2020 Jun 3
Marco Polo, a famed 13th-century traveller, was certainly not overstating when he described Sri Lanka as “the most beautiful island in the world.” From palm-fringed beaches to breath-taking landscapes and a profusion of wildlife, nature has certainly blessed our land with rich biodiversity. However, human activity, population pressure, and climate change have greatly threatened our wildlife and may even drive the most vulnerable species into extinction.
Not too long ago, news of the death of a Sri Lankan Black Leopard, previously believed to have been extinct, gripped local headlines and caused public anger and criticism. With its unique characteristics owing to a colour mutation, the leopard was first identified in October 2019 by a tracking camera in a forest reserve on the Central Hills. Following its rescue from a snare that had been set up to dissuade wild animals from interfering with cultivations, the leopard had died while receiving treatment in Udawalawe. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Poaching and wildlife crime continue to threaten Sri Lanka’s endemic species.
Inaction is no longer an option. Our wildlife species are a national treasure and conserving them requires dedicated efforts by relevant authorities and wider awareness on the part of the general public. Marking World Environment Day, we look at Sri Lanka’s challenges in wildlife conservation and 06 actions that you can take to make a difference.
Sri Lanka has 66 critically endangered and 102 endangered species, according to IUCN’s Red List database. According to a 2007 publication by IUCN Sri Lanka and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Sri Lanka is considered one of 34 biodiversity ‘hot spots’ in the world, indicating that our country holds an exceptionally high concentration of diverse endemic species. The same report identifies reptiles as the most vulnerable vertebrae species, followed by amphibians, birds, mammals, and fresh-water fish.
As for inland invertebrates, butterflies, freshwater crabs, land snails, dragonflies, and theraphosid spiders are the most threatened species, in that particular order. Perhaps of much greater concern, following a 50% decline in population over the last three generations, the Sri Lankan elephant has been moved to the IUCN endangered list. Similarly, the Panthera Pardus Kotiya, a native leopard sub-species in Sri Lanka and the island’s apex predator, is also classified as endangered, according to the IUCN. Poaching, diminishing leopard habitat due to human-leopard conflicts and illegal trade are the main culprits behind their decline.
Exponential population growth has been identified as a significant factor leading to the increasing loss of biodiversity. To unpack the consequences of population growth, higher rates of pollution, overfishing, over-hunting, and land modification have adversely impacted endemic species as they lose their habitat and population at the expense of human activity. In fact, Sri Lanka’s flagship mammals, elephants, are highly threatened due to loss of habitat as a result of expansion in agriculture and human settlements. Shifting cultivations (i.e. where plots of land are cultivated temporarily), in particular, has resulted in forest degradation, especially in the dry and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka.
The Human-Elephant conflict
The human-elephant conflict remains a pressing environmental and community livelihood concern in Sri Lanka. As human settlements increasingly encroach into elephant habitats, consequences such as destruction of crops and homes continue to threaten the livelihoods of rural communities. As a result, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that, as of 2012, around 150-200 elephants have been killed following retaliatory measures by farmers.
Additionally, data from the Elephant Conservation Unit of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) indicated that 1,138 people were killed by elephants and some 2,844 elephants were killed by farmers between 1991 and 2010. The number of homes destroyed far exceed these numbers. In terms of economic costs, the International Elephant Foundation estimates that elephants cause over $10 million of crop and property damage.
Unplanned development efforts and population growth are the main reasons behind these altercations, according to Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando, the Chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research. The Wildlife Conservation Department has engaged in several measures to help curb the human-elephant conflict. Efforts involving elephant translocations, setting up elephant holding grounds, and the installation of electric fences has been largely ineffective.
Dr. Ajith Gunewardena, Assistant Director of the Central Environment Authority who spoke on the issue at a recent stakeholder discussion, stated that elephant corridor mapping and habitat management via remote and satellite-based technology can be used to identify areas that need conservation as well as those that are suitable for human settlement and development projects.
Additionally, the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society also envisions a possible solution through a bottom-up approach, where discussions with affected communities can be used to decide on the most effective and feasible solution to mitigate the human-elephant conflict in addition to investigating root causes and adopting case-specific approaches.
As a biodiversity hotspot, it is no surprise that Sri Lanka is well placed in performing relatively well in the wildlife tourism sector. Yala, Horton Plains, Minneriya and Udawalawe national parks are top places that attract large numbers of tourists and locals. However, concerns surrounding animal welfare and the overall management of wildlife tourism have been a cause for concern. The daunting task of striking a balance between protecting environmental values while also providing good recreational opportunities for visitors falls under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Such a balance became a difficult task to maintain after a rise in tourist arrivals following the end of the civil war in 2009.
