Conservation news

The Sri Lankan legume: Extinct, rediscovered, and now at risk again (commentary)

  • The recent rediscovery of an endemic plant known as the Sri Lanka legume (Crudia zeylanica), considered extinct until a week ago, has been welcomed in Sri Lanka, a biodiverse island with high endemism.
  • The plant was found on private land that sits along the path of a planned highway, placing it at imminent danger of extinction once again.
  • The rediscovery has opened a fresh debate on the validity of the environmental impact assessment process for major projects in Sri Lanka, as the plant was not included when an impact study was completed for the highway project.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

COLOMBO — The recent rediscovery of the endemic plant known as the Sri Lanka legume by three young research scientists in a locality in Sri Lanka’s western district of Gampaha has highlighted, in its wake, a number of issues that were in need of serious consideration.

The Sri Lanka legume (Crudia zeylanica) was discovered and named a new species in 1868; in 1911 it was found in another locality. Since then, however, there is no record of it even being seen, and it was eventually presumed to be extinct.

The IUCN Red List of 2006 categorizes it as extinct, as does the National Red List of 2012, prepared by Sri Lanka’s ministry of environment.

It was known only from the herbarium specimens collected more than a century ago, and drawings, since there were no photographs of a living plant until this rediscovery.

The knowledge that it is still alive and not lost forever has brought a lot of rejoicing from the conservation and scientific fields, but has also immediately drawn a lot of worried responses from the same concerned parties.

The main concern is about the habitat of this plant, a small area of wetland located within a privately owned property that sits square within the trace of the proposed Colombo-Kandy Expressway. The project was approved for commencement in 2016, but construction has not yet begun.

The Colombo-Kandy Expressway project was given conditional approval by Sri Lanka’s key environmental agency, the Central Environmental Authority, acting as the project approving agency after considering the environmental impact assessment (EIA) submitted by the Road Development Authority, which was the project proponent.

Environmental clearance  

The provisions contained in the National Environmental Act (NEA) make it mandatory for all proponents of projects deemed as “prescribed projects” to conduct an EIA or an initial environmental examination (IEE) report as the project warrants, in the process of getting it approved.

The EIA has been made, submitted for approval, and was exposed for public comments for a mandatory 30-day period. The EIA was evaluated by relevant officials and experts before approving it. However, it is unfortunate that the survey team failed to identify this species during their survey and hence it was not listed among the recorded plants at that time. There had been considerable displeasure and criticism from the public, public interest groups and even from some government institutions about the manner in which the project approval process was completed.

One criticism is that these reports are finalized and approved in an extremely hurried process without providing adequate time for scientists to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the different aspects. It is most probably the most likely story behind the Sri Lanka legume not being discovered during the survey.

A rare endemic plant in the highway

This rediscovery has put the conditional approval granted to the project in a precarious position, as the entire floral study and even the legal validity of the evaluation and approval is now open to fresh questioning. The basis for approving or rejecting a project and the imposition of conditions is propelled by the available information in the EIA, and in this instance it is clear that there has been a serious omission of important information on the part of the project proponent.

The other very pertinent legal issue comes from the fact that this species is deemed a protected species under the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. It is an offense to destroy or harm any protected species of plant. It is also important to see that any further steps in proceeding with the project need to consider measures to protect this species and not jeopardize its survival in any direct or indirect manner.

It is interesting to note how this issue suddenly came to the limelight.

Neither the scientists nor the different state bodies provided any information on the rediscovery of the species. Instead, it was made public through an environmental social media group that published the information, provoking a huge response on social media, though yet to be picked up by the mainstream media. It is also relevant to note that there have been several unsolicited suggestions in response to the wide media publicity given to this issue.

It is imprudent to suggest any other measures except the in-situ conservation of the only remaining population of this species, which consist of only two trees. This is also due to the lack of knowledge with regard to its growth or reproductory habits, or about the environmental and other requirements necessary for its survival.

This makes it impossible for the project proponent to take any unilateral action on their part without consulting both the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

It also highlights the required role of Sri Lanka’s Road Development Authority, which is to act in accordance with  the country’s laws and to engage in a due consultation process  with both the CEA and DWC before proceeding with the project.

It is the paramount responsibility of all concerned parties to strike a balance between the need to proceed with the expressway project while ensuring the survival of this species into the future.

 

Banner image of a pencil drawing of the recently rediscovered endemic plant known as the Sri Lanka legume by Govindoo via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

 

Jagath Gunawardana is a Colombo-based environmental lawyer, lecturer and naturalist.