not comply with the ban on polythene less than 20 microns in thickness.

“In January, we made some raids and those found guilty had been given chance to adjust to alternatives. But from February onwards, we will take legal action against those who do not comply,” a CEA spokesman warned.

The manufacture, sale or use of polythene less than 20 microns in thickness was banned from 2007 under the National Environment Act under the directive of President Maithripala Sirisena while he was the minister of environment but the law has until now not been properly implemented.

The thickness of polythene sheets is measured in microns – a unit resembling 0.001 millimeter. These thinner polythene sheets are mostly used in shopping bags or “sili sili bags”, lunch sheets and other packaging materials.

Any form of polythene or plastic takes hundreds of years to decay, polluting the environment, but thinner polythene is more evil as it cannot be recycled. Burning it causes the emission of poisonous gases such as dioxin, so such polythene ends up in garbage dumps.

Dumped bags clog the drainage system, creating floods. Animals such as cattle also feed on polythene bags found on rubbish heaps and become ill or die.

Easy to transport: A day’s shopping all in ‘Sili sili’ bags

The water collected in these disposed bags and wrappers can collect rainwater, making breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue. Polythene dumped in waterways finds its way into the ocean, choking and killing marine life.

According to a survey conducted by the Environment Ministry 72 per cent of villagers and 49 per cent of people in urban areas in the Western Province use polythene lunch sheets.

In total, about 500,000 metric tonnes of polythene and plastics are imported into Sri Lanka with 70 per cent of this going into domestic use while 30 per cent is used in export-related industry.

The positive side is that about 40 per cent of the plastics and thicker polythene is being recycled. The CEA currently has six recycling plants in operation and two more awaiting commissioning.

About 160 firms involved in plastic recycling are registered with the CEA and this number is expected to increase.

Worryingly, 60 per cent of the plastic and polythene used domestically ends up in garbage.

The authorities hope the ban on thin polythene will be effective. In Bangladesh, which banned the use of polythene bags in early 2000, media reports say polythene is making an illegal comeback.

A change in consumer attitude is key to the success of the strategy. Experts recommend the widespread teaching of the 3R principles: Refuse, Reuse and Recycle.

As consumers, we all have the power to refuse a polythene bag when it is not necessary and we can carry reusable bags.

Big demand: A shop that sells only ‘sili sili’ bags in Pettah. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Sampur power plant may pose threat to marine life

October 27, 2015

Published on SundayTimes on 11.10.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151011/news/power-plant-at-sampur-a-non-starter-167417.html. Please note that the title of the web version should be changed as “Sampur power plant may pose threat to marine life” 

The siting of the Sampur Power Plant seems to be unsuitable with its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) being rejected twice and the third amended EIA report being currently scrutinised by the Central Environment Authority (CEA).

India’s media reported that Sri Lanka has requested India to consider relocation of the coal power plant being planned to be built at Sampur in Trincomalee. The possible environmental impact of this power plant on marine life appears to be a cause of concern.

The power plant is expected to operate two generators adding 500 MW of electricity to the national grid. For the operation of a coal fired thermal power plant, water in large quantities is a necessity.

The proposed power plant is estimated to use as much as 90,000 m3 (cubic metres) of water per hour to generate steam as well as for cooling the system after the electricity is generated. It is planned to use sea water sucked in from Koddiyar Bay through a 2.6 metre diameter pipeline large enough for a man to walk inside it. The water used to cool the system is then to be discharged into Shell Bay – a biodiversity rich area.

This is particularly detrimental to the area as Shell Bay has a high biodiversity. A study conducted by National Aquatic Resources and Development Agency (NARA) shows there are 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates living in Shell Bay.The discharging of as much as 90,000m3/h of water is predicted to be a problem as the water so discharged will be at a higher temperature than the normal sea water. It is predicted that the water so discharged will be about 4 degrees Celsius higher. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) using computer generated models show that this discharge would not be a problem, but discharging of such a large volume with a higher temperature for 24 hours a day and 7 days a week worries concerned scientists.

