Ian Lockwood

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West Coast Explorations: Wilpattu

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Forest reflection with full tank at Wilpattu.

The west coast of Sri Lanka looms large in myth, ecology and geography. Ecologically-speaking, the west coast is defined by its dry and semi-arid climatic zone. The coastal area supports several important fisheries and a string of human communities live off these resources from Negombo to Puttalam and Mannar. Offshore there are surviving coral reefs that can be reached from the Kalpitiya peninsula. Inland from the Gulf of Mannar is Wilpattu National Park, located in the north-west portion of the island. Adam’s Bridge, the string of shallow sandbanks that separates Sri Lanka from India, is linked to the epic Ramayana. These shoals and islands are said to be the remnants of a bridge that Hanuman’s army built for Rama in their pursuit of defeating Ravana and rescuing Sita from captivity in Lanka. The area is equally important in the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of the Sinhalese. It records the founder of the Sinhalese Prince Vijaya landing on the copper-colored shores of Tambapanni (today known as Kudramalai) (Mahavimsa).

Signature wildlife and habitat from Wilpattu National Park: From top Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), cliffs over the Gulf of Mannar at Kudramalai, elephant in core area, and cycad inside the interior.

Signature wildlife and habitat from Wilpattu National Park: From top Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), cliffs over the Gulf of Mannar at Kudramalai, elephant in core area, and cycad in Wilpattu’s interior.

Charismatics actors on the Wilpattu stage: Sri Lankan leopards photographed on the same day in July 2016.

Charismatics actors on the Wilpattu stage: Sri Lankan leopards photographed on the same day in July 2016.

The name “Wilpattu” is connected with the large bodies of water that dot the densely forested landscape of this part of Sri Lanka. Wilu or villu is translated in Tamil as a natural pond. For anyone familiar with the dry plains of Tamil Nadu there are striking parallels in the climate, soil and ecology. Except, in Wilpattu the natural vegetation is intact and the protected area is a living examples of what the plains south of Chennai must have once looked like before they were cleared in ancient days for croplands and other hallmarks of civilization.

Since hostilities came to an end in 2009 my family and I have been slowly exploring the west coast of Sri Lanka. During the last three years we have had a chance to visit Kalpitiya, Wilpattu National Park and Mannar Island. Wilpattu has become a special destination for a number of reasons. I grew up with stories of my father’s childhood visits there in the 1940s and 1950s. My grandmother Dorothy recalls family trips with sloth bear and chital encounters in her chronicle Glimpses: The Lockwoods 1928-1980. Wilpattu was Sri Lanka’s first national park (established in 1938) and being roughly half way between Jaffna and Colombo it was a favorite place to visit on road trips. When we first moved to Sri Lanka Wilpattu was closed because of fighting and the very real danger of landmines. In the years since we have been getting to know the area better. We have usually stayed outside of the park and then hired local jeeps for the day. There are a series of DWC bungalows that I am looking forward to staying at when the opportunity arises. I still feel like we are just scratching the surface and I’m looking forward to further explorations and longer periods in Wilpattu’s magical forests.

Forest raptors of Wilpattu: Crested Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) in first two images and Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) all photographed on the forest road into Wiplattu’s core area.

Forest raptors of Wilpattu: Crested Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) in first two images and Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) all photographed on the forest road into Wiplattu’s core area.

Afternoon light panorama at the heart of Wilpattu.

Afternoon light panorama at the heart of Wilpattu.

REFERENCES

Gunatilleke, Nimal et al. Sri Lanka’s Forests-Nature at Your Service. Colombo: Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014. Print.

“Sri Lanka’s Wilpattu Ramsar Wetland Cluster.” Ramsar. 28 January 2013. Web.

“Trips Filed under Wilpattu.” Lankdasun. web.

Wikramanayake, Eric D. and Savithri Gunatilleke. “Southern Asia: Island of Sri Lanka off the coast of India. WWF Ecoregions. ND. Web.

Wijesinghe, Mahil. “Wilpattu…… in the times of Kuveni.” Sunday Observer. 23 May 2015. Web.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva. Sri Lankan Wildlife. Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Guides, 2007. Print.

