Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Real Sal blooms thrive despite the ‘cannon ball’

April 30, 2017

In full bloom: The real Sal flower at the botanical gardens, Peradeniya. Pic courtesy Peradeniya Gardens

The flower with pinkish fleshy petals and strong fragrance regarded as ‘sal’ is a favourite flower of the Buddhists. But they are not aware of its real identity.

While Vesak is only few days ahead, the real sal trees in Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya are in bloom. According to botanical gardens sources, the trees start flowering in early April and still there are unopened buds on higher branches. So, it is likely they will be flowering closer to Vesak and you may still have a chance to witness the real sal, in the gardens.

‘Sal’ is sacred to Buddhists as legend has it that Prince Siddhartha was born in a garden of sal trees in Lumbini and His Parinirwanaya occurred in Kusinara again under sal trees. Vesak commemorates the Birth, Enlightenment (Buddhahood), and Death (Parinirvana) of the Gautama Buddha, so it is interesting that a flower associated with two notable events bear flowers closer to the period of Vesak.

However, the real sal is a small white flower that blooms in a tree scientifically called as shorea robusta. Though these flowers are smaller and has no fragrance, there is indeed some sacredness in its appearance.

But then what about the large pink flower with a strong fragrance that we commonly know as sal?

The pink flower blooms in the cannon ball tree (couroupita guianensis). While the real sal tree is native to India/Nepal, the imposter is native to South America according to botanists. The cannon ball tree bears large rounded fruit that resembles a ‘cannon ball’.

Dr Siril Wijesundara – botanist and the former director general of Botanical Gardens Department says that the first sal tree has been planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1880, but sal trees had existed elsewhere in Sri Lanka before that. He recalls there are about seven sal trees in the gardens.

The real sal tree, shorea robusta, belongs to a family called dipterocarpaceae to which the ‘hora’ trees belong to. The sal tree can grow up to 35 metres and a girth of about 2 to 2.5 metres in about 100 years under favourable conditions according to botanists. Sal is also a popular timber tree in Asia. Like hora, the fruit of shorea robusta has tiny wings to assist its distribution in the wind.

The flower misidentified as sal, has pinkish fleshy petals and a strong fragrance. The large flower is about 6 centimetres wide and has a hood-like bulge which conceals a small white nodule in the centre of the flower that looks remarkably like a small stupa. Up in the hood, there are finger like structures, which some see as deities worshipping the stupa. So, the imposter tricks the unwary Buddhists to think it is the real sal flower. The tree doesn’t have any timber value.

Dr Wijesundara also pointed out that Buddhists in Thailand too regard the wrong flower as the sal flower. Tracing back the history of the misidentification, Dr Wijesundara pointed out that in 1901 King George VI planted a cannon ball tree in the Peradeniya gardens and it was identified as couroupita guianensis, meaning that this mistake was not detected. Dr Wijesundara recalls seeing a mural by S.P. Charles at Colombo Museum, which featured the wrong tree. So he believes the mistake could have occurred later.

More mistakes continued.

To mark the peace talks of 2002, the tree planted at Rose Garden Hotel by Anton Balasingham, and Professor G L Pieris, was also the wrong sal plant.

Even in movies portraying the life of the Buddha, the cannon ball tree has been seen.

Prof Namal Gunathilake – another veteran botanist, shares an incident where the mistaken identity of real Sal tree caused trouble. At an Ayurvedic conference, one research team that tested an Ayurvedic recipe reported that the combination of medicinal compounds doesn’t work. But when Prof Gunathilake queried about the compounds they used, it was revealed that they used the barks of the wrong tree.

Sunil Sarath Perera – a song writer and a pioneer environmental activist said that the sal tree is recorded in history.

A Sal tree planted by Nepali King in 1980s in Peradeniya Botanical Gardens

The Salalihini Sandeshaya which has been written during the Kotte era has referred to sal trees and the Dutch Thombu clearly mentioned ancient village names referring to sal. Mr Perera said that Salpita Korale where he was born is such a name and in Kirulapone villages such as ‘palle pattuwa’, the name refers to the location of sal trees.

Mr Perera has also seen the aesthetic side of sal forests in India. “In north India there are stretches of sal forests. With its ivory colour flowers and less undergrowth, the sal forests are tempting for anybody to rest under their shade. He says it is not surprising that Queen Mahamaya decided to rest in a sal forest. During his three-week stay in Jim Corbett National Park, Mr Perera had visited the jungle, riding on elephants in search of royal bengal tigers.

The Botanical Gardens Department in 2012 under the guidance of Dr Wijesundara distributed about 900 sal saplings to temples around Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the fragrant, beautiful cannon ball flower qualifies for religious offerings.

Published on SundayTimes on 30.04.2017

Climate change affects sakura blooms   

In Japan, the blossoming season the sakura or cherry blossoms, is slowly coming to a close. The season starts in March and lasts until early May when cherry trees in different regions come into full bloom on different dates.

Having analysed the dates of these blooms in Kyoto in Japan since 800 AD, Japanese scientists have found that the sakura is blooming earlier. They worry that this is a result of global warming, where a warmer March stimulates the trees to bloom early.

A graph showing early full bloom of sakura based on historical data

Sakura bloomed in Nagoya, Japan (c) Makiko Yashiro

Koha’s call overseas comes from another species

April 11, 2017

Singer of the Avurudu song – the Male Asian Koel (c) Udara Samaraweera

The Koha or Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) is considered the harbinger of Sinhala and Tamil New Year for its beautiful song aimed at attracting a mate.

Its call can also be heard beyond Sri Lanka’s shores.

The Koha’s call is heard even in Australia, reminding Sri Lankans who live there of Avurudu.

One Sri Lankan who heard the bird sing, asked last year: “What on earth was a Koha doing in Sydney?”

A search on the video sharing social media platform YouTube suggests the Sydney Koha is different. It is not the same species found in our island, but the Eastern Koel or Pacific Koel scientifically classified as Eudynamys orientalis.

