Thirty Years Young
By Dinithi Hemachandra
Thirty years have passed since the declaration of Bellanwila-Attidiya marsh as a Sanctuary. On 25 July 1990, a group of young volunteers with much effort, managed to convince the State of the ecological importance and value of Bellanwila-Attidiya marsh which resulted in the wetland being declared as ‘protected’. The marsh has been identified as one of the 41 important wetlands of Sri Lanka in the Asian Wetland Survey of 1989. It was also identified as one of the 12 wetlands in Sri Lanka that requires urgent conservation measures.
On the 30th milestone
In celebration of the 30 years since the declaration as a protected area, Bellanwila-Attidiya Wildlife Ranger’s Office – along with the Wildlife Ranger for Colombo Saman Liyanagama - organised an event to strengthen the bond between all related parties connected to the Sanctuary. The celebratory event saw the participation of the Government Agent Pradeep Yasaratne, Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardana, Divisional Secretaries of Dehiwala and Rathmalana, Officers in Charge of Dehiwala and Mount Lavinia Police Stations, Police Officers representing Boralesgamuwa Police Station, University students, environmental activists, and the residents of the area.
The programme was initiated with the blessings of Maha Sangha from Attidiya Raja Maha Vihara. Liyanagama who has only resumed his duties in the area since the beginning of this year commented saying that the Bellanwila-Attidiya wetland is an important flood retention area in the heart of Colombo, as well as a site with recorded high biodiversity. The wetland is a research site for students from both the Universities of Colombo and Sri Jayawardenapura. Researchers such as P.E.P. Deraniyagala and many other scholars have taken inspiration from this site for their contributions to science. Liyanagama highlighted the importance of collaborating with all stakeholder parties of the Sanctuary such as the Divisional Secretariat and local administration, volunteer environment groups, universities, Police, and most importantly the surrounding community. The 30 year celebration was an opportunity to strengthen the relationships between these stakeholder groups.
Looking back at the beginning
As a pioneer in its establishment, Gunawardana looked back at the process that led to the declaration of the Sanctuary. “It was the effort and determination of a small team of 14 youths,” Gunawardana recalled. Gunawardana also mentioned several personalities who were instrumental in achieving the goal namely; Renton De Alwis, late Anandatissa De Alwis, Prof. Sarath Kotagama (then Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation(DWC)), T. W. Hoffman, Dr. Ranjan Fernando, and Ravi Algama. The journey towards declaring Bellanwila-Attidiya as a Sanctuary has been a path that was laid through many obstacles and challenges. This group of volunteers has strived three years to achieve their goal. What started as a biodiversity study had grown to a passionate goal due to challenges and pressures from various groups. Rejections and discouragements did nothing but strengthen this team. Even the difficult times during 1988-89 could not manage to draw them away from their dedicated work.
Value of Bellanwila-Attidiya
One of the main reasons behind the need for protection of Bellanwila-Attidiya was that it’s high faunal diversity. Even back then, 71 species of butterflies, 166 bird species, and 44 different species of fish had been recorded in the area. “Bellanwila-Attidiya is a stopover point for many migratory bird species,” said Gunawardana. According to his observations’ Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, and Pallas’s Warbler visit the wetland. Malay Bittern and elusive Adjutant have also been rarely observed in the area back in the day which added to the value of biodiversity of the wetland. A number of brackish fish species including ahirawa, glassfish and swamp eel could be observed in Bellanwila. Non-invasive exotics such as blue gurami, snakeskin gurami and Siamese fighters are also observed in the wetland.
Prof. Nihal Dayawansa of the University of Colombo is an ornithologist who has frequented the site in its prime-days as a young enthusiastic bird watcher. He stated that Bellanwila-Attidiya was where he and many of his contemporaries started bird watching in a much serious note. He has also been a part of many research projects of university students that were based on the wetland. Back in the day, the habitat had been very different from what we could see today. He had recorded false nesting by Glossy Ibis in the wetland and recalled that the small path from 119 Maharagama-Dehiwala bus route along the canal was a wonderful trail for bird watching. However, the trail is in a poor state and is rarely used today.
