- The Sinharaja Forest Reserve in southern Sri Lanka will be expanded fourfold through the incorporate of surrounding forests into the protected area.
- The new reserve will span 36,000 hectares (88,960 acres), and will help conserve a biodiversity hotspot known for being home to a treasure trove of rare species found nowhere else on Earth.
- Current threats to Sinharja and the surrounding forests include encroachment, hunting, logging, and gem mining.
- As a forest reserve, the UNESCO World Heritage Site will allow for both the protection of the rainforest and sustainable and non-destructive forestry activities that are key to the livelihoods of local communities.
COLOMBO — Sri Lanka plans to quadruple the size of the protected area inside its last viable rainforest, in a nod to the ecological significance of the region.
The Sinharaja Forest Reserve currently spans 8,864 hectares (21,903 acres) in the island’s southwest and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 because of its rich and unique plant and animal life.
Over the years, however, this prime lowland rainforest and the areas surrounding it have faced multiple threats, ranging from illegal logging and cardamom cultivation, to unauthorized settlements and gem mining. To counter this fragmentation of the forest, the Sri Lankan government has opted to incorporate surrounding forests into the reserve, effectively increasing the size of the protected area four times to 36,000 ha (88,960 acres).
The proposed expansion was signed last month by Maithripala Sirisena during the final days of his presidency, and is now awaiting formal notification via gazette.
Sri Lanka has two different types of protected areas: one managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the other by the Forest Department. Sinharaja falls under the jurisdiction of the latter, and the newly expanded area will be formally declared as part of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, to be governed under the Forest Ordinance.
The forests that surround it harbor similarly high levels of biodiversity and endemism as the core area, and the importance of bringing these forests under the protected area network was identified years ago. The National Conservation Review (NCR) published in 1997 proposed 12 such satellite forests to be declared as protected area for their conservation value. Known as the Sinharaja Adaviya (Sinharaja Range), this would create a contiguous forest complex comprising the existing reserve and the neighboring forests of Ayagama, Delgoda, Dellawa, Delmella-Yatagampitiya, Diyadawa, Kobahadukanda, Morapitiya-Runakanda-Neluketiya Mukalana, Warathalgoda, Silverkanda, Handapanella, Gongala and Paragala. Much of these have been proposed for absorption into the protected area under the new scheme.
Thilak Premakantha, a conservator with the Forest Department, told Mongabay that it took a long time for the demarcation of new boundaries, starting in early 2000. Generally, a gazette notification declaring a protected area runs into one or two pages, but the new gazette declaring the expansion of Sinharaja is 80 pages long. The draft is now being finalized, pending a vigorous process of verification of GPS coordinates, which is expected to delay the publication of the gazette notice by a few more weeks, Premakantha said.
The culmination of the years-long process will be a vindication of the strenuous work of local scientists and recognition that their recommendations have been given serious consideration, said Nimal Gunatilleke, emeritus professor at the University of Peradeniya. Gunatilleke was among the long-term campaigners calling for greater protection of the Sinharaja region, including through his opposition to a mechanized logging project in the 1970s there to produce plywood.
A biodiversity hotspot
Researchers helped Sinharaja be recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, identifying more than 60% of its trees as endemic and many of them as rare. They also estimate the forest reserve is home to more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many birds, insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.
According to Gunatilleke, in addition to its biodiversity significance, Sinharaja has tremendous value in terms of ecosystem services. “For example, the headwater of few of Sri Lanka’s main rivers such as Nilwala and Gin Ganga are enriched by the water that flows into them through the forests of the Sinharaja complex. So if not for biological diversity, we should protect these forests for our own survival,” he said.
In Sri Lanka, a forest reserve has similar status to a national park, both of which are managed by wildlife conservation authorities and where research and nature-based tourism are permitted. But unlike a national park, a forest reserve is potentially open to human activities, under a stringent permit system, thus allowing non-destructive forestry activities that are central to the livelihoods of communities living adjacent to the forests, Premakantha said.
Expanding the forest reserve in Sinharaja to include neighboring forests would help stave off a number of threats such as encroachment, hunting, logging, illegal gem mining, and overharvesting of forest products such as agarwood. “The new declaration would provide much-needed legal backing for the protection of these forests which contain high value of biological diversity,” said botanist Suranjan Fernando. “However, the next step is to ensure practical enforcement. With the expansion of the reserve area, the land extent that is to be monitored by forest officials is extensive. So it is important to establish more presence to ensure enforcement.”
Suranjan said villagers living close to Sinharaja need a sustainable management plan that would support the conservation aim of creating corridors to link the forests, to prevent fragmentation.
“These villages in between forest patches would require the setting up of planned home gardens which in turn can support the biodiversity corridors,” he said. A key crop cultivated in the area is tea, but tea plantations aren’t considered ecological friendly. Finding alternative livelihoods for tea growers living adjacent to the forests is a vital next step, Suranjan said.
The area is dotted by a number of traditional villages whose residents depend on a number forest services. These include the tapping of the kitul flower to collect syrup to make treacle and jaggery sugar, the harvesting of rattan climber for the production of natural cane, and the collection of herbs and firewood.
These traditional activities do no harm to the forest, and have allowed the villagers to live sustainably in the rainforest for centuries, Premakantha said, and thus should be encouraged over other, more destructive, practices.
“These villagers lived in harmony with nature, deriving many benefits from the forests,” he said. “It is poverty that converts some of them to engage in illegal and harmful practices.”
Banner image of a white monkey from the Sinharaja Forest Reserve in southern Sri Lanka, courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle.