Archive for the ‘IUCN Redlist’ Category

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 

Now, Sinharaja under ‘road-threat’

July 31, 2011

The proposed road adjacent to this World Heritage Site, may bring relief to people but it could destroy the rich biodiversity of the area, warn conservationistsBy Malaka Rodrigo 

Roads that are being constructed across many wildlife sanctuaries in the name of development are in the news these days. The latest among these is a road that will be constructed adjacent to the World Heritage Site of the Sinharaja Rainforest. The proposed road will connect Pothupitiya/ Illuokanda to Rakwana/Deniyaya A17 road near Suriyakanda.

Tagged as a major project to connect Kalawana and Kolonne, local politicians are promising the people of the area that the road would bring much relief to them. However, this road, work on which began on July 27, will be harmful to the rich biodiversity in the area, environmentalists warn.

The proposed road will mainly go through lands adjacent to the Morning Side of Sinharaja , say conservationists attached to the Green Movement of Sri Lanka. Most of the forest lands which are under the Land Reform Commission (LRC) will be cleared for this road and the next inevitable step would be the distribution of LRC lands in the vicinity of the road to private owners, Green Movement’s Bandu Ranga Kariyawasam said.

He claimed a considerable area of forest patch is to be cleared under this project, although the Central Environmental Authority had not carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the Forest Department too seemed to be silent on the issue.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardane stressed that any development even close to 100 metres was not legal. He said there was a possibility that this road would cut across protected areas too, adding that authorities should investigate the matter.

Sinharaja was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve (MAB) due to its unique

There are many Amphibians such as this Colorful Frog found only in Morning Side area of Sinharaja (c) Dulan Ranga


The Morning Side of Sinharaja has a unique ecosystem and is the only home for many of the threatened endemic animals and plants including several amphibian species that have been recorded only on one single location. These sites are sometimes outside the protected areas either on private lands or LRC lands. This highlights that there could be many more undiscovered species new to science on the adjacent forest patches to Sinharaja and other rainforests and clearance of a small patch of forest could make a species extinct within a few days. Even if this road results in the clearing of rainforest patches outside the boundary of the protected area it would still make a big impact.

Sri Lanka has been tagged as one of the 35 Biodiversity Hotspots of the world considering the number of species present in a unique land area, especially in tropical rainforests and cloud forests. Although these rainforests do not have charismatic species like elephant or bear, they are home to endemic lizards, amphibians, plants, freshwater fish, birds etc. The clearance of such a forest in this area is 10 times more destructive than clearing of a forest in a dry zone. But 80% of Sri Lanka’s Protected Areas are located in the dry zone and the wet zone which results in forests in the hill country being encroached for different reasons.

Environmentalists also say the conservation of these tropical rainforests is linked to the conservation of natural forest cover and this is emphasized in the 1997 report “Designing an Optimum Protected Area System for Sri Lanka” which has been collectively prepared by IUCN and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC). It recommends Sinharaja Forest Reserve be conserved as a contiguous forest. This means adding LRC forest lands too to the protected area. But even after 11 years, this has not been implemented resulting in fragmentation and deforestation of the forest.

Mr. Gunawardane also pointed out that a cabinet paper was approved in 2004 to handover LRC lands adjacent to the Sinharaja to the Forest Department when A.H.M.Fowzie was the environmental minister. The Green Movement also says that the cabinet paper instructed to value these lands Rs.0/= (Zero value) and give them to the Forest Department. But LRC has valued these lands, claiming money from the Forest Department and Forest Department apparently had no funds to get these lands back. Due to these ongoing disputes valuable rainforest patches in these LRC lands are under threat.

The cultivation of tea and vegetables is a major reason for encroachment into forest land in these areas and the proposed road will entice more people to encroach, warn environmentalists. In a move to exert pressure on authorities to take steps the Green Movement has written to UNESCO seeking that Sinharaja be named a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ which would give more protective measures.

Breathtaking scenery of Morning Side that is home for unique biodiversity

Another view of Morning Side of Sinharaja (c) Green Movement

Published on SundayTimes on 31.07.2011

Kelawalla near threatened by over-fishing

July 10, 2011

'Kelawalla' at Negombo Fish Market (c) Malaka Rodrigo

Kelawalla (Yellow-fin Tuna) is going to be re-categorized as a ‘Near Threatened’ fish as per the latest evaluation by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Yellow-fin Tuna is currently at the bottom of 7 level Red List threat categories under ‘Least Concern’ which has the lowest risk of Extinction. But the recent evaluation done by IUCN Red List scombrid and billfish species under the guidance of the Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) has elevated Yellowfin’s threat ranks by one level few days back.

World’s commercially target fish are all in the decline mainly due to unsustainable fishing practices. The results of the recent Red List evaluation show that the situation is particularly serious for tunas. Five of the eight species of tuna are in the threatened or Near Threatened IUCN Red List Categories. One of the species – Southern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) is Critically Endangered while Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (T. thynnus) categorized as Endangered. These two species however do not inhabit our territorial waters; however Indian Ocean Tuna are neither escapes the perils of over-fishing. The Bigeye Tuna (T. obesus) is categorized Vulnerable while Albacore (T. alalunga) and Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares) are categorized under Near Threatened.

“The latest Red List update also underlines the concerns expressed by Indian Ocean Coastal Countries met inColomboearly this year” commented Dr.Hiran Jayawardene referring to the forum convened by the Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Co-operation (IOMAC). The Indian Ocean Coastal countries highlighted that the need of restricting unsustainable fishing practices employed by Distant Water fishing nations such as European Union, Japan and Taiwan. They use large Purse-seine nets which scoop up all big and small fish of the targeted area. To make the matters worst, they also deploy sophisticated Fish Aggregation Device (FAD) which helps them to monitor fish stocks in different parts of the oceans to catch the maximum yield.

Most of the long-lived economically valuable species are considered threatened and a quota system is introduced to control the catch sustainable in many regions. In the case of Indian Ocean Tuna, the quotas are decided by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). IOTC set a Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) and distribute quotas among fishing nations of the area defining Total Allowable Catch. But these quota systems are also not being followed properly in many cases as it highlights in the case of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna who is now doomed with extinction. Fish experts warn, if sustainable practices are not regulated in this region, the Indian Ocean Tuna too will continue to move to the top ranks of the Extinction categories of Red List.

Another problem delaying the recovery of these fish stocks is that these Tuna fish mature later than short-lived species and their reproductive turnover is longer. As a result, such recovery from population declines takes more time, so IUCN recommends more stringent actions for the Critically Endangered Tunas. “Temporarily shutting down tuna fisheries would only be a part of a much needed recovery programme. In order to prevent illegal fishing, strong deterrents need to be implemented,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director, IUCN’s Global Species Programme. “This new study shows that there is an urgent need for effective management. Scientific findings should not be discarded in order to maintain short-term profit. Marine life and jobs for future generations are both at stake.”

Presently Tuna accounts for more than 42% of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch and 49% of the marine fish catch, amounting to approximately 143,000tons. But like the Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna which has been over fished, the Indian Ocean Tuna species – the Yellow-fin Tuna (Kelawalla), Skipjack (balaya), Big-eye Tuna once common are already started getting rarer due to unsustainable fishing practices. This will also hurt countries likeSri Lanka that exports Tuna, so time has come to look at protecting the Tunas for economic reasons, if not for conservation.

IUCN Red List can be accessed on But the information currently on the IUCN Red List for tunas is not the most up-to-date information, where users have to wait until its next update on November 2011. However, those who are interested can view complete Tuna assessments on

‘Aqua Culture is Key to Future Food Security’ – Sri Lanka Fisheries Scientists

Delivering the key note speech of Sri Lanka Association for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (SAFAR), Prof.Sena de Silva said that Aqua culture or Internal Fishery will be a key to Future food security. He pointed out that all the main commercial marine fish like Tuna will be over fished in next decade, if fishing is done unsustainable way and pointed out that it is wise to look at ways to improve inland fishery.

SAFAR is an organization formed by scientists, academics, technologists, developers, and entrepreneurs to address issues related to the fisheries and aquatic resources and associated ecosystems in Sri Lanka. Established in 1994, SAFAR annually conducts a Scientific Session providing a platform to share the scientific information related to fisheries. Its 17th Annual session was held last month at the NARA auditorium. About 30 scientific papers have been presented during the 2 day sessions under the themeAquatic Resources in a Changing World: Present Trends and Future Strategies”.