Prof. Dayawansa further added that the biodiversity value of the wetland has reduced over the years and that the wetland has seen invasive flora slowly taking over the areas of the wetland. Pond apple (Annona glabra) is one of the main invasives responsible for this invasion.
According to Gunawardana removal and management of pond apple growth was specifically mentioned in recommendations for management of the sanctuary at its declaration. He further mentioned that other invasive plants such as alligator weed, Brazilian daisy, Wedelia trilobata, Mimosa invisa, Guinea grass, Ludwigia peruviana along with Agada - a native invasive from the dry zone - are some of the introduced invasive species that threaten the sustainability of the wetland. Unfortunately, plants are not the only invasives that have taken over this environment as invasive fish species such as Mayan cichlid, tarpon fish and alligator gars have also been found in the wetland.
Prof. Dayawansa stated that Bellanwila- Attidiya today is an example of how the human influence and unsustainable development has affected the natural environment. Encroachment, pollution and introduced invasive species have influenced this wetland to change over the course of time, reducing the ecological value of the area. He added that innovative measures should be taken to improve the condition of the wetland. He suggested establishing systems allowing the public to enjoy the diversity of the wetland which will automatically make the public aware of the environmental values of the area.
A study conducted in 2010 by Karunarathna, Amarasinghe, Gabadage, Bahir and Harding reports that the faunal diversity of Bellanwila-Attidiya wetland has reduced over the years. The study recorded 75 butterfly species, 78 bird species and 22 fish species in the area in addition to their assessment of amphibians and mammals. The numbers are a clear indication how drastically they have dropped when compared with the initial study that paved the way to the land to be declared as a sanctuary.
When asked how far towards its expectations has the wetland come after 30 years since its declaration as a sanctuary, Gunawardana stated that the main aim of protecting the wetland was achieved reasoning that the wetland would not be in the current state if the overall aim was not achieved. However, he further stated that he would have preferred to see the sanctuary to have become an area that has improved in its biodiversity, with a management plan. Another aim of this establishment has been to improve the educational opportunities of this area, which have unfortunately been adversely affected by reasons such as the security concerns from having an airport nearby, pollutants in the main canal, settlements in the left bank, and the broken pathway.
It was observed that after 30 years since its establishment, the site’s wildlife office is still under-facilitated. It even lacks basic infrastructural facilities. The Field Office is set up at the site of a previous pump house which belonged to the Irrigation Department. The process of handing the property over to the DWC was not done properly or smoothly and the office itself is degraded and is in a sorry state today. Despite there being 372 hectares of land in the Bolgoda Basin which needs to be protected under the DWC, the Field Office only has about 100 square meters that has not even been allotted correctly to the DWC. There is also the ever-prevailing issue of lack of staff members which hinders processes of proper monitoring and stopping illegal human activities. There is no guard posts or a vehicle for regular patrolling around the site. Despite these shortcomings, the Wildlife personnel in charge of this ecosystem have given their best to protect and maintain the sanctuary with minimum facilities, while maintaining a good and strong relationship with its stakeholders.
While the effort and commitment of the Wildlife officers of the wetland is commendable, most of their efforts bear no fruit as the small workforce with no facilities is a no match against the highly-sophisticated threats the sanctuary and the officers have to face courtesy unsustainable development.
It was also observed that a gate has been put up by an organisation at the beginning of Idigahadeniya Road leading to Attidiya Road along the Nadimala Canal. It is a public trail that cannot be obstructed and should be kept open to its users.
There are so many lessons to learn from the 30-year story of Bellanwila-Attidiya wetland. It is an example of how enthusiasm, teamwork, and determination can overcome obstacles and the wetland’s current state helps us understand the drawbacks of ignoring its true value. It can be seen that the ground level /field level operations of the Sanctuary have been carried out to the best of the abilities of the staff. However, to overcome the prevailing challenges and move further, policy decisions should be taken at higher levels to explore the required management activities, inter-agency coordination, innovative solutions, and equitable collaborations with other Government institutions to upgrade the Bellanwila- Attidiya Sanctuary to harness its true potential.