By Rohana Jayaratne –
I had the distinct privilege of spotting an elegant pair of black necked storks (ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) at the Kumana Sanctuary on a recent expedition with Cinnamon Trails on 16th October 2016 as per attached pictures I took with my amateur camera. This follows a similar sighting recently by Srilal Mithapla at Uda Walawe National Park.
The storks are breeding residents found near tanks of the jungle areas of the south east low country zone in Sri Lanka. They are very large birds as tall as 5 feet with a wide wing span of about 7 feet and as impressive as the Greater Flamingo which is a winter visitor. The black necked stork is just one of our priceless treasures which is tragically close to extinction due to its ‘near threatened’ status as certified the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In fact, it is noted that the number of birds observed in the Kumana national park has fallen in recent years. Furthermore, Environmentalists and wildlife lovers have expressed their concern over a road planned to be constructed from Kirinda to Panama which will run along the coastline of the park and cause more destruction than benefit to the environment. Thankfully, it appears to have been put on hold.
The question as to why the state is neglecting conservation and protection of our unique biodiversity remains a mystery. Foremost among them, is the raging human elephant conflict which continues unabated with no firm policy on resolving the matter other than installing electric fencing which has repeatedly proved futile. A closely related issue on the violation of animal rights is vividly portrayed in the recent award winning documentary filmed in India titled ‘Gods in Shackles’ by Sangeeta Iyer. It is most relevant to Sri Lanka in relation to our famed religious pageants featuring decorated and shackled elephants.
Bio diversity hotspot
Although it is repeatedly pointed out that Sri Lanka is recognized as a Biodiversity hotspot of global and national significance, the government has not granted it adequate recognition. Despite its size, Sri Lanka is considered as one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Biodiversity includes species diversity, genetic diversity and ecosystem diversity all of which are found abundantly in our island due to evolutionary reasons. Its varied climate and topographical conditions have given rise to this rich species diversity, believed to be the highest in Asia in terms of unit land area. Sri Lanka’s primeval tropical rain forest ecosystem is considered as an area which is disturbed by human activity, but still exceptionally rich in animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world.
Much of the species are endemic, a reflection of the island’s separation from the Indian subcontinent since prehistoric times. This is especially relevant for mammals, amphibians, reptiles and flowering plants. These species are distributed in a wide range of ecosystems which can be broadly categorized into forest, grassland, aquatic, coastal, marine and cultivated. The diversity of ecosystems in the country has resulted in a host of habitats, which contain high genetic diversity.
Vegetational analysis has resulted in the identification of fifteen different floristic regions in the island. The presence of many floristic regions within a relatively small area is a reflection of the high level of ecosystem diversity.
The fauna of Sri Lanka is as diverse as the flora. While sharing common features with the neighboring subcontinent, the fauna exhibits very high endemism among the less mobile groups. With taxonomical revisions and descriptions of new species the number of species in each group keeps changing.
In addition to the high concentration of indigenous fauna and flora diversity, Sri lanka is internationally recognized for its uniquely high concentration of eco system diversity, as well. The major natural ecosystems in the country are forests, grasslands, inland wetlands, and coastal and marine ecosystems. It also includes agricultural ecosystems.
Forests vary from wet evergreen forests (both lowland and montane), dry mixed evergreen forests to dry thorn forests. Grasslands are found in montane and low country inland wetlands include a complex network of rivers and freshwater bodies. Marine ecosystems include sea-grass beds, coral reefs, estuaries and lagoons and mangrove swamps.
Sri Lanka must nurture and benefit from its bio diversity through cutting-edge expertise in sustainable wild life and eco- tourism catering to an exclusive high end market. It will be far less capital intensive and a guaranteed source of national income in comparison with the proposed capital intensive mega infrastructure projects of uncertain returns which are not only driving the economy into deeper debt but also destroying our highly sensitive environment. Outstanding examples of eco tourism we can emulate are countries like South Africa and Kenya which have mastered the unique Safari experience catering to a high end market which earns them millions in revenue. Nepal is the only south Asian country that offers an exclusive eco tourism experience by restricting it to a very high end market and thereby protecting their environment from over exposure to mass tourism.
From an economic stand point, it is indeed tragic that our unique bio diversity which makes it our greatest national asset is not being given the highest priority it deserves in the development agenda. A report by the Yale University, USA-The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index -had shown Sri Lanka’s economic growth as not environmentally sustainable. However, no significant measures have been taken to address this situation.
