OSC Sinharaja Field Study 2014
Last week OSC’s DP Geography class spent four productive and memorable days in Sinharaja rainforest collecting data for their internal assessment. This is the 10th OSC class to visit Sri Lanka’s well known tropical rainforest. Located in the south western Rukwana Hills, Sinharaja is a designated UNESCO biodiversity heritage site and has received widespread recognition for its flora and fauna. A key aspect of its story is the remarkable recovery that the forest has made after being heavily logged in the early 1970s. Today Sinharaja offers a model site to study ecotourism, rainforest ecology and rural home garden agriculture. Our trip provided an opportunity for students to collect field data for their internal assessment, a 2,500 word research paper that accounts for 20-25% of their final grade. As we have done on past field studies, this year’s cohort focused on themes of tourism, biodiversity, energy, land use and home garden agriculture.
Once again, we stayed at Martin Wijeysinghe’s Jungle Lodge. This small guest house has ideal conditions for a forest experience and field study. It sits on the boundary between the buffer and core zone of the protected area and there is easy access to several different habitats. There is excellent secondary forest that attracts most of the endemic birds and a clear stream for guests to cool off in. Electricity is generated by a small micro-turbine, water is heated by solar panels and the food is locally produced. There is very limited cell phone connectivity, something that delights old fashioned teachers but can challenge students used to 24/7 connectivity. Weather conditions were wet during our stay, but the showers came in the afternoon and we had productive mornings in the surrounding landscapes.
This year’s Geography cohort was its smallest in recent memory, with only five students participating. We were supported by Ms. Uthpala De Silva, who assists the secondary school with cover work. She was an enthusiastic participant and was particularly resourceful in helping with translation and building bridges with community members who the students were interviewing. After getting settled into Martin’s on Tuesday afternoon we started the experience with an introductory walk to the Sinharaja core area. That afternoon we traversed the well-worn tourist paths though secondary, and primary forests.
Over the next two days students broke into two small groups to gather field data on their individual geographic questions. This year most students had questions that involved the home gardens and human-dominated landscapes on the park boundary. Sajni looked at soil conditions in forest and human-impacted landscapes. Mikka studied water quality and land use. Jitmi researched energy consumption patterns to devise a measure of people’s ecological footprint. Nikita assessed bird diversity to inform his question on differences in land use and habitat. Finally, Ravin looked at tourist numbers and attitudes of local residents towards the increasing importance of tourism as a strategy to improve livelihoods in the area. A highlight was building relationships through our guides with the Kudawa community. Most of these people make a living growing tea and other crops on small parcels of land (home gardens). For several men and women, guiding tourists provides an important secondary source of income. We explored remote home garden pockets to gather data and enjoyed several traditional village meals. Jackfruit curry, gotukola sambol and a special forest mushroom curry were gastronomical highlights.
In order to get the data gathered all groups had to do a fair amount of walking in sunny, humid conditions. There were significant physical demands as streams were forged, jungles traversed and mountains climbed in search of data. Leeches were discouraged with the famous Sinharaja leech socks and various liquid deterrents. Students and their teachers suffered little more than a few small itchy bites. The afternoon showers helped moderate the climate and on Thursday afternoon there was time to cool off in the stream near Martin’s. On the final morning we took a fast-paced trek up to Moulawella Peak (fondly renamed “cell phone mountain” by Ravin for its clear G3 reception). Here, on a clear, rain-washed morning we appreciated the landscape taking note of vast areas of protected rainforest as well as the patchwork of tea gardens, pine plantations and other landscapes to the north and west.
We returned to Colombo on May 2nd with ample field data and experiences not to be forgotten. The class is now working to process and analyze the data, while using the school’s GIS software to provide original maps of the study site.
Sinharaja rainforest has been host to a number of significant scientific studies in the decades since logging operations ceased in 1977. Several landmark ecological studies have been conducted over the last four decades. This includes the two-decade long forest dynamics study of a 25-hectare plot by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute , Peradeniya University and several other notable 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.
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.
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