“Wilpattu certified as a wetland of world importance.” Sunday Times. 10 February 2013. Web.

Piecing together 1:50,000 topo sheets of the west coast & WIlpattu purchased from the Sri Lanka Survey Department.

Piecing together 1:50,000 topo sheets of the west coast & Wilpattu and a Sri Lanka Landsat mosaic procured from the Sri Lanka Survey Department.

GIS-generated maps depicting forest cover, rivers, water bodies and protected areas in Sri Lanka. I utilized a variety of publically available data in their creation (acknowledged in bottom right annotations). This is Draft #1 and I’ll make updates in the future.

GIS-generated maps depicting forest cover, rivers, water bodies and protected areas in Sri Lanka. I utilized a variety of publicly available data in their creation (acknowledged in bottom right annotations). This is Draft #1 and I’ll make updates in the future. Double click for full sized 150 DPI A3 versions.

Written by ianlockwood

2016-09-11 at 1:41 am

Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands

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Early morning mist burning off above cloud forest at Little World's End. Trail to Kirigalpota passing through expansive patanas (grasslands).

Early morning mist burning off above cloud forest at Little World’s End.  (Lower image) Trail to Kirigalpota passing through expansive patanas (grasslands).

In 2010 Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands, the rugged assemblage of hills and mountains in the middle of the island, were recognized as a UNESCO designated World Heritage site. This came a full two years before the neighboring, sister range in India’s Western Ghats received a similar designation (UNESCO). Both areas are blessed with high levels of biodiversity and are under pressure from plantation agriculture, changing land use patterns, mining, large hydroelectric projects and other activities associated with human populations. Conservation International in its designation of biodiversity hotspots (based on the paper in Nature by Norman Myers et al) placed the two areas in its first list of 25 biodiversity hotspots in 2000. The similarities in vegetation, climatic zone, fauna, topography and other factors and makes sense for anyone familiar with the two areas. Looking to learn more about these themes a group of students and teachers from the Overseas School of Colombo recently explored deep and high into the Central Highlands.

OSC’s Week Without Walls program is now in its seventh year of operation and it continues to develop as a model experiential education program here in Sri Lanka. It has been my privilege to be actively involved with the program and coordinate the different learning experiences. The planning is a continuous process, but it starts in earnest at the beginning of the school year. Soon after the winter break, when the second term starts, the entire secondary school fans out across the length and breadth of the island. The program is rooted in a belief that learning is often best achieved through experiencing what you are learning and not simply talking about it or getting lectured in it (see the David Kolb link below for more on this). OSC’s WWW learning experiences all have strong curricular links that are intended to incorporate active learning rather than be a passive sightseeing trip.  In the Middle Year’s Program (MYP) that comes though individual classes (science, humanities, etc.) while in the DP it is channeled through the Creativity Action and Service program.

The WWW program also has a key goal of helping OSC’s students and teachers get to know our host nation of Sri Lanka better. This aspect of learning was inspired by place-based pedagogies developed by the Orion Society. I was exposed to these ideas while participating in Lesley University’s ETL (MSc) program. International schools in our part of the world are good at organizing field trips outside of their host countries-often at considerable expense. With OSC’s WWW program we have tried to do something quite different. We want to help students better understand and engage with issues at home. Sri Lanka is, of course, a wonderful place to be experimenting with this pedagogy and there is a diversity of locations and issues to engage with. The OSC WWW program focuses on issues of culture, geography, ecology and history. A few of the older groups grapple with deeper, more complex issues of post conflict reconciliation and rural poverty. We still have a long way to fully develop the ideals of this pedagogy but it has been a rewarding journey of learning thus far.

Exploring the trail towards Lanka Ella falls.

Exploring the trail towards Lanka Ella falls. This is roughly 1,000 meters elevation and just south-east of the HPNP boundary.

Approaching Kirigalpotta though a landscape  very familiar to anyone who knows the upper Western Ghats. Note that the

Approaching Kirigalpotta through a landscape very familiar to anyone who knows the upper Western Ghats. Note that the cloud forests occupy hill tops while valleys have the patanas (grasslands). This is a reverse of what is found in the shola/grassland mosaic of the upper Western Ghats.

