2021 Feb 15
Encompassed by a sea of dark clouds, the Sinharaja Rainforest remains the last lowland rainforest of Sri Lanka. It serves as a mystic and beautiful hotspot for biodiversity, providing a habitat for at least 139 endemic plant species and nearly half of the country’s mammals. Sinharaja holds its title as a World Heritage Site as declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1988.
According to the UNESCO World Heritage website, there are only 213 World Heritage Sites in the world that fall into the ‘Natural’ category (national parks, biodiversity areas, etc.) – located in only 96 countries. Sri Lanka is privileged to have 2 of these within our borders; one is the Horton Plains and Knuckles Conservation Forest and the other is Sinharaja Rainforest.
To be included in the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.
Sinharaja is accepted as a location of Outstanding Universal Value due to meeting the following leading criteria:
1. Selection Criteria IX: Sinharaja is the last remaining remnant of Sri Lanka’s tropical humid evergreen forests. The property’s flora is a relic of Gondwanaland and provides an important component to our scientific understanding of continental drift and an outstanding site for the study of the processes of biological evolution.
2. Selection Criteria X: Floral endemism within the property is extremely high. Sinharaja is home to at least 139 endemic plant species. Over 60% of the flora in the area are endemic and many of these are considered extremely rare.
Faunal endemism is also high, particularly for mammals, birds and butterflies, exceeding 50%. 19 of Sri Lanka’s 20 endemic birds are present in the property, which is also home to highly threatened species like the leopard and the wet-zone Sri Lankan elephant.
Visiting the rainforest
Rain should be anticipated year-round, however, there is a lesser chance of precipitation from January to April and August to September. If you seek wildlife, it is best to enter the park from the North since it is less disturbed by human intrusion from villages within the repository. The Pitadeniya entrance is more suitable for viewing the hidden waterfalls. When travelling to the Sinharaja Rainforest, it is essential to have a knowledgeable guide or tracker to accompany you considering how dense it is. They can be hired at the entrance to the park for a cost of around LKR 600 or so. A guide’s eyes are trained to spot animals that are commonly missed by inexperienced first-timers.
Furthermore, the only way visitors are permitted to travel is on foot. With its abundant rainfall, trekkers must also be prepared to bear the jungle’s plethora of leeches and mosquitoes. Applying insect repellent or even salt would help cut down the chance of one of these dreadful encounters. It is also recommended that you wear trousers and socks appropriate for its relatively consistent temperature.
Things to explore
The forest is home to a broad array of flora and fauna, of which the majority is native to Sri Lanka. Keep your eyes peeled for some of the rarest birds in the country like the Sri Lankan Blue Magpie, Red-Faced Malkoha and the Green-Billed Coucal. What makes these birds unique is that they are part of mixed-feeding flocks, where six or more breeds cluster and set out together to forage for food. This phenomenon is exceedingly unusual, making it a treat for birdwatchers.
One impressive landmark to visit, a prominent attraction of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, is the Kiruwana Ella Falls. These falls are some of the largest in Sri Lanka. If you do decide to go here, stay cautious of the slippery trails, ensuring to note your escort’s instructions.
Not too far by, you can find the Kotapola Ella Falls, a source used for generating hydroelectric power to the nearby village of Kotapola. Despite its beauty, this is one of the more underrated locations to find.
The Sinharaja Rainforest also includes several religious monuments to exhibit the Buddhist culture of Sri Lanka. Situated 6km South-West of Deniyaya, lies the Kolawenigama Temple. When observing the structure of the temple, you can see it resembles the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. Despite some destruction it had undergone throughout the years, the temple still remains a point of interest for tourists. Further south and just a little westwards of Kotapola is the Getabaruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. You will eventually reach the summit of the famous Getabaru Kanda to find an ancient rock temple from the early 17th century built into a natural cave, a remarkably attractive sight to the eye. The temple’s scenic environment includes a golden statue of the Buddha along with a variety of rare medicinal plants and indigenous animal species.
The last two wetland elephants
When talking about the Sinharaja Rainforest, it is important to note that it is home to the last two remaining wet-zone elephants in this area, making them very special!
The controversy surrounding these two elephants is the decision to remove the two from the forest. Elephants are a ‘keystone species’ and so are very important to the health of the eco-system and other species that live within it. It has also been suggested that should the elephants be removed from the forest, UNESCO would delist the property as a World Heritage Site. This would mean that Sinharaja would be at risk of losing the following benefits it receives today from having this important title:
1. Identity: As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sinharaja has become well-known globally. The status itself confirms the outstanding and exceptional features of the listed site.
2. Funding: All listed properties get funding from a global body for its protection and conservation.
3. Tourism: Listed properties get international attention to the site. Which also brings with it economic benefits like tourist revenue.
4. Protection during wartime: the site is currently protected under Geneva Convention against destruction or misuse during war.
5. Access to global project management resources, as they will be more willing to participate in such projects.
Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia and sadly due to increased pressure on wildlife habitats due to an exploding human population – Sri Lanka sees the deaths of at least 200 elephants per year as well as at least 50 humans. Crop and property damage amounts to over US$10 million. Whilst development is at the forefront of our minds in a post-war economic climate, we should not be ignoring the urgent need to balance development with protecting the rich biodiversity and natural capital this island is blessed with.
We must also give equal importance to protecting our precious biodiversity for future generations of Sri Lankans, so that they too may visit places such as Sinharaja and marvel at its treasures.