SampoorGra

Relocation due to return of IDPs 

Indian media reported that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has requested India to consider relocating the coal power plant that is being planned to be built at Sampur, Trincomalee. There were environmental concerns over building a coal power plant in Sampur. However, the main reason for the Government to request the relocation of the plant is believed to be a social issue where the Government itself started to resettle displaced people in Sampur.

President Maithripala Sirisena inaugurated this exercise last August handing over the deeds to a selected group of occupants. The unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.

When the Sunday Times queried about this news report from the CEB General Manager M.C. Wickramasekara said he has no information about such a plan. (please note that there was a mistake in print version where CEB General Manager M.C.Wickremasekara was mistakenly referred as Nihal Wikckramasuriya who is the vice chairman of CEB)  

The area has also got its name due to large volumes of shells washed ashore indicating the area is rich in these shells’ live bearers. A rare creature that can be found in Shell Bay is the giant clam.

Giant Clamp in Shell Bay

It is known that even a slight temperature rise can damage corals by triggering bleaching. Despite results obtained on computer generated models, if the temperature in the sea water continues to increase, it could impact a large area.

Not only the temperature, it is fear that the discharging water can be contaminated with sulfur emissions from the burning coal and heavy metals such as mercury.

Chlorine too will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a chain impact making a collectively bigger impact in the long run, is the fear o f biologists.

Such pollution is not only impacted on the bio diversity of the Shell Bay but also there is a risk of health impacts on the human beings from such heavy metals through food chains.

The Mahaweli Ganga also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

Another color variation of Giant Clamp

“If the discharge of water is done in a careless manner, it can impact on this environmentally sensitive area” warns Dr.Hiran Jayewardene – former chairman of NARA.

He pointed out the need for doing the Environmental Impact Assessments with care, so that the project will not damage the environment.

The Sampur Power Plant did not have a proper assessment from the start. Its first EIA was submitted on August 2012 and was rejected due to being inadequate in several aspects.

The Trincomalee Power Company Ltd (TPCL) which is a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has resubmitted another EIA in April 2014 with amendments.

But this EIA too was found not adequate enough and it compelled the Indian consultancy firm ManTec to employ local scientists as well. The EIA was submitted in February 2015 for the third time and is being currently reviewed by a Technical Evaluation Committee.

Cooling the heated water to the sea temperature or extending the pipeline and discharging the water further into the open sea are suggested as solutions for this issue, but this will add an additional cost which at present is estimated at US$ 512 million.
The Sunday Times query sent to India’s NTPC’s general e-mail asking whether it is considering mechanisms to cool down the heated water to the sea temperature and the company’s willingness to implement such a solution has not been answered up to Friday evening.

 

It is also claimed that discharging these water to the Eastern side too will not be a solution as eventhough corals in those areas could be degraded, new corals can come up on top of those dead corals as they need a hard substrate.

However, a news report published in the Island newspaper in May 2015 quotes TPCL Managing Director Sanjeev Kishore as saying most of the complaints lodged against the current EIA by the public were baseless and the majority of them were repetitions.

Mr. Kishore said the company would correct the misconception that the plant would be similar to a nuclear plant and consequences of an accident would be similar, the news report further mentioned.

The Sunday Times also contacted Prof. O. Illeperuma to know about the possible air pollution impact. He said there are mechanisms to contain the pollution by coal power and it is very important to first scrutinise whether these methods would be set up and secondly, do continuous monitoring of their functioning to prevent air pollution.

However there is another issue as the present EIA has been done before the Government’s decision of resettlement of people in the area. Hence it may also need a re-evaluation in the present EIA on the air pollution radius, experts point out.

Central Environment Authority Chairman Prof. Lal Mervyn Dharmasiri said the technical evaluation of the Sampur Power Plant EIA is being done. He said the evaluation is thorough and the results will be released soon.

How a coal power plant works 

In a thermal power plant, large volumes of cleaned water are being heated by burning coal. This process converts the water to steam which is discharged through nozzles on to the turbine blades making the turbines rotate which in turn rotates the electricity generator.

