Archive for the ‘Reptiles of Sri Lanka & the Western Ghats’ Category
Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands have been recognized for their significant biodiversity. The area is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site yet (adopted in 2010) and there is a growing awareness about its unique flora and fauna. The Highlands are composed of the mountainous region at the heart of the southern island and include significant areas such as Peak Wilderness, Horton Plains National Park, the Pidurutalagala forests, the Knuckles protected area and several smaller tracts of forest. Most of the Central Highlands have largely been cleared of original vegetation in support of the plantation (mainly tea) industry. This happened during the 19th and early 20th centuries during colonial rule though recent decades have seen loss of forest to hydroelectric dams, plantations expansion and other human land uses. Today the remaining protected areas may be a small percentage of the total area, but they are well protected and offer the opportunity to experience some of Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity.
PAST WWW TRIPS
PAST SRI PADA STUDIES
- OSC Class of 2010 (Sri Pada 2008 trip)
- OSC Class of 2011 (Sri Pada 2009 trip)
- OSC Class of 2012 (Sri Pada 2010 trip)
- OSC Class of 2013 (Sri Pada 2011 trip)
- OSC Class of 2014 (Sri Pada 2012trip)
- OSC Class of 2015 (Sri Pada 2013 trip)
- OSC Class of 2016 (Sri Pada 2014 trip)
FURTHER READING & REFERENCES
Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.
Pethiyagoda, Rohan. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2013. Print.
Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.
Horton Plains National Park in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands is a unique high elevation ecosystem with intriguing parallels to the uplands of India’s southern Western Ghats. I was reminded of its mazing biodiversity and similarities with the shola/grasslands systems of the Western Ghats on a recent visit with my daughter Amy and friends Britton & Tracy. Our aim was to visit the plains, climb Kirigalpotta, stay in Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC) quarters, and assess the suitability of the place for a future OSC Week Without Walls experiential learning visit.
Kirigalpotta is Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak at 2,390 meters. Given that there is a military radar station on Pidurutalagala, Sri Lanka’s highest peak (2,524m) and it is out of bounds, Kirigalpotta offers the next best opportunity to get seriously high in Sri Lanka! The table land of Horton Plains is already at almost 2,100 meters so there is not much of an elevation gain as you do the Kirigalpotta hike but it offers an unparalleled experience in walking though relatively undisturbed cloud forest and patanas (grasslands).
Since my first visit to Sri Lanka as an adult I have been drawn to the Central Highlands for their montane landscapes, unique biodiversity and similarities to the higher ranges of the southern Western Ghats. In 2010 the Central Highlands were recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Now after nearly a decade here I have had the opportunity to visit Horton Plains on a number of personal visits with friends and family. This school year I am getting ready to introduce a new Week Without Walls learning experience that will highlight the geography and ecology of the Central Highlands. Horton Plains and its peaks will feature largely in the planned experience.
Most people visiting HPNP-and there are a lot of them on weekends-make the long journey up to the Plains in order to do the leisurely World End trail. We had booked into the Maheliya bungalow through the DWC and were able to wake up in the Plains and head to the trail before the van loads and buses arrived. The Kirigalpotta trail starts at the same museum and parking lot (once known as Farr Inn) that is at the center of HPNP. There is a sign (see pictures below) and it leads off down the hill and along several long stretches of marshy patanas in a south-westerly direction. The path is well worn and on this trip we walked it without a guide. The patanas are intriguing with their different grasses, dwarf bamboo (Arundinaria densifolia) and scattered Rhododendron arboreum trees. Unlike in the south Indian highlands the cloud forest is on ridgelines and the patanas (grasslands) are in the valleys. I had made a memorable trip here with colleagues Ray Lewis and Dan Snyder and on that first trip it had been helpful to have a guide.