Renowned naturalist, Gehan de Silva Wijeratne, claims that Sri Lanka is the best all-round wildlife destination in the world mainly because of its high concentration of bio diversity. He claims it to be better, even, than such sought after hotspots as the Serengeti Plain and the Amazon rainforest which are vast in size. The closest wild life destination to the capital Colombo is Sinharaja, one of the few primordial rain forests left in the world. It is of international significance and has been designated a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is a treasure trove of endemic species, including trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.
The abundant deep sea marine life off the southern ocean off Mirissa town as well as off Kalpitiya on the Eastern coast boast of the rare blue whales, rarer sperm whales and shoals of entertaining and friendly dolphins is an extraordinary experience not easily found anywhere else in the world. Even the exotic and endangered Dugongs, herbivorous marine mammals and distant relatives of elephants, are found in the shallow coastal sea grass beds in the Gulf of Mannar. They are close to extinction due to destruction of their feeding grounds.
If whale watching can motivate 10,000 people a year to visit Sri Lanka, that works out to approximately USD 20 million coming to the island through whale watching alone, says Gehan. The Minneriya Elephant gathering, he surmises, could generate a whopping billion rupees every year, purely in terms of hotel room revenue. He believes that with post conflict room rates, this could be higher.
Another amazing marine adventure is snorkeling among the coral reefs to view the colorful vista of reef fish and corals in the east coast ocean off Trincomalee or in the southern coast ocean of Hikkaduwa which is just a stone’s throw from Colombo. Also, on the southern coast is the most popular Yala National Park where the big game reign supreme in abundance. All these sites can be visited over one weekend which a rare phenomenon, indeed.
In addition to its eco-tourism potential, Sri Lanka is also considered by academics as an ideal location and laboratory for tropical bio- diversity research including forestry research and education.
Civil society’s role
A global civil society initiative is currently underway to save bio diversity as it is predicted that by 2020, two-thirds of wild animals will be extinct throughout the world. Environmentalists say that life is being extinguished as fast as when the dinosaurs disappeared — and it’s happening because humanity is taking a chainsaw to the tree of life. Activists believe that unless civil society stops this tragedy, the Earth’s delicate biodiversity could completely collapse, leaving our planet deathly silent and uninhabitable for humans.
But there’s hope – top scientists are backing an ambitious plan to put half our planet under protection and restore harmony with our environment. Scientists believe that our best chance to save our ecosystems and 80-90% of all species is giving them enough safe space to thrive, then nature uses its wisdom to regenerate. But to get this off the ground we have to show our governments now that people overwhelmingly want to protect 50% from deforestation, dirty energy, and industrial fishing and agriculture.
E O Wilson, one of the world’s most respected biologists, the father of sociobiology, a specialist in island biogeography, an expert on ant societies and a passionate conservationist. He challenges society to set aside half of the planet as nature preserves. Even in the best scenarios of conventional conservation practice the losses [of biodiversity] should be considered unacceptable by civilized peoples,” Wilson writes in his new book, “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life” He states that the principal cause of extinction is habitat loss. According to cutting edge research, by preserving half of the planet, we would theoretically protect 80% of the world’s species from extinction. In contrast, if we only protect 10% of the Earth, we are set to lose around half of the planet’s species over time. This is the track we are currently on. Of course, habitat loss isn’t the only threat to biodiversity today.
Wildlife is facing a barrage of other impacts including climate change, ocean acidification, both legal and illegal trade, pollution, and invasive species among others. But biologists agree almost unanimously that habitat loss remains the biggest threat to biodiversity worldwide. And protecting more of the planet could also contribute to solving other environmental problems, including climate change. Today, deforestation and degradation accounts for around 15% of the world’s annual carbon emissions.
Wilson believes “ignorance” is the biggest barrier to achieving his goal of protecting half of the Earth. “When people are encouraged to take a close look at the remnants of nature, in its complexity, beauty, and majesty, and when they understand that the natural environment is the home of their deep history, many become the reserves’ most ardent supporters.”
Although environmentalists and conservationists have drawn our government’s attention to the intrinsic value of our bio diversity and its huge economic potential, it has had very little impact, so far, in prioritizing investment in this area. Instead, we are promoting several infrastructure projects which have questionable impact on the environment.
In the absence of clear government commitment, the responsibility falls on civil society to make a concerted effort in supporting the campaign to protect, conserve and sustainably utilize our greatest asset or be guilty of killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs, through sheer neglect, indifference and blatant environmental destruction under the guise of development.