Extinction Means Forever
By Risidra Mendis
Ansel Adams - the late American landscape photographer and environmentalist popularly known for his black-and-white images of the American West once said that it is horrifying that we have to fight our own Government to save the environment.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what environmentalists and animal welfare activists will have to do if approval is given to abolish Circular No. 5/2001 which in turn will hand over the Other State Forests (OSF) from the Forest Department (FD) to the Divisional Secretaries and District Secretaries. The Cabinet decision to reconsider and repeal Circular No. 5/2001 comes at a time when the Government has committed to increase the forest cover in Sri Lanka by 2030 despite the existing forest areas in the country are fast dwindling.
“The White-Spotted Skink included in the Red List 2012 was discovered in Horana area on a 50-acre OSF in 2007. This is a lowland rainforest. Only one specimen was found up to now. In the Data Decision Category there are no records of this species. The skink cannot be declared as a new discovery because only one was found. There may be other rare species in these small forests which will be under threat if these forests are destroyed,” Scientist Pradeep Samarawickrema told Ceylon Today.
Binara critically endangered
Examples of the discoveries of point endemic flora and fauna could be found in abundance. In 1983, the former Director General of the Royal Botanic Garden Peradeniya Prof. Siril Wijesundara first identified the Binara growing in Naula, Boballa area. “With no other records of the plant available, the Binara was recorded as a Point Endemic and Critically Endangered in the area and was included in the Red List 2012. The Gadeya, believed to be extinct in Sri Lanka 20 years ago, was later discovered breeding at Waratenna in 2011 by me. Seven species of anuran amphibians, three agamid lizards and one gecko are known to be endemic to the Morningside Reserve. The anurans endemic to Morningside reserve are Rakwana Hourglass Tree Frog, Elegant Shrub Frog, Sinharaja Shrub Frog, Handapan Ella Shrub Frog, Golden-Eyed Shrub Frog, Papillated Shrub Frog, and Poppy’s Shrub Frog,” Samarawickrema explained.
He said the Philautus auratus (Golden-Eyed Shrub Frog), and Philautus silvaticusi are restricted to the Sinharaja. “Karunaratne’s Narrow-Mouth Frog is recorded only in one site other than Morningside Reserve, which is a part of the Eastern Sinharaja. Three agamids; Ceylon Black-Band Whistling Lizard, Karunaratne’s Horned Lizard, and Erdelen’s Horned Lizard and one species of gecko (Sinharaja Bent-Toed Gecko) are confined to Morningside Reserve and surrounding areas such as Silvakanda and Gongala. If the State land goes out of the hands of the Government these protected areas will be used for development activities. These areas are rich in biodiversity and need to be protected,” Samarawickrema said.
New fish species
According to the Red List 2020, there are 97 species of freshwater fish out of which, about 60 are endemic. Out of the endemic species, about 15 are threatened. “The Bandula Barb found in Galapitamada, Kegalle is Critically Endangered and a Point Endemic. The Martenstyn’s Goby found in Athweltota is also Critically Endangered and a Point Endemic. Ranwella’s Spined Tree Frog is recorded in Gilimale. The Podochilus warnagalensis point-endemic orchid is found only in Kuruwita,” General Vice President of Young Zoologists Association (YZA) Hasantha Wijethunga said.
He said the Devario memorialis - a new fish Species is found in Aranayake and fish that don’t breed frequently are the Jonklaas’ Loach, the Sri Lankan Spiny Eel (Critically Endangered) and De Silva’s Blind Eel (Critically Endangered). “All these species can be found in protected forests and OSF. Newly-discovered fish species such as Schistura scripta and Schistura madhavai were found in protected forests and small forest patches. Many species of amphibians are found in protected forests and remaining forests,” Wijethunga explained.
Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunawardana said there have been many new discoveries during the last decade and a significant proportion of these recent discoveries has been in the OSFs. “This includes a certain number of point endemics also. The removal of protection to OSFs would put these species’ survival in danger. If we are to release lands which are deemed as OSF, first we have to do surveys to determine the presence of these species and also decide whether there are Endemics, Point Endemics, Rare Endangered or Critically Endangered species present in such places,” Gunawardana explained.
Wild rice growing in OSF
He said since such a survey has not been done or never been done, suddenly releasing land by people who are not versed in the subject of environment or biodiversity is going to be a dangerous thing. “There are certain species of plants which are known as ‘crop wild relative’ or ‘wild relatives of cultivated crops’. These have significantly valuable genes within them which could be used to breed new varieties to meet the demand of the future. The other example is the wild relatives of rice. We have five species of wild relatives of rice in Sri Lanka,” Gunawardana said.
In the Puttalam District Gunawardana has come across places where these wild rice varieties grow in OSFs. “There are other areas where this rice grows and they are not forests but marshy lands, wetlands and shrub lands. So this is an inherent danger in trying to categorise whether these forests should be kept under the FD or whether these marshlands and shrub land could be used for other things. We never know what we are going to lose,” Gunawardana explained.
New aquatic plant
He said this needs to be studied more deeply without taking hasty decisions for the sake of convenience of parties who are only interested in small short term gain. “We have to think more broadly, deeply and far into the future before taking such decisions. Therefore, the need of the hour is not to release land in haste but to do these kinds of survey as soon as possible to decide the hidden potential and value of these OSFs,” Gunawardana said.
President of Wildlife Conservation Society Galle Madura de Silva said that many Point Endemic species can be found in the Rakwana cluster of Sinharaja near Morningside area. “Recently, a new species of aquatic plant-named after the Father of free Education C.W.W. Kannangara - the Kannangara Kekatiya was identified. This plant is found only in the Sinharaja area. The abundant populations are recorded outside the forest reserve on the buffer zone area. The ecosystem of the Morningside is sub montane. These types of habitats are very uncommon and there are many unique amphibians, reptiles and plants Point Endemic to the Eastern Sinharaja area. Taking out this protection will definitely have an impact,” de Silva said.