This bird is also called the Common Koel and its male is easily identified by its glossy black plumage, tinged with blue and green, and striking red eye – similar to the Koha found in Sri Lanka. The female has glossy brown upper parts, heavily spotted with white, and a black crown.

But unlike in this part of Asia, the Koels in Australia start to sing in September or October. According to BirdLife Australia, the Eastern Koel is a species that migrated to Australia from areas north – New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly the Philippines. It breeds in northern and eastern Australia, mostly in Queensland and NSW, southwards at least to Sydney, where they are common in the suburbs. A few venture into eastern Victoria, and vagrants have been seen as far afield as Melbourne, the Murray River and Adelaide. They remain until March or April, when they return to their non-breeding grounds.

This explains what Sri Lankans living in Australia have been hearing.

It is colloquially known as the rainbird or stormbird, as its call is usually more prevalent before or during stormy weather.

The male Pacific Koel that sings a song very similar to our own Koha

According to the literature, the closely related Asian Koel, Black-billed Koel and Pacific Koel form a superspecies which are sometimes treated as subspecies. Superspecies is defined as “a group of largely allopatric species which are descended from a common evolutionary ancestor and are closely related but too distinct to be regarded as subspecies of one species”.

The Asian Koel is a brood parasite which lays it eggs in the nests of some other birds. In Sri Lanka, the Asian Koel particularly chooses a crow’s nest. But in the Australian conditions, the Eastern Koel lays its eggs in the nests of Red Wattlebird, friarbirds, the Magpie-lark and figbirds that are usually smaller than the Koel. The young Koel will grow to nearly twice the size of the parents, but the foster parents continue feeding it until they realize the mistake.

Eventually, the young birds migrate northwards, usually later than the adults, to return as a breeding bird the following spring, accordign to the BirdLife Australia.

The songs of the male Eastern Koel amazingly resemble those of the Koha in Sri Lanka. Visit and search for “Eastern Koel Calling” to listen to their calls.

Pacific Koel (female) 

Prehistoric man stirs to life as scientists find clues to the past in ancient caves

November 20, 2016

Our pre-historic humans took refuge in caves that hide many secrets that are helping archaeologists piece together how humans evolved thousands of years ago, the respected archaeologist, Professor Raj Somadeva said.

Recent excavations in a number of caves have produced archaeological finds showing how prehistoric humans, initially living as hunter gatherers, gradually moved to a living based on agriculture.

The changing climate at the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago triggered this change, and evidence of the missing era between Balangoda Man and written history is gradually being assembled.

Prof. Somadeva made these revelations last week at a news conference organised by the Science and Technology Ministry to brief media about the archaeological research being carried out through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

With this funding, a number of caves inhabited by pre-historic man are being excavated. “We are having two field work sessions every year, each about one-and-a-half months long during the dry seasons, February-March and August-September. The rest of the year is devoted to analysing the findings and documentation work,” Prof. Somadeva said.

Research on human evolvement in Sri Lanka was pioneered by Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala who excavated skeletal remains of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in 1955 from sites near Balangoda. He named this Homo sapiens balangodensis, commonly called Balangoda Man, a being that lived 38,000 years ago. Some 36 skeletons of Balangoda man have now been unearthed from different parts of Sri Lanka together with stone tools.

We have little evidence of the transformation of this man to the modern era. Written history indicates that a population from neighbouring India colonised Sri Lanka, and this is attributed to Vijaya’s arrival.

Of course, those who came from India could have brought in a technically advanced culture, but the humans who lived on the island were already an advanced group and it is likely that our pre-historic man’s culture mingled with the introduced culture, Prof. Somadeva believes.

There is little evidence on the pre-Vijaya era and that is the period the archaeologists are trying to unearth. Prof. Somadeva calls this transition period a “twilight period of our history”.

His team found 35 different half-burned grains from the Lunugala cave they studied. Carbon dating confirmed these to be 6,000 years old. “Perhaps this is clear evidence that our ancestors started experimenting on their own with edible grains,” Prof. Somadeva said. “Today there are about 64 varieties of edible green leaves available in a village market – who found that these were edible? There are lots of plants with medicinal values – who found their medicinal                       effectiveness?”

He says most of these knowledge came from the experimentation of early home-grown humans.

The archaeologists also found pendants and other non-utilitarian items, and Prof. Somadeva said this is evidence that our early humans showed cognitive ability, knowing the concept of self.

They also found shark teeth in some of the caves. The sea is about 40km from the location of the findings so this indicates our prehistoric man travelled to exchange items from other tribes that lived closer to the sea.

The scientists have also found colourful beads that could have been used for necklaces which have been sent to a laboratory in the United States for carbon dating to determine their age.

The team also found artefacts believed to have been used in rituals, including a sharp stone tool with a bloodstain on one side. Finding bloodstains on such artefacts is extremely rare. Prof. Somadeva said scans by the Medical Research Institute found red blood cells but more was needed for extracting DNA; the team is still hopeful of this.

The archaeologists are also seeking help on the star formations in the skies above Sri Lanka thousands years ago. They have found a piece of rock with holes in it, similar to artefacts found in China and Israel. Chinese archaeologists think their stones indicate stars in Orion’s Belt, and the Sri Lankan stone could be similar. “During the drier period, the stars look bright so this could be something our historic humans used to try to read the sky to predict climate,” Prof. Somadeva said.

The findings could effectively make a paradigm shift of the history that we know at the end of the project, he predicted.

Exploring life in the darknessCaves with areas of different light penetrations can be refuge to some of the least studied animals and plants. The scientific study of organisms living in caves is known as biospeleology, and Peradeniya scientists recently studied caves in Nuwara Eliya to explore the life in the darkness.

Research by Chathurika Munasinghe of the University of Peradeniya under supervision of Prof. K.B. Ranawana on the Mandaramnuwara and Rotupihilla caves in the wet zone was presented at the Wild Lanka symposium recently organised by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

The researchers walked through these caves exploring different light zones such as the entrance zone, twilight zone and dark zone, recording temperature, humidity and light intensity every
five metres.

