Photo courtesy of Daily Express

Today is World Wildlife Day

The laudable theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day is Ecosystem Restoration. What a noble ideal but is it applicable to Sri Lanka? In the last two years, the country has seen widespread destruction of both its terrestrial and marine habitats and environments. This devastation must be stopped first before any thought can be given to restoration. True, there are official policies claiming the intent to increase the forest cover to 33% from the present 30% but these are just pieces of paper based on inaccurate data because the existing so-called 30% has been calculated by counting monoculture plantations and home gardens. What has been calculated is tree cover and not forests. As a result, the true forest cover has been estimated by independent sources to be less than 16%.

Policymakers also entertain a false belief that planting trees along highways, roads and paved walkways qualifies as reforestation. What of the biodiversity of forests? Sri Lanka is globally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot; a place of large varieties of fauna and flora, many of them endemics but all under threat from human activity and unplanned development.

The destruction continues unabated. Almost every day, the media carry stories of forests and other wild places being encroached on or cut and of the killing of wild animals.

The destruction of other state forests 

In 2020, the government made a cabinet decision to hand over the control of Other States Forests (OSFs) from the Forest Department to the Divisional Secretariats for development. OSFs fall outside of the network of protected areas but form important connective pathways between them. They provide avenues for the interchange of animals and some plant species between protected areas, vital for the maintenance of healthy genepools for all of these species. Without them, animals will in-breed and start the certain road to extinction.

These forests, these areas of biological diversity, also host endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world. These should be considered as natural national treasures rather than face destruction from shortsighted policy for quick economic gain that will not only endanger wildlife but human life as well. Supposed to be given to small farmers for cultivation to help ease their financial distress, sizeable areas have been taken over by corporate enterprises for large scale cultivations that will have serious implications on the local environment, not least of which will be the depletion of ground and river waters.

Human-Wildlife conflict

Sri Lanka has the highest density of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in the world, mostly brought about by unplanned developments that have encroached into their traditional ranges and refuges. 60% of the population of the wild elephants live outside of the demarcated national parks and sanctuaries and have done so for centuries in the OSFs. If these are destroyed or sectioned off they will have to search for food elsewhere; probably in adjacent human cultivations. The already increasing incidents of HEC will accelerate further. Between 350 and 400 elephants have been killed in each of the past three years. There are an estimated 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka. At this rate of attrition, not many will remain in the wild for future generations to marvel at.

It is not just elephants but all wildlife is under threat from the clearance of forests. Animals do not adhere to human determined, administrative boundaries. They will travel along paths and across ranges that they have for thousands of years in search of food, water and mates. In the last few years there has been an alarming increase in the number of wild leopards that have been killed. With their normal habitat encroached on or destroyed, they search for prey amongst domesticated animals. They then fall victims to snares, cruelly laid for them and for other game, to die excruciatingly painful deaths as their struggles to escape tighten the wire nooses further with the eventual strangulation of their internal organs.

Trenching them in

It is not just elephants. All other wildlife, especially those smaller, will be trapped in these islands of rapidly diminishing resources. While a leopard or bear may be able to scramble in and out due to their powers of climbing, other animals will struggle, especially the smaller ones. Already in places that have been excavated, deer have been filmed falling in and being unable to get out. A buffalo fell into the trench along the border of the Uda Walawe National Park. Although pulled out with machinery, its front legs and spine may have been broken. With the rains these moats will also fill with water and many smaller creatures will drown.

Trenches have been tried before and failed. One of the main reasons is that they require high maintenance. In the monsoons, they will not only fill with water but will also silt up and require dredging and repair. The costs of this annual restoration will be exorbitant and something that the country can ill afford at present. Apart from this, wildlife will attempt to break the sides, to find any way of getting out for, trapped within these extensive ‘zoos’, they will soon die out and the ecosystem within will be irreparably destroyed.

Not just the land but the waters too

The X-press Pearl disaster in 2021 received global media coverage. The sinking of this ship and the leaks of its toxic substances and of billions of minute plastic nurdles continue to damage the western coastline and will do so for years to come. However, long before this, there had been a continuous destruction of the reefs, sea beds and coastlines around the island. Illegal dynamiting for fish, the use of illegal fishing nets, indiscriminate extraction of sand, illegal fishing of endangered marine fish species and of dugongs and dolphins and irresponsible tourism activities have taken their toll on these once pristine waters. There is hardly a reef that has not been damaged and species have dwindled, especially those who provide humans with food and fishermen with livelihoods.

