Archive for the ‘IUCN Redlist’ Category

Rare bottom-dweller is a vulnerable fish

April 9, 2017

‘Why humans are so cruel..?’ could it be Shark Ray’s last thoughts..?

In the animal kingdom, there are species that look alike, or ‘hybrids’, between two or more creatures. Marine creatures with such features often go unnoticed, but the fish caught in nets off the southern coast puzzled many as it appeared like a shark and a ray (‘mora’ and ‘maduwa’ in Sinhala, respectively).This strange fish had ‘shark like’ fins and tail. However, its head looks like a ray and had ray-like ‘wings’. The fish photographed by Devsiri Peiris last month is said to have been caught accidentally in a fishing net. It is about five feet long and a male.

“It is a fish we call ‘shark ray’, known by fishermen  as ‘thith mora’’’, says Rex I. De Silva – an expert on sharks. “Despite its Sinhala name, it is not a shark but a ray,’’ he says.

The shark ray is scientifically named as Rhina ancylostoma also called mud skate as it is found in sandy bottoms doing bottom feeding. Due to the shape of its head the fish in this group is also known as ‘guitarfish’. The one caught is a Bowmouth Guitarfish. According to literature, this large species can reach a length of 2.7 m (8.9 ft) and weight of 135 kg (298 lb). They are found in depths of up to 90 m (300 ft).

Shark expert, Mr de Silva says the species is rare. “Nevertheless the species appears in very small numbers from time-to-time in fish markets. I have seen them at Negombo, Kalmunai and Kirinda markets,” Mr De Silva says.

The Red List of Threatened Fauna by IUCN categorises the shark ray as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction. Other than getting caught in fishing nets, dynamite fishing, bottom trawling pose a threat to shark rays. Habitat degradation and destruction too threaten this rare fish.  Published on SundayTimes on 09.04.2017

The Shark Ray or Guitar fish with fins similar to that of sharks and upper body similar to a ray (c) Devsiri Peiris

Shark ray in New Port Aquarium – she has given birth to 9 pups

Humphead wrasse killing stirs calls for protection and spearfishing ban

February 1, 2017

Declare the endangered humphead wrasse as a protected species in Sri Lanka and ban spearfishing, researchers of aquatic resources, diving groups and conservationists demand. An environment lawyer says spearfishing can be banned under existing laws.

Outrage grew after pictures emerged showing a human-sized humphead wrasse, (Cheilinus undulates) also known as Napoleon wrasse, being hauled ashore after being killed. This fish, with its thick lips and a hump on its head, is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is also regarded as a delicacy by the Chinese especially in Hong Kong where it fetches upwards of  Rs 45,000 a kilo. This coral reef fish must be in demand in Chinese restaurants in the island as well.

The fish can grow up to six feet and can weigh up to 190 kilograms. It can live up to 30 years, but many are killed before they reach maturity.

Humphead wrasse is a popular target of spear fishermen.

In Unawatuna, a dive centre that mainly caters to Russians is allowing spearfishing which destroys many large marine species, marine activists say.

“In the case of the Unawatuna incident, the fish was speared outside the protected area and the law doesn’t ban hunting of humphead wrasse. So, we are unable to take any action against them,” said Channa Suraweera of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. He oversees marine affairs.

While hunting of wild animals on land is illegal, fish is treated as a food source, irrespective of the threat levels various fish species face.

Dr Sisira Haputantri of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency said the agency will be recommending to the Fisheries Department that the humphead wrasse be made a protected species. But that will only be a start as monitoring whether the fish is being hunted is difficult.

Large coral fish such as the humphead wrass are threatened in other areas of the island as well.

In 2013, the Sunday Times  exposed the danger to the humphead wrasse particularly in Kalpitiya area where divers who dive for chank and sea cucumber also target the giant fish. They kill the fish even if it takes cover in underwater caves.

In times past, free divers engaged in spearfishing. They can stay underwater only for a limited time. But scuba gear allows divers to continue spear fishing for longer. “Scuba gear allows a diver to stay under water for long periods and chase a target fish. Most of the mature humphead wrasse in our reefs have already been hunted and large specimens such as the one that had been speared in Unawatuna are rare. Only a handful of individual fish that flee at the sight of a diver are survivors,’’ said researcher Arjan Rajasuriya, Coordinator, Coastal & Marine Programme IUCN Sri Lanka.

Dr Malik Fernando, who is a founder member of the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club, a diving club, recalls how wild animals once heavily hunted in colonial times, have become a source of pride and joy in the island once they are protected.

“The land animals once hunted by a few brought wonder and joy to many, such as those who ventured into wild places and protected areas in search of them. Visiting wildlife parks became a major recreational activity and a source of income for the Government. What we are proposing for the marine environment is an extension of what has been done on land: the conservation of a threatened group of animals (fishes) that would otherwise likely disappear from our waters,” Dr Fernando writes in an appeal.

The Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club sent the appeal to the Minister of Fisheries in May 2015 outlining reasons for a ban on spearfishing.

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

Large Hump-head Wrasse speared in Unawatuna

“This proposal would certainly inconvenience a few people. But we are confident that those who would be affected do not depend exclusively on spearing fish or renting spear fishing equipment for their existence. Like the hunters in days gone by, they will learn to live with the new rules. The result will be that the seas around Sri Lanka will once more be home to really large giant groupers and family groups of the humphead wrasse,” he observes.

“Removal of large coral fish could be detrimental to the whole coral ecosystem affecting other species as well. For example, the humphead wrasse feed on crown-of-thorn starfish that destroys coral reefs,’’ said marine researcher Rajasuriya. Also large fish such as the tomato grouper help maintain the holes in low relief reefs where the scarlet shrimp and painted shrimp take shelter. These shrimps are high value items in the ornamental fish trade and without the large fish the shrimp populations would die out and adversely impact the sustainability of the business.

The Sub-Aqua Club has appealed to the Minister of Fisheries to protect 15 large coral fish.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said spearfishing can be banned under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act section 28, listing the equipment under the illegal gear.

The marine experts also highlight the importance of banning illegal fishing practices such as dynamiting and bottom trawling.

A diver swimming with a gentle giant Hump-head wrasse (c)

A diver with giant Hump-head wrasse (c)

Groupers too threatened due to spearfishing 

Not only the Hump-head Wrasse, but some other large coral fish such as Groupers are threatened due to spearfishing and other illegal destructive fishing methods. So Sub-Aqua Club in their appeal to the fisheries minister to take actions, lists following coral fish to be protected. 


Humphead Wrasse Cheilinus undulatus Endangered  


Tomato Grouper Cephalopholis sonnerati Least Concern
Whitespotted grouper Epinephelus caeruleopunctatus Least Concern
Blue and yellow grouper Epinephelus flavocaeruleus Least Concern
Brown-marbled grouper Epinephelus fuscoguttatus Near Threatened
Giant grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus Vulnerable
Malabar grouper Epinephelus malabaricus Near Threatened
Camouflage grouper Epinephelus polyphekadion Near Threatened
wavy-lined grouper Epinephelus undulosus Data Deficient
saddle grouper Plectropomus laevis Vulnerable
leopard coral grouper Plectropomus leopardus Near Threatened
Roving coralgrouper Plectropomus pessuliferus Near Threatened
Yellow-edged lyretail Variola louti Least Concern
Lyretail Grouper Variola albimaginata Least Concern
two-striped sweetlips Plectorhinchus albovittatus Not Evaluated
Tomato Grouper - threatened by spearfishing

Tomato Grouper – threatened by spearfishing

Blue and Yellow Grouper 

Blue and Yellow Grouper

Giant Grouper

Giant Grouper

Published on SundayTimes on 29.01.2017


The return of the Damselfly after 154 years

August 23, 2013

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

_MG_5773 (c) Salindra Kasun Dayananda

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

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

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

Water Pollution endangering  this mosquito-killer

A female Sinhalestes orientali

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

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

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

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

Published on SundayTimes on 18.08.2013 

Island sanctuary for critically endangered Hog Deer

January 11, 2013

A Hog Deer in safe hands

Last year was not a good year for wildlife and the environment, so it was good to start the New Year on a positive note with a happy environment story.