Six vertebrate and 12 invertebrate animals were identified in the Mandaramnuwara cave and six vertebrate and 11 invertebrates were identified in the Rotupihilla cave, Ms. Munasinghe said.

Bats are common in both these caves with the common wentwing bat and rufous horseshoe bat being the most common. Insects and spiders accustomed to darkness were also found.Also seasonally the edible nests swifts build  in the darkness of these caves.

Caves in Sri Lanka are largely unexplored, so the research team suggests conservation measures and education to increase public awareness were important to minimise damage to these cave

Published on SundayTimes

Wreckers of underwater treasures must be stopped

December 13, 2015

Fish are being dynamited as they shelter in the historically important shipwrecks scattered around Sri Lanka’s coastline, damaging valuable eco-systems and putting tourist earnings at risk.

Underwater grave: Dead fish at the site of the British Sergeant wreck. Pic by Nishan Perera

Blast fishing is one of the most destructive fishing practices, used to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. The explosion destroys underlying habitat such as coral reefs that supports fish as well as other marine life.

Fishermen detonated explosives in the wreck Orestes, also known as Tango Wreck, which lies off Hikkaduwa, according to divers posting on the SubAqua Club forum.

A few months ago, another incident was reported by diver and marine expert Nishan Perera who took photographs of many dead big and small fish floating near the British Sergeant wreck off Passikudah after a dynamite fishing explosion. The wreck suffered some damage and nearby coral had been broken.

“On that day we reached British Sergeant around 9am and there was some fish floating on the surface, gasping for air,” said Thusitha Ranasinghe, an amateur diver who witnessed the destruction.

“We immediately knew that the ship wreck has been dynamited a few minutes ago and that the fishermen had left when they saw us coming.

“When we dived there were a lot of dead fish on the seabed and trapped on the deck of the sunken ship, and a lot of half alive fish trying to keep their buoyancy and gasp for a last bit of air,” he added.

There could be more than 200 shipwrecks around the coast, about 50 of which can be reached by diving, according to the comprehensive Dive Sri Lanka website.

Five hundred years of trade, commerce, conflict and war from the time of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British resulted in a vast amount of shipping traffic all round the coast and a corresponding high number of wrecks, Dive Sri Lanka states.

Most of these wrecks have been located, including world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, which was sunk off Batticaloa.

Shipwrecks creating special underwater attraction providing shelter for marine life becoming potential to be steady magnets for dive tourism that is still in at fancy level.

There is also the danger that fishermen dynamiting a wreck might do so carelessly while there were divers underwater. The Editor of Dive Sri Lanka, Dharshana Jayawardena, recalled one such incident, “It was scary.

It sounded like a tank exploding underwater, and the foreign tourists who were underwater with us were really scared. Fortunately, the dynamiting happened about 1km away, but the tourists with me swore they would not come again to Sri Lanka,” Mr. Jayawardena said.

“The dive industry in Sri Lanka is poised to grow hugely so this will have some real impacts on our international standing and ability to compete in the international dive market quite apart from the terrible environmental consequences” said Naren Gunasekera, who is lobbying to stop blast fishing.

Statistics show there are 23.7 million certified scuba divers in the world with 2.7m going on diving holidays. They are reportedly big spenders so this niche tourist segment would be economically beneficial but if we destroy our corals and shipwrecks there wouldn’t be anything to attract the tourists, Mr. Gunasekera points out.

A sunken ship turns to an artificial coral reef, providing living and breeding habitat for enormous amounts of marine life. Dynamiting these shipwrecks for their fish and the metal is like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Dynamite is not only used on coral reefs and shipwrecks, it is being thrown into nets where large schools of fish are caught in order to prevent the fish tearing the net. Marine mammals such as dolphins and even the endangered dugongs are reported to be killed by dynamiting.

Sadly, because the destruction happens underwater, only divers can see the damage. It is important that the authorities understand the issue and take action to stop it, marine activists say.

It is, however, very difficult to carry out raids at sea to nab blast fishing culprits as they are highly organised, using mobile phones to convey alerts of approaching navy or police boats and dumping the evidence.

The fish die mostly of the shock wave, hence there is no physical damage that helps to prove they have been killed by blast fishing.

“Action to stop blast fishing needs to be taken on land, not at sea,” says Arjan Rajasuriya who was formally at National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).

“Find out how these fishermen get dynamite and take action to stop it at source.”

As blast fishing is widespread, happening daily in many parts of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajasuriya points out that those who illegally acquire a huge amount of dynamite should in any case be considered a threat to national security.

“In the same way that police and security forces nabbed the terrorists during the time of war, a good intelligence network is needed to find the source of the dynamite supplies and then stop them getting them into the hands of fishermen,” he said.

Published on SundayTimes on 13.12.2015 –

The underwater crime scene - fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

The underwater crime scene – fish died beside ship wreck (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene - fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

1 The underwater crime scene – fish died on ship wreck with other dying fish (c) Nishan Perera

The tuskers of Kalawewa now have a sanctuary

October 29, 2015

Adding another national park to Sri Lanka’s protected areas, the government declared the wilderness around Kalawewa and Balaluwewa a sanctuary.

Kalawewa is particularly famous for tuskers © Rajiv Welikala

Kalawewa is particularly famous for tuskers © Rajiv Welikala

Wildlife and Sustainable Development Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera declared open the national park yesterday. Environmentalists welcome the move saying the protection was long overdue.

The Kalawewa reservoir was built by King Dhatusena who ruled the country in the fifth century. He also built the Balaluwewa and linked them to make a very large tank to be used for ancient agriculture. These tanks were renovated and now hold water all year around, attracting wildlife.