The path crosses a tributary of the Belihul Oya and after some exquisite patana walking you dip in and out of the cloud forest. There had been a major flowering of the Strobilanthes in the understory a year ago (something I regrettably missed –see the Sunday Observer and Sunday Times) and on this visit the forest floor was covered in their dried out, woody detritus. The trail is at times rather muddy and Tracy and Britton took turns handing Amy across or just carrying her through these obstructions. After about a leisurely two hours the bath crosses a small rivulet and then makes the final climb up to the ridge and summit of Kirigalpotta. On the final stretch it follows the exposed ridge amongst mossy rock faces and stunted, dwarf trees and shrubs. We experienced a mix of sun and brief showers as we made the climb. On the Kirigalpotta ridge we got a brief view looking back towards the plains and Totopula Kanda (see panoramic images below). Amy zipped along with the careful attention of Tracy shadowing her as they negotiated the slippery ridgeline. The summit is composed of a small clearing in dense vegetation and a window over the western edge. On a boulder there are barely discernable markings of the Survey Department, left from their 19th Century survey of Ceylon. The serenity and natural state is a reminder of what the summit of Sri Pada probably once looked like. We enjoyed a quick snack, took a few snap shots and then decided to head back as clouds rolled in and brought with them rain.
In 2012 Rohan Pethiyagoda of the Wildlife Heritage Trust published the seminal book Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. It is an exquisite publication both in production and the sweeping content that examines ecological, historical and contemporary aspects of the park. While Rohan is the editor and force behind the book Horton Plains includes articles and contributions by the leading natural history personalities in Sri Lanka. The book is supported with a dazzling wealth of color photographs, line drawing, aerial shots and high-resolution satellite (IKONOS) images of the Plains. The fine photography of Vimukthi Weeratunga is featured and stands out in the book. The book has intriguing chapters on the history of the Plains and articles on the ecological origins of the patanas (an anthropocentric-influenced system or a climax natural system?….you’ll have to read the book to see what conclusion is arrived at!). For anyone interested in the ecology and landscape of the Central Highlands and their similar systems in the southern Western Ghats in India, the book is a must have resource.
SELECTED REFERENCES & FURTHER LINKS
De Silva, Anslem. The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007. Colombo. Print.
Lockwood, Ian. “In the High Altitude Grasslands of Horton Plains.” Ian Lockwood Blog. 28 February 2011. Web.
Pethiyagoda, Rohan, Ed. Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud Forest National Park. Colombo: WHT, 2012. Print. Weblink.
Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle.” 8 August Sunday Times. 2010. Web.
Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: WHT, 2001. Print.
NOTE: With regards to spelling you will see “Kirigalpotta” spelt in several different ways. I have used the spelling from the Wildlife Heritage Trust’s publications.
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.
Abeywickrama. Asanga, Sinharaja Rainforest Sri Lanka. Web. 2009.
DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.
Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site.Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.
Harrison, John. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print.
Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.
Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.
Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80 & 81 (1:50,000). Colombo: 1994. Maps & Spatial Data.
Warakagoda. Deepal et. al. Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.
Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva. Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007.Print.
Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.
PAST BLOG POSTS ON SINHARAJA
- Geography IA Trip 2007
- Geography IA Trip 2008
- Geography IA Trip 2009
- Geography IA Trip 2012
- Geography IA Trip 2013
- General Sinharaja Reflections
Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja rainforest has gained significant attention in the past few decades for its biodiversity and large protected area of forest in a densely populated corner of the island nation. It remains a veritable oasis of the lowland tropical rainforest vegetation that once covered much larger areas of the island’s “wet-zone.” I’ve been fortunate to be able to take student groups to Sinharaja over the past seven years and have also enjoyed several personal visits. The field study trips are usually oriented around the IB Diploma Geography Internal Assessment that requires field-work. Increasingly we have been looking to study human-ecosystem relationships and interactions (with the aid of GIS and spatial data of the area) around the popular Kudawa entrance. However, there is much more to Sinharaja that few visitors see. and on a recent trip a group of friends and I had a chance to make a long traverse over little-used paths that connect the two major entrances.
This August group of friends and I had a chance to make the long traverse over little-used paths that connect the two major entrances of Sinharaja. We started in the west at the Kudawa entrance and ended in the eastern portions that my family and I had visited in May. Together with friends at the Rainforest Ecolodge we were looking to see if a day-long trek from the Kudawa entrance to the Pitadeniya exit was a feasible option to take a student group. We did the trek via Sinhagala, the “lion rock” that is a significant point at the center of Sinharaja. Though few people actually visit it, the peak has significant cultural importance and is associated with stories of the advent of the Sinhalese people. Sinhagala is roughly 17 km from the core-zone entrance above Kudawa while on the map it is a shorter 10 km to Pitadeniya from the summit. Our team was composed of four friends and faculty members from the Overseas School of Colombo. As per park rules, we hired a guide to take us to Sinhagala peak (he returned after leaving us at the peak). Meanwhile our friend Krishan from the Rainforest Ecolodge organized a team to come up and rendezvous with us at Sinhagala.
