Photo courtesy of WNPS

Last year, Covid dominated all conversations and contributed to the further exacerbation of a multitude of existing man-made environmental and conservation disasters.

“Sadly, conservation management decisions seem now to be made at the political level. Politicians only look to the next election and the perpetuation of their power…History will be harsh on them all but by then, they would have overseen the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe that this country has ever seen; a calamity from which there will be no return.” Groundviews.

In 2022, these same politicians were well on their way to oversee “…the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe that this country has ever seen”. They merely spouted platitudes and gave hollow commitment to international environmental and conservation treaties, of which Sri Lanka are signatories while turning a blind eye to the accelerating destruction all around the island. As for the statutory bodies that should have been advising them otherwise, they too directed sightless gaze on the catastrophes being perpetrated on that which they are guardians of, betraying the trust placed in them by the constitution and people of this country.

It is not possible to address every issue that has had detrimental effect on the environmental and conservation integrity of the country over the past 12 months but the major and wider issues will illustrate the disaster that has been.

Poorly planned development

Development in Sri Lanka continues to be driven by political expediency based on short term, localized gains rather than with a thought for its future practicality and sustainability. Despite the government being allegedly committed to international conservation treaties and agreements and the relevant policymakers posturing appropriately at international forums, they do not put their words into practice. In fact, it is exactly the opposite as they promote projects that have had inadequate planning resulting in adverse environmental and wildlife consequences. The most obvious examples being the government’s attempt to regularize illegal encroachments into protected areas and conversion of sections of protected area land for non-conservation uses.

A prime example of poorly planned development is the situation at the Minneriya National Park, renowned the world over as the site of the gathering – the largest seasonal conglomeration of Asian elephants in Asia. At its height, over 400 elephants were to be seen of an evening browsing on the grasslands of the receding reservoir and drinking from its waters. In the past few years to see a quarter of that number would be exceptional with the country no longer entitled to boast of hosting this largest gathering. This has been a source of millions of dollars of revenue for tourism, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the local communities, now in danger of being irretrievably lost.

When the Moragahakanda reservoir was completed in 2018, a decision was made to use Minneriya as a holding reservoir with an inadequately thought out plan to provide farmers the opportunity to grow three harvests a year. This was irrespective of the consequences this would have on the wild elephants who used the grasslands of the receding reservoir as feeding grounds during the season of drought and on the flourishing economy that this rare spectacle generated. The increased waters in Minneriya, now kept almost full for most of the year, meant that there were less grasslands uncovered by its receding waters, resulting in grossly inadequate fodder for the elephants. They either find food elsewhere, usually in human cultivations, or starve to death. If this is not resolved in 2023, there may only be very few or no elephants left at what was once the gathering.

The first question is will there be a ready market for this extra harvest and will it have the same economic benefit to the local safari jeep drivers, tourist establishments and travel guides and not just to a relatively few farmers? Are we killing the golden goose just to feed a lame duck?

More dead elephants and people

In 2022, 433 elephants and 145 people lost their lives due to the human-elephant conflict (HEC). This is the highest number of deaths recorded in the past two decades or more; the previous record being in 2019 when 407 elephants and 122 people died. There were reductions in number, of both in 2020 and 2021 but much of this may have been due to Covid-19 restrictions in travel and movement with the inability to record all elephants deaths. What this shows is that the long, officially practiced HEC mitigation measures have not worked. Had they done so these numbers would have reduced. It is no surprise. Sri Lanka has enough electric fences in place to circle the island three times over. Electric fences are still the best method of keeping elephants out of an area as long as they are located on a boundary that the elephants relate to. The logical deduction, therefore, would be that these fences are in the wrong place.