In the case of elephants, as happens at the Minneriya and Kaudulla tanks where the “Gathering” of elephants takes place as the water levels drop in the dry season, the tank bed becomes lush grassland, providing the animals with fodder. As the Kalawewa-Balaluwewa complex is fairly shallow, the effect is more noticeable.

GPS radio-tracking of a female and male elephant by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Centre for Conservation and Research has shown that some of the herds remain in the vicinity throughout the year.

Elephant herds on the banks of the Kalawewa are particularly famous for the high number of tuskers. Many wildlife enthusiasts visit the area regularly.

Rajiv Welikala, a nature enthusiast and wildlife photographer who visits the area annually, says it is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka. “There could be 150-200 elephants at Kalawewa with dozens of tuskers, both young and mature. “The birdlife in the tank is also fascinating, with a very large openbill stork flock that consists of thousands of birds. When they take wing the sound can be heard from a distance,” he said.

Sadly, the number of elephants at Kalawewa appears to be decreasing. Conservationists fear the electric fences constructed to minimise human-elephant conflict are preventing seasonal movement of the elephant herds, blocking their use of other areas.

In recent months, three other national parks in the northern region were declared: Delft Island, Chundikulam and the Adam’s Bridge sand islands. The Kalawewa National Park became the country’s 26th national park. Although we have a considerable number of parks, most of them are experiencing problems from poaching, over-visiting, invasive species, herding of cattle etc.

In the case of Kalawewa, it is critical to ascertain the ranging patterns and habitat use of the elephants and design barriers based on that information. If the entire park is surrounded by boundary electric fences, that will spell the end for the elephants, for whose benefit it was created.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.10.2015 –

Large flock of Open Bill Storks at Kalawewa (c) Rajiv Welikala

Large flock of Open Bill Storks at Kalawewa (c) Rajiv Welikala

Carpeted road stretch in Yala spells death to animals

October 27, 2015

MalakaMapSince the re-opening of Yala National Park on October 7, four Spotted Deer have been killed by speeding vehicles on the recently carpeted Kirinde – Yala road.

An adult male antler that died of head injuries was among the four that were killed.

The road from Kirinde up to the Park’s ticketing office was carpeted a few months ago. Earlier, motorists could not speed on this stretch due to the bad condition of the road.

The road borders the Nimalawa Sanctuary and animals cross it mainly at dusk, the time of day when a majority of the accidents occur.

Sampath Galappaththie –Yala Safari Jeep Association coordinator says not only deer, but many smaller animals have fallen victim to speeding vehicles.

Even Bee-eaters who hop onto the road to sun bathe have met their end on this stretch, Mr.Galappaththie said adding that the deadliest stretch was about three kilometres from the ticketing office.

Following the death of a leopard by a speeding vehicle inside the Yala National Park, speed humps were set up. Our question is whether officials are waiting for a leopard to be killed on this stretch too for remedial steps to be taken.

A couple of years ago a leopard was killed on the Buttala-Kataragama road and it is only a matter of time for such an accident to occur on this stretch too.

Meanwhile Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General H.D. Ratnayake said the road is located outside the protected area and hence its maintenance was the responsibility of the Road Development Authority (RDA). However he said DWC would work with RDA to find a solution.

However, when the Sunday Times contacted RDA they were unaware of the problem. They said that if such a problem existed, solutions like building speed humps could be looked in to.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.10.2015 –

New holding ground for rogue elephants needs careful watch

October 27, 2015

The Horowpataha Elephant Holding Ground (EHG) was declared open by the Wildlife and Sustainable Development minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera on Friday.

The EHG aims at keeping in rogue elephants responsible for killing people, infiltrating villages and damaging property and those who try to come back after being translocated. The first such ground was constructed at Lunugamwehera but did not succeed. In Horowpothana, a strong steel cable fence with strong concrete posts studded with nails with electric wires on both sides of this physical fence was set up. It is believed that this

First elephant being transferred to Holding Ground

First elephant being transferred to Holding Ground

mechanism will prevent elephants breaking the fence.

The first elephant was released to the new holding ground on Friday morning. This elephant, caught for making trouble, had been kept chained at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage for nine years.

Elephant expert Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando welcomed the move to set up an EHG on an experimental level saying that it could be useful for keeping the rogue elephants that cannot be translocated elsewhere. Dr. Fernando’s study in collaboration with the Wildlife Department, using radio collars, proved that many problematic elephants that are translocated in different areas try to come back to their original home. Some of them get lost in this process, making trouble in other areas, sometimes getting killed in the process and killing people. Others settle in new areas close to the parks they were released and start new problems there.

“‘So an EHG could be a solution for such problem elephants,” he said, and it is also advocated in the National

The electric fence is stronger than normal electric fences

The electric fence is stronger than normal electric fences

Policy. “However,” he cautioned, “putting an elephant in an Elephant Holding Ground is ‘prison for life’ and we take those elephants out of the elephant gene pool. So it is not a good option from an elephant conservation or welfare point of view, but it is a necessary evil, as we currently do not have an effective way of managing problem elephants.

“The decision to put an elephant in an EHG should be made responsibly and only taken after proper evaluation of the situation and the elephant,” Dr. Fernando said.

“What happens to the elephants put in the EHGs should be closely monitored as the concept is new. We should do it on a trial and error basis and if a problem arises, then we need to find it quickly, correct it and give it another try,” suggests Dr. Fernando. He emphasised the need to monitor the elephants kept in the EHG, suggesting they be fitted with radio collars to monitor their movements and behaviour.

“The current EHG is only 10 sq km whereas the home range of an adult male can extend from about 50-600 sq km. “An elephant kept in the EHG would not have many activities to engage in, so he will constantly be in search of a weak point of the fence.

The perimeter of the Horowpothana EHG is about 15km and it is not be easy to construct and maintain a fence for such a long distance without there being a weak spot – so a radio collar can help to track the elephant and put it back in case it escapes.

“We also do not know how these elephants will interact with each other when permanently limited to such a small area. For example we do not know what would happen if we have a number of adult males in the EHG and one of them comes into musth.