The steam is then passed through a condenser that contains tubes through which cold water is constantly pumped. The steam passing around the tubes of the condenser loses heat and condenses as water. During this process, the steam gets cooled while cooling water gets heated up.

This warm water can be discharged into a natural water body for cooling (once through cooling system) or it may be cooled in a cooling tower and recycled for the cooling (closed cycle cooling system). 

Yala opens amidst tension after shooting of poacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leopards are often fallen victims of snares setup for wildboar

Leopards are often fallen victims of snares setup for wildboar

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

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

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

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

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

How to stop poaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wire trap kills another Hill Country leopard

September 28, 2015

Adding to the increasing number of leopard deaths, an adult male, more than 7 feet long, was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, early this week, on September 21, having fallen prey to a wire trap.

The trap had been set up in Toppass village bordering the Piduruthalagala Forest Reserve and was meant to protect the agricultural lands from wild boar.

Wildlife enthusiast Kasun Pradeepa who saw the body of the animal around 9 a.m. on the day it was discovered said the animal would have died around six that same morning.

This death comes even before the dust had settled on the Yala incident, where a speeding vehicle killed a female leopard inside the National Park.He said the snare had tripped around the leopard’s neck and death was either due to suffocation or the snare had snapped the animal’s neck.

Wire traps are known to be the number one killer of the elusive Hill Country leopard. In 2011, a leopard met the same fate in an area close to Toppas. Once the animal gets caught it struggles to break free and this worsens the situation and the animal dies of injuries to the internal vital organs.

“The Hill country is home for a viable leopard population. But wire traps pose a big problem although they are not aimed at killing leopard,” said Anjali Watson who is known for conducting research, along with Andrew Kittle on the Hill Country leopard.

“Wire traps are mainly set up for wild boar that comes to feed on farm lands. Wild boar is the leopard’s main prey, so they follow their path and become easy prey to the traps,” she said.

Unfortunately the land-use pattern of the Hill Country sometimes increases the conflict between leopards and humans, pointed out the researcher.

The Hill country has lots of small forest patches with tea estates in between. So the leopards often use these tea estates to cross from one forest patch to another or sometimes even make it their habitat, thereby making it vulnerable.
(M.R.) Published on SundayTimes on 27.09.2015 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150927/news/wire-trap-kills-another-hill-country-leopard-165662.html

A male leopard was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, having fallen prey to a wire trap. (c) Kasun Pradeepa

A male leopard was found dead in Nuwara Eliya, having fallen prey to a wire trap. (c) Kasun Pradeepa

..in search of solution for Human Elephant Conflict

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

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

Dr.Prithiviraj Fernando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing scheme in elephant territory - intensifying the conflict

A housing scheme in elephant territory – intensifying the conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published on 20.09.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150920/news/solution-to-man-beast-conflict-lies-with-stakeholderstop-researcher-164878.html

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

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

Murder of a mermaid

September 18, 2015
Police inquiry into rare dugong killed in Mannar

Police are investigating the tragic killing of a dugong, the rare creature possibly believed to be a “mermaid” in olden times, in Mannar after the Navy came across a group of fishermen chopping up the mammal’s flesh on South Bar beach.

A local resident, Mohammed Haleem, said the Navy handed over the culprits to police and wildlife officers last week, and that they are out on bail.

tail side of the dugong (c) Mohamed Haleem

Carcass of slain dugong in Mannar – photo by Mohamed Haleem

Dugongs are sometimes hunted but they also fall victim by being inadvertently included in fishing catches or drowning after being entangled in mist fishing nets or falling victim to dynamite fishing. The cause of the action that killed the Mannar dugong is unknown. Its vital organs have been sent for analysis.

Also known as sea cow or muhudu-ura (sea pig) in Sinhala, kadal pandi in Tamil, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal that primarily feeds on seagrass. Dugongs were hunted openly for their flesh and oil decades ago and their population plummetted.

