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Friday, 07 June 2019 05:34

Where is wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka today?

Wildlife and Nature Protection Society celebrates 125 years
By Jithendri Gomes and Dimithri Wijeainghe
Photos: Krishan Kariyawasam

On 29 May, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society celebrated 125 years with a fantastic forum discussion on conservation at BMICH. The forum was an interactive edition of its monthly lecture series with short presentations made by four experts in their respective fields covering four major issues affecting conservation in Sri Lanka today. They covered both land and sea. The presentations were followed by a panel discussion and questions from the audience. The auditorium was full of wildlife experts and enthusiasts and just as the organising committee and panel had hoped, the attendees were also interactive, sharing their comments and thoughts.

R7A6146All the speakers shared their findings and insights gathered on their separate journeys.

The discussions were largely focused on what the general public could do at a grassroots level to further conservation efforts, with many sharing their thoughts on how best to contribute in their own way.

A particularly interesting addition was by Ranjit Seneviratne, a retired member of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA) in Italy, who provided that he had managed to grow a “forest” in his garden at home – a concept referred to as agroforestry. He shared that this was a highly viable method, and a step in the direction the world should be headed in the new agricultural age.

519A0173 copy 300x155There was also an interesting thought shared, and silently agreed upon, by the majority in reference to the impact of green parties in international forums – the extent of the impact they have been able to make on the global environmental and wildlife conservation front by being solely focused on politics that impact wildlife. While this was a closing note at the event, members of the audience did not fail to suggest that the WPNS adopt said role in Sri Lanka in the future.

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya did a fantastic job of moderating.

Sri Lanka at a crossroads

Amongst the discussions that transpired, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya’s opening statement prior to the panellists’ talks proved to be an eye-opener. He provided that Sri Lanka is at a crossroads in conservation, as “conservation” appears to be happening almost by itself, and that most of what is effective seems to be happening by default.

However, while political interference had been on the rise, there is a glimmer of hope as the Department of Wildlife Conservation had adopted an in-house management procedure without the use of any international or outside consultants. However, why it had taken so long to come to this point remains a mystery.

Dr. Pilapitiya added that all conservation-related agencies should come under the purview of one ministry, and not many, which may have conflicting mandates.

For example, the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment would focus on development while the Ministry of Tourism Development and Wildlife would make the choice of either focusing on tourism or protecting wildlife.

He explained that the ministry under which conservation falls should not have any mandate other than to conserve.

He also explained that a minister’s role is to provide direction on policy. However, he explained that in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, ministers also influence administrative and management decisions, which are to be made by the respective agencies, thereby making it a convoluted system.

Current attitude towards conservation in Sri Lanka

The panellists also discussed the public’s attitude and efforts towards conservation.

Rukshan Jayawardena 300x155The first speaker was Rukshan Jayawardena, a household name at WNPS, who spoke of the human-leopard conflict. He touched on how human dwellings were encroaching on the leopard’s natural habitat, thereby endangering the otherwise adaptable large cat.

Dr. Sampath Seneviratne’s presentation on the conversation of birds followed. Interestingly, he pointed out that birds were very similar to humans, in that they visualise for their day to day activities, can learn, and also tend to be monogamous. “There are over 1,000 species under the threat of extinction, and 47% of the human population is said to be affected by it, directly or indirectly.”

He said: “The populations of birds need to be kept intact. Breaking it is the biggest threat to them.” The solution is creating green corridors for them, even in the form of home gardens.

19 300x155Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando made the final presentation for the evening. He very blatantly stated there wasn’t much to talk about in the subject of the conservation of elephants. Instead, he chose to speak about the human-elephant conflict (HEC) we are all aware of. “In over 44% of Sri Lanka, there are elephants and humans living together.”

He showed horrific images of how humans have hurt elephants, and explained that 300 elephants were killed just last year. He added that many solutions being discussed were “only beneficial to humans. The elephants in this country live in fear. They wait till dusk to have a sip of water. We are going to cause their extinction in the name of the HEC”.

What of our oceans?

Amongst the panellists was Marine Biologist and underwater photographer Nishan Perara, who has an interest in the management of coral reef ecology, fisheries, and marine protected areas (MPAs).