The key note speech also highlighted that Aqua culture is also can be done in small scale. Though it is projected as a future strategy to make sure stable fish production, inland fishery too will be full of challenges. It is required to select the correct fish that is not a threat to the native fish and the life cycle of these fish should also be inline with the rainfall patterns which are projected to change with the global climate change. Prof.Sena highlighted need of having more research even on change of seasonality to Aqua culture in the face of Climate Change as rainfall pattern could affect breeding of fish species as well as taking the technology to village level including breeding techinues.

The current president of SAFAR, Dr.Sevvandi Jayakody on her presidential address highlighted a need of a novel approach for conservation of marine resources. Taking the example of lagoons, she said an Anthro-centric (people centric) conservational approach is much more practical than Eco-centric conservation approach. She emphasized people can be rallied for conserving resources by targeting a species of use such as prawns. This concept is known as cultural key stone species and winning the willingness to protect the environment for something used and conserving the entire ecosystem through that approach. Taking the example of Tuna, Dr.Sevvandi explained if the Tuna based export trade collapsed due to unsustainable fishery, even those who make cardboard cartons for Tuna will loose there livelihood. So she pointed out it is more practical to project the need to lobby for sustainable fishery with aim to keep the human interest where the species will anyway be protected on final count.

One of the plenary speakers of scientific session, Dr. Chris O’Brien of Bay of Bengal Large Marine ecosystem (BOBLME) project highlighted that theIndian Oceanis bordered to the most populated nations. This has resulted not only the high resource extraction, but also release of lots of pollutants to the ocean that will adversely affect fish and whole ecosystem.

Note: the following articles published on following link has a mix-up, so please treat the above blog post as the correct one..

SOS on fast disappearing species

June 20, 2011
Latest update of Global Red list highlights the alarming levels of extinction – By Malaka Rodrigo
The 2011 update of the Global Red List of Threatened Species that was released on June 16 highlights the prevailing crisis.According to the latest report 707 species are already extinct, 64 extinct in the wild and 3,801 critically endangered on a global scale. The loss of biodiversity has become one of the world’s most pressing environment crises, with many species falling to critically low levels. Many species are becoming extinct unnoticed, and the number of species classified as Critically Endangered (those facing the most severe risk of becoming extinct) are increasing, the report states.

Sri Lanka Spiny Mouse – a Critically Endangered small mammal. Pic by Sampath Goonatilake

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN )Red List of Threatened Species (or the IUCN Red List) is the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It is based on a system that assesses the risk of extinction.

Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet the criteria linked to population trend, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as ‘Threatened’. So according to the latest update, over 19,000 species are threatened out of 59,508 assessed species.

Estimates from the IUCN Red List indicate that extinctions take place at anytime from 100 to 1,000 times the ‘background’ or natural rate. The causes for extinction include habitat destruction, land conversion for agriculture and development, climate change, pollution, illegal wildlife trade, and the spread of invasive species.

The Global IUCN Red List also includes review of conservation status of many species that inhabit Sri Lanka. Globally assessed species occurring in Sri Lanka as per the latest update indicate 22 Extinct, 137 Critically Endangered and 164 Endangered. However, this global assessment took to account only 2065 species in Sri Lanka.

What was published this week was the Red List update on a Global Scale and every country processes its own assessment to evaluate the species vulnerabilities to extinction on a national level. In Sri Lanka, the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment conducted this study with the assistance of key scientists.The head of this unit, Gamini Gamage said the current study covered more groups of animals and plants than the previous National Red Llist evaluation completed in 2007. He is positive that the latest update of the National Red List too can be released within this year, as most of the reviewing meetings were completed.

The findings of the previous National Red List assessment were also alarming for Sri Lankan fauna and flora. The national report published in 2007 highlighted 33% (223 species) of inland vertebrate fauna and 61% (675 species) of the evaluated flora were found to be nationally threatened. The threatened fauna and flora included many endemic species, which meant that if they became extinct, it would be a global loss. 21 species of endemic amphibians and 72 species of plants seem to have disappeared from the island (extinct) during the past century according to the report.

The data between the National and Global Red Lists can also differ considering their rigorous reviewing process that is time consuming. Because of this, threatened categories even of some of the endemic species could be different from the global assessment. For example, the Sri Lanka Spiny Mouse (Mus fernandoni) categorized in the National List as a Critically Endangered species is still under the category of Endangered in the Global Red List. However, the Red List is the best instrument available to assess the threatened species, point out experts.

However the future is not totally bleak. The 2011 Red List update promotes Arabian Oryx from the category of ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’ . It is believed the last wild animal was shot in 1972 wiping them out from their natural range. This year, thanks to successful captive breeding and re-introduction efforts, the Oryx has finally qualified to move out of the endangered category to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List—the first time that a species that was once Extinct in the wild has improved by three categories.
Once the scientists do their part, it is the task of the policy makers and implementors to take necessary conservation actions.

Biodiversity under attack by alien species

“The Alien Invasive Species is one of the biggest threats to the unique biodiversity of Sri Lanka. It is placed 3rd in the scale of threats, only behind Habitat loss and Habitat degradation,” revealed Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, a lead Consultant of the latest National Red List Assessment, addressing the monthly forum organized by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society.

Invasive species are those that spread outside their natural past or present distribution range and threaten native species and habitats in those new areas. Invasive species has become a major threat worldwide and governments have to spend lots of money to control them. Citing the example of Coconut industry, Dr.Weerakoon pointed out that coconut has become the worst hit crop due to invasive species. Some time back coconut trees were attacked by the coconut beetle but the latest and more dangerous threat is an invasive Micro Plasma spreading in the south forcing authorities to cut down a large number of infected trees.

Invasive Giant African snail

Dr. Weerakoon who was involved in compiling the previous Red Lists of Threatened Species of Sri Lanka, is currently leading a team under the Biodiversity Secretariat of Sri Lanka to evaluate the current threatened categories of Sri Lankan Fauna and Flora. He is also involved in an Invasive Species evaluation project conducted by the Biodiversity Secretariat.

Most of our National Parks too are being invaded by some kind of Invasive Plant. For example it is well known that in Udawalawa Park the invasive Lantana camara (gandapana) has become a major threat. Herbivores animals do not eat Lantana, so they spread fast also shrinking the feeding grounds of herbivorous animals such as elephants. Similarly, the Bundala National Park is invaded by Prosopis juliflora (kalapu andara), Opuntia stricta (cactus). The Hortan Plains faces a different threat from Ulex europeaus which is a thorny bush. Dr. Weerakoon pointed out that annually the government spends millions of rupees to remove these invasive plants. But the efforts have been unsuccessful as it has to be a continuous process where the removal has to be done in several cycles without allowing the plants to re-emerge.

He said though most of the protected areas in the Dry Zone are facing the threat of invasive species, the Wet Zone rainforests which are major habitats for Sri Lanka’s unique endemic biodiversity like Sinharaja and Peak Wilderness are relatively safer from worst forms Invasive plants. However Dr. Weerakoon stressed the need to keep an eye on these special biodiversity hotspots as once the invasive plants spread, it is hard to control it.

Sri Lanka’s freshwater aquatic systems too are invaded by many fish introduced on purpose or inadvertently. The Thilapia which was introduced to Sri Lankan waterways a few decades ago spread and ate other small native fish. The Rainbow Trout introduced in the Hill Country for fly-fishing, is believed to have killed off a native freshwater shrimp. The Knife Fish, Glass Cleaners are other species that have been released to the natural waterways in the course of aquatic trade.

Many Alien Invasive species also affect homegardens. The Giant African Snail, known as Kaluthara Snail which is common in our home gardens is such a species. They have fast spread across the country destroying many plants in home gardens.

Dr. Weerakoon also said that the problem of invasive species can be minimized by preventing the introduction of invasive species, eradicating a new invasion as soon as possible, containing a small or expanding invasion and if that fails managing the impacts and the presence of an established invasion. He also said awareness was the key to prevent new species being introduced and slowdown the spread. The Global Invasive Species Database has listed120 species as invasive to Sri Lanka.

Published on SundayTimes on 19.06.2011

Bottom Trawling: Not just political ripples but conservation too

April 24, 2011

Bottom Trawling in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar could destroy marine habitat on ocean floor – by Malaka Rodrigo  

Illicit poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka’s northern seas has already caused some social and diplomatic ripples, but marine experts point out that it could also become a conservation issue.

Addressing a public forum on Palk Bay Fisheries, Dr.Terney Pradeep Kumara of Ruhuna University’s Department of Oceanography and Marine Geology, claimed, that the Bottom Trawling method of fishing used by Indian fishermen could be harmful to marine habitats on the ocean floor. Bottom trawling is trawling (towing a trawl, which is a fishing net) along the sea floor.

In this method two heavy metal panels are fixed at both sides of the mouth of the Bottom Trawling net to make sure that it remains at the bottom of the sea floor.