In the 1970s, legal sanctions to protect dugongs were incorporated into legislation but rarely enforced. It is a known secret that still several animals are still killed annually, researcher Dr.Ranil Nanayakkara said.

The Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay are the last known hideout in Sri Lanka and India for these elusive beings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List on threatened species categorises the dugong as “vulnerable to extinction”.

The dugong population in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay in Sri Lanka could be “critically endangered”, points out the IUCN Sri Lanka’s country office’s Marine and Coastal Thematic Area Coordinator Arjan Rajasuriya.

A mermaid related to an elephantThe dugong, referred to as a sea cow, sea pig and even sea camel by different communities, is scientifically close to elephants. These mammals can stay underwater for six minutes without surfacing.
It is also claimed that the legends of mermaids have been inspired by dugongs and manatees as they sometimes breathe by “standing” on their tail with their heads above water. With forelimbs containing five sets of finger-like bones and neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their heads, it is possible that
dugongs and manatees could be mistaken for humans
from afar.

In global terms, there are more stable dugong populations in places such as off Australia but if quick action is not taken the species’ future is indeed bleak in our local waters.

Dugongs are long-lived, and animals as much as 70 years of age has been recorded. But it is a slow breeder, giving birth to a single calf after an 18-month pregnancy. The mother dugong then looks after the calf for more than one and half years. So the kiling of even a few dugongs can have serious implications.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) confirms that the dugong is already extinct in several island states and suffering steep declines in at least a third of the areas where it is found.
It is ironic that the dugong at Mannar was killed just when a new project to protect dugongs and their seagrass ecosystem had begun, Mr. Rajasuriya said.

 Dynamite fishing poses grave threat

Vankalai reef destruction from blast fishing (c) Arjan Rajasuriya

Illegal dynamite fishing is common on many parts of the east coast, and a marine researcher said his team heard dynamite blasts almost every day while surveying the Vankalai coral reef, located in dugong habitat.
It is not known how many dugongs are killed in blast fishing, which destroys underlying ecosystems such as corals in addition to killing all living creatures within range of the blast.
A pair of fully-grown dugongs were killed by dynamiting in 2010.

Blast fishing Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Marine and Coastal Thematic Area, said dynamite fishing occurs particularly in around Errakkandy, north of Nilaweli, and around Batticaloa and Kalmunai. It is also commonly practised by fishermen in the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, Mr. Rajasuriya said.
He witnessed the destruction the dynamite caused to the corals underwater. “If explosives are used at close range while the researchers are under water they could cause severe injuries. We had to chase the blast fishermen away in order to do our work,” Mr. Rajasuriya said.
Constant sea patrols can prevent blast fishing only to a limited extent so Mr. Rajasuriya believes this matter has to be pursued mainly on land to prevent explosives going into the hands of fishermen.
Trying to arrest culprits at sea is difficult as there are many ways they could evade arrest, such as by dumping the explosives when the authorities are spotted. It is also difficult to prove that a haul of fish had been killed with the use of dynamite.
“We need to turn our attention to land and find out how these fishermen get explosives. A good intelligence network and consistent action could effectively seal off the sources of dynamite,” Mr. Rajasuriya said. 

Published on 13.09.2015 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150913/news/murder-of-a-mermaid-163945.html

Human Elephant Conflict – should all blame DWC..?

September 13, 2015

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

This is my article written on 2011 about the issue aftermath of a protest by villagers over someone got killed by a wild elephant. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110731/News/nws_18.html 

Villagers block junction demanding solution to Human-Elephant Conflict

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

Protesting villagers. Pic by Kanchana Kumara Ariyadasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps this leopard did not die in vain

September 6, 2015

When the Sunday Times broke the story about the leopard killed in a hit-and-run accident inside Yala National Park last Friday the issue went viral on social media, reaching a peak when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stood up for action.
In a post on his official Facebook page the Prime Minister said his government was looking into how it could implement strict enforcement of speed limits and further restrictions on the rate of visitors “to each of our national parks and reserves, in order to create an environment that is safe and secure for all its inhabitants”.