We also do not know how the elephants will utilize the habitat and landscape, so this too should be monitored closely. “Once we put an elephant in a holding ground we are responsible for them for the rest of their lives. So problems should to be identified based on elephant behaviour and needs, and remedial actions such as separation of particular elephants, supplementary feeding, habitat enrichment and so on should be implemented as required,” he added.

Dr. Fernando pointed out that elephants become rogues due to what we do to them. Most of our human-elephant conflict mitigation measures such as making noise, chasing elephants, elephant drives, use of elephant thunder crackers, shooting at them with shot gun pellets etc. are confrontational and elephants respond to them in the long term by becoming aggressive towards humans. Confrontation raises fear in the elephant’s mind, establishing man as an enemy and they react to it by aggression.

Declare open the Holding Ground with a religious ceremony

Declare open the Holding Ground with religious ceremonies

Published on SundayTimes on 18.10.2015 –

Tour of Trees in Colombo

May 17, 2015

Today morning (17th.May) the National Trust Sri Lanka (NTSL) conducted a Tour of Trees in Colombo making the participants aware of the varied selection of large trees that are hardly noticed within the city environment.

Though urbanized, Colombo still has lots of large trees where some of them are over 100 years. Vihara Maha Devi Park (formerly Victoria Park) and its suburban environs are home for many such large trees and participants of this Tour of Trees got the chance to have a guided tour to study the trees in this area. The tour was conducted by Architect Ismeth Raheem who is also a naturalist. It had drizzled briefly, but the rain gods were tolerant on the participants today morning.

Here are some of the moments from the Tour of Trees..!!

DSCN8940 Tour of Trees - Ismath decscribing a Kalumediriya tree Tour of Trees - A majestic Nuga Tree - good Tour of Trees - Section of trees of Vihara Maha Devi Park 2 DSCN9015 Tour of Trees - Feeling a Nelli tree Tour of Trees - Ismath at final wrap up 2 Tour of Trees - Vihara Maha devi park


..beneath the Vesak Full Moon…!!

May 3, 2015

Today is Vesak. I was up until late last night trying to complete the Vesak Lanterns. Then I spot Vesak Full Moon-  The sky was clear and the whole area was glowing with the light spreading by the moon relatively undisturbed by the lights of the vehicles, houses etc.. There are vesak lanterns, pandols and various other forms we use to celebrate vesak, but as usual nature has best setup to lighten the special day. (These photos were taken around 2 am early morning of Vesak Day 3rd of May.)

Vesak Full Moon 4 - with cloud Vesak Full Moon 1 Vesak Full Moon 1 - the closeup Vesak Full Moon 1 - the closeup2

‘Weli katussa’ species unique to Sri Lanka

March 21, 2015

Three young researchers have determined that Sri Lanka has its own species of fan-throated lizards – creatures that puff out an extraordinary frill around their throats to warn off intruders – and that in fact the island has two distinct varieties.

Until now it had been assumed that the fan-throated lizards found in Sri Lanka were the same as in India.

Researchers Thasun Amarasinghe, Sameera Karunarathna and Madhava Botejue studied lizard specimens in the Calcutta and Chennai museums and realised the Sri Lankan lizards were different.

They widened their research to fan-throated lizard specimens at other foreign museums and confirmed their theory, also finding that Sri Lanka has two species of this lizard: one found in the south-eastern coastal belt from Bundala to Kumana and another in the north-west, north of Puttalam.

The two species were named Sitana devakai and Sitana bahiri to honour leading biologists Professor Devaka Weerakoon and Professor Mohammed Bahir.

“Prof. Weerakoon was one of the first scientists to initiate research on the biodiversity of the north of Sri Lanka after the restrictions of the war ended so we named the lizard found in the north, Sitana devakai,” Sameera Karunarathna said.

The team also wanted to honour Mohammed Bahir for his extensive research that established freshwater crabs as the biggest endemic group in the country. Since he came from the southern part of the island the fan-throated lizard found in the south was named Sitana bahiri.
The fan-throated lizard, just 5cm long, mostly inhabits coastal areas including sand dunes, hence its Sinhala name weli katussa (sand lizard). Its hind legs have four toes unlike other lizards that have five toes. The researchers say this adaptation helps them to live in arid areas where temperatures are high and to move about efficiently on sand.

The most interesting feature of the species is the pouch on the throat of male lizards. When a territory guarding lizard spots an intruder, it quickly advances on the trespasser and oscillates this large, coloured pouch in a display of threat. The frill found on Si. devakai is pink and blue while S. bahiri is less colourful.

The findings, by Mr. Karunaratna, Mr. Amarasinghe, Ms Botejue and two colleagues, Ivan Ineich and Patrick Campbell were published in the prestigious journal Zootaxa earlier this month.

Last year, Mr. Karunaratna and Mr. Amarasinghe took the lead in finding two other endemic lizards, Calotes pethiyagodai and Calotes manamendrai (both from the Knuckles forest) named after Rohan Pethiyagoda and Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi who contributed towards the country’s biodiversity.

Sri Lanka is home to 21 species of lizards, 19 of them endemic to the country. 

Two froggy sisters make news

March 21, 2015

The Kandyan Dwarf Toad, dubbed the world’s rarest toad, has become a more select amphibian with the discovery that it shares its genus with only one other species, not two as previously thought. The toad, a member of the Adenomus genus, was discovered and last seen in the 1870s and had been thought to be extinct until it was found again in 2009.

Naturalists believed there were three species in the genus but now say DNA analysis reveals that one of them, Dasi’s Dwarf Toad (Adenomus dasi) is, in fact, the Kandyan Dwarf Toad “in disguise”. The other species is Adenomus kelaartii (Kelaart’s toad).

One factor that led to the error in identification is that Adenomus kandianus has fully webbed toes while Adenomus dasi has partially webbed feet.
“When amphibian specialists Kelum Manamendra-Arachchie and Rohan Pethiyagoda were describing Adenomus dasi in 1998 they were actually describing a slightly different mutate of A. kandianus as they had access to only a few specimens,” said lead researcher Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura of the Faculty of Science at the University of Peradeniya.