The main target area of the Indian fishermen is the Palk Bay which is bounded on the north and west by the coastline of the State of Tamil Nadu and the east by the northeast coastline and the Jaffna peninsula of Sri Lanka.

These metal panels resemble Cow-catchers that are fixed to the front of trains and are meant for the same purpose–to break through anything that blocks its way. Indian fishermen are also poaching in the Gulf of Mannar and the bottom of the ocean of both the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay are rich in coral and seaweed. Bottom trawling nets can break these corals and destroy the sea grasses that are attractive marine habitats. “Once destroyed, corals may take years to recover, so it will directly affect our marine biodiversity,” Dr.Terney warned.

This method of fishing is used mainly to catch creatures like prawns and demersal fish like groupers that roam near the water column just above the seabed. Over the years both Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen fished in these areas mainly targeting finfish and chank resources.

But a report published in a journal of the National Aquatic Resources Development Agency (NARA) points out in the 1960s fishing fleets started targeting shrimp resources abundant in these areas due to its high demand. Since then both groups focused more on shrimp resources and found that bottom trawling was preferable to prawn harvesting.

This has resulted in the increase in the number of motor trawlers fishing in the area. This unsustainable fishing practice has fast depleted the fish stocks on the Indian side of the Bay. Therefore the number of Indian fishing vessels crossing the boundary line and entering Sri Lankan waters has also rapidly increased since the 1970s.

Sea Cucumbers and Pearl Oysters are also the targets of Bottom Trawling. Dr.Terney pointed out that the seas around Mannar and Palk Bay are famous for Pearl Oysters and Sri Lanka could lose the economic benefits of this harvest because of the encroaching Indian fishermen. There is high demand for Sea Cucumbers in East Asia where it is a delicacy.

The unsustainable collection has already depleted the Sea Cucumber populations in southern Sri Lanka and if bottom-trawling continues they will fast disappear in the northern seas too. The problem with most of these invertebrates unlike fish that mature fast to lay thousands of eggs, is that they are slow breeders. The problem would be further compounded if this method of fishing continues in shallow waters Dr.Terney said adding that the Indian fishermen are now bold enough to poach as close as 500m away from our shores.

However, the by-catch of Bottom-trawling is what could suffer the most. Endangered marine turtles and other creatures that do not have a commercial value are unavoidable by-catch victims of Bottom Trawling. When the net drags, it also disturbs the underwater sediments and thousands of little creatures that find refuge in the soft sands are exposed to predators.

Recent satellite images that were published in the media showed the extent of the mud and sedimentation trails caused by Bottom Trawling in deep sea. International conservation organizations like GreenPeace are known to place large rocks on strategic locations of the ocean to block Bottom Trawling in high seas in many areas.

“Operating a Bottom-trawling underwater is like running a bulldozer across the Sinharaja Rainforest,” said Nishan Perera –Marine Biologist specializing in fish. The Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar record one of the richest Biological Diversity in the Indian Ocean which is 20% of Indian Ocean creatures.  The Palk Bay, located between the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar is home to 580 fish species, 733 molluscs, 651 crustaceans and 128 species of stony corals.

Zoologists claim that the Gulf of Mannar is home to over 3,600 species. The five endangered marine turtles also inhabit this area and can get entangled in these nets easily while feeding on the sea grasses at the bottom. The Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar has already been declared as a Man and Biosphere (MAB) Reserve by UNESCO.

Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardene said Bottom Trawling has been banned in Sri Lanka. He said regulations were brought in 1996 November under the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act.

Plenty more fish in the sea? Not for much long, says IUCN

Most of us assume that the ocean abounds with fish and is an unlimited natural resource. But a report releasd by IUCN (the International Union of Conservation of Nature) this week, warns that many marine fish could disappear.

According to a study done for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species on the status of marine fish in the Mediterranean Sea, the IUCN revealed that more than 40 species of marine fish currently found in the region could disappear in the next few years.

Published on SundayTimes on 24.04.2011

New leap of highly threatened Amphibians

April 17, 2011
Lankan scientists introduce Taruga, a new endemic genus of foam-nesting tree frogs – Malaka Rodrigo reports..
Boosting Sri Lanka’s image as an amphibian hotspot, a group of Sri Lankan scientists have introduced a new genus of frogs that is endemic to the island. The new group is named Taruga meaning ‘tree climber’ in ancient Sinhala and Sanskrit.This name is appropriate as the adults of these are tree-inhabiting frogs, rarely come to the ground, even laying their eggs on trees on overhanging foam nests.

Taruga fastigo

Taruga is currently the only genus of endemic frogs among the tree-frogs (Rhacophoridae). Definition of a new genus is a rare occurrence, and for a vertebrate group, even rarer. The task of separating these species into a new genus is indeed complex and demanding.

The researchers have to analyse molecular DNA and morphological data such as the outward appearance as well as the form and structure of the internal parts like bones and organs of both adult frogs as well as tadpoles to distinguish this ancestry unique to Sri Lanka.

Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura, the principal scientist behind this task, said, the research outcome published recently has been already updated in reputed amphibian journals further strengthening Sri Lanka as one of the world’s most important amphibian hotspots.

In science, a Genus is a classification used to group one or more species that has common characteristics which is the taxonomic rank just above that of the species name. For example, the four big cats – lion, tiger, jaguar and leopard are classified under the genus Panthera because of the common characteristics they share. Three of the endemic tree frogs that were previously called Polypedates (Whipping tree frogs) were re-classified under this new genus and have been given new scientific names — Taruga eques, Taruga fastigo and Taruga longinasus.

The first part of a scientific name represents the genus, whereas the second part denotes the individual species name. However, a set of cone-like projections around the vent, a curved fold above the ear and a more pointed snout helped scientists to pull out three frogs to new genus Taruga. During a certain tadpole stage, the vent of Polypedates forms a tube between the left leg and tail, and in Taruga, there is only an opening between the leg and tail.

There are also several more features of the mouth cavity, such as the number of projections on the tongue and shape of the tongue that distinguishes Taruga from Polypedates.

These frogs also show some interesting characteristics with all frogs in this new genus building foam nests. The female is much larger than the male and carries him during amplexus. The female first selects a site usually a branch that hangs over water to make a bubble nest. Fluids secreted from the egg-carrying channel (termed the oviduct) are beaten up into a foamy mass by the female using her hind limbs.

The size of a foam nests can range from a ping-pong ball in some species, to a cricket ball in others. The eggs are laid within this foamy mass and the males fertilize the eggs. First the male and then the female leaves the nest, without providing any parental care to the nest. After several days, the eggs hatch and the tadpoles slip into the water from the overhanging foam nest to start their new life in the water.

Dr.Meegaskumbura said the tadpoles falling into the water at an advanced stage ensure a higher survivability from aquatic threats than if the eggs were laid in the water. The juvenile frogs that emerge from the water return to an arboreal life on the trees.

Rohan Pethiyagoda, another an expert taxonomist who is also involved in this research paper commented that the genus Taruga joins Nannophrys, Adenomus and Lankanectes as the fourth genus of frogs endemic to Sri Lanka.

These three species also show restricted distribution, where Taruga eques can be found 1000m above sea level (asl) in the central hills and the Knuckles range. Taruga longinasus: can be found below 600m in the wet-zone lowlands of Sri Lanka while Taruga fastigo is present only at 900m asl in the Rakwana mountains, recording the most restricted range.

Dr.Meegaskumbura acknowledges his graduate student, Gayan Bowatte who contributed to this work and other researchers who assisted them. He also acknowledges the support extended by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Forest Department of Sri Lanka to carryout this work.

Amphibians the highest threatened

Around the world many species and populations are declining, but amphibians are the worst affected group among the vertebrates. Amphibians are sensitive to changes in the environment, so a small variation can be deadly for the frogs living in an affected area.

To add to the problem, many amphibians such as frogs of the genus Taruga are only found in restricted ranges; one species can only be found in a single forest patch, making them vulnerable to localized threats. Sri Lanka currently records 111 amphibians with 92 of them being endemic to Sri Lanka but the IUCN (World Conservation Union) has categorized 11 species of Sri Lankan amphibians as critically endangered and a further 36 as endangered. Some of these species are on the brink of extinction and require urgent conservation attention, or they could disappear even without our knowing about them. Sri Lanka has already lost 21 amphibians, in other words they have been categorized as being extinct. Deforestation, isolation of forests into smaller patches (fragmentation), disease, pollution, and climate change are triggering the extinction of amphibians.

“We have now realized that legal protection alone is insufficient to secure the future of these species. They need active conservation intervention, such as captive breeding and improved habitat security, in addition to regular monitoring of the existing populations so that any decline could be detected and addressed,” points out environmentalist Rohan Pethiyagoda, who discovered many frogs as part of his research few years ago.