The prime concern should be to protect people and their cultivations. So surely these fences should be around their dwellings and fields? Instead, many of the fences are placed because a powerful local politician wished it so, often between DWC and Forestry Department lands, the situation bordering the Yala National Park being a prime example of this. The Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) has documented that over 50% of all elephant calves in the Park fail to survive to adolescence. Deprived of their traditional range between areas of similar habitat, and largely trapped within a restricted space, their mothers no longer have the nutrition necessary in their milk to provide their offspring with a healthy diet. When trapped in an area, and with their enormous appetites, they will soon feed out those few areas of sustenance available to them. Will visitors to Yala, especially those from overseas, thrill to the sight of emaciated elephants? Elephants, particularly females and calves, in poor body condition can be seen in most of our national parks – Minneriya, Kaudulla, Kala Wewa, Uda Walawe, Lunugamwehera, Wasgamuwa, Kumana – not just Yala and for similar reasons.

CCR has piloted community and cultivation electric fencing in over 70 villages in HEC dominant areas with virtually 100% success. The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) has piloted its Light Repel System (LRS) in several areas as well with a similar high rate of success, provided the local community takes an active role in maintaining the fences and the LRS systems. Of course these are unpopular with those in power as they like to create dependency with a mind to the next election. However, if lives are to be saved, then there must be new thinking based on the tried and tested methodologies of science and research and at sustainable cost.

Destroying Sri Lanka’s forests

According to Global Forest Watch, in 2021 Sri Lanka lost 13.3 kilo hectares of natural forest. The same source indicates that between 2013 and 2021, 100% of the tree cover lost was of natural forests (202 kilo hectares). Although the figures for 2022 are yet to be calculated and confirmed, from the multitude of media reports during the course of the year it is feared that this trend increased rather than changed for the better.

Two main factors have contributed to this, the first being the disastrous decision taken in May 2021 by the government to suddenly ban the imports of inorganic fertilizers and switch to organic fertilizers. This has had a devastating impact on agricultural production and food security. The second is bad economic policy decisions exacerbated by an ongoing global economic crisis and the after effects of the Covid pandemic, which now threaten the food security of the population. Rather than seek long term solution to this problem, the government made a snap decision to release Other State Forests (OSFs) from the custody of the Forest Department to local government administrators to be disbursed for agriculture. These areas have limited vegetation cover and are mostly distributed in patches over relatively large, contiguous areas in the dry zone. Nevertheless, these pieces of land also have a high degree of endemism and, most importantly, provide connectivity between protected areas. Forty four percent of the wild elephant population shares its landscape with humans. They seek refuge, almost exclusively, in these areas.

The irony is that the only possible agriculture here is dependent on the soil and the seasonal, increasingly unpredictable, rainfall. This lends to chena (slash and burn) cultivation that is rapidly being spurned by farmers as it is labor intensive, uncertain of yield and of poor economic return. The question then arises as to whether the principles of conservation have to be compromised for the sake of such a precarious method of farming. Surely the focus should first be on improving the productivity of existing farming practices that are largely inefficient? According to the media, many of these lands were being given to industrial interests for orchards and other money making projects while losing biodiversity, ecosystem services and carbon sequestration potential. This is hardly going to benefit the long term prosperity of the local communities who are supposed to be the direct beneficiaries of this misguided scheme. Instead their poverty increases, along with their dependency on state handouts.

Vital wetlands

It is well understood that wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They are an integral part of Sri Lanka’s unique ecological and biological diversity and are vital habitats for a large variety of fauna and flora. Despite this many wetlands are being destroyed at an alarming rate for commercial, agricultural, residential and industrial purposes and for dumping waste.

The Vidattaltivu Nature Reserve is an amazing complex of interconnected ecosystems that drives every activity there and beyond, and yet it is under threat from a proposed development for farming exotic shrimp, mud crab, tilapia and carp.