“In a paper published last week, we put it right in the spirit of science, testing the species using many different criteria.”

Mr. Pethiyagoda and Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi are co-authors of the new research paper, published in the prestigious international journal Zootaxa.
“They contributed with their previous data and knowledge, did additional measurements and contributed to the writing, making this a collective effort and a better story,” Dr. Meegaskumbura said.

“My graduate students, Gayani Seneviratne, Nayana Wijayatilleke, Beneeta Jayawardene and Champika Bandara also contributed greatly, enabling us to use many different criteria such as DNA, morphology, tadpoles, ecology, vocalisations and bone comparison to ascertain the species boundaries of these toads.”

Dr. Meegaskumbura said the research team had been glad to find a large population of hundreds of these toads at one location; the toads, endemic to Sri Lanka, are on the critically-endangered wildlife list.

Sri Lanka is home to 119 amphibians with as many as 102 of them being endemic, making this country one of the hottest hotspots for amphibian diversity in the world.
There are eight species of toads in Sri Lanka, belonging to two genera called Adenomus and Duttaphrynus, and six of them are endemic to the country.

World Water Day – Day03 (Kumamoto City)

March 28, 2014

On the 3rd day, the Kumamoto City invited some of us to participate the Water Forum they organized to mark the World Water Day. Kumamoto City has won  last year’s ‘Water for Life’ award for sustainable use of its ground water – first time, a city has bagged this prestigious water award. The city is totally depend on ground water sources and the Japanese speakers including the mayor explained how they utilize their ground water resources. The day ended with a reception including traditional Japanese cultural dances.


zDay 3 - Komo Water forum - Forum with UN officials 4
zDay 3 - Komo Water forum - Forum with UN officials ?????????? zDay 3 - Komo Water forum - Mayor 2
?????????? zDay 3 - Lunch 0 The different lunch box zDay 3 - Welcome lunch ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? zDay 03 - Reception - The Toast for WWD 2 ?????????? zDay 03 - Reception - The Toast for WWD ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? ?????????? zDay 03 - Entertainment - Traditional Dance.2 ?????????? ?????????? ??????????


World Water Day – Day02

March 27, 2014

On the 2nd day, the official event to commemorate the World Water Day 2014 were held at UN University Conference Hall. The morning session include general speeches about the World Water Day 2014 and its theme “Water and Energy Nexus”. The occasion is also marked with the launch of World Water Development Report 2014 and presenting the ‘Water for Life’ award. The afternoon session has been participated by the Crown Prince Naruhito and lots of high level Japanese officials giving lot of weight for the event. At the end, a wrap-up session for all those who participated the World Water Day workshop has been held. A reception at the night concluded the official World Water Day 2014 event.

Here are few photographs showcasing the day’s activities..!!


 The participants of World Water Day Workshop





zLaunch of WWDR - address

zLaunch of WWDR - addressee

zLaunch of WWDR - addressee3

zLaunch of WWDR - Electricity

zLaunch of WWDR - Energy Vs. Water

zLaunch of WWDR 2

zLaunch of WWDR 3

zLaunch of WWDR 4

zLaunch of WWDR 5

zLaunch of WWDR 6 (2)

zLaunch of WWDR 6

zLaunch of WWDR 7- Global Water Demand

zLaunch of WWDR



zParticipants9 - with me

zAward - Singapore 2

zAward - Singapore

zAward - TATA IWMI 2

zAward - TATA IWMI 3

zAward - TATA IWMI 4

zAward - TATA IWMI

zCrown Prince of Japan - with audience 2

zCrown Prince of Japan - with audience 3

zCrown Prince of Japan


























Forest fires a burning issue as dry weather continues

September 3, 2013
Buttala 04 (1)

forest fire at Rahathangala, Buttala

More than 150 forest fires have been reported last year from different parts of the country due to the prevailing drought and the same is repeated this year as the dry weather spark lots of forest fire. The latest fire was reported from Buttala Rahathangala, Lal Sarath Kumara Deputy Director Media, Disaster Management Centre (DMC) said. Last week, it was reported that nearly 600 acres of grassland of the Nonpareil Estate Reserve in Horton Plains had caught fire. In addition to a couple of major fires in Mihintale, Wadinagala forest reserve in Wellawaya and Kalaputuwawa forest in Walapane, smaller fires were reported from other areas, the Disaster Management Centre said adding that the situation could get worse with the weather getting drier.

The grassland areas of Badulla, Moneragala and Nuwara Eliya are the areas most prone to forest fires posing a threat to other plantations. In addition dry weather conditions can convert green vegetation into flammable fuel. Therefore even a simple spark can create a big forest fire. However, the reported fires were all man-made fires, either intentional or accidental. It is well known that poachers set fire to forest areas and grasslands to corner their prey while cattle herdsmen set fire to get fresh shoots of grass to feed their cattle.

Last year during this same period the Sunday Times reported that forest fires had destroyed more than 15,000 acres of forest area in various parts of the country. Commenting on the situation last year, forest expert Prof.Nimal Gunatilake said that a majority of the fires that occurred here was either in grassland areas or forest plantations such as Eucalyptus or Pinus. Therefore he added that the impact was not so great on our native forests or biodiversity. However, he said forest fires were a death trap to some slow-moving animals adding that fires were sometimes a part of the native ecology like in the case of Nilgala where some seeds need fire to germinate.

Meanwhile experts point out that prevention is the key solution to forest fires.