The Central Highlands learning experience was one of four options that the two upper classes (MYP 5 and DP1) could choose from. The other trips included a visit to the Jaffna peninsula with a service component at the SOS Village, the “coast to coast” cycling trip based out of Arugam Bay and an art/culture/history experience in the Cultural Triangle. I designed and facilitated the Highlands trip with the active support of Will Duncan (DP Physics and Science HOD) and our school’s doctor, Indrika Senaratna. In a sense it was a logical outgrowth from past WWW learning programs that I designed in Sinharaja (2013) and the Dry Zone (2014). Will and Indrika have similar interests in the ecology (and especially bird life) of Sri Lanka. We were a good team and the 15 students were engaged and enthusiastic bout the daily walks, dormitory accommodation, chilly conditions and general flow of things.

Our five-day journey circumnavigated and delved into the highest ranges of the Central Highlands and exposed student to the unique ecology of the cloud forest/patana mosaic. Each day had one or more hikes with key hikes being taken to Kirigalpotta (Sri Lanka’s second highest peak at 2,390 m), World’s End and a surprise visit up Sri Lanka’s highest peak at Pidurutalagala (2,535 m). We started at Belihulhoya, which sits immediately below and to the south of Horton Plains. For this stage of the trip we were assisted by the Ecoteam Sri Lanka company. They have a camp at Kinchiguna and did a fine job with taking care of us. Our itinerary in Belihuloya included several walks and water fall explorations before we moved on the next day. Highlights included several important rare bird sightings including an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, two different Coppersmith Barbets and a Chesnut-backed Cuckoo (with spotting provided by Will’s sharp eyes). Three different Grizzled Giant Squirrels (Ratufa macroura) also gave us good sightings of what is a relatively rare mammal in the Western Ghats.

At the heart of the learning experience was a two-night, three-day stay at Horton Plains National Park. The park is an important protected area in Sri Lanka because it hosts a relatively large area of undisturbed cloud forest/patana (grasslands). Biodiversity is especially high here in these highest-most highlands of the island. In recent years it has also become exceedingly popular with tourists, such that it is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka (see Sarath Kotagama’s review of Rohan Petiyagoda’s outstanding book for more on this).

You would think that staying in a basic dormitory with limited hot water, a few solar powered light bulbs and no cellphone connectivity would drive teenagers crazy. On the contrary, our group thrived and there were no complaints. We ate delicious, suitably spicy Sri Lankan food cooked up by the two caretakers for almost every meal in the park. At night we looked (mostly in vain) for the stars and more successfully with a few small shrub frogs attracted to the lights of the building. The students kept field journals, with some producing fine sketches, water colors and written reflections. They also enjoyed being with each other but when it came to lights out at 9:30 there were few complaints and the group fell into a fatigued slumber soon after.

In the park our primary task and highlight was to do a day hike up to Kirigalpotta, Sri Lanka’s 2nd highest peak. It is not a strenuous hike but is remarkable for the vegetation and views of the landscape that one encounters along the way. We were also fortunate to be the only group on the trail while just down the valley hundreds of tourists were doing the World’s End walk. There was a new maroon/red flush in the Calophyllum walkeri trees and the cloud forest canopy was dazzling. Will was able to get his Dull Blue Flycatcher and share the sighting with several of us. I had good sightings of Sri Lankan Wood Pigeons and a Black Eagle. We didn’t see any mammals on the trail in contrast to the road near Farr Inn where the sambar approach tourist vehicles (see image below). On the way back it rained heavily on the group.

From the lowlands to the highlands: OSC's WWW group on the move.

From the lowlands to the highlands: OSC’s WWW group on the move at Belihuloya (looking up to the highlands), take a breather on Kirigalpotta slopes and then posing  on the summit of Pidurutalagala (photo courtesy of Will Duncan).

New flush of Calophyllum walkeri flanking the World's End trail.

New flush of Calophyllum walkeri on the Kirigalpotta trail flanking a scene from the the World’s End trail.

