21 Amphibians Endemic to SL Go Extinct

By Thameenah Razeek | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 20 2021
Focus 21 Amphibians Endemic to SL Go Extinct

By Thameenah Razeek

The earth remains in the grips of a human-driven biodiversity crisis, with species’ extinction rates rising to levels unprecedented, since hyper-catastrophic events in deep geologic time. This crisis is immense.

Recently it was revealed that in the last decade, 35 species of amphibians in the world have become extinct, with 21 endemic to Sri Lanka.

Representatives of environmental organisations and ecologists have pointed out, to Minister Amaraweera, that the IUCN Red List shows that 35 species of amphibians have become extinct in the world during the past decade and 21 of them endemic to Sri Lanka. They pointed out that some flora and fauna are also in danger of extinction due to attention not being paid to those belonging in our country. 

Herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe, who was one of the environmentalists in the discussion, raised his concerns over human activities taking place in the country.  He said, amphibians are excellent indicators of the quality of the overall environment, as they are very sensitive to perturbations in ecosystems. 

Amphibians are a class of vertebrates that include frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians. All amphibians are cold-blooded, and most lay eggs. He noted that 75 out of the amphibians that are endemic to Sri Lanka and prevailing poor soil condition is one of the major reasons for extinction. The majority of species undergo metamorphosis, moving from a larval stage (usually aquatic) through the development of limbs and lungs to become terrestrial adults.

However, a significant minority of the species develop directly from eggs, usually laid on land, without a larval stage. There are also a few viviparous species that give birth to young, without laying eggs.

Almost all species are dependent on moist conditions, and many require freshwater habitats in which to breed. The greatest diversity occurs in tropical forests, with species’ richness generally lower in temperate and arid regions. Amphibians are entirely absent from marine environments.

Pointing out that amphibians are dependent on clean freshwater and damp habitats and are considered vulnerable to deforestation, changes in water or soil quality and the potential impacts of climate change, and in addition many species are suffering from an epidemic caused by funguses.

Pointing out that amphibians play a critical part in nature as both predator and prey, Wickamasinghe explained the importance, saying that they eat insect pests, a benefit to agriculture and help control mosquitoes which benefits human health. 

Taking a tree as an example, he said about 15 species of amphibians live on a tree which is an important part of the food chain, providing food resources for numerous animals from snakes to raptors. So, he insisted that there is a dire need to be committed to stopping the alarming decline of amphibians before it’s too late. Amphibian species are vital to the health of the planet.

Criticising the Government’s many rural development plans that take place currently, he noted that all should think that development should be sustainable and if it should be such, the people should live. Explain further he noted if the people should live, water is a must and water will be there if the ecosystem is saved. Eco system will be saved if the creatures including amphibians, reptiles and other species live.   

“The current law makers are talking about development projects forgetting the environment and the valuable ecosystem. The incumbent leaders have no idea about who is capable of doing what. These so-called leaders use businessmen when conducting Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and then destroy the whole ecosystem based on kick backs. We as environmentalists have a much broader idea about what should happen when conducting an EIA, but no one wants to take advantage of us,” he noted.

Explaining the measures that should be taken over to protect the flora and fauna that already is identified as critically endangered, Environmental Lawyer and activist Jagath Gunawardana said, the loss of so many species itself is a tragedy and there are certain other species on the verge of extinction. That is being listed in the critically endangered category in the national red list of endangered species. “Therefore, we have to look at it from two perspectives. One is to give legal protection to various species, especially those endemics which are endangered, critically endangered and vulnerable. According to the provisions of Section 31A of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, amphibians are given protection. Therefore, it is an offence to kill, harm, injure or take or keep any part or dead amphibian in custody or possession and it is also an offence to sell or offers to sell any amphibian,” he added saying, it is clear that the legal provisions are quite strong and flexible to accommodate new discoveries or rediscoveries. 

He said the second vital aspect is the protection of their habitats and some of the species are point endemic that is they are only found in Sri Lanka and is also confined to small area of habitats. He insisted that there should be a programme to identify these habitats of all critically endangered and endangered animals to see, what kind of vulnerabilities they face and their habitats should be protected under law.