Perera spoke of MPAs, which the audience found interesting, stating that this particular area is in its infant stages in Sri Lanka, with a dedicated department being allocated just only a year and a half ago.
“Oceans are very difficult to manage and police, so MPAs give us the means to focus our management efforts in one specific area,” he said. He referred to the fact that Sri Lanka’s main concern is the lack of clear objectives or targets, as setting the goal to protect or conserve is a starting point, but going forward from there is the challenge.

He explained that we need targets that spanned three to five or even 10 years, which set out what needs to be achieved. He said we need to get into specifics – do we want to see a certain population increase or stabilise? You manage the intervention based on the answer.

Sri Lanka currently has 17 MPAs, out of which five are proper MPAs. This means that they are focused on true marine ecosystems and are associated primarily with coral reefs, which is a problem area. There are some coastal MPAs – mostly coastal ecosystems – but they have intertitled areas or are buffer zones.

He stated that while Sri Lanka had MPAs, the problem that those areas covers less than 1% of the entire ocean area of the island. The five proper MPAs span an area of 32,300 hectares – the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary makes up 30,000-31,000 hectares and the other four MPAs cover the remainder. The other four MPAs are very small.

Glamour vs. science

Dr 300x155When we make plans on conservation and select certain areas that need to be worked on in that effort, in accordance to that plan, we need to ensure that these actions are not dictated by “what would look nice” but instead what is critical to the ecosystem, the service the ecosystem provides, and its role in the larger ecological realm for species. We need to look at an ecological-based approach, and not just in the context of specific species – e.g. sharks or whales – as we can’t isolate any species. This concept is very similar to the conservation of land, because, for example, you don’t have a protected area for an elephant, what you have is a large protected area.

Similarly, because we don’t have any clear objectives or targets, we lack monitoring or evaluation mechanisms, which can determine the success of management or results from scientific research within these MPAs. Almost all the research is conducted by independent parties or individuals who are interested in the subject and conservation, and as such, it’s not directly tied with the management, which leads to low compliance and enforcement.

Perera then spoke of where Sri Lanka stands, saying: “If I am to take one metric to look at ecological health, let’s look at coral cover in an MPA. You need high coral cover when protecting coral reefs as most of the substrate at the bottom of the ocean consists of living corals.

“As such, if you look at the first MPA in Sri Lanka – Hikkaduwa National Park that was established in 2002 – its light coral cover is about 15% and right now, 30% of it is considered good. The next MPA – the bar reef – which is also our largest, is at 7%. This is very low. You can see a pattern here – they are all on the south west coast. We have two more MPAs on the east coast – one is Pigeon Island National Park which has about 50% live coral cover, which is considered very good. It is the highest light coral cover in Sri Lanka within an MPA.

“In April, we declared another area as an MPA. This is the ‘Kayankerni Reef’ in Passikuda, which has a 40% coral cover. This is a healthy reef,” said Perera.

Primary concern

Nishan Perara 300x155In addition to the human impact, over-fishing, pollution, and tourism, we face another big issue at present known as coral bleaching. Global mass coral bleaching events have taken place worldwide, and Sri Lanka was most affected by an event in 1998, which affected the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Following this, we were affected by another event in 2016, and currently, Sri Lanka seems to be entering another one in the East Coast.

Caused primarily by warmer ocean temperatures, coral bleaching is an indirect impact of climate change. As such, this is another aspect that MPA management should look into in Sri Lanka.

“So you have to design the MPAs in a way that you can identify resilient reefs. This again goes back to that “popularity vs. science” discussion where it’s not about the reef that always has the highest coral cover, but the reef that has the most resilience; the reef that can best withstand these stresses and can best recover from intervention. As such, reliance factors are important – for example, ocean circulation, species compositions, etc.”

Coral reefs, he explained, are resilient in the sense that they do recover. We saw growth from 1998 to the next incident in 2016. However, he explained that the problem was that we keep disrupting the natural process, thereby slowing it down.

He said that if things were left alone, then it improves. So whether extractive activities like fishing or non-extractive ones like tourism are the primary issues, it is the people that need to be managed.


He finally addressed a big misconception surrounding coral reefs, which is that they can be planted.

He said that if you were trying to restore a very small area, it can be done only if its ecology is completely understood. Therefore, he stated that there was potential, but that they cannot be grown anywhere and under any conditions, which is the misconception many people have. He pointed out that if that was the case, there wouldn’t be a coral reef crisis.

“But what I keep stressing is that the amount of resources we put into restoration, is better served in actual conservation and management, ultimately letting nature take its course,” he concluded.