Main causes 

  • Throwing cigarette butts when travelling by train or walking through forests;
  • Burning of debris by workers maintaining highways and railway tracks without taking proper precautionary measures
  • Burning dead grass to obtain fresh grass for cattle. These fires often spread to nearby forests
  • Burning degraded forests for purposes of shifting cultivation
  • Setting fire to the forest by hunters to drive animals out

Careful driving in bad weather – traffic police

July 6, 2013

“Motorists need to be extra careful when driving in bad weather, as even a simple mistake can lead to accidents in wet conditions”, warns Traffic DIG Amarasiri Senaratne. Drivers often turn in various directions to avoid water on the road. Motorists on the opposite side, unaware of these unexpected turns, and unable to take timely evasive action, often crash head-on,” he explains. “It is important motorists drive slowly and carefully on rainy days”.

It is also important to maintain the proper following distance as water reduces the braking power in vehicles. Have an eye on the brake lights of the vehicle in front. Be extra careful when following buses or large vehicles. The water sprayed by their tyres can reduce the vision, which is specially a problem on the expressway.

Pix by Susantha Liayanawatte

Mr. Senaratne further added that motorists should check the vehicles before getting them out these days. Malfunctioning wipers and brittle wiper blades should be replaced, as they decrease visibility. Tyres should also be in good condition.

When driving on the expressway, leave much space between you and the car in front, because it takes longer to stop. You’re supposed to leave a few seconds between cars in dry weather. Make sure you increase space in wet weather, because, if you have to hit the brakes hard, your tyres will lock, and you will hydroplane and will most likely hit the car in front of you. If available, drive in the fast lane, where there are fewer cars and less oil deposited on the road. Also, because of the built-in slope of the road, water drains towards the slower lanes. Avoid lane changes, as water tends to build up between the tyre ruts in the lanes.

Whatever you do, it tends to skid on rainy days. You can prevent skidding by driving slowly and carefully, especially on curves. Brake before entering the curves, says Mr Senaratne. Steer and brake with a light touch. If you find yourself in a skid, remain calm, ease your foot off the gas, and carefully steer in the direction you want the front of the car to go. This procedure, known as “steering into the skid,” will bring the back end of your car in line with the front. For cars without anti-lock brakes, avoid using your brakes. If your car has ABS, brake firmly as you “steer into the skid.”

The Traffic DIG also calls on motorists to be courteous to pedestrians by slowing down to avoid splashing water on them.

Indians here to help Lankan donkeys

June 25, 2013

A group of conservationists from India were here last week to look into the welfare of donkeys in Mannar. The group consisting of veterinary surgeons from the Donkey Sanctuary India – an international charitable organisation devoted to the welfare of donkeys–treated some sick donkeys found roaming in Mannar town.The programme was conducted in collaboration with the Mannar Urban Council (UC) and several NGOs operating in the area. The Indian team visited Sri Lanka last November for an initial assessment.

Looking for food? Donkeys on the move in Mannar town

Mannar Urban Council Vice Chairman James Jesuthas said these stray donkeys especially in the Mannar town area had become a problem for the people. The animals too meet with road accidents. Therefore he said the UC had decided to initiate a programme with the assistance of Indian expertise.

Donkeys are not native to Sri Lanka and it is believed that Arab traders brought them to Sri Lanka. Back then people began to rear donkeys because it was believed that the smell of their dung kept away harmful insects from coconut plantations. However with the advancement of technology man had little use for donkeys. However these animals adapted to local conditions and they still exist as feral populations in Mannar and Puttalam.

Mannar is home to about 1000 animals. According to an NGO, Diaspora Sri Lanka that carried out a census in 2012 the town area had more than 300 donkeys. According to the head of this organisation Jeremy Liyanage the animals in the town area were facing difficult times, eating garbage to survive and becoming victims to road accidents. The animals are known to chase each other especially during the mating period leading to traffic accidents. During the drought period when the food and water are scarce, they become a nuisance to the people.

However from a tourist angle many people visit Mannar to see these animals roaming the streets. Mr. Liyanage stressed that the donkeys should be protected particularly as they are a tourist attraction as well as being a part of our history. In addition to treating some sick animals the Indian team conducted awareness meetings with government vets, community groups and local business people.

Mr. Liyanage said some people have the misconception that donkeys are aggressive and that they kick and bite. On the contrary it’s a shy animal and avoids human confrontation, he said, adding that there were plans to tame some of the wild donkeys and hand them over to women’s organisations to help with their projects. He believed this would help create a loving environment for these misunderstood animals.

Don’t forget the ponies

The pony population on Delft Island is another group of animals that have got official Sri Lankan residential visa to go wild. These ponies were first brought to Sri Lanka by the Portugese who used the island apparently to breed them.

According to a recently published report by IUCN Sri Lanka the wild ponies were facing a threat of extinction due to overgrazing of pasture lands by the larger population of cattle. During the height of the dry season, high incidence of cattle and pony mortality due to the lack of adequate food and water has been reported. In addition some people capture foals and brand them in methods that sometimes lead to infections and eventual death.

The IUCN report also highlighted the possibility of promoting sustainable tourism on theisland based around its wild horses.
Wildlife Conservation Department head H.D.Ratnayake said there were about 400 ponies on Delft Island and the department was working on a management plan for their protection.

Who owns the donkeys, wild horses?

Donkeys and ponies are usually tagged as domestic animals and not wildlife. The definition of ‘domestic’ animal is one which has an owner, thus not applying to donkeys or horses that are feral and without owners.

Mr. Ratnayake said the wildlife department has now identified these feral animals as those who need protection. “It is true that these animals were introduced to Sri Lanka, but now they are ‘naturalised’ in Sri Lanka. So the department is working on proper management plans for both feral donkeys in Puttalam, Mannar and horses in Delft Island. A special area dedicated for donkeys is also being contemplated,” he said.

Published on SundayTimes on 16.06.2013

Swinging to the beat of T20 ‘vissai, visse’

October 7, 2012

This has nothing to do with Environment, but as majority of the country are having high expectations that Sri Lanka will win T20 World Cup; thought of writing about the tournament’s theme song.

