- Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak Wilderness sanctuary, recording the island’s highest biodiversity, continues to face multiple threats due to a pilgrimage that draws a large crowd.
- During the pilgrimage season, tons of non-biodegradable polythene and plastics are dumped and get washed down or carried by the wind.
- Adding a fresh problem, Buddhist devotees are habitually offering a beautiful and rare endemic flower, locally known as ran dothalu (Loxococcus rupicola), a practice that causes concern among environmentalists who fear the endangered palm will soon reach the brink of extinction.
- The Peak Wilderness sanctuary is facing other serious issues such as forest dieback, a direct result of the forest getting drier, as climate change adversely affects the island’s top amphibian hotspot.
RATNAPURA, Sri Lanka — The Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA) is a youth organization that explores Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, and its members are an enthusiastic group of people often raking through leaf litter looking for little creatures like frogs, butterflies, skinks and lizards in forest areas — especially the Adam’s Peak Wilderness.
Armed with sticks and sacks, about 50 young zoologists combed the footsteps leading to the summit of Adam’s Peak, locally known as Sri Pada’ (sacred feet) or Samanala Kanda, surrounded by the Peak Wilderness Nature Reserve, during their annual trek between December and May this year as well. But instead of little creatures, their focus was on discarded polythene bags, polythene food wrappers, PET bottles and various other non-biodegradable items dumped by thousands of pilgrims who trekked through the winding path during the pilgrimage season.
“This year, we collected over 300 kilograms [660 pounds] of non-biodegradable items from this unique ecosystem within one day, but there’s lots more to collect still,” says Ishanda Senevirathne, the president of the youth collective.
Some garbage was mixed with soil and washed down the slopes and deposited at various nooks and corners, making collection a difficult task, Senevirathne told Mongabay. It was an uphill task to bring the collected garbage down the mountain, he said.
Adam’s Peak is Sri Lanka’s third-highest mountain, standing at 2,243 meters (7,359 feet) and one of the island’s most important ecosystems. In 2010, the mountain, which forms part of Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While Buddhists consider the footprint-shaped mark at the summit to be that of the Buddha, those of other faiths believe it to be the footprint of their faith leader. From December to May, there is a steady stream of pilgrims climbing the mountain and people from various countries join the locals to summit the peak. This also means visitors discarding piles of garbage along the way within this short period of time. Each year, the piles increase, and cleaning the area becomes more challenging.
Just like the YZA, several other volunteer groups conduct garbage cleanups while the main cleaning operation is carried out by the Maskeliya Divisional Secretariat.
“For the 2022-23 pilgrimage season, a total of 113 tons of garbage were collected from the Sri Pada and surrounding area, with three tons of it being PET bottles and several tons of other non-biodegradables,” says Rasika Samaranayake, the environment management officer of the Maskeliya DS. Twenty laborers have been employed for the garbage collection, but unlike on flat terrain, it has been a difficult task for them to collect and bring down garbage collected on the peak, says Samaranayake.
A difficult cleaning operation
The Adam’s Peak Wilderness Nature Reserve is among the richest biodiversity hotspots on the Indian Ocean island, as it extends from lowland rainforests to the cloud forests closest the peak, boasting a unique geographical range from 1,000-7,360 feet above sea level, says Mendis Wickramasinghe, a leading herpetologist with the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe conducted extensive research in the Peak Wilderness describing a number of new creatures, including the discovery of eight new shrub frogs from this biodiversity hotspot.
Garbage can have multiple effects on the creatures found in Sri Pada, Wickramasinghe says. First, human food has been introduced, and then polythene. Peak Wilderness is also an important watershed in the country, and polythene pollutes the natural waterways. Because there aren’t enough toilet facilities along the pilgrims’ route, there is stress on the existing facilities, and overflowing toilets contribute to further pollution, especially the waterways, Wickramasinghe said.
It is a local tradition for pilgrims, especially first-timers, to take a customary dip before the climb, which now adds a lot of soap and shampoo to the waterways, affecting biodiversity several kilometers downstream from the bathing spots, Wickramasinghe told Mongabay.
Illegal constructions have spung up on both sides of the footpaths offering services to the pilgrims but are now posing a serious problem to the environment. In 2009, Wickramasinghe rediscovered Adenomus kandianus or the Kandyan dwarf toad, considered extinct for 133 years. But one of its habitats within the Peak Wilderness was destroyed in the process of building a hotel, the veteran herpetologist said. The makeshift stalls that offer food and other services to pilgrims often include trees that have been cut from the forests for renovations.
Through the media, pilgrims are continuously educated not to discard their garbage irresponsibly, but the public response continues to be poor. Caring for nature and responsibility toward it should be taught to people at a very young age so that it becomes part of a value system, said Nethu Wickramasinghe of Education Without Boundaries, a platform for educating young minds on science. Items such as toffee and biscuit wrappers are widespread, and these can be easily picked up by visitors — but this does not happen often, Wickramasinghe said.
Offering a rare endemic flower
Besides the issue of garbage piles, a new practice has emerged with local Buddhists rushing to offer a rare endemic flower, ran dothalu ( Loxococcus rupicola), to the holy footprint with the intention of accruing merit. However, this practice is threatening the very existence of the endangered palm and possibly contributes to its near extinction, experts warn.
According to Buddhist literature, the guardian deity of the Sri Pada range, Sumana Saman, had offered ran dothalu flowers to the Buddha and extended an invitation to his region. It has now become a local fad to offer the flower to Buddha at the temple on the peak, and some local campaigns promote the offering of this flower rather than discourage the environmentally damaging practice.
The Loxococcus rupicola is assessed as endangered, given its limited local distribution, and if this destructive practice continues, the palm’s survival will be soon challenged, says Siril Wijesundara of the National Institute of Fundamental Studies who is also coordinator of the National Red List of Threatened Flora of Sri Lanka. He told Mongabay that the genus Loxococcus is also endemic to Sri Lanka and this plant hence is of high importance in biological terms.
The palm grows on steep mountains within the Peak Wilderness range, so it is feared that in some instances, the entire palm tree is cut to collect the flower, Wijesundara said. It would take a few years to understand the full impact as the removal of flowers would impact the next generation after the existing palms die, the botanist said.
Meanwhile, the Sri Pada Fans Collective, a Facebook group with about 300,000 members who enjoy Sri Pada, is focusing on creating awareness against environmentally damaging practices. The group recently launched an awareness campaign and put up public notices requesting responsible behavior. “We receive a number of photographs showing people offering this flower and we do not publish such images on our page,” says Shamindra Ranshan, an administrator of the Facebook group.
“We even held discussions with Buddhist priests to discuss ways to ensure the environment is not harmed by the visitors. We specially asked for their assistance to prevent pilgrims from offering the rare flower. But the monks have responded negatively, as offering of ran dothalu is steeped in tradition,” Ranshan told Mongabay.
Religious customs aside, the law has enough provision to prevent this unsustainable practice, as it is enlisted as a protected plant under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance of Sri Lanka, says senior environmental lawyer and naturalist, Jagath Gunawardana. The removal of the flower is considered harmful to the plant. Those who remove the flowers and keep the flowers in their possession are committing an offence, Gunawardana said.
Besides disturbing human activities, the Peak Wilderness Nature Reserve is facing severe problems, including forest dieback at the peak.
Wijesundara, who has been visiting the area frequently, said the streams were already drying up and the area was fast getting drier, due to climate change. Meanwhile, some invasive species are also showing increased distribution and need urgent controlling, Wickramasinghe added.
Banner image: Polythene and plastics washed downstream pollute the holy site within this unique heritage site in Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of the Young Zoologists’ Association (YZA).