- Though a global biodiversity hotspot with high endemism, Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism is driven by a select group of “charismatic” species, including the Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear, blue whale and sperm whale, none of which are endemic to the island.
- Sri Lanka still relies on conservation paradigms set decades ago, aimed at protecting these high-profile animals, but experts call for the adoption of new conservation strategies to protect the island’s biodiversity, moving beyond the charismatic species.
- A group of tropical biologists have called for the establishment of ecological corridors linking fragmented biodiversity-rich habitats in Sri Lanka’s wet zone to ensure the protection of unique endemic species not included among the charismatic species.
- Often lost in the shadow cast by the charismatic species are a wealth of amphibians and reptiles, found nowhere else on Earth, with new species continuing to be discovered on an almost regular basis.
COLOMBO — Wildlife conservation managers have long known that to protect a species, it helps if the animal is what’s known as charismatic: rare, endangered, beautiful, impressive, dangerous, or a combination of these traits.
This focus on charismatic species continues to drive conservation efforts and how they’re funded (think of Africa’s “Big Five”: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo).
For a country like Sri Lanka, though, the spotlight being shone on flagship species such as elephants and leopards is leaving the myriad more obscure species, found nowhere else on the planet, out in the dark.
That was the conclusion of a recent meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s Asia-Pacific chapter (ATBC-AP) in Sri Lanka: that there’s a high reliance on “marketing” the island’s “sexy beasts” to drive wildlife tourism, with little attention paid to the not-so-charismatic endemic species.
“Charismatic animals often attract disproportionate amounts of research and conservation funding, commercial interest and public attention compared with other species,” said Ruchira Somaweera a Sri Lankan herpetologist and National Geographic Explorer. “As a result, they often play a significant role as surrogates for boarder biodiversity conservation aims We are all animals ourselves and follow these ‘sexiness’ traits. As it is an inherent, we should use it as an opportunity for conservation, using them as flagship species.”
Charismatics drive wildlife tourism
A glance at Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism industry gives an idea of the island’s charismatic species. The country is often promoted as being the best for big game safaris outside Africa, and the Ministry of Tourism has come up with its own version of the big five: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).
According to Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, a pioneer in branding and promoting Sri Lanka’s wildlife to the world, the island ranks first in the world in term of ease of viewing the first four of those species — an annual gathering of around 300 elephants in Minneriya National Park has been rated one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth — and is among the top 10 global destinations for sperm whale watching.
When it named Sri Lanka its top destination for 2019, travel guide publisher Lonely Planet emphasized the island’s rich fauna and flora. Statistics from the Department of Wildlife Conservation for 2018 show that Yala National Park in the country’s deep south ranked first in leopard-watching possibilities, recording nearly 630,000 visitors, more than half of them from overseas. This was followed by Horton Plains National Park, also home to leopards and visited by more than 410,000 people (nearly 120,000 foreign), and Udawalawe National Park, considered the best spot for observing elephants through the year.
Those species have in turn generated significant revenue for the parks. Yala topped the list last year with $5.7 million in receipts, followed by Horton Plains ($4.1 million) and Udawalawe ($2.4 million). Nearly half of all foreign tourists to Sri Lanka engage in wildlife tourism and visit at least one national park, according to Srilal Miththapala, a tourism industry specialist and promoter of nature-based tourism.
Opportunity vs. burden
But this level of popularity gives rise to various problems both for the wildlife and the managers of these national parks, who have to grapple with too many visitors. The whale watching industry, created without proper regulations, also prompted concerns in the early stages when boats were allowed to get close to the whales to give paying visitors a “better view.”
But the appeal of charismatic species should be seen as an opportunity rather than a burden, said Sampath Seneviratne from the University of Colombo. “We do live in a world where bigger environmental crises such as deforestation and climate change are threatening life on Earth. People have their own concerns and the need to preserve our ecosystems does not attract the expected political bite,” he said, adding that charismatic species and the love for them helps mainstream the need for species conservation.
In the case of Sri Lanka, however, conservation efforts have focused on the protection of the larger charismatic game animals found only in the island’s dry zone. But the island’s wealth of biodiversity lies in rather small endemic creatures — amphibians and reptiles, of which new species are discovered on an almost regular basis — mostly restricted to the wet zone and the central massif, said Eric Wikramanayake a conservation biologist who leads the wildlife and wetlands program of WWF- Hong Kong.
Wikramanayake compared Sri Lanka’s biodiversity to the workings of an airplane. “This airplane’s engine could be elephants. The flight computer could be the leopards. But what about the ants, bees, butterflies, earthworms and birds? Where do they fit in? We should not overlook the significant behind-the-scene contributions of the smaller species. They really are the nuts and bolts of the airplane. When they fail, we see a plane crash.”
Adapting to dynamic ecosystems
While there’s been great emphasis laid on species-specific protection activities, prioritizing wildlife habitats with high ecosystem value is the need of the hour, according to conservation biologist Manori Gunawardena. What the former approach has meant is the designation of a sizable share of protected areas to conserving mega fauna. This has led to the disparate distribution of protected sites, with more of the dry lowland habitats covered than the highly threatened and biodiversity-rich wet-zone ecosystems.
The ATBC-AP meeting called for the establishment of biodiversity corridors in Sri Lanka’s wet zone to link the fragmented rainforest patches in a bid to scale up the conservation of endemic species. The conservationists’ recommendations are included in the outcome document, the Thulhiriya Declaration.
Wikramanayake called for new strategies to conserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, looking beyond the charismatic species.
“Our conservation priorities, approaches and strategies belong to the 20th century,” he said. “We still rely on conservation paradigms, thought processes and ideas from the 1940s and ’50s. In the meantime, the world is changing and passing us by. Ecosystems are dynamic, and conservation has to adapt.”
Sri Lanka has the highest density of Asian elephants. Around 300 can be seen at the annual “gathering,” when they congregate at a manmade reservoir in Minneriya National Park. Banner image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne