Ian Lockwood

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Learning in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands (Part 2): Understanding Ecology through Biodiversity

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Male Pseudophilautus femoralis in cloud forest above Nuwara Eliya.

Male dull green shrub frog (Pseudophilautus viridis) in cloud forest above Nuwara Eliya.

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.

Collage of low res snapshots taken of life forms and waste on the trail to Sri Pada during the DP1 ES&S field study there in December 2015.

Collage of low res snapshots taken of life forms and waste on the trail to Sri Pada during the DP1 ES&S field study there in December 2015.

The elusive Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii) one of the most difficult birds to see in Sri Lanka. Spotted at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park with the expert guidance of Ishanda Senevirathna, the naturalist at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel.

The elusive Pied Thrush (Geokichla wardii), one of the most difficult birds to see in Sri Lanka. Male above and female in the inset image. Spotted at Nuwara Eliya’s Victoria Park during the Week Without Walls with the expert guidance of Ishanda Senevirathna, the naturalist at Jetwings’ St. Andrew’s Hotel.

Calotes nigrilabris, the black-lipped lizard, basking in the sun just off the precipitous slope of Kirglpotta’s summit. This agamid (dragon) species is endemic to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

Calotes nigrilabris, the black-lipped lizard, basking in the sun just off the precipitous slope of Kirglpotta’s summit. This agamid (dragon) species is endemic to the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

A study of Pseudophillauts femoralis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. All females except the bright green male in the upper right. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s. Kamilla found the male that is photographed here and the MYP5 students helped with holding lights.

A study of Pseudophillauts viridis, a rare endemic shrub frog from Sri Lanka’s cloud forest. All females except the bright green male in the upper right. Identification courtesy of Ishanda Senevirathna of St. Andrew’s. Kamilla found the male that is photographed here and the MYP5 students helped with holding lights.

Several different shrub frogs including Pseudophillauts sp. and others (to be updated shortly) from the Nuwara Eliya nocturnal frog walk.

Several different shrub frogs including Pseudophillauts schmarda and others (to be updated shortly) from the Nuwara Eliya nocturnal frog walk.

The Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), an edemic cloud forest species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. This female (top image) and male (middle and lower image) were photographed in Horton Plains National Park where their populations are stable though not always easily seen.

The Rhino Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), an endemic cloud forest species from Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands. This female (top image) and male (middle and lower image) were photographed in Horton Plains National Park where their populations are stable, though not always easily seen.

 

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.

Rodrigo, Malaka. “Lanka’s central highlands win heritage battle”. The Sunday Times. 8 August 2010. Web.

Werner, Wolfgang. Sri Lanka’s Magnificent Cloud Forests. Colombo: Wildlife Heritage Trust, 2001. Print.

Class of 2017 stopping at the clearing on their way up to the summit of Sri Pada. We had clear views of the peak and surrounding forest all the way up to the temple at the summit.

Class of 2017 stopping at the clearing on their way up to the summit of Sri Pada. We had clear views of the peak and surrounding forest all the way up to the temple at the summit. Back row: Carolyn, Brittany, Ahnaf, Sanoj, Shenali & Erika. Front row: Ian, Ariana and Jamaal. Photograph by Abbi Pilapitiya.

 

Kirigalpotta & Horton Plains

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Sunrise over Totopula (view#1)

Sunrise over Totopula Kanda (2,360m) Sri Lanka’s 3rd highest peak.

Kirigalpotha (left) as seen from near to Mahaeliya.

Kirigalpotta (far left) as seen at sunrise from near to Mahaeliya.

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.

Looking north at newly installed wind turbines installed at the Ambawella farms with Horton Plains rising into the mist in the background. Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park. The turbines were not in place when I last visited and made a long panoramic images that was features in the Si Pada: Paths to the Peak exhibition.

Looking north at newly installed wind turbines at the Ambawella farms with Horton Plains rising into the mist in the background. The turbines were not in place when I last visited and made a long panoramic images that was featured in the Si Pada: Paths to the Peak exhibition.

Pidurutalagala and Hakgala (right) as seen from the road up to Horton Plains National Park.

Looking north to Pidurutalagala (center left) and Hakgala (right) as seen from the road up to Horton Plains National Park. Taken on the November 2007 trip.

Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park.

Sri Pada as seen from the western edge of Horton Plains National Park (taken on the December 2010 trip)

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.

Snapshots in silver, black & white from the hike up to Kirigalpotha peak.

Snapshots in silver, black & white from the hike up to Kirigalpotta peak. The center image features a Vaccinium sp, with its distinct maroon/red bark. A similar example featured in my September 2011 post on Secret Shola in the Palani Hills.

Looking north from Kirigalpotha over the cloud forest and patanas of Horton Plains National Park.

Looking north from Kirigalpotta over the cloud forest and patanas of Horton Plains National Park.

Left: Calotes nilgilabris on a Rhododendron arboreum tree in open grasslands on the Kirigalpotha trail. Right: Rhino horned lizard (Cerathopora stoddartii) found in HPNP but photographed in Hakgala sanctuary.