Mr. Pethiyagoda added that at present, the only species on which the government spent money on conservation were elephants.

Yet, hundreds of Sri Lanka’s endemic species and whole genera are threatened with extinction. If only a fraction of the funds spent on managing elephants were diverted to the conservation also of other threatened species, the outcome for the country’s biodiversity would be much bette,” he said.

To make matters worse many of the protected areas in Sri Lanka are in the dry zone, whereas 80% of endemic fauna are found in wet zone rainforests, hill country cloud forests and related habitats.

Many of the threatened amphibians are in the wet zone and mountain areas where the habitats are shrinking faster than in the lowland dry zone (please see map). There are some critically endangered frogs currently surviving in a few areas outside protected areas, so a disturbance of these habitats would be deadly for these tiny amphibians.

Published on SundayTimes on 17.04.2011

Man’s bite too cruel even for ‘savage killer of the sea’

April 14, 2011
Sonja looks at a big eye thresher shark

“There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution. Without change, without passion and without logic. It lives to kill. A mindless eating machine, it will attack and devour anything. It is as if God created the devil and gave him Jaws..!!” This scary introduction in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster movie ‘Jaws’ painted a terrible picture of sharks as ruthless man-eaters.

Last week I got the opportunity to visit the Negombo shark landing site together with some shark experts. It was still dark when we reached there, but dozens of big multi-day fishing boats were already unloading their catch. After the tuna, it was time to unload the sharks. First came the smaller ones and then the bigger ones, some more than seven feet long from snout to tail. Their half open mouth showed their sharp teeth, but they didn’t fit the image of the ‘Savage killer of the sea’ – in fact the dead sharks lying on the decks reminded us of man’s supremacy even over the apex predator of the sea.

“We used to catch bigger sharks decades ago. Sometimes bigger than 10 feet,” says Anthony, a fisherman who proudly shows us the catch of his boat. Various species of sharks were being unloaded. Some fishermen target sharks, but many become the by-catch of the gill nets and long-line fisheries, where fishermen employ a long line with baited hooks. The sharks that are caught are stored in the freezers of the multi-day boats until they are brought to land.

Fins for a soup
However, it doesn’t end there. After being auctioned the sharks are sent to the processing area at the fish landing site for finning. Skilled fishermen with their sharp knives cut off the sharks’ dorsal fin, side and ventral fins and even the tail. The fins are then separately weighed and sold to the buyers engaged in the shark fin trade. The flesh is sent to the local market, but the fins are valued 10 times higher than the flesh, making it a lucrative business.

Manta Rays – the next target?

Manta Ray being processed for gilling

Manta Rays, the largest Ray species (known in Sinhala as ‘Maduwa’) are being targeted for their gill rakers which are dried and used in Chinese traditional medicine for anything from diabetes to the common cold with no proven benefit. Mantas feed on plankton, fish larvae and the like and these gill rakers filter their food from the water passing through as they swim.

At the Negombo fish market, we saw a large Manta Ray being processed. According to the fishermen, it is also turning out to be a good business as one kg of gill rakers can be sold for Rs.10,000. Other than Manta Rays, Devil Rays too are been targeted for their gills. IUCN has categorized Manta Rays as threatened, so it is also the time to keep an eye on this species before it is too late.

Hundreds of sharks face this fate every day. Many believe sharks are plentiful, but this is not the case. “The problem is sharks are slow breeders. Many of the species give birth after many months of pregnancy,” explained the president of Shark Advocates International Sonja Fordham who visited Negombo. Sonja is also the deputy head of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Shark Specialist Group.

One third of open ocean (pelagic) sharks are threatened with extinction. The IUCN Shark Specialist Group states that out of 64 species of open ocean (pelagic) sharks and rays, 32% are threatened with extinction, primarily due to over- fishing.

Shark fin soup which is a delicacy in East Asian countries has created a great demand for shark fins. This has turned out to be a lucrative business for the fishermen in many fishing nations. These fins are collected, dried and exported. The value of the fins depends upon the species. Sri Lanka ranks 14th in the world for shark and ray catch, based on the average landing data from 2000-2008,from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This data reveals that the average Sri Lankan shark and ray catch for the past years was 20,000 tonnes which makes 2.4% of the global catch.

About 15 Sri Lankan longline vessels target sharks and supply fins for export. More than 80, five-metre Sri Lankan hook fishing boats target deepwater gulper sharks, primarily for liver oil according to IUCN records. Offshore fisheries take mainly silky, blue, and oceanic whitetip sharks, with silky sharks making up 21% of the catch. These shark fins are mainly exported to Hong Kong, Malaysia, China, Singapore, Taiwan and Mauritius.

Shark fining
In Sri Lanka, there is no demand for shark flesh. This has led to another savage act – ‘Shark Finning’. Fishermen catch the sharks in the ocean, cut their fins and tails while the sharks are still alive and then dump them back into the sea. Shark-finning is savage as some of the footage uploaded on YouTube reveals.

Though banned in Sri Lanka, it is well known that local fishermen follow this practice. The regulations adopted in 2001 mandate that sharks be put back to sea with their fins still attached. This is by far the best method to end finning but only a few countries fishing in the Indian Ocean have adopted it, says Sonja.

Shark conservation
“At least the threatened species of sharks should be protected,” said Sonja showing us a few Big-eye Thresher Sharks and Hammerhead sharks at the Negombo landing site. Sonja pointed out that last year the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) had agreed to ban fishing of Thresher sharks and Sri Lanka too needs to adopt measures to ban fishing at least for these threatened species.

But how would fishermen distinguish shark species in the sea and leave out only the threatened ones?
“It would be harder to distinguish which species will be hooked by the net or long-line. But there are methods to unhook them safely and put them back to the sea,” Sonja said adding that this needs the co-operation of the fishermen. “However, when caught, sharks can be released, but some of the vulnerable shark species like Hammerheads are too delicate and will die quickly when entangled in a net or logline. Big-eye Thresher sharks have a higher chance of survival if released back to the waters,” Sonja said looking at the Thresher Shark which still had the entangled hook in its mouth, and the Hammerheads before us.

The Maldives took a bold step in shark conservation in March 2010 by banning shark fishing and declaring their waters as a sanctuary for sharks. They also banned the export of sharks and shark products in the country. Sri Lanka is also a Party to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), but is yet to sign the 2010 CMS Memorandum of Understanding on Migratory Sharks, pointed out Sonja.

Sustainable fishery the key
“Sustainability is the key,” said the head of National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA) and Secretary General of Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) Dr. Hiran Jayewardene who last week launched Sri Lanka’s ‘Sustainable Fisheries Imitative’. Initially focusing on Sri Lankan fisheries, this initiative will eventually draw in other international players in the region as well as outside.

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), resulting from an initiative by Sri Lanka in the 1980s, is concerned with sharks as a by-catch of tuna fishing. However, Sri Lanka together with India and Maldives has opposed a move proposed in the recently concluded Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) to initiate a data collection programme for some specific shark species. Justifying the reasons for this opposition, Dr. Jayewardene – who is also the head of Sri Lankan Delegation to IOTC- said that

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has identified the Sri Lankan artisanal fishing fleet as a major fleet for which historical catch and information on sharks is needed. But we will need more time, he says as compliance with a multitude of international regulations is difficult when you have thousands of small boats making up your fleet.

Published on SundayTimes on 10.04.2011

A Rare Dolphin fallen Victim to Blast Fishing

February 27, 2011

An eight and a half feet fully matured female indo-pacific humpback dolphin, suspected to be killed by dynamiting in Puttalum Lagoon, found washed ashore at Kalpitya on 13-02-2011.

National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) say this particular dolphin is recorded by NARA scientist on August 2004. This individual has been identified by the “scar” that it has just behind the dorsal fin which is reminiscence of a propeller cut or a nylon rope burn. Entangling with the fishing nets often left the dolphins with permanent scars, and sometime they succumb to injury. However, this particular dolphin, known to researchers for a period of at least five years, remained with at least three scars from entangling of net from different periods.

The indo-pacific humpback dolphin is a critically endangered marine mammal in the world with an IUCN status as “Critically Endangered”. The global population of the indo-pacific humpback dolphin is rapidly dwindling. Indo-pacific humpback dolphin is the only cetaceans that enter into estuarine waters and this particular dolphin is recorded in the Puttalum Estuary, among the pod of six dolphins during the successive years according to NARA.