According to the book “Wilderness of Wildlife Tourism” co-authored by Gnanapala, Buultjens and Ratnayake in 2017, it was estimated that 30% of international tourists visit a national park during their stay in Sri Lanka. Concerns regarding major overcrowding national parks and a lack of proper treatment and respect paid to the animals have been raised in the past.
Unregulated and poorly organised whale watching operations have also shown to disrupt the migratory pattern of whales in the shores of Sri Lanka. Wildlife enthusiasts and animal welfare activists have also engaged in raising awareness on the inhumane ways in which elephants are kept captive as part of the ‘elephant tourism’ business in Sri Lanka. Tourists and visitors are discouraged from accepting offers of elephant rides involving howdahs (i.e. a seat for riding on the back of an elephant) and are instead encouraged to witness them in their natural habitat.
The impact of climate change
As a small island, Sri Lanka is vulnerable to several threats stemming from climate change. As mentioned earlier, we have significantly dense areas of endemic plants and species. Apart from the threats of human activity and population growth, climate change has resulted in a reduction in the distribution and abundance of our endemic species. Deforestation, in particular, which is done to accommodate a growing population, increases greenhouse effects and reduces the capacity for CO2 sequestration.
According to Rohan Pethiyagoda, one of Sri Lanka’s leading naturalists, global warming may also prompt animal species in the lowlands of the island to migrate northwards, thereby placing an additional strain on existing animal populations in the mountainous areas. Such temperature fluctuations on land may also cause a decrease in the populations of some animal species, disrupt life cycles and behaviour patterns. Additionally, the degradation of our water resources, rising water levels in mangroves as well as increasing rates of water pollution also place marine wildlife and freshwater fish at risk.
According to SLYCAN Trust, Sri Lanka still has room for improvement when it comes to promoting ecotourism, community-led conservation programs and conducting biodiversity research. Sri Lanka faces an urgent need to modernize laws that protect biodiversity and establish viable mechanisms for its proper implementation. Mainstreaming climate action policies into national planning and development projects as well as coastal and wetland conservation would also help greatly in restoring habitats and curbing the devastating impact of climate change.
06 actions that make a difference
- Use less plastic. Saving our marine wildlife and saving money is a win-win! Every year, an unthinkable amount of plastic makes its way into coastal waters. This harms marine species. Turtles, whales, dolphins, sea birds and a host of other animals die as a result of this. Several Sri Lankan start-ups and small businesses are turning to eco-friendly approaches to curb the ever-increasing threat of plastic pollution. Make a difference by using less plastic and using environmentally and sustainable products. Check out this guide on sustainable shopping in Sri Lanka to learn more.
- Make your voice heard. Educate yourself on the consequences of biodiversity loss and what you can do to help. Spread the message among your friends and family. Social media is a great platform for spreading awareness and information on how everyone can step up in their capacity to save our wildlife. Go a step further and actively advocate for better environmental policies and push for the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill and other provisions that protect wildlife.
- Plant trees. Wildlife and trees share a symbiotic relationship. With increasing rates of deforestation in Sri Lanka, planting trees and encouraging others in your community to do the same can go a long way. Trees provide shelter, regulate water and air temperatures and most importantly, provides a habitat and food for animals.
- Volunteer. Join an organization or movement involved in wildlife conservation. Actively support them by becoming a member, volunteering and staying informed.
- Be socially responsible. For instance, only go on safaris with reputable providers who are ethical and genuinely care about the wellbeing of wildlife and aid conservation efforts. Secondly, do not go on elephant rides as they are seriously harmful to elephants who are often held in captive. Instead, opt to watch them in their natural habitat. Learn more about acting responsibly during a safari, here.
- Donate. A key barrier in conserving Sri Lanka’s wildlife and implementing existing biodiversity action plans is the lack of funding. According to the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2016-2022, there is a very limited budget allocation for the biodiversity sector and plans to fund projects are low on the priorities. Donating to organizations and movements in Sri Lanka that are dedicated to conserving our wildlife is a great way to make a difference. Here is a list of Sri Lankan organizations that welcome donations:
- Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) – www.slwcs.org/donate
- Otara Foundation – www.otarafoundation.com/donate-now/
- Oceanswell – www.oceanswell.org
- Wildlife & Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPSSL) – www.wnpssl.org/donate
- Elephant Transit Home, Department of Wildlife Conservation Sri Lanka – www.eth.dwc.gov.lk/?page_id=1457
- Animal SOS Sri Lanka – www.animalsos-sl.com/you-can-make-a-difference