The T20 World Cup has gripped cricket fans for the past three weeks and its official theme song with its catchy papare beat has no doubt, helped in electrifying the atmosphere. ‘Vissai visse’, a creation of Sarigama Music is sung by superstars Bathiya and Santhush. ‘Vissai visse’ which in essence means ‘Twenty Times More’ captures the spirit and energy of Sri Lankan cricket and the Twenty20 format of the game.

An English version too has been made aiming to extend its appeal to fans everywhere. “We are happy to be part of this official song” said Bathiya and Santhush. Teenage fan Dasun described it as amazing and said, “It gave us something to chant at the matches.”

The music video too is also becoming more popular on YouTube and the organisers have invited fans to send in video clips of their own performances, which are incorporated to the music video. See the ICC’s official YouTube channel

(The Sinhala version of ‘Vissai visse’ features Bathiya Jayakody and Santhush Weeraman/ Dinesh Kanagaratnam/ Umaria Sinhwansa while the English version features Bathiya Jayakody and Santhush Weeraman/ Arjun Coomaraswamy/ Randhir Withana/ Umaria Sinhwansa)

Published on SundayTimes on 07.10.2012

Govt. to amend Act as sand mining sans licence meets legal roadblock

August 26, 2012

Relaxing laws could boomerang in the long term, say environmentalists

The Government’s decision to allow sand transport without any need for a licence has been temporarily put on hold as it has been deemed a violation of the provisions of the Mines and Minerals Act.

The existing provisions on sand transport had been lifted by a special Cabinet decision taken under a directive of President Mahinda Rajapaksa allowing sand transport without a licence. Accordingly sand transport was allowed only during between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and subsequently it was further relaxed allowing sand transport even during the night. However the Government issued this order only in the form of a Cabinet paper without amending the Mines and Minerals Act which governs sand mining and transport.

These images show the River bank damage to the Mahaweli River near Wasgomuwa National Park.. Sand Mining has been witnessed every 25 metres over a stretch of 30 kilometres.

Under Section 28 of this Act, no sand transport is allowed without a valid licence issued by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB). Following the release of the Cabinet paper, the GSMB stopped issuing sand transport licences, which however, was in violation of the Mines and Minerals Act.

After bringing this irregularity to the notice of the Supreme Court by Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), the Supreme Court issued directives to the GSMB to re-issue transport licences for sand as required by law and ordered the Police to enforce the law accordingly. Ordering the GSMB to give publicity to the decision taken to re-issue transport licences, the Supreme Court had taken a firm position on this issue.

The GSMB confirmed that sand transport permits are reissued now. But the Sunday Times has also learned that under another Cabinet decision, the GSMB is compelled to prepare papers to amend the Mines and Minerals Act to facilitate cancellation of sand transport licences.

Sand mining on river banks has many environmental impacts and on its realization sand mining has been regulated by the Mines and Minerals Act in 1992. But illegally mined sand continues to come into the market. With the intention of closing the loop holes and providing a monitoring mechanism on sand transportation, the law has been amended in 2004 making it mandatory to get a permit to transport sand. This permit is being issued to the sand mining party and is also linked to its mining licence. For example, if the mining party is allowed to mine only 35 cubes of sand, the transport permit too is being issued only for that quantity. The licence also contains information on the location these sands are mined at providing a good monitoring mechanism to stop illegal mining.

But now, after a lorry carrying sand reaches the main road, there is difficulty monitoring if any of these conditions have been adhered to. So it is feared the cancellation of sand transport licences would fuel illegal sand mining.
The licence also states the weight of sand one lorry load could carry. Some bunds of tanks specify the maximum weight they can hold, so it is learnt that before issuing these transport permits the GSMB’s regional offices evaluate road conditions and this helped to protect river banks and tank bunds from over-weighted lorries which travel on them.

But the Government’s stance on this issue has been different. Making a statement in Parliament on the Cabinet decision on cancellation of sand transport licences, Environmental Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa pointed out that issue of sand transport licences has led to high prices for sand. He said this has been a burden on the construction industry.
At the Cabinet meeting on May 9 the President had therefore ordered sand transport without a licence be allowed, the minister said.

He also said that to ease inconvenience to the public the right to issue sand transport licences for non-commercial uses was delegated to the Provincial Secretaries in January 2012 also allowing sand transport from a building material store to the construction site sans licence. However even this has not helped to reduce the price of sand, which led to taking the decision to do away with licences. The minister has called the present laws only lead to irregularities and corruption.
However, a sand transport licence costs only about Rs.100, so environmentalists question how the cancellation of licences could increase prices. It has been stated that the police stop the sand transporting lorries and take bribes from the drivers, pushing up prices automatically.

It has also been stated that immediately the sand transportation law was revoked sand prices had come down drastically. The only logical explanation is that illegally mined sand had come into the market.

This is also evident from the report published in the Sunday Times of June 3 where Mahaweli ‘C’zone legal sand miners association secretary S. Kahathuduwa said the purchase of sand from legal miners had rapidly declined due to the low price of sand sold by illegal sand miners. Talking to our regional reporter, he said previously three cubes of sand could be sold for Rs. 10,000 but now it is difficult to sell three cubes for even Rs. 6,500.

Veteran environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane said the Government should not take this kind of ad-hoc decision. He said it was a bad precedent and the repercussions of removing laws might have severe consequences in the future. Within the last few weeks laws aimed at controlling environmental impacts have been relaxed.

This includes allowing use of heavy machinery for gem mining in over two acres of land and doing away with permits for transporting wooden furniture. Justifying these actions, Minister Yapa said laws and regulations should be amended if they cause inconvenience to the people. However, most of these laws are there to deter damage to the environment by providing a mechanism to monitor illegal activities. The environmental destruction caused by uncontrolled sand and gem mining could boomerang, in the long term, making more people suffer than those who benefit by relaxing of these laws.

Mining of sand, for instance, affects not only the riverine environment alone but also reflects on the coastal ecosystem especially by way of coastal erosion and salinity intrusion.

Published on SundayTimes on 29.07.2012