As part of a conservation programme, two female Hog Deer were released on an island in Lunu Ganga last weekend. The animals were transported in wood crates from the Hiyare Wildlife Rescue facility to Bentota in the back of a double cab, and then by catamaran to their new island home. The release was arranged by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG), in association with the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The Hog Deer (Axis porcinus), known locally as “Wil Muwa” or “Gona Muwa”, is the country’s most threatened deer species. The rare animal lives in isolated pockets between Benthara and Galle.

Infant Hog Deer bottle-fed by WCSG members

The Hog Deer rehabilitation and rescue programme began in 2009 at the Hiyare Wildlife Rescue facility, with support from the Nations Trust Bank. The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle has rescued many injured Hog Deer from their original habitats in Elpitiya and Balapitiya. Hog Deer live in marshy habitats and have adapted to cinnamon estates, a common feature in that part of the country. Unfortunately, their intrusion into human habitation has resulted in many road accidents.

Young Hog Deer are easy prey to dogs and water monitors (kabaragoya). Female Hog Deer keep their new-born hidden in the tall grasses that grow around marshy land. The two Hog Deer released into the Lunu Ganga were attacked by water monitors in separate incidents. They were only a few weeks old when they were handed over to the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle a year ago. One had a fractured leg and was treated at the Hiyare Animal Welfare centre. The baby animals were first bottle-fed and then hand-fed with grasses and plant shoots.

Looking for a good place to release the animals, the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle heard about an island in the Benthara Lagoon that was ideal habitat for Hog Deer. Jagath Gunawardane identified the island,

Adult male Hog Deer injured in a road accident is treated

zTaking the Hog Deer on boat in Lunu Ganga

Taking the Hogdeer to Lunuganga island

known to locals as “Hon Duwa”, which was gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary in 1973. Over the past 18 months, the Geoffrey Bawa Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society have been preparing the one-and-a-half acre island by growing plants that Hog Deer eat.

Dr. Tharaka Prasad of the Department of Wildlife Conservation told the Sunday Times that the island is ideal for Hog Deer as it combines scrub jungle, swamps and mangroves. The department has attempted to breed Hog Deer at the Horagolla national park, but with no results so far.

The Hog Deer is on the 2012 Red List as a critically endangered species.

Published on SundayTimes on 06.01.2013

Who brought the rare animal to Sri Lanka?The Hog Deer (Axis porcinus) – “Wil Muwa” or “Gona Muwa” in Sinhala – is a critically endangered deer species that lives in isolated pockets between Benthara and Galle. The deer species is believed to have been introduced to Sri Lanka. The animal is not found in South India. The deer may have been accidentally or deliberately unloaded when Galle harbour was used as transit point in early colonial times. Madura de Silva, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, says that even if the Hog Deer were an introduced species, it could adapt during a century of living in isolation.

Habitat loss is the Hog Deer’s main threat. The species was believed to have become extinct when a few animals were spotted some decades ago.

Only two more leaps before our Kalu Wandura disappears forever

January 5, 2013
Western Purple-leaf Monkey

Western Purple-leaf Monkey

The article “One leap more before our Kalu Wandura disappears forever” published in the SundayTimes on 30.12.2012 has been distorted at editing which is reported that the ‘The 2012 National Red List on Conservation Status of Species warns that it is “critically endangered”. But it should be corrected as “The endemic Kalu wandura or the purple-faced langur is listed as Endangered (2 more steps to Extinction) in the 2012 National Red List for Sri Lanka.

It is the subspecies (one of five) live in Western Province and hence termed as the western-purple faced langur is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by IUCN (global List), and among the top 25 most threatened primates in the world. The rest of the article primarily highlighted the plight of Western-Purple Faced Langur.

The caption of the photo reported as “The late Banana, beloved of primatologist Dr. Jinie Dela. The picture was taken by a villager”. It should also be corrected as “The picture was taken by Dr.Dela”.

Herewith the unedited version is fully published.. Apologize for the mistakes which has been occurred beyond my control..!!

The National RedList 2012 on Conservation Status of Species launched last week recognized the heightened danger of Extinction some animals face. ‘Kalu Wandura’ or the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey is one such species that further degraded its conservation status to ‘Endangered’; only 2 steps behind the irreversible ‘Extinction’ in the IUCN threatened scale. This Monkey was once abundant in many areas and listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in the previous Red List published in 2007 before making the jump to ‘Endangered’ in 2012.

The Purple-faced Leaf Monkey or Purple-faced Langur (Semnopithecus vetulus) is Endemic and also the largest among other 3 monkey species – Toque Monkey, Grey langur and Lorises – that live in Sri Lanka. The purple-faced langur can be observed in many areas; but a little known fact is that there are 5 subspecies of ‘kalu wandura’ present in different regions. ‘Subspecies’ is a biological classification below species level that separates races of animals based on subtle differences, and there are 5 such identified populations living in geographical isolation in different areas of Sri Lanka. The ‘race’ that finds its home range primarily is the Western Province is the Western Purple-faced Leaf Monkey (Semnopithecus vetulus nestor), and the situation is worse for them as they are ‘Critically Endangered’; just one step away from ‘extinction’.

A leading authority on the Purple-faced Langur – Dr.Jinie Dela says there are many threats to this group of monkeys. She has been studying the western race since 1985, and her work brought this primate to world attention when it was listed among “The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates” in 2004, urging the need of having conservation actions to save it. The latest update of this report compiled by the Primate Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC) and the International Primatological Society (IPS) keep the Sri Lankan Monkey in its place unchanged in World’s most threatened 25 primates.

Range of different subspecies of Purple-faced Leaf-langur“Habitat degradation and habitat loss is the main threat to this primate” points out Dr Dela, based on her research. The past few decades have seen changes in land use in the Western Province, particularly in areas of the Colombo and Kalutara districts that are ranged by the Western Purple-faced Langur. With the spread of urbanization, and high price of land, home gardens are becoming smaller with less food trees for monkeys and humans. Many rubber plantations have been cleared for housing, industry, roads and other ‘human’ infrastructure.  Large trees are being cut down, and the monkey-human conflict is escalating due to intense competition between man and monkey for the few fruit trees left in pocket-sized home gardens. Monkeys constantly damage tiled roofs when they cross them to breach gaps in arboreal paths, resulting in more conflict.

This study highlighted the fact that many small rubber small-holdings that were abundant in the Colombo and Kalutara districts decades ago are now gone. These plantations gave the monkeys a little breathing space, by providing them places for rest and long ground play sessions. But now these are gone or going and the individual territories of monkey groups are shrinking. “This also creates more conflicts among groups that result in death of many animals’ lamented Dr.Dela.

Dr Dela recalling her memories said that on early days of research in the mid ’80; the kalu wanduras thrived in home garden where humans were somewhat tolerant on them. But nowadays, the tolerance level of people in gardens where monkey groups are pocketed is dropping.