Vidattaltivu is made up of four main types of ecosystem – sea grass, mangroves, mud flats and the salt marshes. Each of these ecosystems is interconnected to the other and vital for the following reasons:

  • Mud flats and salt marshes absorb the salt that comes with the tide and effectively block the salt entering inland, so that at the periphery of this reserve, there is thriving agriculture. In addition, over one million birds have been recorded during a single sighting on the Vidattaltivu mudflats.
  • The salt marshes are the natural depositor of sediments. Rich nutrients are retained protecting the Mannar area from erosion, thereby guarding the shoreline and protecting its fertile soil.
  • The heart of this nature reserve is its mangroves. They are one of the last remaining continuous stands in the country providing a priceless service to the local communities from its thriving ecosystem.
  • Seaward, the mangroves have protected the people living there against all natural disasters such as storms surges and tsunamis. Landward, they act as a sponge, absorbing storm water and preventing damage to houses and property from flooding.
  • Sea grasses can grow effectively because sediments have been trapped by the mangroves. It is in these sea grasses that many fish and other marine organisms tend to breed. The sea grass itself is home to the critically endangered dugong.

This interconnected system manages all the movements of sediment, water and salinity, in turn creating a complex, interdependent, ecosystem engine where different species can survive. It is these thriving congregations of species that are harvested by the local people as shell and fin fish.

Further out to sea, the water is crystal clear due to the many filters that have conditioned it so that corals can thrive. This amazing harmony of ecosystems and the way they interact with each other is the secret to Vidattaltivu. In fact, about 15% of the fishing community in Mannar is from Vidattaltivu and they earn a stable and reasonable income from this rich and complex ecosystem.

Twenty five government agencies, knowing the value of this ecosystem, decided to protect it following a comprehensive Strategic Environment Assessment conducted for the Northern Province between 2009 and 2014. This assessment also identified alternative areas that are available for fisheries development as well as potential tourism opportunities for the Vidattaltivu region. Yet it is all to be destroyed for the short term economic gain of a few. Why?

Colombo is a city built on a montage of interconnected marshes and waterways referred to as the Colombo Wetland Complex (CWC) with an extant of over 19 square kilometers. The Colombo Metropolitan Region has a high dependency on this complex’s ecosystem services for flood control, cooling, water treatment, urban biodiversity, livelihood opportunities, urban food security, recreational and educational opportunities. In 2018, this relationship between the city and the wetland complex resulted in Colombo being accredited as a RAMSAR Wetland City in 2018, the first and only capital city to hold this title. However, despite this, these invaluable wetlands are still experiencing significant pressure due to human actions and the lack of awareness of people, this despite its vital importance in maintaining a resilient and inhabitable city for the present and future.

Sri Lanka, as a signatory to the RAMSAR convention and the lead country for the Commonwealth Blue Charter on Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods, has an obligation to protect these rich ecosystems. If so, why are these complex systems being destroyed?

Climate change

According to the UNDP website, Sri Lanka has pledged to increase its forest cover by 32% by 2030, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14.5%. This commitment is necessary because Sri Lanka faces significant threat from extreme heat with the number of days surpassing 35°C, potentially rising from a baseline of 20 days to more than 100 days by the 2090s. Being an island, this country faces considerable danger from rises in sea level. Yet the few examples given above hardly demonstrate a polity that is committed to fulfilling its promises.

Here we must return to the fundamental cause of environmental and habitat degradation – poorly planned development. Climate change must be integrated into development planning; much stronger institutional coordination among all stakeholders will make the development plans sustainable and prevent adverse unanticipated environmental and wildlife impacts. Or, as happens now and with regular frequency, is that these projects have to be retro-fitted at considerable cost, which often results in making the projects no longer viable.

2023 may be the final year of reckoning, a point of no return, in more ways than one. What will this generation leave the future? Will they have clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, sufficient food to eat and wildlife and wilderness to enjoy or are our policymakers in the process of making this the final generation?

“We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” Barack Obama

On January 23, 2023, the media reported that the Environment Ministry’s Biodiversity Secretariat announced that 81 of Sri Lanka’s bird species are threatened due to human caused habitat destruction.