OSC group on the Kirigalpotta trail & Lanka Ella Falls (lower left).

OSC group on the Kirigalpotta trail & Lanka Ella Falls (lower left). Rusa unicolor being a little too friendly than one would like in a national park (there is a significant problem with people feeding them from their vehicles).

Before leaving Horton Plains on Thursday we woke up early and took the group on the World’ End trail. With  a name like “World’s End” it is understandable that visitors and Sri Lankans all want to see what it is all about. As a result, it is very well worn path that leads to several point along the escarpment of the Central Highlands. There are very steep slopes and cliffs with vegetation that fall abruptly into the southern plains near Belihuloya. I wanted to be at the trailhead by 6:00 am before the entrance gates opened and the busloads of tourists started arriving (we could do this because we were staying in the park). It was misty when we set out from the dormitory but the clouds soon burnt off and it felt like the beginning of time on the cloud forest shrouded trail. We reached the escarpment edge at Little World’s End just as the sun was coming up over the eastern edge of the Central Highlands. World’s End was equally stunning with clear views back to the rice paddies of Belihuloya and the large tanks on the plains. Our group slowed down to take pictures and take in the view, which is when the large numbers of tourists caught up to us. On the trail back to Farr Inn via Baker’s Falls I took in the scenery paying special attention to similarities and differences to the shola/grasslands systems that a few months ago I had walked though in Eravikulam.

World’s End ;looking south before the tourists arrive. We had clear views down to Belhuloya where we had just been before moving up to Horton Plains.

Little World’s End, looking south before the tourists arrive. We had clear views down to Belihuloya where we had just been before moving up to Horton Plains. The Suiyakanda part of Sinharaja (Rakwana Hills) is on the horizon at the center of the image.

Study of an endemic  shrub frog () found in the Maha Eliya dormitory toilet.

Study of an endemic shrub frog (Pseudophilautus schmarda) found in the Maha Eliya dormitory toilet.

Endemic reptiles from the Central Highlands. Clockwise from top: A bent-toe gecko from a toilet in Belihuloya (species awaiting confirmation). The Rhinoceros Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) from cloud forest near Nuwara Eliya. Aspidura trachyprocta from the entrance of HPNP.

Endemic reptiles from the Central Highlands. Clockwise from top: A bent-toe gecko from a toilet in Belihuloya (species awaiting confirmation). The Rhinoceros Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) from cloud forest near Nuwara Eliya. Aspidura trachyprocta from the entrance of HPNP.

Our last night was spent in the hill station of Nuwara Eliya located at the middle of the Central Highlands at 1,860 meters. Our stay was designed as a chance to allow students to clean up and eat well after three days of camp food. It also provided an opportunity to go looking for the very hard-to-find Pied Thrush (Ficedula subrubra) and Kashmiri Flycatcher (Zoothera wardii) in the town’s Victoria Park. That exercise proved to be a good opportunity for showing students to what lengths people will go to find hard to see birds! There were Yellow Eared Bulbuls, Forest Wagtails and Will saw a single Kashmir flycatcher but no one saw the thrush! The next morning while looking for the difficult to see SL Whistling Thrush (see my image of it from Sri Pada here) we had a good encounter with the endemic Rhinoceros Horned Lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii) in a cloud forest patch near the town dump.

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala: An appreciation.

Cloud forest on Pidurutalagala: An appreciation.

My highlight of the Nuwara Eliya part of the trip was taking an unplanned visit up to the summit of Pidurutalagala. This unassuming mountain marks the highest point (2,524 m) on the island. It hosts a large area of undisturbed cloud forests and has a commanding 360° view of the island. However, for the last 30 years it has been off limits as there is a military radar station on the summit. It has been my habit when in Nuwara Eliya to inquire about how to get up and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is now open to the public. You can’t walk it but after showing your ID you can drive up the steep, concrete road. It winds its way though a mature eucalyptus plantation and then exquisite cloud forest. Gnarled, stunted trees dripping with epiphytes and mosses crowd the road and signs warn you about leopards in the area. I would have loved to have stopped, especially when Sri Pada came into view, but we followed the guidelines not to and drove steadily along the 7 km road to the summit. At the top is a complex of buildings, antennas and different radar. After checking in, visitors are allowed to walk around it and take photographs looking away from the station. We had good views over Nuwara Eliya town but the more distant peak in Horton Plains and Peak Wilderness were under cloud cover.