Dr Dela’s long term observations also show that the loss of tall trees means that these monkeys have to travel and feed at unusually low elevations, and even come down to the ground to cross between different parts of their home range. This makes them very vulnerable to predation by dogs and poachers. There also are innumerable instances where monkeys in urban areas have lost their limbs, or even died, from contact with power lines or have become victims of road kills while crossing roads. Eventually, as conducive habitats even in rural areas shrink or get fragmented, local extinctions will invariably follow.

Dr.Dela gives a fine example to illustrate the kind of threat these monkeys face reminding the sad

Banana - Dr.Jini's favourite monkey shot by a villager

Banana – Dr.Jini’s favourite monkey shot by a villager

end of her favorite monkey ‘Banana’. Banana was a young adult in his prime bravely leading one of the troops studied by Dr.Dela, but just 2 years since his ascent as leader, ‘Banana’ was shot by an irate householder for feeding on mango fruit in his garden. Without the lead male, his adult females were taken over by the ‘Thug Troop’; the young animals were tragically scattered, and his infant son, Dodi, died of tetanus from a bite of an invading adult male. “Today the fateful mango tree, too, is missing in the garden where Banana met his tragic end, and I can barely recognize the area through which I once followed his little family from dawn to dusk” says the saddened researcher highlighting the fact that threats   ‘Banana’s next generation face are more severe.

Climate Change Emerge as a threat for Species in National RedList 2012

December 24, 2012

Sri Lanka has permanently lost 19 amphibian species and five flowering plants. Climate Change emerges as a factor that would threaten Sri Lanka’s Biodiversiy – Malaka Rodrigo reviews the National Red List 2012 

Do a search on the freshly launched National RedList 2o12. You will notice that Climate Change emerged as a new threat among other traditional threats such as habitat loss, pollution or over-exploitation. Here is how National Red List 2012 evaluate Climate Change as a threat.

Arjan Rajasuriya who has written the chapter of Corals of National RedList 2012 recognizes Climate Change as the major threat for Corals. “The major widespread threat to corals is from climate change. In 1998 large extents of shallow water corals became bleached and many reefs were damaged extensively. Their recovery is variable and even within a single reef area such as the Bar Reef individual patch reefs has shown different levels of recovery”. The researcher also points out that Coral bleaching with some regularity has been observed recently, especially on reefs in the east and north. In 2010 there was severe bleaching of the coral reefs in the Pigeon Island National Park and Dutch Bay in Trincomalee. These reefs are heavily degraded and have not shown good signs of recovery. The increase of atmospheric temperature during a drought is believed to be the cause of these localized bleaching.

Freshwater Crabs records the highest Endemism for Sri Lankan wildlife where 50 out of total 51 known species of Fresh water crabs are Endemic to Sri Lanka. Mohamed Bahir and Dinesh Gabadage who study these Freshwater crabs say local climate change joins the other threats such as influx of fertilizer and pesticides, rainwater acidification and increased erosion leading to sedimentation of water bodies can be sited as other major threats on the habitats of the freshwater crabs. The sedimentation threat can also be aggravated by Climate Change as it is expected to bring more extreme rainfall that leads to create runoff water bringing more sediments to natural waterways.

Discussing about the threatened status of Amphibians;  Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi and Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura stresses the need of science-based conservation that seeks to address threats such as environmental pollution, climate changes and habitat degradation. We have permanently lost 19 amphibian species, all native to Sri Lanka, as confirmed by the National Red List of Conservation Status of Flora and Fauna of Sri Lanka 2012. The list, announced last week, notes that apart from the 19 amphibians that have gone extinct, two fish species, one reptile species and yet another amphibian species are labelled “possibly extinct” at the national level. So the scientists calls the need of more research to asses the true situation as Climate Change could be definitely a game changer for Amphibians.

Dragonfly experts Dr.Nancy van der Poorten and Karen Conniff sees their evaluation differently. “Dragonflies are also used to monitor the effects of climate change” they penned down. The life of dragonfly revolves around water where eggs are laid in water; the larva spends its life in water feeding on aquatic prey; and adults usually court and mate near the oviposition site. Because of this intimate connection to water. Climate Change will have a direct impact with rainfall patterns and hence water. So these experts point out Dragonflies can be used as indicators to monitor the effects of climate change.

RedList graphicThe Red List highlights that Sri Lanka permanent loss of five flowering plants, and fear for the 177 plants listed as “possibly extinct”. R.H.G. Ranil and D.K.N.G. Pushpakumara of University of Peradeniya stresses climate change further worsen the situation particularly for Pteridophyte plants like Ferns that are really depend on  moisture.

Talking about the Mangroves, Prof. L.P.Jayatissa of University of Ruhuna says although much has been learned from them, significant gaps still exist in our understanding of the ecology of these systems, and particularly, of the likely effects of climate change for Mangroves. Prof.Jayatissa further stresses that if the impacts of climate-change will not be considered now, the efforts on mangrove protection and conservation may just be wasted in the long-run. He recommends to continue the studies on mangroves aiming protection, conservation and sustainable use, with particular emphasis on likely impacts of climate change.

Talking about Orchids, Dr.Suranjan Fernando advocates studies on effects of climate change and environmental sensitivity on native orchids are also needed.

Dr.Terney Pradeep on conservation of marine fish highlights climate change and related ocean acidification and sea level rise could further threaten the marine fish species.

The Red List 2012 evaluated a total of 2,264 faunal (animal) species, including 936 endemics, and 3,492 floral (plant) species, including seed- producing plants (gymnosperms) and ferns; 943 species are endemic. Scientific data on many animal groups is lacking, and this is a big drawback in evaluating their conservation status, specially on the impacts of new emerging threats such as Climate Change said Sri Lanka Red List fauna coordinator Professor Devaka Weerakoon.

Doona ovalifolia – Pini Beraliya is ‘Extinct in Wild’

Some plants, such as the Alphonsea hortensis and Doona ovalifolia, are found only in the Botanical Gardens; so they are categorized “Extinct in the Wild”.  National Red List flora coordinator Dr. Siril Wijesundara told the Sunday Times that more than 3,000 plants were evaluated for the 2012 list, about 1,000 more than in 2007.

Let’s all wish the Climate Change will not hit us as badly as predicted, because some of the mass extinctions in the history was triggered by Climate Change.

Published on SundayTimes on 23.12.2012

Komodo dragons among new zoo residents

October 14, 2012

New animals arrive in Zoo as exchange program with Prague zoo swapping for a pair of Pinnawala Elephants. 

Six new animals arrived last Thursday to Dehiwala Zoo as a result of an animal exchange program with the Chez Republic’s Prague zoo. This includes pairs of Przewalski’s Horses, River Hippopotamuses and Komodo Dragons.

Komodo Dragon is the largest monitor lizard in the world that can grow about 10ft. They are naturally found only in Indonesia’s Komodo Island few other suburban locations and famous for their notorious hunting habits. Komodos are carnivores and the diet of big Komodo dragons mainly consists of deer or buffalo and also does not mind eating carrion. It is believed that the deadly bacteria develop in its mouth makes its saliva venomous, so after a bite the prey dies sometimes in few days time where Komodo’s will await to finish off the prey.

A Komodo Dragon resting in its enclosure

In Dehiwala Zoo, they will be given goat meat and other meat items as per zoo sources. As Komodo Dragons are burrowing animals, a metal mesh has been put under its enclosure, and then cemented before putting amount of sand to make sure they cannot escape. This is the first time Dehiwala Zoo got down Komodo Dragons as per the Zoo sources.