Environmentalists welcomed the statement, hoping that at last there would be action to control the safari madness at the country’s most popular national park, which attracted gets nearly half a million tourists last year. The issue of over-visitation is linked to bad planning of the tourism industry, some experts point out. A number of new hotels has been built in the area, resulting more visitors to Yala. So the tourism industry itself needs to come forward to plan sustainable use of the park, not allowing the industry itself to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

There are other national parks in the country, some of them scenic beauties but very much under-developed and recording very low visitation. These should be developed and promoted as an attempt to divert visitors to other biodiversity in the country.
This is not the first time an animal has been killed in Yala. In 2011, a young leopard was knocked inside the national park while in 2012, another jungle cat was killed.

Environmentalists are happy that the country’s prime minister has now announced that, “As an animal lover myself, this matter is very close to my heart”, and they hope the words are sincere. -M.R.

Stats

Please make it one portfolio, say activists

Gamini Jayawickrema Perera was given the Wildlife portfolio when the new ministry was announced on Friday and it is assumed that President Maithripala Sirisena will continue as the Minister of Environment. This has disappointed environmentalists who hoped that all agencies relating to the environment be placed under one ministry to allow for better coordination.

At a press conference convened by the Environmental Collective on Wednesday, environmentalists pointed out the importance of having all the related Environment agencies under one roof. The main concern is that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Forest Department (FD) are assigned to two different ministries.

The Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management Department, Central Environment Authority, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Marine Environmental Protection Authority, Gem and Jewellery Authority and the Wildlife Trust are the other state departments and agencies that environmentalists desire to be brought under one ministry.

While saying that the guardianship of wild animals of Sri Lanka is considered to be primarily under the DWC but there are wild animals in the forests belonging to Forest Department, Pubudu Weeraratne of the Species Conservation Centre gave an example with humour to explain the ineffectiveness before of lack of coordination between agencies.

“There are instances where electric fences with the aim to solve human-elephant conflict are being built to demarcate protected areas belonging to DWC but on the other side it becomes a forest under the Forest Department – and there are elephants on both sides of the fence,” Mr. Weeraratne said.

“A minister from an urban electorate such as Colombo would be better as the Minister of Wildlife,” said activist Nayanayaka Ranwella, pointing out that provincial politicians were bound to favour their supporters, who are often behind wildlife crimes.
He said environmentalists were truly happy that President Maithripala Sirisena had himself come forward to keep the portfolio, indicating that for the first time the environment is an important subject.

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Published on SundayTimes on 06.09.2015  http://www.sundaytimes.lk/150906/news/perhaps-this-leopard-did-not-die-in-vain-163182.html 

Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

September 1, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena as the Environment Minister said that Steps will be taken to ban import of asbestos roofing sheets by 2018 (http://www.president.gov.lk/news/steps-to-ban-import-of-asbestos-roofing-sheets-by-2018/). The bad effects of Asbestos sheets has been known for a long time, but little action has been taken. Here is my 2011 article discussing the bad effects of Asbestos, emphasizing the need to minimize its usage. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110710/News/nws_15.html

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Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

Once considered a miracle material it kills more than 107,000 people each year-WHO
By Malaka Rodrigo | published on 10.07.2011 on SundayTimes
Asbestos was once tagged as a miracle material for its strength. But the move last month under the Rotterdam Convention, to list asbestos under hazardous materials, which need the prior consent of other countries in international trade, again highlighted safety drawbacks of asbestos.

Central Environment Authority (CEA) Chairman Charitha Herath, who represented Sri Lanka at this symposium, said the move to list white asbestos as a material that required Prior Informed Consent (PIC) did not materialize, adding however that the CEA has initiated an evaluation of asbestos in Sri Lanka. Mr. Herath said the committee comprised representatives from asbestos manufacturers, the Ministry of Health, Customs Department, Board of Investment, National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, Industrial Technology Institute, World Health Organisation (WHO) and other experts. The CEA, together with the University of Moratuwa, is already in the final stages of preparing an Asbestos Situation Report in Sri Lanka, he said.