Left: Calotes nilgilabris on a Rhododendron arboreum tree in open grasslands on the Kirigalpotta trail. Right: Rhino horned lizard (Cerathopora stoddartii) found in HPNP but photographed in Hakgala sanctuary.

 

Rhododendron arboreum is a unique species with link tot he Western Ghats and distant Himalaya.

Rhododendron arboreum is a unique temperate species with links to the Western Ghats and more distant Himalaya.

Generations of Lanka Lockwoods visiting Horton Plains National Park. Upper left: Merrick, Ian and Lenny in December 2010 at the World End trail head. Lower right: Ian and Amy in 2014 at the Kirigalpotha trail head.

Three generations of Lanka Lockwoods visiting Horton Plains National Park. Upper left: Merrick (in his inimitable chapals), Ian and Lenny in December 2010 at the World End trail head. Lower right: Ian and Amy in September 2014 at the Kirigalpotha trail head. Photos courtesy Brian Lockwood and Tracy Ramberg.

A parting sunrise over Horton Plains National Park. Taken near Mahaeliya.

A parting sunrise over Horton Plains National Park. Taken near Mahaeliya.

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.

OSC Sinharaja Field Study 2014

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Images from Sinharaja rainforest and its edges: Emergent layer on Moulawella, Misty primary forest, mixed cultivation on the north-west edge of the protected area.

Images from Sinharaja rainforest and its edges: emergent layer on Moulawella, misty primary forest, mixed cultivation on the north-west edge of the protected area.

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.

 

Different types of Geographic data being gathered by OSC DP students in Sinharaja. SOcio-economic data from Kudawa residents, spatial data in a household and water quality data from a forest stream.

Different types of Geographic data being gathered by OSC DP students in Sinharaja. Socio-economic data from Kudawa residents, spatial data in a household and water quality data from a forest stream.

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.

Stages in generating micro hydroelectricity in Sinharaja. The examples here are simple alternators hooked up to pipes in the forest but there are other more powerful gnerators set up with funds from the ADB and other donors. Entrepreneurs can now sell electricity back to the CEB since the  area is being hooked up to the gird.

Stages in generating micro hydroelectricity in Sinharaja. The examples here are simple alternators hooked up to pipes in the forest but there are other more powerful generators set up with funds from the ADB and other donors. Entrepreneurs can now sell electricity back to the CEB since the area is being hooked up to the gird.

Chandra's house in Kudawa, overshadowed by the forests of Sinharaja (and Moulawella peak). Traditional lunch prepared by Martin's daughter in Kudawa.

A typical home garden scene in rural Sri Lanka. This is the Kudawa home of Chandra, Sinharaja’s first female nature guide. It is overshadowed by the forests of Sinharaja (and Moulawella peak). The food image shows the scrumptious traditional lunch prepared by Martin’s daughter in Kudawa.

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.

 

Cane () species, a favorite fro elephants, on the steep slopes of Moulawella peak.

Katu Kitul Palm (Oncosperma fasciculatum), a favorite highland palm for elephants who can get to them. Photographed on the steep slopes of Moulawella peak.

 

Selected biodiversity from a short trip to Sinharaja: Clockwise from upper left: Yellow Fronted Barbet, Fungi in secondary forest, Orange Billed Babbler, large Land snail, SL Green Pit Viper.

Selected biodiversity from a short trip to Sinharaja: Clockwise from upper left: Yellow-Fronted Barbet (Megalaima rubricapillus), fungi in secondary forest, Orange-Billed Babbler (Turdoides rufescens), large land snail, Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonacephalus).

Looking south from Moulawella on a clear morning on our last day. This is a composite of four images taken with a Nikon D-800, thus producing a very, very large image. It has been reduced for this format but clicking on the image should give a better sense for the vast protected area in Sinharaja's heart.

Looking south from Moulawella on a clear morning on our last day. This is a composite of four images taken with a Nikon D-800, thus producing a very, very large image. It has been reduced for this format but clicking on the image should give a better sense for the vast protected area in Sinharaja’s heart.

OSC Class of 2015 DP Geography group on Moulawella with their teacher and guides (Gunaratna & ). It was a remarkably clear day with uninterrupted views of Sri Pada. Picture courtesy of Uthpala.

OSC Class of 2015 DP Geography group on Moulawella peak with their teacher and guides (Ponaiya & Gunaratna). It was a remarkably clear day with uninterrupted views of Sri Pada. Picture courtesy of Uthpala De Silva.

 

Looking north from Moulawella’s 760 meter peak to the Central Highlands. Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak (2,243 meters) is a point on the distant blue ridge to the right of the center.

Looking north from Moulawella’s 760 meter peak to the Central Highlands. Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak (2,243 meters) is a point on the distant, blue ridge to the right of the center. This image has also been cropped and reduced but it was clear to Horton Plains and beyond.

 

2014 Sinharaja Study Area (click on image for full 150 DPI A3 version).

2014 Sinharaja Study Area (click on image for full 150 DPI A3 version).

SINHARAJA RESEARCH

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.