All these 3 animals are threatened with extinction in the wild the wild as Przewalski’s Horse is categorized as “Endangered”; while the other 2 species are categorized as “Vulnerable for Extinction”.

Przewalski’s Horse (also known as Mongolian Horse) is an iconic animal that conservation action can help to revive animals from extinction. As per experts, the last wild Przewalski’s horses had been seen in 1966 in Mongolia and it was afterward considered as an animal “Extinct in the Wild”. But zoos around the world have launched a successful breeding program; later re-introducing it to the wild. This horse is now got its rates elevated from ‘Extinct in the wild” to “Endangered” making it a classic case where conservation action can help to save animals from extinction.

In return of these animals, a pair of Pinnawala Elephants 8-year Janitha and 7 year old Amara has been sent to Prague Zoo last week. A Sri Lankan military aircraft has been used to transport these animals last week reaching the destination after about 20 – 30 hour long flight. In return the aircraft brought the animals to Dehiwala Zoo. Chez Republic consider elephants as high value animals, but animal welfare societies in Sri Lanka are not too happy to send these elephant to Prague as the city is having a cold period and also claiming that the animals are usually been kept in under-sized enclosures.

Talking to the local media in Chez republic, the director of Prague zoo welcomed Sri Lanka saying that the elephant acquisition is Sri Lanka’s gift to the Czech Republic rather than routine exchange of animals between zoos. Prague zoo deputy director Jaroslav Simek further said it is a unique project that will largely help extend the genetic base of the European breeding of Indian elephants.

According to Chez newspaper praguemonitor, the newcomer elephants will be accommodated in a new pavilion that has been completed in the Prague zoo and that is now inhabited by an Indian elephant male and three females, including a pregnant one. The Prague zoo wanted to bring four new elephants from Sri Lanka but the country never provides more than two to foreign applicants.

A Mongolian Horse

A new River Hippo


A tree frog leaps into list of Endemic Amphibians

October 14, 2012

Researchers worry that the only known population of new endemic tree frogs Polypedates ranwellai, named in honour of Dr. Sanjeewa Ranwella, could soon become extinct. 

Sri Lanka, already known as an Amphibian hotspot, reveals another new frog at the Gilimale Forest of Peak Wilderness. Leading researcher Mendis Wickramasinghe of the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka, who, together with the late Dr. Amith Munindadasa and Dr. Prithviraj Fernando, published a scientific paper in a world’s leading journal, recently updated Sri Lanka’s Amphibians to 112.

The new frog has been named Polypedates ranwellai or Ranwella’s spined tree frog. Mr Wickramasinghe said the frog was named after the late Dr. Sanjeewa Ranwella in honour of his exceptional dedication towards wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. Dr Ranwella was an active member and an instructor at the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) who met with an untimely death at a young age in a boat accident in 2003. Dr. Ranwella and Mr Wickramasinghe were colleagues at YZA and had conducted many field excursions together. Mr Mendis said the new species had been first observed in 2000 during a field visit to the Gilimale forest reserve with Dr. Ranwella. The research team later collected specimens and subjected them to a rigorous scientific process to establish that the species is unique and endemic to Sri Lanka.

Although the new species tentatively categorised under the genus Polypedates, the researchers pointed out that this species shows extreme deviations, especially in the skull, from other specimens of the same group, indicating that the new frog could belong to a new genus. Its specialty is the 6 spines located on the sides of its jaws and on the parietal area on the back of the head. Mr Wickramasinghe said that tree frogs with these kinds of spines were found in Brazil and Ghana. The female of this species is about 6 cm, so it is a comparatively large frog.

However, the habitat of this endemic frog is already threatened. Forest fragmentation has become the major threat in this area due to accelerated deforestation. The Induruwa mukalana and Guruluwana regions have become separated by deforestation in the past 10 years, and are now two separate islands according to Mr Mendis. Researchers point out that the many pot holes in its gravel road, which filled with water during the monsoons and served as breeding grounds for these species, has now been concreted, while the existing pot holes quickly run dry when vehicle go over them. Concreting of the road attracts more visitors, and hence more vehicles visit the forest reserve, and consequently, large amounts of garbage is being left behind in the forest.

Apart from logging and encroachment by tea plantations, hazardous activities such as gem mining, sand mining, use of agro chemicals, cutting down and setting fires in the forest edge are also posing threats. All these continued harmful anthropogenic activities consequently, pose other harmful effects such as drying out of water bodies and soil erosion.
Researchers also worry that the proposed construction of a dam across the Kalu Ganga will flood a large area including the Gilimale reserve, completely wiping out the only known population of Polypedates ranwellai from the island – hence a loss to the whole world.

Mr Mendis also dedicates this research paper to the memory of Dr. Amith Munindradasa, one of the co-authors of the publication, whose untimely death was a great loss to the country. An electronic engineer by profession, Dr. Munindradasa was a man of many talents. He had discovered many species new to science, and worked together with the research team till his death.

International meeting on Biodiversity opens in Hyderabad India

Representatives from over 170 countries including Sri Lanka, meet in Hyderabad, India, this week, to discuss the way forward to protect the earth’s biodiversity. This meeting – 11th Conference of Parties of United Nation’s Convention of Biological Diversity will focus on adopting a new Strategic Plan to halt biodiversity loss by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, the International Union on Conservation of Nature (IUCN), including experts on biodiversity too, has held its congress in South Korea. Scientists highlight that the rate of species extinction has doubled and that, many known species as well as species new to science, will soon become extinct, if the current level of threats continue. Their decline have been mainly caused by humans, but, in almost all cases, scientists believe their extinction can still be avoided, if conservation efforts are specifically focused. They also point out that species extinction will even indirectly affect humans.

Published on 14.10.2012

IUCN project for local Coast Conservation

June 11, 2012

International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Business and Biodiversity Programme (BBP) for Asian Region which was recently established in Sri Lanka, intends to start a new project for Coast Conservation with the support of the private sector.

Shiranee Yasaratne

The world’s biodiversity is down 30% since the 1970s, with tropical species taking the biggest hit, according to the latest Living Planet report released last week. “Leaving protection of biodiversity to governments alone will not work, and all of us need to come forward to conserve Earth’s Biological Diversity,” said IUCN’s Shiranee Yasaratne. Irresponsible businesses can have major negative impacts on biodiversity, as we have seen in some places. However, while the private sector is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution by offering innovative solutions to conservation, mentioned Ms. Yasaratne, who is also the head of IUCN’s BPP Asia Region.

The IUCN expert made these comments at an event planning for a new programme called CoastNet which is a private sector-led network to protect Coastal Biodiversity. Representatives from some leading businesses from Sri Lanka, India, Maldives etc. assembled in Colombo recently for initial discussions arranged by IUCN’s BPP together with Mangroves For the Future (MFF) initiative.

The CoastNet network programme aims to strengthen the link between business sectors, particularly from those priority sectors such as fisheries and aquaculture, and tourism, that have an impact on the coastal zone.

Sri Lanka will be a hub for these programmes here onwards as the base of IUCN Asia’s BPP has been set up in Colombo. This unit was started in 2003 and since then, BPP’s Asian Programme has been based in Thailand. Most of the Asian region’s Environmental Programmes are based in Bangkok, so bringing this unit to Sri Lanka too is an important step in encouraging Sri Lanka’s businesses to get onboard on conserving Biodiversity. Ms. Yasaratne said that several factors helped to bring this unit to Sri Lanka, due to the country’s strategic location, availability of environmental consultants and an array of businesses that positively contribute towards the protection of Biodiversity.