From the highest point in Sri Lanka at mid-morning, our group coasted down the curvy, beautifully paved A7 highway to sea level, arriving back in Colombo by late afternoon. School has now resumed after several holidays and SAISA sports interruptions. This week the school is hosting an exhibition of student learning on the WWW program. Speaking for myself as well as most- if nota all- of the group it was an unforgettable exploration. Here is what one of our students wrote about the trip:

“This WWW was i think the best trip i’ve been on since i have arrived in Sri Lanka. It was the right amount of people and gave us a good balance between being isolated from technology and being in contact with nature as well as giving us some free time at the end to relax and appreciate the time we had. I think the sleeping arrangements and the food were good the way they were, that way us kids learned how to appreciate what we have down in Colombo.”

Elevation map of the Central Highlights emphasizing areas that the 2015 WWW Highlands WWW group visited.

Elevation map of the Central Highlights emphasizing areas that the 2015 WWW Highlands WWW group visited. I utilized a mosaic of newly released 30m (1 arc second) USGS digital elevation models (DEM) to show relief and elevation. It marks an important personal cartographic milestone for me as it has taken several attempts to understand how best to use GIS data to make these representations of relief.

As part of their learning experience all of our DP students use a reflective blog to record their thoughts about and evidence of their learning. For student perspectives on this highlands trip, take special note of Prerna Das’ entry and Nandini Hannak’s post.

FURTHER READING & REFERENCES

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). Western Ghats and Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot. May 2007. Web.

Kolb, D. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1984. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “A Week Without Walls in Sinharaja.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2013. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2014. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “ Getting to Know Sri Lanka Intimately.” Sunday Times (Education Times). February 2015. Print & Web.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.” Nature. 24 February 2000. Print & 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.

Sobel, David. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Great Barrington: Orion Society, 2004. Print.

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

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.

Explorations in Sri Lanka’s Dry Zone

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Sigiriya from the south as seen from Pidruangala on a damp, monsoon-soaked morning.

Sigiriya from the south as seen from Pidruangala on a damp, monsoon-soaked morning.

In the last week of January OSC’s students and teachers fanned out across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka to learn outside to the traditional classroom walls. The focus of these trips was varied and encompassed a number of curricular goals, outdoor experiences, service opportunities and explorations of our host nation. There were a wide variety of transport methods: buses, vans, a flight north and even bicycles. Students explored ruins of past civilizations, surveyed coral life underwater, slept in tree houses, helped out in Tsunami-affected communities, sampled bird populations in a rainforest, tweeted about Jaffna’s recovery, abseiled off of waterfalls and much more. The outcome of students and teachers electrified by their learning was clear for all to see at the conclusion of the trips and has been evident as we reflect back on the experiences and learning.

This year aside from coordinating the program I led a small group of students on what I called an exploration of Sri Lanka’s dry zone ecosystems. I was supported by Marlene Fert and we had eleven Grade 10 & 11 students on the trip. My idea was to expose the group to sites that blend culture, history and ecology off the beaten tourist track. We were based in the shadow of the rock fortress at Sigiriya and port town of Trincomalee. Originally we had planned to visit Pigeon Island, but the stirred up seas from the tail end of the North East monsoon made this impossible. My family and I had made two trips in preparation for this study trip (see blog posts from April 2013 and October 2013) and I wanted to was provide a similar, yet climatically different WWW experience to the Sinharaja WWW trip. Ironically we experienced a good deal of rain in the dry zone, but never enough to negatively affect our plans.