This female Dolphin constituted the only pod of indo-pacific humpback dolphin, so far recorded in Sri Lanka as per the researchers. The pod was frequently seen around Kalpitiya up to Uchchimuni. However, during the early part of this year this dolphin is found alone and frequenting the Kalpity Narrow. On 13-02-2011, this dolphin carcass washed ashore and found profusely bleeding from the mouth and eyes, which is a clear indication of death due to dynamiting.

as seen in 2004 alive

Last year a pair of rare Dugongs were also been killed as a result of Dynamite fishing. Dynamitefishing also known as blast fishing is a practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. Underwater shock waves produced by these explosions stun the fish and cause their swim bladders causing an abrupt loss of buoyancy. So the fish floats in the surface, which allows fishermen to collect them easier. “But it is only a small number of fish floats, where most sink to the sea floor” says experts pointing out the disruptive nature of this illegal fishing method.

Blast fishing is also extremely destructive to coral reefs too. The fish density is often higher in and around Coral Reefs, so fishermen found this an easier opportunity. But the Coral Reefs are the breeding ground of fish and dynamite fishing affects all the near shore fishing community. Blast fishing can also be dangerous to divers who dive in vicinity of these sites.

Though it is banned in Sri Lanka, some of the fishermen in many areas use this fishing method. The dynamite issues for commercial purposes such as quarry operations are the main source of these explosives, but some also questions other methods these illegal fishermen used to gain access to dynamites. Free access to dynamite is also a dangerous situation where the explosives can be used for other purposes. Navy can play a big part this fight to stop dynamite fishing, points out the experts.

The traditional fish communities too are against this method of fishing as Blast Fishing also affects their livelihood. So the traditional fishermen too call the authorities to enforce the law to stop Dynamite fishing before many more rare creatures like this humpback dolphin perish.

published on SundayTimes on 27.02.2011

Call for new biodiversity targets

November 2, 2010

Biodiversity Secretariat chief at Nagoya

Biodiversity is key to our survival, but threatened all over the world. All 193 signatories to the United Nations’ Convention of Biological Diversity were in the Japanese city of Nagoya last week discussing ways to halt the extinction crisis which affects life on earth – Malaka Rodrigo reports from Nagoya

Earth is experiencing its sixth mass extinction. Yes, you heard it right. Scientists estimate that in 2100, more than half of the species living in the earth today will become extinct. This time the cause is not external but the activities of one single species that is also part of earth’s biodiversity – Homo sapiens – none other than ourselves.

The 2007 IUCN Red List for Sri Lanka indicated that 21 species of endemic amphibians and 72 of the 1099 plant species evaluated could be considered extinct from the island. Most were endemic. The report also highlights that 223 species of terrestrial vertebrates, 157 species of selected inland invertebrates and the 675 plant species evaluated are categorized as Nationally Threatened. Of the threatened animals, 62% of vertebrates and 61% of plants are endemic to Sri Lanka and thus deserve extra attention. In addition, among the vertebrate fauna, the highest number of threatened species was recorded from the reptiles (56 or 25%), followed by amphibians, birds, mammals and freshwater fish respectively.

In 2002 the world’s leaders who are part of the UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 also coupling it with Millennium Development Goals. The delegates of these countries met in Nagoya, Japan for a 12-day summit known as the 10th Conference of Parties (COP10) to review these targets and set a new strategy to slow down biodiversity loss during the next decade. The Sri Lankan delegates in Nagoya were also reviewing the new strategic plans.

“It is not an easy process. The Convention of Biodiversity has so many points to discuss and 40 items in the agenda are being discussed daily,” said Gamini Gamage, head of Biodiversity Secretariat of Sri Lanka. Protected areas, invasive species, biodiversity & climate change, biofuel, agricultural biodiversity, traditional knowledge are some of these agenda items being discussed.

“The most difficult part of the negotiations has been agreeing on a protocol for Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) where many countries have different opinions,” said Mr. Gamage. ABS protocol links with Genetic Resources and aims to create a legal framework that would give nations much better control over their resources from trees to fungi and from fish to frogs that can lead to cures for cancer or new crops more resistant to climate change. It is said that the users of the genetic resources should do it with the prior consent of the provider communities or countries and the benefit should also go back to the providers.

Gene piracy has been a concern for Sri Lanka where some plants like Binara or Kothala Himbatu are patented elsewhere. “We had many concerns regarding the initial proposals of the protocol, but things have progressed at COP10,” says Mr. Gamage. But the complexity of the issue has had delegates debating until late to come up with an agreement.

“This also highlights the need of having more understanding of these new legal backgrounds,” pointed out Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who visited Nagoya to attend the high-level meeting together with Central Environment Authority Chairman, Charitha Herath. Addressing the summit, Minister Yapa said the government of Sri Lanka is committed to mainstreaming biodiversity as an integral part of the national planning and accounting process. He has plans for setting up a special Biodiversity Act for Sri Lanka, he added, stressing the subject is becoming complex with elements of economics and law coming in.

Mr. Gamage says the discussions are now mainly turned toward the economic value of the biodiversity and ecosystem services. “The convention was established in 1992 and initially mainly focused purely on conservation aspects. But it evolved into sustainable use of biodiversity and now has begun making an economic case to highlight the value of biodiversity and consequences of its loss,” he said.

Delegates hoped a fruitful agreement and a realistic strategic plan to save Earth’s biodiversity could be achieved before the conference ended on October 29. Time is running out for many species. As the old slogan says; “Extinct is Forever”..!!

The Convention of Biological Diversity

Biodiversity, a contraction of the synonymous phrase ‘biological diversity’, is defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as ‘the variability among living organisms from all sources including, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part including diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems’.

The CBD is one of the three “Rio Conventions”, emerging from the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It came into force at the end of 1993, with the following objectives: “The conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies, and by appropriate funding.” There are currently 193 Parties to the Convention (192 countries and the European Union).

Earth’s valued Biodiversity

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend.

This diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms. So far, about 1.75 million species have been identified, mostly small creatures such as insects. Scientists reckon that there are actually about 13 million species, though estimates range from three to 100 million.

Biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species – for example, between varieties of crops and breeds of livestock. Chromosomes, genes, and DNA-the building blocks of life-determine the uniqueness of each individual and each species.

If we do not act today, more than half of Earth’s valued biodiversity will be lost.

Published on SundayTimes (Features section) on 31.10.10 

CBD COP10 Begins in Nagoya

October 24, 2010
Malaka Rodrigo reporting from Nagoya, Japan

A 12-day-long summit aiming to address the global biodiversity crisis is in progress in the Japanese city of Nagoya, with representatives from all the 190 signatory countries of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) including Sri Lanka, attending the event.

Sri Lanka who signed the convention in 1992, is already identified as one of the top 35 Biodiversity Hotspots of the World, and the outcome of the summit is also important locally. The Biodiversity crisis already hit Sri Lanka, as the 2007 edition of the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by IUCN, indicated that 21 species of endemic amphibians and 72 of the 1099 plant species evaluated could already be extinct.

The report also categorised one in every two species of mammals and amphibians, one in every three species of reptiles and freshwater fish, and one in every five species of birds in the island are currently facing the risk of becoming threatened in the wild. Of the threatened animals, 62% of vertebrates and 61% of plants are endemic to Sri Lanka, meaning, if they become extinct, it is a loss for the whole world.

This is a worldwide problem and scientists point out that this is the greatest extinction crisis after dinosaurs became extinct millions of years ago. The latest report ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook 3’ published by the CBD, reveals that 875 species have become extinct in the wild, while another 3,325 are critically endangered. The Nagoya meeting titled 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10), aims at adopting a new strategy to take measures to address this biodiversity crisis. (Global Biodiversity Outlook – 3 can be downloaded from following link

Sri Lanka’s official delegation comprises of Environmental Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and the head of Biodiversity Secretariat Gamini Gamage, who will also attend talks on adopting a new regime for Genetic Access and Benefit Sharing Protocol (ABS).

This protocol aims at providing access to genetic resources of the biologically rich countries like Sri Lanka, and became a hotly debated topic at the summit. Bio-piracy is already a concern to Sri Lanka, where some countries patented genetic resources extracted from plants taken from Sri Lanka. The proposed ABS protocol aims at addressing this issue by setting up an international regime to give transparency to the process and give back the benefits to the countries of origin. But Environmentalists in Sri Lanka are sceptic of how the indigenous right will be protected through the proposed regime, the outcome of which will be decided during the talks next week.  Published on SundayTimes on 24.10.2010

Mangroves manhandled

June 12, 2010

Mangroves have been recognized as an important coastal ecosystem in Sri Lanka, but as the pressure of development grows more intense, the remaining patches of mangroves are being destroyed. Whose responsibility is it to protect them, asks Malaka Rodrigo


Douglas, a mangrove activist remembers how hard he tried to save a patch of mangroves in the Puttalam lagoon. As a group with political backing continued clearing the mangroves he went to the authorities seeking to halt the destruction.