Published on SundayTimes on 20.05.2012

‘Lost’ shrub frog turns up after 100 years

April 1, 2012

Pseudophilautus semiruber (Tiny-Red Shrub-Frog) is one of the smallest frog species in the world. So far, out of the total of 5000 plus species of frogs in the world, only 46 species   smaller than 15 mm are known; these are referred to as diminutive species. These species are so small that they can rest on the tip of your small finger, comfortably. With the new discovery, Sri Lanka has three such species (P. simba and P. tanu, in addition to P. semiruber).

A scientist called N. Annandale in 1911, found a 12 mm long individual, with a nondescript sex, from Pattipola, at an elevation of 1850 m above sea level. It was formerly described in 1913, using only this single specimen. For the next 95 years nobody ever saw this species again. But in 2005, a single female was discovered by Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura and Mohomed Bahir, from amongst the wet leaf litter, under the cover of a misty montane forest canopy, close to the Horton Plains National Park.

This specimen was subjected to rigorous scrutiny, both using morphology and molecular techniques to determine its systematic relationships. Its morphology was compared to asimilar species, Ps. simba, from Rakwana Hills (Morningside Estate) and the Knuckles Forest Reserve, and to the 1913 description of Annandale. This specimen had been deposited in the collection of the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata. However, this specimen was later found lost. Due to the unprecedented lack of data, the IUCN Redlist considers this endemic frog to be Data Deficient. The rediscovery was announced and a new description was presented in the March 2012 issue of the journal ZOOTAXA clearing the doubts.

This tiny red frog is at the edge of extinction, so immediate conservation measures should be taken, calls the researchers. Sri Lanka is already named as an Amphibian Hotspot with many species new to science, but 21 species of them are already categorized as extinct. This background makes the new re-discovery an important finding as otherwise it could eventually be listed into the list of Extinct Amphibians.

Sri Lanka has a wide diversity of Shrub frogs. Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura (University of Peradeniya) who has been the leading researcher of this discovery has also discovered many other Shrub Frogs, and even an endemic genus Taruga that are endemic to Sri Lanka. Presently he is involved in another research in Knuckles region together with another young scientist from the University of Peradeniya, Ruchira Somaweera, to study the ecological correlates of Horned Lizards, so that these highly forest adapted lizards can be better conserved in the face of impending climate change resulting in continued habitat degradation.

However some elements have recently misinterpreted this work as  an act of biopiracy, which discourages the students and the conservation biologists conducting the work. The  researcher takes this as an example to emphasize the importance of all elements, including the public, in supporting legitimate research in the country so that Sri Lanka’s endemic fauna can be better understood and conserved.

Sri Lanka’s Shrub frogs are a special group of amphibians that are different from other frogs. Frogs usually have a tadpole stage and also needs water for their survival. But these shrub frogs are known as ‘Direct Developers’ that gets baby frogs directly from eggs that they lay on soil after digging a hole or on leaf surfaces. They do not need water or a pond to survive, however they require moisture in the ecosystem such as the cloud forests in Sri Lanka’s central highland.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.04.2012

Sri Lanka signs International MOU to protect Dugongs

March 18, 2012

A dugong swimming in the sea (c) Mandy Etpison

Sri Lanka has pledged its support to the long-term survival of the dugongs and the protection of their critical sea grass habitats by becoming a signatory state to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs. The secretary of the Agrarian and Wildlife Ministry Udeni Wickramasinghe on behalf of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has signed this agreement at Abu-dhabi last month marking Sri lanka’s commitment in Dugong Conservation.

This Dugong MOU operates under the United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP) and Convention of Migratory Species (CMS). The Secretariat to the Dugong MOU is funded and hosted by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi where the signing ceremony was carried out.

The dugong (Dugong dugon), often known as the ‘sea cow’ or ‘Muhudu ura’ in Sinhala, is a large, long-lived marine mammal that feeds almost exclusively on sea grass and plays a significant ecological role in the functioning of coastal ecosystems. Dugongs are found in warm coastal and island waters of over 40 countries in the Indo-Pacific. In Sri Lanka, the species is known to occur from Colombo to Jaffna, particularly in the coastal waters of Gulf of Mannar-Palk Bay region, which have sea grass beds and mangrove forests.

Dugongs are classified as ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This indicates that Dugons face a risk of extinction getting exposed to a number of threats. Dugongs are long-lived – up to 70 years, but are slow to mature and breed. Females have their first calf when they are between six and 17 years old and then produce calves only once every 2,5–5 years according to marine biologists. The female will usually only bear one calf after a pregnancy which lasts about 14 months. This slow breeding makes them more vulnerable as a population will take a long time to recover.

In Sri Lanka Dugons were considered as a ‘fish’ and allowed hunting until 1970. Though Dugongs are now protected, the killing continued if an opportunity arisen by fishermen. Accidental capture in fishing nets, loss of habitat, boat collision and unsustainable hunting practices like dynamite fishing also responsible for decline of Dugongs. Numbers of Dugongs have fallen victim to dynamite fishing over last few years. Dugongs are bottom feeders grazing sea grass beds, but these too are become an ecosystem that is on the decline, highlighting the need of taking conservation actions.

However, Dugong sightings have now become very rare, so the first step of any conservation plan is to find their current range around Sri Lanka. The UNEP/CMS Office, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, IUCN Sri Lanka and Dilmah Conservation aims to conduct surveys to identify their range as the first activity under the freshly signed MOU. Asanka Abayakoon of Dilmah Conservation said that that the survey will conduct in many parts of coastal zones getting information from fishermen and other parties. The project aims at improving knowledge on dugong distribution, abundance, and their “hotspots’’.

Sighning of the Dugong MOU by secretary of department of Wildlife Conservation

Due to the size of the dugong’s range and their declining population, a coordinated international effort is crucial to the conservation of this threatened marine mammal, calls UNEP/CMS hailing Sri Lanka’s decision to get onboard on Dugong conservation. They believe that other countries in the South Asia sub-region, including Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan, will follow Sri Lanka’s lead to formally join the Dugong MOU.

Dilmah Conservation also hosts marine biologist Dr Nicholas Pilcher who had addressed an audience on Dugong Conservation last month. He stressed the ecological importance of the dugong and the ways in which nature benefits from the wellbeing of the dugong. According to Dr Pilcher, the dugong resides is fairly shallow waters where sea grass beds grow in abundance. It feeds on sea grass and keeps the plants nice and trim. These sea grass beds provide the nesting grounds for juvenile fish and shrimp and the fisheries industry is dependent on the wellbeing of the dugong and sea grass beds. He emphasized the importance of having a proper assessment of the numbers of the remaining species to have a proper conservation management plan illustrating his point by citing the extinction of Stellar’s sea cow – the best example where humanity completely eliminated a marine species from the face of the earth.

Prasanna Weerakkody; a well-known marine naturalist also pointed out that current plans to develop the Kalpitiya islands as a tourism zone could have an impact to the most richest Dugong population in Sri Lanka. The Kalpitiya islands are planned to be developed as tourists destinations which require lots of sea transportation. If speed boats would be employed to save the time, it could be a threat to the Dugongs in the area. The area is having more shallow waters with sea grass beds where Dugongs are frequent, so an unwary speed boat could easily go on top of a submerged Dugong seriously injuring the animal. So it is need to have a proper conservation plan to manage these tourism activities in the biodiversity rich Kalpitiya calls Mr.Weerakkody.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.03.2012

Encroachments undermine Muturajawela wetland

March 12, 2012

About 50 acres of land belonging to the Muturajawela Sanctuary and its buffer zone have been illegally sold, with the backing of a local politician. The land sale is not only illegal, it endangers protected terrain, say Raveendra Kariyawasam of the Centre for Environmental Studies, and Sajeewa Chamikara of the Environmental Conservation Trust.

