Archive for the ‘Forests’ Category

Lanka’s biodiversity a global heritage: Asia-Pacific scientists urge Govt. to intensify conservation efforts

October 8, 2019 published on SundayTimes on 22.09.2019 

Tropical biologists and conservation scientists representing 29 countries have appealed to the Sri Lankan government to redouble its efforts to protect the country’s unique biodiversity which they describe as a global heritage.

Prof. Nimal Gunatilleke

The tropical biologists and scientists were in Sri Lanka to attend the four-day global forum of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation Asia-Pacific (ATBC-AP).

Sri Lanka is home to more than 8,600 plant and animal species, of which more than 1,600 are endemic to the island.

In their appeal, the experts call for the setting up of ecological corridors to link fragmented biodiversity-rich habitats, especially in Sri Lanka’s wet zone, the incorporation of the valuation of ecosystem services into Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and increased efforts to conserve the biodiversity in the Mannar region.

About 350 participants from 29 countries attended Conference held at the MAS Athena complex in Thulhiriya from September 10 to 13. Their appeal and recommendations were included in a end-of-summit communiqué which they called the Thulhiriya Declaration.

Established in 1963, the ATBC is one of the largest international scientific and professional organisations engaged in promoting research, education, capacity building and communication regarding the world’s tropical ecosystems. ATBC’s Asia Pacific Chapter was established in 2007 and the Thulhiriya conference was their 12th annual gathering.

The conference was inaugurated by President Maithripala Sirisena by planting an Atamba (Wild Mango) tree at the MAS Athena premises.
Addressing the gathering, the President said the tropical countries like Sri Lanka faced an imminent threat to biodiversity in the face of climate change, accelerated development efforts and population growth. He said it was important that scientists find ways address the problems by striking a balance.

The event’s co-chair, Dr. Sampath Seneviratne, justifying the decision to invite a political leader to inaugurate a conference on science, said: “We can discuss science within our own academic circles, but we need to take this knowledge beyond these walls toward policy level to make a real impact on conservation. That is one of the main reasons of getting the president of the country to inaugurate the ATBC-AP conference.”

To sustain the momentum of the conference, the organisers established the Sri Lanka Ecological Association (SLEA), a professional body, with the aim of providing advisory services to the Sri Lankan Government, the private sector and other stakeholders.

Adding some diplomatic lifelines to the science forum were French ambassador Eric Lavertu and Indian High Commission diplomat Sanjana Arya.

ATBC global President Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz

During the three-day conference, about 30 symposia were conducted through five parallel sessions where as many as 200 papers were presented.

Seven eminent local and international scientists delivered keynote addresses.

Before the conference was convened, several workshops covering technical subjects were conducted followed by research-oriented field tours.

ATBC-AP chairperson Dr. Enoka Kudawidanage said the conference offered opportunities for scientists and practitioners to gain new insights and knowledge while acquiring skills to contribute towards capacity building within the Asia-Pacific region.

“As there were foreign scientists with number of them eminent experts in their fields, the event had been particularly an opportunity for participants to get networking, collaboration and learning” said Dr. Kudawidanage, who was also elected as the Secretary of the ATBC-AP chapter for the coming year.

Professor Nimal Gunatilleke, the co-chair of the Scientific Committee of the conference, said Sri Lanka and India’s Western Ghatts were collectively considered as one of the global biodiversity hotspots, and therefore, the collaborative opportunities the event created were enormous.

India was represented by a contingent of about 60 scientists.

ATBC-AP chairperson Dr. Enoka Kudawidanage

The tropical region is the area near the equator and between the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere. The tropics comprise 40 percent of the Earth’s surface area; but have diverse habitats ranging from rainforests to deserts and from savannahs to mangroves. With most biodiversity hotspots spread in the area, the tropical zone is home to 80 percent of the earth’s species. But with India and China making up a part of the tropical regions, it is expected that the two countries would harbour half of the human population by 2030 causing huge pressure on natural ecosystems.

The conference became a forum for local researchers to meet experts from the Asia and Pacific region. Dr. Kanishka Ukuwela, who conducted a research on skinks in Sri Lanka, met an Indian scientist who is researching on skinks of India. “In this age of communication, we could collaborate through different means of technology – but it is not like sharing the research interests talking on a live chat face to face,” said Dr. Ukuwela after having a friendly skinky chat with his Indian counterparts.

ATBC global President Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz of the University of Nottingham told the Sunday Times that ATBC-AP were happy to be here in Sri Lanka, pointing out that there was a good diversity of delegates from different institutes and disciplines.

“Sri Lanka has a big role in tropical ecology and produced some of the eminent researchers such as Prof. Savithri Gunathilleke,” he said.

In 2016, Prof. Savithri Gunathilleke was honored as an ATBC Honorary Fellow – an award given to researchers who have provided life-long distinguished service to science and tropical biology.

‘White elephant’ concentration camp for problem jumbos

September 7, 2019 published on SundayTimes on 25.08.2019 

The proposed $5 million elephant holding ground inside Lunugamwehera National Park for so-called problem elephants has drawn criticism from environmentalists who say it will become a prison and also harm free-ranging elephants in the park.

Starving elephants of Lunugamwehera soon after Elephant Drive in 2005

The Sunday Times has learned that the World Bank, which was to fund the project, withdrew its offer because the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) did not conduct Environmental Impact Assessment and other prerequisites.

The DWC has named this facility the Problem Elephant Rehabilitation Centre (PERC) intending to keep in it the elephants that repeatedly cause excessive crop and property damage and attack humans.

The standard solution to this problem has been to move the animals to a protected area in a different location. But scientific study has proved translocations are a failure as such elephants often leave those areas and create human-elephant conflict elsewhere.

The department is under severe public and political pressure to capture and translocate such elephants, so, with options running out, it has again opted for another elephant holding ground.

If the project goes ahead, it would be the third time an elephant holding ground has been set up.

The first holding ground in Lunugamvehera proved to be a complete failure as all the elephants escaped.

Then, according to the wildlife department, more than 46 elephants were put into the Horowpathana holding ground commissioned in 2015.

It is alleged, however, that no monitoring of these animals has been carried out except for three elephants being fitted with electronic collars. Of these three, one escaped, one died of starvation and the other’s collar fell off after a short period.

According to the new plan, 3500 ha in the centre of Lunugamwehera National Park is to be encircled with an 11-foot-high electric fence. The park is 23,498 ha in extent, with forest ranges extending from it.

The DWC says the amount of forest taken away would not affect the existing elephant population in the park. Past data, however, predicts a different picture.

During an infamous elephant drive held in 2005, about 200 elephants were driven to the Lunugamwehera National Park. Many of them starved to death as the resources of the park were inadequate.

Environmentalists fear a similar result now as the project would remove a large chunk of the natural habitat from free-ranging Lunugamwehera elephants. These elephants may be then forced to break into villages to raid crops, worsening human-elephant conflict in the area or dying of starvation.

This is backed by research that shows a normal home range of a male elephant in Sri Lanka is 50-600 sq km. So, experts point out, the proposed new holding ground in Lunugamvehera, which is 35 sq km, would not be large enough as the home range of even a single male.

According to sources close to the department who are familiar with the study of the radio-collared elephants of Horowpathana, none of the three monitored elephants showed normal ranging behaviour, spending all their time by a section of the fence during the period monitored. It is also feared number of elephants managed to escape as conflict with humans in the area increased.

The new project aims to rehabilitate the “problem elephants” in the hope of returning them to the wild as fully free-ranging elephants but such elephants have no way of understanding why they were put in the the holding ground in the first place and will resume raiding as soon as they are released.

With this being the case, the problem elephants put into the enclosure will probably remain there the rest of their lives. It is felt the proposed holding ground would be like a concentration camp where its prisoners would ultimately die suffering.

Elephant expert Dr. Prithviraj Fernando said the holding ground concept would be a reasonable option to consider if it is accompanied by close monitoring to judge its impacts on the elephants within, on other elephants and animals that were in the area prior to the establishment of the enclosure, on the environment, on human-elephant conflict around the holding ground area and on its cost-effectiveness as a conflict mitigation measure.

“But, unfortunately, although we have constructed and put into action two holding grounds over the last 10 years, none of these impacts have been systematically studied,” Dr. Fernando said, adding, “From what little is known about the two holding grounds, it seems like the impacts are negative on most of these aspects.”

The DWC’s former director-general, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, considers holding grounds to be a necessary evil. “While holding grounds are not something I personally like, having been the D-G of Wildlife I know the political and social pressure on the DWC to capture and remove a problem elephant.” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

Scientific evidence has shown that translocations have not been success but keeping the problem animal in place could also result in it being killed by angry villagers. “That is the reason the DWC had to come up with the concept of a holding ground. It is not the department that wants to put elephants in these prisons,” Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out.

The cost of the Lunugamwehera Holding Ground was estimated at $5 million and was to be financed through the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP) project funded through a World Bank loan.

When contacted, however, the World Bank’s Sri Lanka office confirmed it had withdrawn from the project as the DWC had been was unable to fulfil prerequisite actions prior to the award of the main fencing contract.

According to the World Bank, these actions included the completion of an Environmental Impact Assessment, recommendations from a stakeholder consultation held in November 2018, and recommendations from the Technical Advisory Committee provided to the department in January.

If 50 elephants are to be imprisoned in the proposed holding ground, the cost of the site would amount to $100,000 (Rs. 18 million) for each elephant, and the $5 million is only the anticipated setting-up cost and does not include operational costs. As a long-term solution, it lacks viability.

This paper tried to contact the DWC Director-General to learn about the future of the project as there are unconfirmed reports it could go ahead using different funding sources, but the Director-General is abroad and could not be reached.

It is estimated there are about 1,500 male elephants among Sri Lanka’s 6,000 wild elephants, and many have the potential to become problematic animals.

“In the longer term, Sri Lanka should plan development, village set-up and agricultural expansion better in order to reduce human-elephant conflict,” Dr. Pilapitiya pointed out. Otherwise, he said, the problem will only grow worse.

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

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

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

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

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

Yet more trees to be ripped up under Chinese deal 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservationists say the project would worsen environmental degradation.

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

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

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

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

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

Expert urges Lankans to recognise value of our forests

October 18, 2016

This article published on SundayTimes on 31.07.2016 will be re-posted here to remind the importance of our forests on this October – National Tree Planting Month. It is also a tribute to the ‘International Research Symposium on Valuation of Forest Ecosystems’ which is an initial step taken by REDD+ to assess the true value of the services silently offered by our forests.

Prof.Savithri Gunathilake

Prof.Savithri Gunathilake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

President’s tree-planting programme hopes to avoid mistakes of past

November 13, 2015
Plan to increase forest cover to 32pc and repair ravages. Published on SundayTimes on 25.10.2015 –

President Maithripala Sirisena’s wish to increase Sri Lanka’s forest cover to 32 per cent from the current 29 per cent has been welcomed by environmentalists who point out that Sri Lanka has been steadily losing its forest cover.

Next week sees the end of National Tree Planting Month declared by the Ministry of the Environment, setting different themes for each week. The concluding week focuses on creative and sustainable planting.

President Sirisena this month announced Wana Ropa (planting of forest), a three-year program to increase forest cover to a third of the country’s land area, would begin in January next year.

It will accompany Punarudaya (renaissance), a larger program to drive sustainable development. Forest resources have rapidly been destroyed during the past few decades by racketeers who made their profits while destroying the environment.

It is everyone’s responsibility to protect natural resources and strict laws will be enforced against those who destroy them, President Sirisena said.

Environmentalists hope more will come from this tree-planting programme than from previous initiatives.

Tree-planting programs have been one of the most common environmental activities, and over the last few decades millions of samplings have been planted.

If only half of these plants survived the country would surely be much greener, environmentalists point out.

Frontline of global warming fightForests fight climate change by trapping the carbon component of carbon dioxide, a major culprit of global warming.

Forests store carbon through photosynthesis, in which they take in atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it into sugar-trapping carbon components. The sugar feeds the plant and helps it create new branches and leaves.

Trees also “breathe out” carbon dioxide but particularly during the growth stage they store more carbon than they give out. When trees are cut down most of the trapped carbon is released into the atmosphere, increasing global warming.

Sri Lanka is part of a global initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) in developing countries, launched in 2008.


The new program will take a different approach to avoid the problems of the past where many planted trees have died through lack of care.

Sinharaja rainforest. Pic by Vimukthi Weeratunga

“Because of this issue, trees will be planted mostly in places where they can be looked after and there is enough space,” an official of the Environmental Ministry said.

A former head of the Botanical Department, Dr. Siril Wijesundara, advised members of the public taking part in Wana Ropa to do some planning.Sri Lanka has different floristic regions so it is important to select a relevant species of tree.

Prepare the earth for planting and select a plant that is at least 1m tall. There are many campaigns using small plants but it is better to select a plant that is ready to become established in the new environment, increasing its chances of survival.

Smaller plants tend to die quickly and also the bigger plants will remind us that they need some attention, Dr. Wijesundara commented.

Dr. Wijesundara also highlighted the importance of the need to think about the size of the grown tree.

“Think ahead and visualise what will happen when the tree grows.” He said. “There could be electricity lines or large structures, and the tree can cause disruption to these. Some trees are not suitable for sloping ground.

“It is also very important to look after the tree without ignoring it after it is planted. After all, you are the foster-parent of such plant, so look after it by regularly watering and fertilising it,” Dr. Wijesundra said.

People should train trees planted near human settlement by pruning unwanted branches.

Why it’s vital to protect existing forestsThe most threatened forests in Sri Lanka are those that are important for our survival.

The lowland rainforests such as Sinharaja and Kanneliya cover less than 2 per cent of the land area and montane (mountainous) forests such as Horton Plains and Hakgala are just 1 per cent – but about 80 per cent of Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity is found only in these areas.

These forests play the major role in regulating our climate and stabilising the water cycle.

Large-scale agricultural and settlement schemes are the main causes of deforestation. The Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science estimates the annual change in forest cover in 2000-2005 was about 29,800 ha, a deforestation rate of 1.5 per cent.

A forest expert, Professor Nimal Gunathilake, points out that as much as 7 per cent of forests are degraded.

The National Conservation Review (NCR), conducted in the late 1990s, emphasised the need to protect the remaining wet zone forests that have very high biodiversity but are becoming fragmented. Sadly, many of Sri Lanka’s protected forests are in the Dry Zone.

Prof. Gunathilake pointed out the need of bringing Land Reclamation Commission (LRC) lands with wet zone forests under protection.

Boundary demarcation disputes have slowed the process of getting them under the control of the Forest Department. Action is needed quickly because tea plantations in particular spread into these lands, Prof. Gunathilake said