The path to Sinhagala is arguably one of the most beautiful rainforest walks that you can do in South Asia. The trail follows a long overgrown logging road that snakes into the heart of the reserve and exposes you to amazing swathes of primary and secondary forest. The walking is not challenging from the perspective of physical terrain and the altitude gain is less than 300 meters. However, the path does take time and for this reason most visitors to Sinharaja are reluctant to invest 8-9 hours of walking round trip to see it. If you are interested in stopping to watch bird flocks and look for snakes, lizards and other interesting creatures the walk can be frustrating since there is little time to indulge in such delights.
Most of the bridges and culverts have been washed out and it is difficult to imagine that 35 years ago large trucks were using the same pathways to decimate the timber of Sinharaja! Now the machinery is long gone and the forest has made a startling recovery such that most people can not distinguish between unlogged primary forest and tracts of secondary forest that had once been clear cut. In fact this is really the beauty of the Sinharaja story: the protection and restoration of a tropical rainforest through the efforts of citizens and scientists who helped raise awareness at a time when “rainforests” and “biodiversity” were not in the public’s vocabulary. In the 1970s forest was simply another commodity to be commercially exploited. The tireless work of those individuals and civil society groups is now something that we visitors benefit from.
After a breakfast and tea at Martin’s Forest Lodge we set off at a good pace and were the first visitors into the tourist zone. The forest was waking up after a night of nearly continuous rain, but he day was to be free of serious precipitation. In the distance we could hear the sounds of mixed species flocks and the dull echoing, reverberations of the endemic Purple Faced Langurs (Trachypithecus vetulus). A Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl (Gallus lafayetii) strutted across the road unconcerned by our presence- I think every visitor see (and probably feeds) the same bird. We heard the distinct wind up sounds of the more elusive Sri Lanka Spur Fowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata). This is an area that I usually walk through slowly in order to observe and appreciate lesser life forms. However, we had a long path to traverse and made fast time in this more easily accessible area.
At the research center (a place that once hosted the workshop for the mechanized logging operations) the trail thins and it is clear that the Sinhagala trail is a different sort of route. The path was overgrown with tree ferns, shrubs and pioneer tree species competing to take advantage of the break in the canopy. Every so often fallen giants of trees created barriers that we negotiated around, under or through. The leaches very plentiful but the Kudawa leech socks allowed us to focus on more interesting creatures. Occasionally I would catch glimpses of frogs hopping away from the pathway. Giant Wood Spiders (Nephia maculata) were numerous as were the large millipedes (Spirotripetus sp.). We saw a third Sri Lanka Hump Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) but did not spend time with it as we had with the male and female that we had seen in the tourist zone the day before (see photographs below). Enormous growths of pitcher plants (Nepethnes distillatoria) covered what were once ugly road cuts. They thrive in the brightly lit areas stripped of the thin topsoil. They thrive in the brightly lit areas stripped of the thin topsoil making up for the nutrient deficiencies with the insets that they digest.
Three hours after starting out the Sinhagala path left the old logging road trail and took us over several hillocks before following a boulder-strewn stream upwards. The dense forest make locating ourselves in the landscape impossible though we knew that we were at the base of Sinhagala. Moss-covered rocks in the stream slowed us down. In the last stretch the pathway followed a steep incline amongst the drooping lianas and buttresses of enormous forest giants. Granite boulders covered in gray-green lichens provided small sheltered spaces-perhaps more often used by leopards than humans in this very far away corner of Sri Lanka. And then the pathway abruptly passed though a break in vegetation and opened up over a cliff face. Through the break we were treated to a stunning panoramic view over the forest tracts of central Sinharaja. Below the cliffs was a scene of multiple valleys of rainforest canopy, sheltered by the rugged cliffs and hills that made up the range. To the East were the higher mist-shrouded ranges where we would go later that night. It wasn’t all unblemished landscape and in the distance were the clearcut slopes of land to be planted with tea. There were also the ubiquitous cell phone towers on the summits of several distant ranges to the south. This was our half way point and we breathed in the view while we waited for Krishan’s group to join us.