Greed for land ruins nature’s balance: Unauthorised development activity mars and scars fragile wetland system.

Muturajawela is linked to the Negombo Lagoon, and together form an integrated coastal wetland system of high biodiversity and ecological significance. This ecosystem is one of 12 priority wetlands in Sri Lanka. In 1996, 1,777 hectares in the northern section were officially declared a wetland sanctuary. Closer to Colombo, Muturajawela attracts developers who see the area as barren land suitable for urban, residential, recreational and industrial development. In recent years, large unprotected tracts in the Muturajawela wetland have been filled with sand and used for agricultural, commercial and residential purposes. Waste from these industries has been diverted to the marshland.

A plot of 10 perches was sold for Rs. 40,000. This land is in the Wattala Secretariat Division, close to Bope and Neelsirigama. The village Neelsirigama is built on filled land in Muturajawela. This land, which was developed by a politician, gets flooded in the rainy season, causing great hardship to the residents. In 2004, further illegal distribution of lands was stopped by a court order. In 2009, environmentalists protested when developers attempted to build a hotel in the area. The hotel project was cancelled.

While some say the lands sold lie outside the main protected area, environmentalists insist that any development would have a negative impact on the fragile ecosystem. Professor Sarath Kotagama, a leading ecologist, said the main threat to Muturajawela was sedimentation. He was speaking on wetland conservation at the University of Colombo. Prof. Kotagama was a national coordinator for the Asian Wetland Survey conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 1987-1988.

Maps drawn after a study conducted by the International Water Management Institute indicated that the depth of the wetland was being reduced by sedimentation. Sediments generated from land use in the area ends up in Muturajawela.

The value of wetlands is often challenged by politicians and economists who say land, including wetlands, near populated cities should be used for commercial purposes. A wetland is not a wasteland. It serves important environment functions.

In 1999-2000, an economic valuation of Muthurajawela was carried out by Lucy Emerton and Bhathiya Kakulandala, on behalf of the International Conservation Union (IUCN). The survey was carried out to document the significance of Muthurajawela as an urban marsh, as it was severely threatened by haphazard development and human encroachment.

Subsequent to the biodiversity assessment, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conducted an economic evaluation of Muthurajawela, focusing on its ecosystem services. The purpose of the assessment was to impress on policy makers the importance of conserving this urban marsh and the adjacent Negombo lagoon, said Dr. Channa Bambaradeniya, who was with the IUCN at the time of the study.

If the wetland service is not there, great damage would be caused to the infrastructure by floods. The wetland also supports fish breeding, fisheries and agriculture based on wetland. Leisure and recreation, nutrient retention and waste water treatment, water supply and recharge, are some of the economic values, the study pointed out.

A plot of land is marked by an owner

A destroyed habitat at Muturajawela

A temporary hut built on marsh

published on SundayTimes on 11.03.2012

Sound of axe rings death knell for Lanka’s forests

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

Mangrove land cleared and filled in Puttalam for hotel project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011 was one of the worst years for the environment

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

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

Mangrove Cover in Coastal Districts

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

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2012

Nature tourism a threat to Marble Rock frog..?

October 16, 2011

Sri Lanka has been promoted as a wildlife spectacle of the world. But unregulated tourism threatens to spoil this nature-based tourism industry, even before its true potential is tapped. Over-visitation and visitor-misbehaviour have already put stress on leopards in Yala, elephants in Minneriya and even the Giant Blue Whales off Mirissa.

These large animals may survive, but there are smaller species found only in limited sites and disturbance to these habitats means the extinction of these species. The Marble Rock frog or Kirthisinghe’s Rock Frog that is found only in a few sites in the Knuckles range tops the list of these threatened species.

This endemic amphibian was scientifically classified by Prakrama Kirthisinghe in 1946 as Nannophrys mamorata. Known as the Dumbara Galpara Madiya in Sinhala, Kirthisinghe’s Marble Frog is already listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is a small 25mm amphibian. It is a stream-dwelling frog found on cracks on the rocks, under boulders and on other flat wet surfaces in rocky hill streams. Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is found only in the Pitawala Pathana and suburban area of the Knuckles range, making it vulnerable to extinction, if these sites are disturbed.

Marble Rock frog – dumbara galpara madiya

However, Pitawala Pathana is a scenic area that also boasts of a drop popularly known as the Mini-world’s End attracting thousands of tourists. These tourists often do not respect the habitats in this area, jumping into streams engaging in fun and frolic. Some of them who know about this unique frog look out for it by lifting rocks in the stream inadvertently destroying its habitat.

The Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT) claims that many of this frog’s micro habitats in Pitawala Pathana have already been destroyed. ECT activist Sajeewa Chamikara said before an environmental sensitive site is promoted for tourism, there has to be a plan to manage the critical habitats and its unique species from over-exploitation.

He said in the Pitawala Pathana area tourists are only supposed to stick to paths demarcated by white stones, but people pay little attention to them.

Sajeewa said local tourists were largely ignorant about the protection of the environment and wildlife authorities and media should be conscious of this factor when promoting environmentally sensitive sites as tourist destinations. He feared that the new visitor centre coming near Pitawala Pathana may bring more tourists to the site.

However, a Forest Department source said the visitor centre would help to make people aware of the importance of not disturbing the natural habitats of Pitawala Pathana. He said most of the tourists behaved in an irresponsible manner because they were unaware of the site’s unique ecosystem.
Dr. Anslem De Silva, Co-Chair of the Amphibian Specialists Group IUCN/SSC Sri Lanka said the micro habitats of these dumbara galpara madiyas can be demarcated to protect them from being disturbed by visitors. He also suggested the creation of new micro habitats for those already destroyed.

This amphibian expert along with his research team had kept some small rocks in the streams of Pitawala Pathana and the following day they discovered Kirthisinghe’s rock frogs hiding under them. Citing this experiment as an example he said micro habitats can be created to provide artificial habitats for these threatened amphibians.

The Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is also unique because it is an evolutionarily distinct species. It is one of the two Sri Lankan amphibians listed under the global conservation initiative called EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) species. This programme aims at conserving threatened species that represent a significant amount of unique evolutionary history.

In addition to tourist behaviour, Kirthisinghe’s rock frog is also being threatened by water that has been polluted by chemicals used in tea and cardamom estates in the surrounding Knuckles range.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.10.2011

Micro habitat of the Endangered Frog

8.7 million species exist on Earth, study shows

September 10, 2011

91% of marine species, 86% of land species yet to be discovered By Malaka Rodrigo  

While Sri Lanka’s elephant census estimated the number of elephants live in the island to 5,879, an international study revealed a new estimation that there are a total of 8.7 million different species live on Earth.

This has been tagged as the most precise calculation ever offered – with 6.5 million species found on land and 2.2 million (about 25 percent of the total) dwelling in the ocean depths, as per the scientists’ of Census of Marine Life. This also means a staggering 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued.

Until now, estimates of the world’s species ranged from three million to 100 million. The new study refined the number by compiling taxonomic data for roughly 1.2 million known species and identifying numerical patterns. The animals are one of the best studied groups and these academics had spotted a predictable ratio of species to broader categories among these known groups. They applied these numerical patterns to all five major kingdoms of life- Animalia, Fungi, Plants, Protozoa (single celled organisms such as Amoebas), Chromista (such as photosynthetic Algae) to derive this more narrow estimate.