“This is where the scientists and legally armed people should come together. But unfortunately that initiative has not been taken by any State institutions so far. If we want to prevent anymore extinction of our amphibians this is a necessity, that should be given top priority. Ironically there are three Ministries who are responsible. One is the Ministry of Environment which has the focal point of wildlife diversity, the second is Ministry of Wildlife and the third is the State Ministry of Wildlife. Ideally this should come from Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Wildlife, not the State Ministry. But the two institutions that have the capacity to ensure the protection of the habitats, which are the Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation are ironically under the State Ministry of Wildlife. Those three Ministries should come together with the two departments and it is necessary with the Zoological Gardens Department who can initiate conservation and formulate an action plan to prevent anymore amphibians’ extinction,” he concluded.   

Raising concerns regarding the amphibians Ecologist Prof. Nihal Dayawansa, was one of the researchers who claimed that the Government should take maximum precautions to protect the  Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Samanala Adawiya. 

He insisted that the two wetlands should be preserved no matter what. Speaking further he also pointed out that one of the reasons the sensitive creatures as amphibian are getting extinct is due to losing their habitats and necessary moisture to nurture. 

Ultimately the use of pesticides also becomes one of the reasons for the extinction and Prof. Dayawansa noted,  most of the amphibians that have been extinct had a direct development, which means there was no pupae stage. “This means the amphibians lay eggs and directly converted into a new born amphibian which requires a huge amount of moisture around them,” he noted.

He wrapped up saying, the Government, not only the current one, should conserve the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Samanala Adawiya putting forward their utmost effort. 

Meanwhile, one of the pioneers of discovering amphibians in Sri Lanka and categorising them into various slots based on their behaviours and habitats, Kelum Manamendra Arachchi pointed out, deforestation started in the 80’s and was the first stage where extinction started. He emphasised, if deforestation continues, not only the amphibians but also other vertebrates will be extinct, critically impacting the food chain. 

Showing the facts, he noted, about 120 amphibian species were discovered recently and more than 80 per cent are endemic to Sri Lanka. “Molecular researching that were conducted in the last two years shows that species are decreasing regularly of that 120. No increasing was noted except decreasing,” he said.

Adding to that end, Manamendra-Arachchi said, the Wet Zone in a country is known as the Management Centre and 70 per cent of the population currently reside within the Wet Zones. Wet Zones are known as the biodiversity focal point and the eco system can be disturbed when people occupy Wet Zones.  

Ministry of Environment lacks Information  

When inquired about the conservation methods that the Ministry of Environment has taken so far, Director (Operational Focal Point) at Biodiversity Secretariat R.H.M.P. Abeykoon said, no methodology or conversation method has been adopted and they do not possess any guidelines to conserve or any document to identify where the amphibians really are present and the reason for their extinction. 

She also added that they have the guidelines that were introduced via the IUCN red list and they hoped to take preservations according to that. She concluded by saying that the Ministry of Environment has no documentation or guidelines to identify, protect or conserve flora and fauna in the country.  

An islandwide survey of flora and fauna

Since no one was able to give exact geographical evidence on where the flora and fauna were present, Ceylon Today inquired from the Secretary to the Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation, Bandula Harischandra and he said, they have decided to conduct a survey on flora and fauna and list out them. Later they will be given to the Grama Niladhari in charge of the area. 

He said, after a tense situation arose regarding the rare Crudia Zeylanica they decided to keep the officials informed at the village level, because such trees can be destroyed due to the lack of awareness.

He emphasised that although the Forest Conservation Ordinance mentions the species of plants and animals that need to be protected which should not be limited to documents.

The secretary said the survey would be conducted before the end of this year. He further stated that the required documents will be prepared first and then the methodology for conducting the survey will be arranged.

According to the latest IUCN red list data, it shows 6 species of amphibians are critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable. The results showed that pesticide use, constant pressure from human activity, human-induced fires and clearing of lands for illegal cardamom plantations has threatened their existence.  

By Thameenah Razeek | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 20 2021

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