The Police, the local Government Agent, Forest Department officers, all said it wasn’t their mandate to act. Some may have perhaps wondered why he was so bothered about some useless trees. But knowing the importance of mangroves, Douglas kept on fighting. Finally he found the correct authority – to his surprise that mangrove-rich land was under the purview of the Department of Transport.

Located adjacent to the Dutch Canal, during the colonial era when canals were used for transportation – this area too had been gazetted under the Transport Department. Even though the canals are no longer used for transportation, the ownership remained with them. “How come the fate of an important natural habitat like mangroves lies in the hands of the Department of Transportation?” asked an angry mangrove activist pointing out that we have only a handful of these important coastal habitats. “Not having an owning body or not having a guardian is just an encouragement for those who destroy the mangroves,” Douglas pointed out.

Prof. Mala Amarasinghe of the University of Kelaniya shared a similar experience. Working at NARA (National Aquatic Resources Agency) in the 1990s, she had tried to stop the destruction of a four-hectare mangrove patch in Kadolkele in Negombo. But those who had cleared the land for some commercial activity had the legal deeds and the environmentalists could only watch helplessly. Tracing back, Prof. Amarasinghe found that the land came under the ownership of Greater Colombo Economic Commission, GCEC, which has been assigned practically all state-owned “undeveloped” land for development.

Mangroves have not been considered worthy resources to be conserved, so they were taken as areas to be “developed,” Prof. Amarasinghe points out. Until recently, even the Forest Department did not regard them as forests and in a conflict situation, no particular line agency would come forward due to the inadequacies of their jurisdiction.

The destruction continues. Niyas, a mangrove activist from Kalpitiya says that though the mangrove patches may look intact from a distance, inside, they have been cut down for various purposes. The destruction mostly happens on weekends and on holidays when the wildlife and forest department officers are not around. “Large scale mangrove destruction is always done by outsiders who are backed by the political powers,” says Karunasena, president of the Rekawa fishermen association.
A large area of mangrove in the Rekawa lagoon in the south coast had been cut down by outside parties and the authorities did not act fast enough to save them. There is a need to raise awareness further at the grass-root level, he says.

Jayampathy Samarakoon, a consultant on Mangroves addressing an IUCN forum recently likened mangroves to an orphan of nature in Sri Lanka’s coastal landscape. He pointed out that the mangrove has a parent – Mother Nature, but no guardian, at present, as the state does not take responsibility for this complex common pool resource. “Like orphans without guardians are frequently abused, the mangroves are also severely abused.” The scars are there for all to see and the repercussions in term of lagoon fishery collapse and flooding will soon follow, he warned.

A mangrove nursery

The setting up of shrimp farms a decade ago devastated several mangrove lands. The inter-tidal zones where mangroves are abundant were seen as the best areas to set up prawn farms and mangroves were axed for the sake of the dollars prawn export was expected to bring to Sri Lanka. But shrimp farming collapsed and experts now found out the inter-tidal zone closer to the sea is not the best for prawn farming. Mangroves could have been saved, had there been proper advice at the inception.

The lack of clear ownership over most of the remaining lagoon ecosystems also poses other dangers. It is not only cutting of the mangroves, but also planting them. After the tsunami, mangroves had been projected as a good barrier against powerful sea waves as they have the ability to absorb the disruptive power of a wave. Millions of rupees were channelled to mangrove replanting projects, but how successful have they been?

“90% of the mangrove planting projects after the tsunami are a failure,” says Prof.L.P. Jayathissa of University of Ruhuna. Most of the planting has not been done with a scientific base, he feels. The selection of plants has to be done carefully so as not to disrupt the existing ecological balance, for example the species of mangroves in the wet zone does not suit the dry zone lagoons. Planting mangroves blocking the mouth of the lagoons, without proper scientific consultation could also cause sedimentation that causes the lagoons to fill- this could affect fishery. On the other hand, carefully planted mangroves can boost lagoon fishery, he adds.

The remaining mangrove forests in the North and East, which still is a considerable area will be under huge development pressure in this post war era. Plans are already being laid for shrimp farms and salterns that will axe a considerable portion of the remaining mangroves in these areas. The recent destruction of mangroves around Kokkilai lagoon which was also part of a sanctuary highlights this danger. The Kokkilai case also highlights that only having a guardian or a protector is not enough to save the mangroves. By the time the authorities act, parts of the mangrove have already been destroyed.

Under the project Green Dyke undertaken by University of Ruhuna Prof. Jayatissa organized a national symposium recently to share the latest findings on Sri Lankan researche on mangroves and bridge the gap between academia and grass roots activists. All highlighted the need to have a single body of experts to coordinate conservation of mangroves in Sri Lanka. One hopes the Mangrove Expert Committee being set up under the Ministry of Environment will truly make an impact in saving the remaining mangroves.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka

Mangroves are salt tolerant plants that grow in inter-tidal zones near the coast. These areas are exposed to air at low tide and submerged at high tide making the soil unstable and low in oxygen. But mangroves are well-adopted to such conditions and have a root system known as breathing roots that grow upwards above the soil surface to get the atmospheric oxygen.

Mangroves can extract fresh water from the saline water and some have the ability to remove excess salts through special salt glands on leaves. The mangrove embryos grow first through the seed coat, and then out through the fruit wall while still attached to the parent plant which enables them to grow easily in hostile conditions.

Mangroves in Sri Lanka are composed of 20 species of true mangroves and 24 species of mangrove associates which is 1/3 of all mangrove species in world. The most extensive mangroves occur in the Puttalam – Kalpitiya area and the estuaries of the Eastern province.

Over-exploitation, habitat destruction, shrimp farms, pollution and invasive species threaten the remaining patches of mangroves in the island. published on SundayTimes on 13.06.2010. This has been done under the aegis of media fellowship by Centre for Science and Environment – India.

Corals under bleach attack

May 16, 2010
Marine scientists stress the need to monitor our reefs in the East Coast
The International Day of Biological Diversity falls next Saturday, May 22. With the UN’s latest Global Biodiversity Outlook report highlighting corals as the species most at risk, marine specialists are warning that corals in Sri Lanka face a new threat – Malaka Rodrigo reports
Have you taken a shower in the middle of the day these past few months and winced at the heat of the water gushing through in the first few minutes? The intense heat is not just affecting us, it is affecting corals – the delicate organisms in the sea that are exposed to the sun all day long.“We have seen early signs of coral bleaching in the East Coast recently,” says Prasanna Weerakkodi, a marine environmentalist and regular diver who showed us a series of photos taken during a dive two weeks ago near Coral Island and Pigeon Island. The corals are pale in colour or have turned completely white. Some corals are deep purple and that too is an early sign of bleaching, he says, warning that about 50% – 60% of the corals in Pigeon Island and nearby Coral Island are partially bleached while about 5% are completely dead.

Bleached corals on Coral Island.(Pix by Sajith Subhashana)

Coral reefs are known as rainforests of the ocean considering their rich biodiversity and are the breeding grounds of many fish. Corals in Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Galle, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa are reportedly being affected according to other divers.

Coral bleaching occurs when coral polyps, the organisms that build corals, shed the algae (zooxanthellae) that gives them their colour. These tiny algae live in harmony with the corals and provide food for the host through the process of photosynthesis. Without this algae, the coral looks pale white and the coral polyps can be exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Without food, oxygen or cover from dangerous rays, the coral polyps in the reef will die a few weeks after they start getting paler. Our corals show signs of entering into the first stage of such a bleaching explains Mr. Weerakkodi.

Coral scientists believe warming waters are the most likely cause of these bleaching events. The Indian Ocean experienced its worst coral bleaching in 1998 due to a warm oceanic current. The Sea Surface Temperature (SST) of some parts of the Indian Ocean had gone up due to the La Nina climatic phenomenon at that time and resulted in warm oceanic currents killing pristine coral reefs in many parts of Sri Lanka, including the Hikkaduwa coral reef that is still to recover. However, the corals in the East Coast escaped the 1998 coral bleaching.

According to recent Sea Surface Temperature data, it is now around 32 C where the normal average temperature should be around 28 C. This increase could have triggered the bleaching. A regional warning of a possible coral bleaching has been issued. Sri Lankan marine biologists are also in touch with their Maldivian colleagues.

If the sea’s temperature goes down, or cool upswells come to the rescue, healthy corals also have the ability to recover. “It is too early to say whether this will develop into a full-scale coral bleaching event as happened in 1998. But it is important to monitor the phenomenon,” Mr. Weerakkodi pointed out.