SELECTED  REFERENCES

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

 

A Map showing Sinharaja in relationship the surrounding area. This utilizes the same Landsat 8 image from the land use map above.

A Map showing Sinharaja in relationship the surrounding area. This utilizes the same Landsat 8 image from the land use map above.

A Path Less Travelled…the Sinhagala Traverse

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Hump Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) near Moulawella trail at Sinharaja

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.

Leaving the tourist zone and heading into less trodden areas of the forest on the Sinhagala trail.

Tim Getter crossing a stream flooding over the remains of a logging road on the Sinhagala trail.

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.

Britton Riehm negotiating dense vegetation below Sinhagala peak.

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.

Collage of views from Sinhgala , the Sinhagala trail and a Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus).

Rainforest canopy as seen from Sinhagala peak.

Forest crown near the end of the trail above Pitadeniya (@ 300 meters).

Series of images of species encountered on the Sinhagala traverse. The endemic Hump Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) both female (left) and male (right) and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) at center. In the corners are two still-to-be identified damselflies.

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.

Rainforest crown in Sinharaja East at 1,000 meters. Here the structure and composition of species is quite different from the lower forests at Kudawa and Petadeniya.

Biodiversity…Conferences and Snapshots from the Palani Hills

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A pair of rare damselflies mating at Pambar Shola stream near Kodaikanal. Thanks to the help of Karen Conniff and friends in Kerala they have been identified as Esme cynovittata, a species endemic to the Palani Hills.

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…

Calanthes triplicata in flower on the floor of an undisturbed shola in the Palani Hills.

Montane grasslands habitat in the outer Palani Hills along with a Shaivite temple deity.

Ahaetulla species at Gundar Valley near Kodaikanal. Presumably it is a brown variation of Ahaetulla nasuta (see Whitaker & Captain p. 330-331).

Various montane grasslands flowers on or near to the Kukkal ridge.

Written by ianlockwood

2012-10-08 at 3:31 pm

ARKive updates in the Western Ghats & Sri Lanka

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Collage of ARKive photographs highlighting Western Ghats habitats and species. These were taken mostly in the Palani Hills during  the 1990s on color slide film and later sourced through the Natural History Picture Library (NHPL).

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.

ARKive page on Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius). One of 30 or so images on the species. This was taken in 1993 and was aimed at my early articles (published in Environ and Sanctuary Asia) on the conservation and ecology of these endemic Western Ghats mountains goats.

Two pit vipers (Sri Lankan Green and Large Scaled) and a winter view of Pambadam Shola on the border between the Palani Hills and High Range (taken in 1997).

Written by ianlockwood

2012-05-30 at 5:42 pm

Sinharaja West, Sinharaja East (Part I)

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Variations on the Sinharaja rainforest canopy highlighting undisturbed primary forest on the ridge with secondary growth on the lower slopes (evidenced by Calamus sp. etc.). The images were taken on a Nikon digital SLR, processed on Adobe Photoshop CS5 and then manipulated with Nik software’s ColorEfex 4 plugin.

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.

Collage showing three significant habitats that were used as study sites for students. The first is a canopy view over primary forest taken on Moulawella Peak in the core zone of Sinharaja, the second shows secondary forest mixed with a non-native pine plantation in the buffer zone. Finally the last images shows tea estates sandwiched between the small settlement of Kuduwa and the park boundary.

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.

OSC students collecting different types of data in Sinharaja for their Geography IAs. At the top students (Uvin, Brooke, Rachel & Alisha) conducting an interview with a resident about the impact of ecotourism on livelihoods. Sarah, Janik and Nadeera testing stream water samples at Martin’s Lodge. Vera and Alisha aided by Ratna identifying key plant species along a 15 meter transect in secondary forest. Lastly, Uvin using a 10 m2 quadrat to look at invasive plants in a home garden plot about to be planted with tea.

Sinharaja rainforest canopy panorama highlighting undisturbed primary forest on the ridge with secondary growth on the lower slopes. Moulawella is the center peak in the background.

Tropical Rainforest, near the Sinharaja Research Center

Ongoing experiments with spatial data from the Sinharaja area using Arcmap. We have fairly good data from the Survey Department and other sources and are now looking to effectively use it to give a spatial perspective to individual studies. Close inspection reveals issues with correctly georeferencing some of the data at a large scale.

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.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger). Adolescent male and adult female.

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!

Emblematic species from Sinharaja seen on the trip (clockwise from upper left): Ceylon or SL frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) adolescent male and adult female, Pitcher plant (Nepenthes distillatoria) in a former pinus plantation, SL Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) and the SL Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata).

Rainforest emergent layer and canopy, looking southwards from Moulawella Peak after a climb up with most of the group on Thursday morning.

Study area map

OSC’s Class of 2013 Geography students at a playful final group picture after four days of productive research and fieldwork. Our host Martin is seated second from the right. Haris Dharmasiri, OSC’s lab technician par-excellence is seated on the far left while Lilani Ranasingha, our energetic female chaperone is seated on the far right.