The researchers also noted that the recently-updated Red List issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessed 59,508 species, of which 19,625 are classified as threatened. This means the IUCN Red List, the most sophisticated ongoing study of its kind, monitors less than 1% of the world’s species.

However, scientists fear that many of these unidentified species will go extinct even before they have been discovered. Earth has so far undergone 5 mass Extinction Crisis and it is believed that we are in the middle of the Sixth Mass Extinction mainly due to ill-effects triggered by human activities.

The ocean depths are also a last hideout for many of the species. The pressure at these depths deny man the ability to explore the area until recently. However new species are increasingly emerging through new studies done using sophisticated remotely operated underwater exploration vehicles that are similar to those used by astronomers.

Based on current costs and requirements, the study suggests that describing all the remaining species using traditional approaches could require up to 1,200 years of work by more than 300,000 taxonomists at an approximate cost of $US 364 billion. Fortunately, new techniques such as DNA barcoding are radically reducing the cost and time involved in new species’ identification.

Considering the land species, the tropical countries like Sri Lanka have the potential to discover the majority of the new species. The tropical rainforests like Sinharaja are refuge to high biodiversity and continued discoveries of new species testify the need for more research to identify the rest of the species living in these areas. It is important that Sri Lankan researchers too are given access to new techniques and equipment in discovering the new species which will also heighten the need of conserving the remaining habitats in order to protect the species. 

South Asia link up with wildlife forensics to combat illegal trade

August 31, 2011

Wildlife crime is increasing, becoming the second largest illegal trade in the world. South Asian countries which have over 15% of the world’s flora and 12% of its fauna too have not escaped from the wildlife crimes which have become increasingly organized.

Wildlife trade is also transcending national boundaries and to counter this ever increasing threat, wildlife conservation agencies in South Asian countries met recently with the aim of collaborating in wildife law enforcement in the region.

The meeting was held under the aegis of the recently setup South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) at the University of Forensic Sciences, Gujarat. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has represented Sri Lanka on this forum by the ex-Director General Dr.Chandrawansa Pathiraja. He said the meeting has become a sharing of experience among wildlife officers in the region on how to confront wildlife crime in the South Asian way and getting to know of new tools that can be used in fighting wildlife crime.

Because of this richness in biodiversity, South Asia has been one of the prime targets of internationally organized wildlife crime networks and to curb this ongoing trend, it become necessary that the existing conservation measures and enforcement strategies are reinforced through regional cooperation. With this aim, the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) has been set up for the development of regional programmes through networking, sharing and effective dissemination of knowledge and information.

Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) – the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network – has been a cornerstone of SAWEN helping to set it up and providing technical support. TRAFFIC carries out research and provides analysis, support and encouragement to efforts aimed at ensuring that wildlife trade is not a threat to conservation of nature and wants to strengthen the same in the region.

Setting up its own network to fight wildlife crime, Sri Lankan experts too get together and setup the Sri Lanka Wildlife Enforcement Network (SLaWEN) last January. Representatives of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Enforcement Network with those from international agencies involved in regulation of wildlife trade, including INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and TRAFFIC.

Addressing this forum chaired by Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Dr. Pathiraja said that in an era where the country’s economy is moving forward, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has a major role to play in developing the ecotourism industry which has the potential to be one of the county’s main foreign revenue earners. This will be nullified if the biodiversity, including wildlife, is not conserved properly and stressed the need to curb wildlife crime.

The workshop held in Gujarat two weeks ago mainly aimed at strengthening wildlife forensics. Wildlife forensics is concerned with the use of technology like DNA profiling (‘DNA fingerprinting’) and DNA sequencing and using this information to fight wildlife crime.

Forensics can help curb jumbo-sized crime

Only a few Asian elephants have tusks, so they are not being hunted for tusks locally. But instead, another brutal wildlife crime has started where baby elephants are kidnapped from the jungles. It is believed most of these baby jumbos are being abducted from thejungles around Habarana or the Udawalawe.

The methods utilised to seize these calves from their mothers are not clear, but some even believe these racketeers could have killed the mothers. Another theory is that the elephant herd is disturbed and then the lost jumbos are picked during the panic created. They are then transferred to individuals who are usually powerful figures in society.

So far the Wildlife Department’s Flying Squad has seized three such baby elephants abducted from the wilds. The easiest way to verify these racketeers’ claims is to use wildlife forensics. Whenever a female elephant is named as the mother of the baby, the DNA analysis can be used to verify this claim, as mother-child DNA has similarities that can verify the family bond.

After the existence of this wildlife crime racket surfaced, the DWC has made it mandatory to register all the new jumbo babies. But when registering the parents of the baby jumbos should be named so that it can be mandatory to do a DNA analysis to verify the parenthood of the said jumbos.

Wildlife DG is transferred – Starting it all over again…!!

SundayTimes was planning to meet the Department of Wildlife Conservation Director General to on his views of using Wildlife Forensics to curb the Baby Elephant snatching racket. A message sent by him from Yala said that he will respond to a matter when he got back inColombo. But he was removed next day without giving any reasons. There wasn’t even a time to have a knowledge transfer – for example on this case of the workshop Dr.Pathiraja attended in Wildlife Forensics. So these learnings will totally be lost and the new DG has to start from scratch again. Does this also reflect state’s negligence for its valuable wildlife resources, asks Environmentalists…!!

Published on SundayTimes on 28.08.2011

Wild orchid, Nervilia Plicata blooms in Lanka too

August 15, 2011

Nervilia Plicata : An orchid recorded from tropics

In the midst of a study, researcher Ajantha Palihawadana was puzzled by a strange looking plant in a home garden in Koswatte. It had only one leaf. Recognizing it as a ground orchid, though different from others he had seen, he placed it in a pot in his garden waiting for it to bloom.

A few months later, the leaf died. But knowing the strange behaviour of some orchids, Ajantha marked the pot and kept it aside. A few months later, he was thrilled to see a flowering shoot emerge from the soil. And when, the flowers bloomed, the plant’s true beauty was seen. Scientifically categorized as Nervilia Plicata –it was the first confirmed record of this species from Sri Lanka.

Nervilia Plicata is an orchid recorded from tropical Asia and growing in India. This finding confirmed its presence in Sri Lanka too updating the National Orchid checklist to 189.

Nervilia Plicata has some special characteristics. The width of its hairy heart shaped single leaf can be from 7.7cm to 10.8cm. The leaf can look dark green or dark purple depending on the angle of exposure to light.

This large leaf dies after a few months, but its rhizome (the horizontal stem of the plant) survives underground. Then during March, April and May – the flowers appear. Nervilia Plicata produces two flowers usually a foot above the ground, a mix of purple and green and about 6 centimetres in diameter. Unlike most orchids, this flower also has a fragrance but lasts only four to five days.

Ajantha said there had been several specimens of Nervilia orchids deposited in the National Herbarium previously, but they were not properly identified. However, for the first time, now a complete specimen has been deposited in the herbarium, so that other scientists too can observe the species.

The study of wild orchids is time-consuming but also rewarding, says Dr. Suranjan Fernando, another scientist involved

This large leaf dies after a few months

in orchid research. Sri Lanka has epiphytic orchids that usually grow on trees, terrestrial orchids, climbing orchids and also saprophytic orchids. Saprophytic orchids, like Nervilia that live on dead organic matter such as leaf litters are also interesting as they do not have any leaves and only a flower. They depend on fungi for their entire supply of nourishment. Most orchid flowers also had different adaptations to attract different kind of pollinators, Dr. Fernando said.