It is not just the ocean but the rivers and fresh waterbodies too have been polluted or over-exploited to such extents that some rivers run dry by the time they reach the coast and their borders, as well as of tanks and lakes, are all littered with plastic and other non-perishable refuse. Invasive alien species clog many of what were once open stretches of beautiful water, and wetland and mangrove forests are under serious threat from unplanned development. The latter are vital breeding grounds for many species of marine species who thrive and grow in the brackish waters before swimming out to sea. With the current trend in global warming and the inevitable rise in sea levels, these mangroves and wetlands will play an increasingly important role in keeping the ocean at bay.

Vital for Sri Lanka’s economy

Apart from needing to preserve the environment and precious biodiversity for the future generations, it is of vital importance today in helping to generate an influx of foreign exchange through wildlife tourism. Where else in the world can a visitor see a wild elephant, the largest land mammal in the world and a blue whale, the largest marine mammal that has ever existed, all in one day, within a few hours journey of the other? Where else in the world can a visitor regularly see wild leopards during the day? Where else in the world can a visitor see the largest gathering of Asian elephants? Where else in the world can a visitor see a wild elephant at any time of the day on any day of the year? Where else can a visitor enjoy the cool misty morning of a montane forest at 7,500 feet above sea level, a humid biodiversity rich rainforest in the wet zone and dry zone scrub forests that reach down to the sea within the confines of a relatively small island? Where else in the world can a visitor see 135 species of mammals, 515 species of birds, 243 species of reptiles, 120 species of amphibians, 124 species of freshwater fish, 1,387 marine fish species, 5,246 species of gastropods, 11,144 species of insects, 51 species of crustaceans and approximately 600 other creatures? Of trees and plants, there are over 4,400 species, many of which are endemics, and many more are being discovered every day.

In the ocean, apart from fish and crustacean species, Sri Lanka’s waters host 12 species of whales, 15 species of dolphins, one species of porpoise and the dugong, the most endangered of them all. In addition, five of the world’s seven species of turtle are found in our waters – the Green, Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and the largest of them all, the Leatherback.

These all attract foreign visitors eager to see these creatures behave naturally, wild and free, in their native habitats, undamaged and whole. However, apart from protecting them, they have to be presented to a visitor in an acceptable manner with sensitivity towards the creatures being observed and educative information given to many who may never have seen such creatures outside of a zoo.

Ethical and responsible wildlife tourism

Nature has gifted Sri Lanka with everything it needs to make it the best place to see wild animals outside of Africa. It is humans who do not assist in making this vision come true. It is not just by destroying the forests and environment but by also not assisting in giving the visitor a total wildlife experience, a visit to remember, so that they will not only visit this island again and again but also encourage their friends to do so. This applies equally to all aspects of tourism where emphasis is currently placed on quantity and not quality, something that cannot be sustained for long if economic profit is to be gained from it.

The recent incidents of two tuskers, Sando and Nandimitra, charging and attacking safari jeeps are prime examples of this. These two tuskers only come into the Yala National Park when in musth and, as with most male elephants in this condition, their levels of aggression increase. The safari jeep drivers know this and yet they insist on driving up to them rather than giving them their distance. The visitors who were in the safari jeep that was badly damaged by Nandimitra have shared on social media that well before the act of aggression the tusker, while still at a distance, had made it very clear that he resented their presence. The driver had taken off in what the visitors assumed was a sensible acknowledgement of his feelings. He suddenly turned around and drove back towards the elephant. That was when all hell broke loose. These terrified visitors may never come back again.

The authorities, too, are responsible for this as they take no deterrent action to prevent abuse by drivers in Yala and other national parks. In their defence, many of these drivers have political patrons who step in to cancel any punitive action taken against them. This results in the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) allocating the blame to the wild elephant and then attempting to relocate the animals to other parts of the country. This from within a national park which is for the conservation of wild animals. The reputation of Yala will suffer even more from this as it is just one in a long list of animal abuse incidents that have taken place and gone unpunished. Travel operators are reporting that when booking their itineraries, visitors are specifically stating that they would like to go on safari but not to Yala. When the two tuskers are in the park, the DWC should issue a notice to jeep drivers that no one should approach them but only observe them from a distance. Strict punitive action should be taken against any driver who breaches this rule.

No man is an island but Sri Lanka is

Climate change is on its way; in fact it is already here. Weather patterns have changed and successive floods and droughts plague an island that was always noted for its predictable seasons. Global warming is taking place, temperature and sea levels are rising and our coastal regions will be under threat of inundation. The increasing heat and diminishing rains will cause severe disruption to agriculture and the levels of ground water. To protect ourselves from the harshest of these effects, it is right that we restore our forests and mangroves, clean our ocean and waterways and seek alternative forms of energy; clean energy that will not add to the process of warming. Long before this, however, we must stop destroying what we have. It is not just the future that demands it of us but the present too, to boost our economy at this time of great need. Yet will our policymakers acknowledge that there is a future and listen?