Natural A Natural Reserve
Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja Reserve is famous for a wide variety of plant and animal life.
The Sinharaja Forest Reserve in Sri Lanka is located in the country’s south-west lowland wet zone. It is Sri Lanka’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. Originally declared a forest reserve in 1875 under the Waste Lands Ordinance and notified in the then Ceylon Government, the forest reserve was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988. The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is home to many endemic trees and wildlife, with more than 60 per cent of the trees in the reserve categorized as being rare. There is other unique wildlife in the reserve as well, including birds, mammals, butterflies, insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.
The links between the Sinharaja forest and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is rife with legends and lore. Both the forest and the people derive their name from the word ‘Sinha’ meaning lion and according to local legend, the race is the result of the union between a king’s daughter and a mighty lion who lived in the forest. The Sinharaja forest, therefore, occupies a special position of importance for the people of Sri Lanka. Legend also claims that the forest was royal territory belonging to the ancient kings (rajas) of the country and in some early colonial records, the forest is referred to as the ‘Rajasinghe Forest.’ Yet another legend claims that the forest was the last refuge of the lion, no longer found on the island.
At present, the Sinharaja Reserve covers an area of 8,800 hectares of nature and modified forests. The reserve lies in the south-west of the island and measures 21 kilometres in length. The Sinharaja rainforest is now a World Heritage Reserve and famous for a wide variety of plant and animal life that are endemic to Sri Lanka as well as a variety of shrubs and medicinal herbs. The Bata Na, which is found in the middle ranges of the forest, has unique flush, deep red and dropping leaves. Of Sri Lanka’s 217 endemic wet lowland trees and woody climbers, 64 per cent have been recorded in the Sinharaja reserve, of which 16 are considered to be rare.
Almost 95 per cent of the country’s endemic birds (about 19 species) are found here, including the rare red-faced malkoha, green-billed caucal, blue magpie and Sri Lankan spur fowl. Diversity among the reptiles and amphibians is remarkably high. The endemic green viper, endemic hump-nosed lizard and horned lizard are common here. Small tributaries and rivers of the forest support the fish such as striped Rasbora, walking catfish, Gal Pandiya (Doctor Fish) and endemic Comb Tail. Out of the 12 endemic mammal species of the country, eight can be found in the reserve. Giant squirrels, dusky-striped jungle squirrel, purple-faced
leaf monkey and the torque macaque can be frequently seen in the forest.
In 1840, the forest became British crown land and efforts were made towards its preservation. However, in 1971 loggers moved in and began selective logging. Logging roads and trails snaked into the forest and a woodchip mill was built. Following intense lobbying by conservationists, the government called a halt to all logging in 1977. Machinery was dismantled and removed, the roads gradually grew over and Sinharaja was saved. Much of the rest of Sri Lanka’s rainforest stands on mountain ridges within a 20km radius of the forest.
The climate in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is divided into seasons. These seasons are called the Yala monsoon and the Maha monsoon. The Yala monsoon occurs between May and June, while the Maha monsoon occurs between December and March. In a tropical climate, these are referred to as wet and dry seasons. Changes in climate include the disruption in rainfall and also rainfall patterns affecting crop cultivations, and this leads to a rise in temperatures affecting comfort levels. Forest cover needs to be maintained to ameliorate the effects of climate change. With forests getting confined to smaller areas, a cascade of harmful events can occur if the deforestation continues. Deforestation has also lead to other environmental issues such as flooding, landslides and soil erosion. Poor natural resource management and land use patterns has resulted in the marginalization of lands, loss of productivity and depletion of non-renewable resources.
Deforestation is one of the most serious environmental issues impacting the Sinharaja reserve. Sri Lanka, according to the IUCN has the highest deforestation and wildlife habitat loss rate in southern Asia. The major cause of this degradation is the result of population pressure, inappropriate land use and lack of effective management. Sri Lanka ranks 52nd in the world for population density and most of the communities surrounding the rainforest are engaged in monoculture tea, rubber and coconut plantations leading to encroachments and illegal resource extraction.
Many steps have been taken by the government to help conserve the Sinharaja Forest reserve. Rainforest Rescue International (RRI) is a non-profit organization based in Galle, Sri Lanka, that works to protect vulnerable environments through eco system restoration, development of sustainable livelihoods, education, research, and advocacy. RRI is helping to achieve the conservation by creating a rainforest corridor between the two largest remaining rainforests in Sri Lanka, the Sinharaja and the Kanneliya forest. This linkage will help stop extinction by creating more habitats, maintain migratory pathways, and encourage breeding to help maintain viable populations. Besides this, RRI is supporting purchase of rainforest and buffer zone lands at risk of clearing for agriculture, establishing nurseries to supply seedlings for restoration projects, educating children in environmental matters in schools and training farmers in organic agriculture to assist them in developing sustainable livelihoods thereby removing pressure on the rainforest.
Sri Lanka has, within its folds, an abundance of endemic species which have taken many of years to evolve; and for this reason, the same leverage that is given to protecting cultural heritage should be given to protecting the country’s natural heritage. There are only a very few such forests left in Asia, and if encroachment on them were to continue, it would affect water sources. This can lead to loss of water, which, in turn, can impact agricultural production and shake the very foundations of the economy. Madiha Bilal Kapadia holds an MBA in Marketing from IoBM and freelances for various publications.