Sinharaja West, Sinharaja East (Part I)
Sinharaja, the resplendent tropical lowland rainforest in south-western Sri Lanka, is a remarkable protected area, UNESCO world heritage site and living laboratory. For the last seven years it has provided an important field study site for my Geography and Environmental Systems classes at the Overseas School of Colombo. It is a large protected area (11,187 ha) and in all my years in Sri Lanka I have focused on visits to the biodiversity-rich western corner. In the last 10 days I have had the privilege of visiting both western and higher eastern portions (the next post will highlight the visits to the less-visited, higher altitude eastern areas of Sinharaja).
In early May OSC’s grade 11 IBDP Geography students had four days of rich and productive fieldwork in Sinharaja’s western (Kudawa) corner. As on past trips, the focus of the trip was for the students to collect field data for their internal assessment that accounts for 20-25% of their final grade. In years past we focused on the ecosystems angle of the tropical rainforest but with the revisions in the syllabus we are now looking at tourism as a development strategy, the theme of “biodiversity and change” and issues surrounding home garden agriculture. Land use patterns and spatial analysis are important aspects for all groups and thanks to Survey Department data from 2005 we are able to map and make attempts to verify the accuracy of this data using our ArcGIS software.
This year we utilized the new southern expressway and were up at our host Martin’s Jungle Lodge by noon. His lodge has ideal conditions for a forest experience sitting on the boundary between the buffer and core zone of the protected area. There is excellent secondary forest that attracts most of the endemic birds and a clear stream for guests to cool off in the afternoon. Electricity is generated by a small micro-turbine and there is limited cell phone coverage (thankfully). Weather conditions were dry, a surprise after the deluge that Colombo had experienced on April 30th.
Thirteen students of varying nationalities (Sri Lanka, India, Finland, Canada, Switzerland, USA etc.) joined the trip. I was supported by Eileen Niedermann, our secondary school principal and Haris Dharmasiri, OSC’s resourceful lead science technician. Lilani Ranasigha traded places with Eileen half way through the trip. After getting settled in we started the experience with a walk and introductory lecture to the Sinharaja core area. In years past we’ve been fortunate to have Professor Sarath Kotagama to give us the context for Sinharaja’s protection and what kind of significant threat the systematic logging posed in the 1970s. That afternoon we traversed the well-worn tourist paths though secondary, primary and ridge forests as we moved towards the research station. This is a major focal point (and former logging camp/maintenance depot) for all visitors to this side of Sinharaja and we use it as a base for studies in primary and secondary forests. The Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) did not disappoint and swooped down to give us an intimate encounter. The students were still consumed with removing leaches, something that would soon become an insignificant inconvenience.
Over the next two days students broke into small groups to gather field data on their individual questions. We had a group looking at plant species in different habitats, another studying soil in forest and human-impacted landscapes, a group of three studying water quality in forest streams and home garden water bodies, a group looking at tourist numbers and the idea of ecotourism and finally a group conducting an energy audit and survey of homes in the buffer zone of Sinharaja. Needless to say we chaperones could not monitor all of these simultaneously and the trip is designed for students to conduct a fair amount of independent data collection. During the course of the trip we had a chance to accompany each group, provide feedback and observe their methodology.
Sinharaja has hosted several landmark ecological studies including the two decade long forest dynamics study of a 25 hectare plot by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Peradeniya University and several other notable educational institutions. A classic study on the composition and spatial organization of mixed species flocks by Sarath Kotagama and Eben Goodale from 2004 serves as a model study and journal article for OSC students. Compared to these landmark studies our fleeting encounter yields limited data. The data that we gather on the trip is useful for the students’ work but at this point is not contributing to any long term monitoring of the area. What we are doing is getting a better sense of land use and home garden that should serve as an important evidence of patterns at this point in time.
An intriguing development in the western corner of Sinharaja is how it is being used as a location to host “reconciliation workshops” for students from all over the country. The basic idea is to bring teenage students from government schools in the conflict affected areas in the north and east of the country and foster an appreciation of nature to help provide a more lasting peace. “Reconciliation through the Power of Nature” is facilitated by the tireless work and enlightened thinking of Professor Kotagama and the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) with support provided by Dilmah Conservation. Martin hosts these student-teacher groups at his lodge and there are illuminating posters illustrating the goals and outcomes of the three day workshops for Jaffna schools.
Birds and the rich diversity of Sri Lankan endemics is what first drew me to Sinharaja in 1999. During a 4 day visit with my cousin Anna we trekked all over the different paths, including Moulawella and Sinhagala, looking for mixed species flocks and using just binoculars and field guides (no cameras!). On this trip to Sinharaja I had less time for birds because of the focus on human impact and land use patterns. However, we did encounter several mixed species flocks and had delightful views of a Red Faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus) and Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) as well as the other flock members. A highlight for me was getting to observe and photograph a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths (Batrachostomus moniliger) on the return from our hike to Moulawella. They were located by our energetic and informed guides Dinushka, Shanta and Ratna in a thicket of tree ferns. All the students got to see the endemic Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) and a shy Hump Nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scuatus) up close. We returned to Colombo n May 3rd with plenty of field data and experiences not to be forgotten. I was delighted with the outcomes of the trip and the knowledge that I was turning around with my family to visit the other end of Sinharaja on the next day!
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