Krishan, his wife Indrika (who works with us at OSC), their two enthusiastic children and several others arrived on Sinhagala around 2:00. They were exhausted and drenched in sweat having just taken a very steep, overgrown trail up to the peak. Because of the hour there was little time for rest and we soon got going to descend on the trail that they had just spent so many hours climbing up. On the map it looked like a short distance but it ended up being a significant hike to get out. Krishan’s group had two guides and they were accompanied by Dulan Vidanapathirana who is a reptiles expert helping out at the Rainforest Ecolodge. We set a good pace but with the impending darkness there was little time to appreciate the forest and it denizens. When we finally emerged at the Pitadeniya entrance it was dark and we were worn out in that most positively fulfilled way!
It was another two-hour, zig-zagged drive up to the Rainforest Ecolodge where we spent a night and morning recovering in comfort. I awoke to a flock of Blue Magpies- the signature endemic bird of Sinharaja- making a racket right outside my capsule-room. Soon after I accompanied Dulan on a short walk before breakfast- enough time to take in the magnificent forest and learn about the areas geckos, frogs and shield tails. Unfortunately we had to get back and left before lunch to return to our jobs, demands and lives in Colombo. The traverse from Kudawa to Pitadeniya was unforgettable and it helped me plan for the upcoming trip in January. I will modify the challenge and take our students in smaller segments, allowing for a deeper appreciation of Sinharaja’s landscape and ecology.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In the shadow of growing evidence of declines in global biodiversity there are a variety of conferences and events being arranged to highlight the ongoing concern for this crisis of extinction. India is hosting the 11th Convention on Biodiversity conference (CBD COP 11) in Hyderabad starting today and ending on the 19th of the month. In December the Second Indian Biodiversity Congress meets in Bangalore for a conference. The meetings come at a time when there have been months of controversy and debate surrounding the decision by India’s supreme court to restrict tourism in the core zone’s of tiger reserves. There has been further tension over the designation of the Western Ghats as a world heritage site (more on this in a future post). The Economic & Political Weekly has an article by Shalani Bhutani and Kanchi Cohli looking at India’s 10 year-old Biological Diversity Act (overseen by the NBA). The CBD has produced a comprehensive paper looking at biodiversity conservation by indigenous populations that is available as a PDF (note the significant contributions of Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh).
Meanwhile back in our small corner of the planet I am working on sifting through student internal assessments that have largely focused on the DP Geography sub-topic of “biodiversity and change” at our Sinharaja field study site. I have also been processing images from the summer in the Palanis Hills where I had a chance to experience a wide variety of life forms in the two weeks that we were there. Most of these were taken on trips with my friends and colleagues at the Vattakanal Conservation Trust and Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary. This post highlights some of these species…
This year marks 20 years since the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that was signed by most countries. The continuing loss of biodiversity remains a pressing global concern of our times. At my regional level, Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats have been identified as “biodiversity hotpots” and it is worth reflecting on their unique biodiversity. An easy way to do this is through ARKive, one of the most dynamic sites highlighting biodiversity in the world. It is a fascinating project in its ninth year with support from Wild Screen and the patronage of Sir David Attenborough. It seeks to create a digital reference and archive of all the world’s known species. Each species is highlighted with images and text on status, description, range, habitat, threats etc.
I have been using ARKive’s digital archive as a reference in my teaching and writing for several years now. A few months ago I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across a special section focusing on the Western Ghats that features several of my color landscapes in a gallery on the habitat. Most of these were taken on forays into the Palani Hills and neighboring ranges in the 1990s. I also have some images of emblematic and lesser-known species (Nilgiri tahr, Large Scale Pit Vipers, Giant Grizzled Squirrels, Scaly Lizards, Bronzed Frogs, etc.). A little searching will uncover some familiar Sri Lankan species (SL Green Pit Viper).The pictures are supplied to ARKive though the Natural History Picture Library where I have been submitting pictures for some time.