Marine biologist for the National Aquatic Resources Research & Development Agency (NARA) Arjan Rajasuriya, recently reported some dying corals in reefs near Galle. After the severe bleaching of 1998, corals in many areas in Sri Lanka showed temporary bleaching during the months of April/May/June when temperatures are high. Some corals die, but others recover after the conditions return to normalcy. However, if the warm conditions prevail for long, it could be deadly. Arjan recalls the coral bleaching in 1998 had occurred during April/May and within a few weeks it sealed the fate of many coral reefs like those in Hikkaduwa.

Nishan Perera, another marine specialist, who was diving at Trincomalee a few weeks ago, verified the bleaching of corals and reported severe bleaching in the Dutch Bay area. This year the early part of the monsoon was a bit slack which might have contributed to this situation, he feels. “If conditions become normal soon it should not be a problem, but otherwise there can be some coral mortality,” he says.

Can anything be done? “Keeping the corals healthy is the only way to fight this global phenomenon,” says the NARA officer. Corals that are not healthy lose the ability to adapt to changes in their environment. Frequent fishing, pollution from land-based sources, dynamiting reefs, and sedimentation are other threats to the reef ecosystem which reduce their ability to withstand a catastrophe like bleaching.

Visible bleaching at Pigeon Island

Ocean Acidification is the latest threat added to this list. Acidification is a phenomenon linked to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. Many oceanic ecosystems such as coral reefs are adapted to a narrow range of pH levels and increases in these levels can be catastrophic.

Marine experts also say it is important to pay more attention to the corals in the East coast. “The West coast is experiencing the monsoon these days which will cool the seas a little, while regular cloud cover will also reduce the heat,” Arjan says. But the East coast is not so fortunate and is also experiencing new threats. Pollution and over-fishing were not problems earlier as the Eastern and Northern seas were restricted due to security reasons, but this is changing after the war and over-visitation is already causing problems to fragile marine national parks like Pigeon Island.

Save the wrecks

On May 2, the Sunday Times reported a racket involving the removal of scrap from ship wrecks off the Eastern seas. NARA’s Arjan Rajasuriya points out the wrecks are now jungles of coral and have become a spawning ground for fish.

Destroying them will destroy budding corals as well as harm the fisheries industry. “This is like killing the hen that lays the golden eggs,” said Arjan highlighting the value of these wrecks. They could even be a tourist attraction, so keep them intact, appeals the marine biologist.

Corals heading towards rapid extinction

The Global Biodiversity Outlook report backed by IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) data shows coral species are heading most rapidly towards extinction, while Amphibians are on average the group most threatened.

According to the Red List Index shown in the graph, a value of 1.0 indicates that all species in a group would be considered as being of Least Concern (not expected to become extinct in the near future) and a value of 0 would indicate that all species in a group have become extinct.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.05.2010

Many Species. One Planet. ONE FUTURE

May 10, 2010

It is only recently that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) failed to enforce a ban on trading Endangered Bluefin Tuna. The effort aimed at saving the marine fish from extinction, but does this failure means there is no Future for Bluefin Tuna..?

Let’s visit Atlantic Ocean in-search for answer. There you would observe large fishing vessels hurriedly catching Northern Bluefin Tuna.

Bluefin tuna is being over-fished and its numbers can’t be sustained

But do these fishermen harvest to fulfill their own hunger..? No – fishermen freeze and bring Tunas to the harbor, which will then be transported to various Sushi and Sashimi restaurants.

YOU may visit one of these restaurant and order a delicacy of Bluefin Tuna knowingly or unknowingly accelerating the demise of a threatened species. Perhaps, YOU may think that as it is only few pounds of fish, it is negligible. But what if the visitors on other tables too have ordered the same..? So it is YOU as a CONSUMER who is ultimately responsible for Tuna extinction by creating demand. But it is again YOU who has the real power to give a Future to the troubled fish.

Still confused how somebody eating in a restaurant far away from Atlantic Ocean can save the fish..? Let’s look at the events in reverse order…

YOU visit one of the Sashimi restaurants with friends. Waiter suggests a dish with Bluefin Tuna. “How are you sir?. This Bluefin Tuna is our special for the day. Its really a tasty fish..!!” But knowing its endangered, YOU refuse the dish. YOU tell the reason for the refusal to all your friends and others in the restaurant. So FRIENDS and OTHERS too refuse Tuna. Without orders, the Bluefin Tuna in theestaurant freezers go wasted. The owner will not buy the Bluefin Tuna from the harbor anymore as it is not profitable since demand has gone down. Fishermen too will then find it unprofitable fishing for Bluefin Tuna and STOP catching them..!!

Likewise power is on OUR own hands individually as CONSUMERS to save the FUTURE of MANY SPECIES which live in OUR PLANET. Think of Elephants killed in Africa for ivory, Edible-nest swiftlets for their nests, Sharks for their fins, Conch for their shells, Tigers for their skin, Whales for their meat. The real power in saving these species is lying on OUR hands individually as citizens of the Earth.

Plant Trees on World Environment Day (WED)

Quality of Earth’s ecosystems is depleting, but what about our closest eco-system – home garden..? Many different varieties of Birds, Dragonflies, Squirrels, Frogs still find our backyard a safer haven. But trees and bushes they can survive on are removed day by day. So why not plant a tree on WED on your garden, school or workplace..?

“ahh.. It would be only one tree.. How would that make an impact”. If you are skeptical, check UNEP’s Billion Tree campaign. Target was to plant 7 billion trees at end of 2009, but at the end 7.4 billion trees were planted.

Has this been done by UNEP itself..? Not at all – it is collective effort of individuals like YOU and ME from 170 countries. Imagine the amount of ecosystem services like cleaning of oxygen, helping other species to survive rendered by these billion trees..?

So on this World Environment Day, take a conscious decision individually say NO to threatened species as consumers and go for suppliers promoting sustainability. Also plant a tree taking actions on individual level to save threatened species and help depleting ecosystems. It is OUR individual actions when multiplied can make a difference to the planet. After all, WE share ONE FUTURE..!!

Ends. (599 words)

Celebrate WED – Daily Do Something Tips


Protect the true Sri Lankans – our endemic species

January 2, 2010

The United Nations has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. Sri Lanka is blessed with an amazing biodiversity but are we doing enough to protect it, asks Malaka Rodrigo

In the 1990’s, members of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle discovered a species of small freshwater fish in a stream in Wilpita in the Matara district. Conducting a survey recently, they couldn’t find the fish Raspora Wilpita, as it was named, in the stream where it was discovered. It was later located in streams deeper in the rainforest. This fish that prefers shady streams may have been affected due to agrochemical use, changes in the vegetation around the stream or even invasive plants.

Such are the adverse effects on fragile ecosystems which we may little consider. With 2010 being declared as the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations, Sri Lanka needs to look afresh at conservation strategies to protect its wealth of biodiversity.

Biological diversity – or biodiversity – is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity we see today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. But this valued biodiversity on earth is threatened by our own activities.

(c) Vimukthi Weeratunga

Despite its relatively small land area of 65,610, Sri Lanka is blessed with exceptionally high diversity of animals and plants. This has led to the country being recognized together with India’s Western Ghats region as a biodiversity hotspot. Only 34 such hotspots have been identified in the whole world.

“Endemic biodiversity in Sri Lanka is exceptionally high,” points out Vimukthi Weeratunga, head of the Biodiversity Unit of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sri Lanka. These species we call endemic do not occur anywhere else in the world, so if they disappear from Sri Lanka, they will be gone forever. According to the IUCN’s Red List which is accepted as the status of world species; 27 % of the flowering plants, 84 % of the amphibians, 50% of the reptiles, 54 % of the fresh water fish, 85 % of the land-snails are endemic to Sri Lanka.

(C) Vimukthi Weeratunga

Among the most fascinating creatures found in the country are freshwater crabs for all of the 51 species discovered in Sri Lanka are not found elsewhere in the world. “100% of the freshwater crabs are endemic to the island, but public interest in freshwater crab conservation is unfortunately rather low,” says Weeratunga highlighting the need to focus more attention on invertebrate animals, which often escape our attention. Amphibians are another group where Sri Lanka records one of the highest rates of endemism in the whole world. But 17 of these species have also become extinct putting Sri Lanka top of the list of places in the world that have lost the highest number of amphibians in the last century. The above statistics clearly show that the wealth of our biodiversity lies in these small creatures. But most of the conservation plans are targeting the protection of charismatic animals like elephants or leopards. Deputy Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation H.D. Ratnayake says the department takes the approach of conserving habitats as a whole rather than focusing on small animals individually. “When the ecosystem is protected, the small species living in them will automatically be protected,” Ratnayake said.