Haphazard disposal of asbestos

There are many forms of asbestos, with blue asbestos already banned in Sri Lanka since 1997. But white asbestos (chrysotile asbestos) made by mixing asbestos fibre with cement, continues to be used mainly as roofing sheets. However, a WHO study reveals that all forms pose a health hazard. Asbestos is a fibre deposited in mineral format that needs to be extracted through a mining operation. This fibrous material is chemically known as hydrated magnesium silicate. Roofing sheets account for more than 80% of local asbestos use, but asbestos is also being used for vehicle friction parts such as brake pads.

While this tiny fibre-cement bond does not cause any harm, if it is released into the air and is inhaled over a long period, it can cause lung cancers and other asbestos related diseases. According to a WHO analysis, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, resulting mainly from occupational exposure. The asbestos-cement bond is said to be safe. But when the roofing sheets are being assembled and disposed, the fibre release is much higher. The bond also tends to loosen when the sheets age, while fungus attack too could cause release of the fibre. Applying a thick layer of paint can reduce this risk, points out some sources.

“The asbestos already on the roofs don’t add much fibre into the air, while trying to remove it will add more fibre into the air. It is the occupational exposure that is more harmful,” said Dr. Harishchandra Yakandawela, National Consultant, Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management WHO- (SAICM), set up under the Rotterdam Convention.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) revealed that several categories of workers working closely with asbestos related products are at higher risk. It lists asbestos factory workers, carpenters who work on roofing projects, labourers of asbestos stores facilities and workers at building demolishing sites as high risk categories. Motor mechanics are another group exposed to risk as brake pads also contain asbestos fibre. The NIOSH advises workers to use protective equipment, especially when cutting asbestos related materials, which releases lots of dust containing asbestos fibre.

Under its programme with the CEA, the Moratuwa University, also attempts to analyse Sri Lanka’s Cancer Registry, to evaluate a link with occupational related cancer. Around 18,000 are annually diagnosed with cancer in Sri Lanka, but collection of data relating to occupations of the cancer patients has been a difficult task. Dr. Yakandawala also reminded that it can takeabout 20-30 years for the real cancer to emerge, which makes it harder to track its root causes.

Sri Lanka has three main asbestos roofing sheet manufacturing companies and are said to be using precautions to safeguard their employees. However, it is important that the authorities constantly monitor the situation, as these employees can be in the line of direct exposure. Concentration of asbestos fibres in the air, duration of the exposure, frequency of exposure and the size of the asbestos fibres inhaled are some of the factors to which the seriousness of the asbestos related health risks is subject to. Carpenters working on roofs are the other category highly exposed to asbestos related health hazards. The NIOSH says it has given instructions and is prepared to conduct health checks on employees of asbestos manufacturing plants, but says it is too difficult to reach the informal working sector such as individual carpenters working on their own. This informal working group is very hard to monitor.

Many of them are even ignorant of such a danger, and just cut the asbestos, even without covering their noses, exposing themselves to high danger levels, where experts advise using 100% body cover when exposed to asbestos.

However, like e-waste, asbestos debris should also be disposed of with extreme care, points out Head of Hazardous Waste Unit CEA, Sarojinie Jayasekara. The CEA sets guidelines for the waste generated by asbestos manufacturing plants, but many of the household asbestos is being disposed of irresponsibly. According to the guidelines, these have to be buried much deeper in the earth. The 2004 tsunami was a good example, where a large number of houses with asbestos sheets were destroyed and disposed of at normal dumping grounds in Sri Lanka’s coastal belts.

“We cannot ban asbestos in Sri Lanka immediately, until we find a suitable alternative” said Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. The CEA chairman adds that awareness is the key to minimise asbestos related health hazards.

The Rotterdam Convention

The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals. The convention handles the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides that have severe effects for health or environmental reasons. The Convention came into operation in 2004 and Sri Lanka ratified the convention in 2006.

