Sinharaja West, Sinharaja East (Part II)
The remote higher reaches of the UNESCO-designated Sinharaja Man and Biosphere reserve are located at the union of three southern districts; Ratnapura, Galle and Mattara. It’s an area that you hear about more often than visit and, like most Colombo-based bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts, I had focused my past visits on the western Kudawa side. Last week our family had a unique opportunity to explore and visit the eastern portions of Sinharaja above the small settlement of Viharahenaa.
In the east the Ruakwana Hills that host Sinharaja rise up to 1,150+ meters and the dominant vegetation type is montane forest, rather than lowland tropical rainforest. This is one of the wettest areas in the country with annual rainfall falling in a range of 3,600-5,000 mm. However, just a few kilometers eastwards and the climate reverts to the dry zone! The natural vegetation and contours of the land are reminiscent of the wind swept forests that cloak the Peak Wilderness and Horton Plains areas in the Central Highlands. Emergent trees have exquisite, gnarled branches. There are also interesting parallels to the evergreen rainforests of Kakachi in the Ashambu Hills in the southernmost Western Ghats.
Several years ago our family circumnavigated the northern border of Sinharaja, passing from Rakwana around the eastern border and Suriyakanda to Deniyaya. At that time we had glimpses of the higher forests but we were unable to explore into the area. The Forest Department maintains a bungalow at an area called Morningside and it remains an intriguing destination to get to. It has been notable for the number of new amphibian species that have been discovered by University of Peradeniya researchers (see Froglog and the The Island for details). Suiyakanda is visible from afar because of a series of transmission towers that crown it. It lies beyond the Sinharaja PA boundaries but there is still significant undisturbed forest in its vicinity. In the last year there has been a flurry of articles in the Sri Lankan press related to a controversial road that is being built connecting Suiyakanda to Kalawana (see the Sunday Leader and Sunday Times).
On this visit we were guests at the Rainforest Ecolodge a new establishment that is the product of careful thought and an innovative low-impact conceptual plan. Their goal is to have a minimalistic but luxurious lodge that caters to ecotourists, with a sensitive approach to assisting local communities. Many of the large Sri Lankan tourist operators (Jetwings, Atikin Spence etc.) are shareholders, in a unique collaborative effort. The project was facilitated by USAID’s competitiveness initiative. The location (E 6.389351°, N 80.596336°) and forest-dominated landscape is what moved me most. A dozen chalets and the main hotel structure are built on a slim finger of tea that is surrounded by montane forest. Guests are housed in chalets made of recycled containers with a conscious effort to minimize the use of concrete. They sit on stilts above the tea with a patio facing the forest. The hospitality and attention to detail were second to none, reminding us again about why Sri Lanka is such a leader in high-end tourism. The concern for the local community, comprised largely of Tamil estate workers, seemed genuine and much more than mere tokenism. Nearly everyone working at the Ecolodge was drawn from these communities and lower elevation settlements near Viharahenaa.
Getting to and from the location was certainly a big part of the adventure but the major highlight was taking a morning exploratory walk through forest and into patanas. We were lead by the energetic guides Kumara and Sanjeeva who are building up a knowledge base of the area’s biodiversity. The two children of our hosts Indrika and Krishan also accompanied our family. The patanas, or grasslands formerly hosted tea gardens but have been abandoned several years ago and are gradually reverting to wilder states though a process of ecological succession. They adjoin the actual Sinharaja PA border, which we never actually entered.
An interesting observation was the extent to which pitcher plants (Nepenthes distillatoria) are recolonizing these former tea fields. Given that the plants prefer nutrient poor soil (they derive their nutrients from insects) it makes sense, still it is better than invasive species such as Lantana camara taking over! We had an opportunity to follow one of the Gin Ganga’s tributaries up through cascades of clear mountain water, large boulders and thickets of tree ferns. Odonata species were numerous and we had fairly good sightings of bird and butterfly species too. The Sri Lankan keelback (Xenochrophis asperrimus) pictured in the post almost got stepped on by five-year-old Amy when we were passing her down a steep bit of steam. She and the snake remained very calm and it was kind enough to pose for our cameras.
In the near future we are looking to bring a group of OSC students here for rainforest studies and perhaps a new community service initiative.