Trailing the Undisclosed History of Annaiwilundawa Tank Sanctuary

By Sayuni Masakorala | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 12 2020
Focus Trailing the Undisclosed History of Annaiwilundawa Tank Sanctuary

By Sayuni Masakorala

Over the last few months, we witnessed an increasing trend of destruction caused to ecosystems of importance. Ranging from the controversy surrounding encroachments in Wilpattu National Park to road constructions in the buffer zone of the Sinharaja world heritage site and recently to the Ramsar acclaimed Annaiwilundawa wetland, we were able to witness the gradual depletion of our biodiversity.

The recent Annaiwilundawa wetland where a vast area was cleared for prawn farming caused outrage in the country and received backlash from various specialists in the field of environment and the public. A pertinent issue of ‘accountability’ surfaced as to whether the State and non -State actors who are responsible in protecting these integral ecosystems are preserving these environments as highlighted by the fact that these issues took place unbeknownst to government watchdogs. It also brings about the question as to whether we should wait till the destruction of our forest cover to realise the pertinence of conservation efforts.

Commercial avarice

It is regretful that conservation efforts of these protected fauna and flora are in vain, due to individuals incentivised by commercial avarice. It is also penitent that we have failed in conserving these ecosystems. Thus it is important that we become aware of the history and significance behind these components of our biodiversity in curbing the possibility of such a situation recurring in the future. Looking at the recent incident at Annaiwilundawa, we realised the pertinence of making people aware of these ecological treasures. Annaiwilundawa wetland is not only of national importance but is also one amongst the six sites designated as wetlands of International Importance in Sri Lanka under the Ramsar Convention.

A tale of a discovery; a trail of ecology

Though many became aware of the Annaiwilundawa wetland after the recent issue, the public is still unaware of the significance of this site. This general unawareness in the first place on our protected ecologies is what drives individuals to create more harm. Thus recognising the relevance on highlighting the historical background of the Annaiwilundawa wetland on par with the heated ongoing discussions we at Ceylon Today thought of tracking the trail behind this ecosystem and how it came to be declared a sanctuary in accordance to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and gain its Ramsar status. In unraveling this untold story we spoke to the Joint secretary of the Ceylon Bird Club & Co-Author of ‘Helm Field Guides Birds of Sri Lanka 2012’ and ‘A Photographic Guide to Birds of Sri Lanka’ published in 2000, Deepal  Warakagoda. 

Being one among the three individuals who were instrumental in the aforementioned declarations he traced  the beginnings, “Late T.W. Hoffmann was the central figure in recognising the importance of this wetland. He engaged in numerous conservation projects in Sri Lanka. 

The most significant nature conservation work by him is Saving the Rainforest. Even his autobiography is named after this project; The Man Who Saved Sinharaja Rainforest.

He has been studying wetlands for years and making inventories of important wetlands. Annaiwulundawa is a cluster of five fresh water tanks ‘Maiyawa Tank’, ‘Suruwila Tank’, ‘Annaiwilundawa Tank’, ‘ Maradansole Tank’ and ‘Pinkattiya Tank’ situated north of Chilaw.”

Declaration as a Sanctuary

“At that time Ceylon Bird Club was the representative of the Asian Wetland Bureau and Hoffmann was the chairman of the Ceylon Bird Club. He was also the initiator of the Water Bird Census in Sri Lanka. Whilst he was carrying out Annual Water Bird Census he had come across this wetland cluster which is very important for both resident and migrant Water Birds. Realising this he wanted to conduct a systematic avifaunal survey. Without regular surveys it was hard to determine the level of importance. 

Thus together with Hoffmann, me and my fellow club member Upali Ekanayake engaged in carrying out this survey. We began the survey in November 1992. Our survey consisted of monthly point counts where we conducted observations on all five tanks and its immediate surrounding and habitat. The survey was concluded by April 1994 and during this period we came across an inventory of 143 different species of birds. 

Nearly 70 per cent were resident birds and a little over 30 per cent were migrants, compared with the 40 per cent migrant birds found country wide. Whilst studies conducted on bird diversity of this habitat during the survey, we were also able to come across another significant duck species ‘Lesser Whistling Ducks’. During a subsequent Mid-Winter Water Bird Census the cluster of tanks at Annaiwilundawa (South-West of Battulu Oya) were found harbouring nearly 125,000 water birds alone. The survey conducted established the importance of this area as a major habitat and breeding ground for birds to declare it as a ‘sanctuary’ under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). Under Hoffmann’s guidance we set about persuading the authorities about this wetland complex and finally it was declared ‘Annaiwilundawa Tank Sanctuary’ by the State in 1999.”

Extension from a Wetland Sanctuary to a ‘Ramsar Status’

“We identified the rich habitat of this wetland complex and we came across a duck species called ‘Garganey’. They are migrant ducks and a globally-threatened species. This significant presence easily meeting 1 per cent of the Ramsar Convention Criterion on declaring wetland sites gained ‘Annawilundawa Tank Sanctuary’ the second Ramsar acclaimed site in the country. In  2015 another finding strengthened this status where ‘Fulvous Whistling Duck’ an extremely rare migrant to Sri Lanka was found on this site by Tara Wickramanayake. Very few handfuls of records can be found within the country whilst Annaiwilundawa is the only region in the Indian Peninsula to act as a breeding ground for this species.”

Treasure of Fauna and Flora

The Sanctuary does not only cover the cluster of five tanks but also the immediate surrounding rich in paddy fields, scrublands, woodlands, ‘Muthupanthiya’ mudflats and more. Speaking with us Senior Environmentalist, Attorney-at- Law, Jagath Gunawardene said, “The wetland is significant in relation to the diverse bird population. Apart from the significant presence of numerous water Bird species, the sanctuary is also frequented with the presence of rare butterflies. Even arthropods such as the Dragon Fly and Damsel fly can also be found here. However, there is a lack of in-depth systematic data collected and recorded with regards to these fauna. The complex is also pertinent in housing a variety of Orchid plant species and lichens. 

This treasure of fauna and flora also comprises mangrove environment which provides versatile uses. Being coastline protectors they absorb influxes of water on a daily basis preventing extra flooding. Reducing erosion they also remove carbon dioxide from the environment and help combat global warming. Being a rich ecosystem of biodiversity, it acts as nesting and feeding grounds for many animals and as breeding grounds for the very rare ‘Fulvous Whistling Duck’. Being a cluster of tanks containing fresh water it also helps to keep the balance in our marine environment. This versatility does not only cater to the ecosystem but also extends to contribute as a major social factor. The paddy fields in the surrounding are used for agricultural purposes where the tanks are used as a medium of irrigation. Annually, the site is explored by tourists during the period of migrant bird visits. Thus this is an integral ‘Eco-Tourism’ site in the North-Western area of Sri Lanka.”

Volunteerism spearheading change

Gunawardene also highlighted the significance of the initiative taken by these three individuals in conducting a survey based on their own strength and capacity which paved the way in recognising such a valuable ecosystem of importance in Sri Lanka. He also added that Hoffmann was not even a Sri Lankan national and that he was a Swiss national who was instrumental in the declaration of many National Parks. This act of volunteerism should be appreciated and we should be grateful to them he said.

(Pix courtesy Green Media Networks)

By Sayuni Masakorala | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 12 2020

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