 

Yala was no sanctuary for this leopard

August 30, 2015
More animals die so that we can ride in comfort 

In more sad news from Yala, the body of a female leopard was found on Friday inside Yala National Park itself, on the verge of the Jamburagala road. The body had no apparent scars but the postmortem revealed the leopard died due to a broken neck (spinal code). There was evidence that some elephants had passed through the area in which the leopard was lying but it was unlikely that the death could have been due to an attack by elephants as adult leopards never confront elephants.

It is probable that the leopard died after being hit by a speeding vehicle, Wildlife Conservation Department (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake said. No culprit has been nabbed yet but there will be an investigation about the death of this leopard, he said.

The female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala National Park

Female leopard killed by Hit and Run vehicle inside Yala (c) Janakafb Janu

Yala is the busiest national park in Sri Lanka with its key attraction being the leopards. The safari jeep drivers and other visitors always want to see a leopard so any leopard sighting is swiftly communicated through mobile phones to other jeeps that then flock to the area for a glimpse of the prized big cat.

The park is closed every day at 6 p.m., so jeeps that go deep into the jungle without a sense of the time, speed their way toward the exit at closing time, and this could lead to accidents like this. This is not the first leopard killed by speeding vehicles inside Yala National Park. In 2011, a leopard was killed by a speeding vehicle and since then, several animals too has been reported killed by speeding vehicles.

Mobile phones are a big factor in these Mad Max-type situations in Yala as they are used to pass on the message of leopard sightings. Heeding requests from conservationists, the DWC, in collaboration with mobile phone operators, in experimenting with cutting off service inside the park, Mr. Ratnayake revealed.

The network was switched off on alternate weeks this month. The leopard death occurred during a time when phones were active, according to local sources, indicating that a total blackout could improve the situation to some extent. It is, however, the responsibility of visitors not to allow the jeep to speed up for the sighting of a leopard. Jeep drivers speed in order to give tourists a better sighting, which will mean a bigger tip, so ask them not to speed up, conservationists say.

Local sources say that as many as five leopards have died this year in Yala due to various causes. A leopard was killed a few months ago in the buffer zone in Dambewa after being caught in a wire trap. The remains of another leopard was found near Rathmalwewa in Yala about a month ago.

Earlier this week a tourist bus hit a herd of deer on the Kirinda-Yala road, reinforcing concerns that the road has become a death-trap for wildlife as its newly-carpeted surface allows motorists to speed. No carcasses or wounded deer could be seen on the road after Wednesday’s accident but blood on the road indicated that several animals could be badly injured.

It was dark at the time of the accident and the wounded animals sought refuge in the jungle. Conservationists worry that even if these deer do not die as a direct result of their injuries the wounds could become infected and make the animals less mobile,making them easy prey for predators.

Last drop of water - trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda - Palatupana - Yala road on 21st of Aug

Last drop of water – trying to quench thirst of dying deer hit on Kirinda – Palatupana – Yala road on 21st of Aug (c) Sampath Galappaththi

On August 21, a deer was hit and killed by a motorist who sped off without waiting to be identified, leaving the animal suffering by the side of the road. It was the ninth deer known to have been killed in the past three months since that stretch was resurfaced to provide a comfortable ride for park visitors, local resident Sampath Galappaththi said.

The fact that large animals like deer are being killed on the road indicates smaller animals and birds are being killed in larger numbers, unnoticed.

Mr. Galappaththi revealed that carcasses of nightjars, a nocturnal bird, have become a common sight on the road.
Mr. Ratnayake said he was aware of the problem. He said that as the road comes under the Road Development Authority, the DWC would hold talks with the authority to find a solution. In the meantime, he urged motorists to be careful when driving on roads bordering on or passing through through wilderness areas.

Drought break for wildlife
The Yala National Park will be closed for one month from September 7. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) announced this week that Yala, the country’s mostly visited national park, is closing during the height of the drought to ease the pressure on the animals from visitors. The break also gives an opportunity to repair infrastructure in the park. The tradition of closing the park at this time started in colonial days when the park was a game reserve providing hunting opportunities.