As an island, Sri Lanka is blessed with vast number of ecosystem diversity due to its geo-climatic variations. Ecosystem diversity is an important part of biodiversity as every ecosystem has its own unique species diversity. Conservation focused on ecosystem diversity will protect not only the species that inhabit those habitats but also interaction of habitat specific species and their biophysical components as well.

Sri Lanka also has an unfair balance of protected areas with the majority located in the dry zone. More than 75% of the total endemic species are restricted to the rainforests of the wet zone and the cloud forests of montane regions. Of the 830 endemic flowering plants, 92% are found in lowland tropical forests that cover only 2% of the country’s total land area. But the wet zone has only a few protected areas. To make the matter worse, there is huge human pressure on these biodiversity rich rain forests that continue to shrink. Encroachment has been a huge problem and the lowland tea plantations continue to spread, further fragmenting the remaining wet zone forests. This fragmentation could affect the genetic diversity of the species which is another very important aspect of biodiversity. When isolated, the species trapped in a small area continue to breed with a small number of species, hence losing the chance to mix with other species of its own.

The other threats to Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, habitat loss notwithstanding are the extensive use of agro-chemicals that pollute the water and soil eradicating the small animals. The ecosystems in the wet zone are so fragile, that removing one factor can be catastrophic.

However, there are discoveries and rediscoveries of animals that strengthen the pool of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. “We had re-discovered Omestonii’s Oak blue butterfly after 100 years. It was believed to be gone extinct. The butterfly was discovered in 1917 in Nakiyadeniya by a naturalist named Omestonii, but when he returned to Sri Lanka in 1927, the habitat was destroyed for rubber plantations and the butterfly couldn’t be located raising fears that it had become extinct. There was much research carried out from then, but until recently it escaped the researchers’ watchful eyes. “The availability of new tools and the renewed enthusiasm of researchers is a good sign for biodiversity with quite a number of new species discovered in recent years,” commented Madhura de Silva – the president of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle.

The Biodiversity Secretariat established under the Environmental Ministry has also been doing a commendable job in encouraging new research to focus more on small creatures. One such project carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle which was funded by the Biodiversity Secretariat ended up discovering four new species. The Biodiversity Secretariat had also published a few guide books for amateur researchers.

“We need a clear conservation plan to protect our biodiversity and it should goes beyond the traditional approach of saving habitats,” says Weeratunga. He suggests modern mechanisms such as the River Basin conservation approach where the basin of a selected river can be developed. A river goes through many ecosystems from ridges of highlands to ocean reefs – different habitats which house a variety of species.

He also points out the importance of community participation, where human participation for conservation action is very important for the protection of biodiversity.

The loss of biodiversity threatens our food supplies, opportunities for recreation and tourism, and sources of wood, medicines and energy. Imagine the sudden disappearance of Blue Whales from Mirissa. It would be catastrophic for the budding tourism industry based on whale-watching. Likewise its economic value too is huge.

“Conservation of biological heritage of Sri Lanka is not only the job of conservationists, but also every single citizen has an important role to play,” urges Weeratunga. Thoughts to ponder as we begin 2010.

Sinharaja Rainforest

Species found in Sri Lanka
Total Endemic
Dragonflies 120 53
Butterflies 244 20
Freshwater Crabs 51 51
Flowering plants 3400 830
Land snails 246 204
Freshwater fish 84 44
Amphibians 111 93
Crocodiles 2 0
Tortoises 3 0
Turtles 5 0
Snakes 85 47
Agamid Lizards 18 15
Chameleon Lizards 1 0
Monitor Lizards 2 0
Skinks 29 22
Geckos 41 29
Lacertid Lizards 2 0
Marine Snakes 15 0
Birds 492 28
Mammals 91 16
Source: IUCN

Wider recognition for Rio deal In 1992, the largest-ever meeting of world leaders before the Copenhagen summit took place at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.A historic set of agreements was signed at the “Earth Summit”, including two binding agreements, the Convention on Climate Change, which targets industrial and other emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the first global agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.The biodiversity treaty gained rapid and widespread acceptance. More than 150 governments signed the document at the Rio conference, and since then more than 187 countries have ratified the agreement.published on SundayTimes on 03.01.2010


The cat that prowls Colombo suburbs

June 1, 2009

Sacheendra Deepankara got the call around 8.30 p.m. on May 13. A friend from Kohuwela phoned to alert him about a mysterious animal that had been hit by a vehicle. An active member of the Young Zoologists’ Association, Deepankara rushed to the site and called the Dehiwala Zoo.


A fishing cat caught in camera

Zoo authorities were quick to send a team and rushed to the car sales centre where the mysterious animal had taken shelter. The torch light caught a pair of glowing eyes under a parked vehicle. With a loud ‘hissing’ noise the animal tried to escape, but the team managed to secure the nets around the ‘cat like’ creature. It had a long, stocky body and relatively short legs with a broad head. Its olive-gray fur coat with black stripes and rows of black spots made it look like a small leopard. Deepankara was quick to identify the well grown animal as a Fishing Cat, known as ‘handun diviya’ in Sinhala.

Fishing cats prefer densely vegetated areas near water – marshes, mangroves, rivers and streams. “I was amazed to see a full grown Fishing Cat in an urban area like Kohuwela,” said Deepankara. Residents said another wild cat that had fallen into a well was rescued by them a few months ago.


Setting up a camera trap

“There were two animals that used to roam close to the spot where the fishing cat was hit by the speeding vehicle. But they were harmless and would run away if they sensed a human presence,” said another resident. Deepankara believes the abandoned paddy fields near Green Avenue, Kohuwela could be their home.

The Fishing Cat is a medium-sized wild cat that depends on wetlands. So how can such a wild cat appear in a suburban environment? Dr.Eric Wikremanayake – a senior scientist of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – who had studied Fishing Cats in urban environments in Sri Lanka provided some answers. “It is an elusive creature that can survive in the remaining wetlands in Colombo,” says Dr. Wikramanayake. Fishing cats were recorded in areas such as Boralesgamuwa, Nawala where little pockets of forest, marshes, and mangroves remain.

Fishing cats are nocturnal and truly secretive wild cats that avoid humans so studying them is a nightmare for researchers. Dr. Wikramanayake faced the same problem during his study of this urban fishing cat population done in early 2000 at Attidiya/Bellanwila and Sri Jayawardenepura/Kotte wetlands with the approval of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and funding from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The research team first interviewed the villagers and identified the areas fishing cats are frequently seen. Then they used quite an unusual method to study these wild cats, setting camera traps all around the edges of the identified fishing cat routes. The fishing cats took their own pictures by breaking a sensory beam that triggers the camera shutter as they walked past. Pictorial evidence confirmed their presence in Nawala and Attidiya.

This study also shed light on the behaviour and ecology of this wild cat that ironically, lives so close to human habitation. The time recorded on the photographs indicated that fishing cats are active both day and night. Although people reported seeing them very early in the morning, the photographs showed fishing cats walking around at midday. Some shots recorded more than one Fishing Cats. This indicates that mating too is not a problem and the remaining population would survive, if the urban wilderness was retained. “Being a charismatic species, we should use the Fishing Cat as a flagship species to promote the need to protect our remaining wetlands,” says Dr. Wikremanayake.

The research team had plans to radio collar fishing cats to track their movements and distribution. They also had plans to compare the behaviour patterns of fishing cats in urban areas with fishing cats living in natural environments.

The second part of the study however was halted due to security reasons as the two main sites are located near high security zones – one near the Parliament and the other near Ratmalana airport.
During the initial study, the team found that fishing cats are often accused of preying on chickens. The Fishing Cat research team also began an awareness campaign among the local residents and in schools, to impress upon people that what they have in their backyards is something special—an endangered wild cat that needs to be conserved. The latest victim – the Kohuwala Fishing Cat was already dead by the time it was taken to the Animal Hospital in Dehiwala Zoo. So it needs a collective effort to protect the remaining Fishing Cat population in urban and suburban areas, before it is too late.

Fishing Cat – fact file

Known as the “bull dog” of cats, the fishing cat has a long, stocky body. The average weight of a male is 12 kg while a female weighs around 7 kg. Its diet includes birds, small mammals, snakes, snails, and of course fish.

The cat attracts fish by lightly tapping the water’s surface to catch the fish. It can also use its partially webbed paws to scoop fish, frogs, and other prey out of the water or swim underwater to prey on ducks and other aquatic birds.

It is powerful enough to take large prey, such as calves and dogs. Listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, fishing cats are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

This is published on SundayTimes on 31.05.2009