Such interlinks also make the wild orchids threatened. For, if a specialized pollinator insect has been removed from the ecosystem by extensive use of pesticide etc, the orchids lose means of pollination. But the main threat remains habitat loss, says Dr. Fernando pointing out that most of the orchid rich habitats such as Uva Savannah, the Peak Wilderness, Morningside of Sinharaja are being progressively degraded.

IUCN’s National Red List of Threatened Flora & Fauna of Sri Lanka published in 2007 also paints a gloomy picture for orchids as it records 4 extinct species, 22 critically endangered and 47 endangered plants out of the reviewed species.

Director of Sri Lanka Botanical Gardens Department Dr.Siril Wijesundara said that Sri Lanka has lost about 83% of her wildlife habitat during the last two centuries and if the remaining habitats are not protected, it will have a serious impact on our beautiful orchids. These highly specialized and sensitive plants are extremely vulnerable to ecosystem changes.

Some of our orchid species including the beautiful, endemic Vanda thwaitesii have not been seen in Sri Lanka for more than a century, he said.

Nervilia Plicata habitats are also threatened, adds Ajantha Palihawadana adding that studies done by True Nature Conservation Society led by himself found the plant also in Ravana Ella and Balangoda. According to the records, this orchid is restricted to the savannah ecosystems in the Intermediate Climatic Zone where trees are scattered in grasslands.

The wet patches located in this area are the home of this orchid, but unfortunately this is also one of the highly threatened habitats in Sri Lanka.

Dr.Wijesundara points out that the collection of rare orchids from the wild by hobbyists is on the increase and needs immediate control. Many also remove wild orchids to their home gardens, but these orchids need special habitats and conditions, and will die or will not flower the way they do in the wild so are best left untouched.

Published on SundayTImes on 14.08.2011 

Endangered Flying Squirrel making a comeback in home-gardens

August 7, 2011

But now they are falling prey to air guns and household petsBy Malaka Rodrigo 

An endangered Flying Squirrel (Petaurista philippensis), indigenous to Sri Lanka, was found dead last week in a home-garden at Meewathura in Panideniya. Ecologist, Indika Paebotuwage found the ill fated Flying Squirrel in a ‘dara maduwa’ (wood shed) at home. There were penetrating wounds on its back and chest, indicating capture by a pet dog.

Mr. Paebotuwage, who is also the Vice President, Research Committee- Young Zoologists’ Association, identified the mammal as a Giant Flying Squirrel, measuring two-and-a-half feet, with full grown large flaps of skin between the front and rear legs, which it uses like a parachute to ‘glide’ from tree to tree. Flying Squirrels take a spread-eagled position to trap air that helps it to ‘glide’. This skin membrane is called patagium, and though the animal does not actually fly like birds or bats, they have great skill in ‘gliding’ short distances. It is said that the direction and speed of the animal in midair, can be controlled by changing the position of its arms and legs, while the tail acts as a rudder.

A Flying Squirrel (Hambawa) killed in a Kandy Home-garden. Pix by Indika Peabotuwage

The Flying Squirrel’s fluffy tail stabilizes the body in flight, like the tail of an airplane. The tail also acts as an airfoil, serving as an air brake, before landing. Conveyance by ‘gliding’ from tree to tree also helps to escape predators quickly.

Flying squirrels are rodents like all squirrels, and feed on fruits and nuts. Sri Lanka is home to two species of Flying Squirrels, of which the Petaurista philippensis or Maha Hambawa in Sinhala, was listed as an endangered species by the “2007 Red List of Threatened Fauna & Flora of Sri Lanka”, published by the IUCN. The other species, the Small Flying Squirrel (Petinomys fuscocapillus) or Heen Hambawa in Sinhala, is on the verge of extinction and is considered ‘Critically Endangered’ nationally.

Small Mammal expert and IUCN researcher Sampath Goonatilake said both these species are at the highest level of threat categories. Most of the Giant Flying Squirrel sightings are from Kandy, while the Small Flying Squirrel sightings are from other areas in the upcountry. Both are nocturnal and hide in the hollows of large trees.

Though the Hambawa is an endangered species, they are hunted in many areas, chiefly for their flesh. Minila Ranaweeka of Doragamuwa, Pallegama- 9 km from Kandy, says that the Hambawa was abundant in his area decades ago, but was decimated by hunting. The Hambawa descends from trees to feed on young coconuts (kurumbatti). People armed with catapults or air rifles shoot at the squirrel, The Hambawa is known to be vulnerable when it panics.

But all is not lost. Minila says the Flying Squirrels are re-appearing in the area and he had spotted one in his home-garden four days ago. According to Paebotuwage’s neighbours, their dog claimed two more Hambawas recentlly, a sign that they are making a comeback to the home-gardens, particularly in the Kandy area.

However, the recent decision to issue air guns to farmers, have nature lovers fearing the worst for the Hambawa. The Giant Flying Squirrels may be a pest, but both species are already in trouble.

Home-gardens important for biodiversity 

The closest forest patch to both Paebotuwage’s and Minila’s places are over six km away. Hence, it is clear that these endangered Giant Flying Squirrels didn’t come from the forests, but managed to survive in home-gardens, highlighting the importance of home-gardens as a last refuge for even endangered species such as this Flying Squirrel.

Director- Botanical Gardens Department, Siril Wijesundara also stresses the need to maintain the diversity of trees within a home-garden. He said that this was nothing new and has been practised from ancient days. Villagers plant trees for their usage/consumption, which, indirectly, supports the surrounding biodiversity to survive.

The term ‘Kandy Home-Garden’ (KHG) has now become an established term, where a home-garden is seen as a mini forest ecosystem in which the plants, trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs etc are all economically important. For example, Sapu, Jak, Coconut, Breadfruit etc as trees and Coffee, Lemon, Cocoa, Delum etc as shrubs. So every component has some use as food, timber, medicine, ornamental use etc, which provides different layers, similar to a forest, for many wild organisms to survive. Many rodents, wild pigs, porcupines, mammals, reptiles, lizards, birds etc survive on this.

If properly managed, there is a balance and they don’t have to exit the system, Problems arised only if this balance is disturbed. For example, if you kill rats, then snakes will go for food outside the system, and get into your house in search of food.

Dr. Wjiesundara also said there are similar traditional eco-friendly home-garden models that support biodiversity in other parts of Sri Lanka too. In the Western Province, there is a similar model called Ovita, where water bodies are also incorporated. Even internationally, systems similar to our traditional Ovita have been adopted to protect biodiversity.

The traditional Japanese Satoyama is such a concept, which has taken its name from the Japanese word for landscapes located between villages (sato) and the mountains (yama), which have for centuries fostered rich biodiversity, thanks to continued management of the land. These landscapes vary in use, but all provide a dual service. Paddy fields, and the ponds and ditches which irrigate them, not only provide a staple of the Japanese diet, but also function as wetland habitats for wildlife. Managed woodlands, harvested for firewood and charcoal, also provide ideal habitats for many species of wildflowers, while the vast expanses of pasture and grassland are home to small mammals, birds and insects.

Dr. Kapila Yakandawela, who has conducted several programmes to promote wildlife gardening too, stresses that home-gardens can be the key to the survival of remaining urban wildlife and appeals to make your gardens wildlife-friendly. He said it is not as hard as it sounds, and a proper planning of the landscape is all it needs. He said that, planting selective trees providing food, water, shelter and breeding places, are the cornerstones of a wildlife garden. Breeding places for birds, frogs, butterflies and dragonflies may all be very different. On the subject of the mosquito menace, he said one should avoid plants that collect water.

published on 07.08.2011 on SundayTimes