Scenes from the dry zone int he wet season...Dehigaha Ela and Pidrangla

Scenes from the dry zone int he wet season…Dehigaha Ela and Pidrangla

Back of Beyond’s properties at Dehigaha Ela and Pidruangala provided the perfect place to be based at. They are both situated in serene dry zone mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, they have super staff that provide a home-away-from-home atmosphere, the accommodation (some in trees or caves) is beautifully earthy and there is (thankfully) only intermittent cellphone connectivity! While there we took a day trip to Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve and a night walk in the Popham Arboretum. In Ritigala we explored the ruins of monastic communities and other evidence of past civilizations.

Biodiveristy, both livging and dead, see on our visit.

Biodiveristy, both living and dead, seen on our visit.

A highlight was visiting two archeological sites that both host important Buddhist vadatages (relic houses) and other significant sacred ruins. Medirigiriya is an impressive site with nearly two thousands years of recorded history. It sits off the main Habarana- Polonnaruwa road and is free of tourists. North of Trincomalee is the ancient Jaffna kingdom port of Thiriyai with a very old and important Buddhist vadatage set on a low hillock amidst mixed evergreen and deciduous dry zone forests. Thiriyai was apparently it is the “Thalakori in the 2nd century AD map of Ptolemy” (Wikipedia). Images from these sites will be highlighted in an album in the next post.

WWW Dry Zone Explorations map #1 (with edits)

WWW Dry Zone Explorations map #1 (with edits)

Here is the poster (below)  that I put together for the WWW exhibition held on 20th February 2014. The Landsat imagery is much more recent (from the week after the trips came back).

WWW Exhibition Poster (originally  A1 size with 300 DPI)/ Reduced to 72 dpi here.

WWW Exhibition Poster (originally A1 size with 300 DPI)/ Reduced to 72 dpi here.

 

FURTHER LINKS

Dammika, Ven. S. Sacred Island: A Buddhist’s Pilgrims’ Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web. 7 February 2014 (see Medirigiriya  Thiriyai)

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Lankapura  http://lankapura.com/ (a good site for historical images & maps  of Sri Lanka)

Raheem, Ismeeth. Archaeology & Photography – the early years 1868 -1880. Colombo: The National Trust of Sri Lanka, 2010. Print.

A Week Without Walls in Sinharaja

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Sinharaja morning walk…looking for bird flocks on the way to the Gallenyaya caves.

At the end of January I spent five superb days exploring different aspects of Sinharaja’s ecology, geography and human impact with sixteen Grade 10 & 11 students. Our trip was part of a larger secondary school learning exploration of Sri Lanka. The focus is on experiential education, service and addressing curricular goals outside of the traditional classroom. For the older students the trips are focused through the learning outcomes of the Creativity Action & Service  (CAS) program.

Our group started in the west with two nights at Martin’s Lodge near the Kudawa entrance. This, of course, is where the vast majority of visitors to Sinharaja go. Martin’s offers a very genuine, albeit basic, kind of ecotourism opportunity: Martin and his family are from the area, the lodge is powered by a home-made mini-hydro unit, you eat locally produced Sri Lankan food, drink clean stream water, take showers in solar heated water and enjoy many of Sinharaja’s avian highlights sipping tea on the verandah. There are few temptations to distract you, though cell phone connectivity is starting to creep in. This proved to be a bit of a distraction to several members of our party who had a challenging time being offline and away from other modern trappings.

On Wednesday we took the long and very windy road north and east of the boundary via Rakwana, Suriyakanda and Deniyaya to the incomparable Rainforest Ecolodge. During the course of the five days looked for birds, handled snakes, trekked into the deep forest to explore caves, climbed peaks, swam in cold mountain streams and tried to sit in silence in the star-lit forest (not very successful with all the giggles and leech-inspired screams). I gave several photography mini-workshops and had lots to share about he ecology, but a bad cold had robbed me of my voice. Pradeep, our other male chaperone helped me out while I rolled my eyes and tried to use sign language. Time was set aside each day all of us to reflect using journals and guiding questions. Overall the students were great and put up with the activities, conditions, numerous stops and long road trips. Their efforts to organize a clothes drive and health camp with Indrika Senaratne at the Ecolodge tea worker’s camps worked out exceedingly well and surpassed our expectations.

Meanwhile the rest of OSC’s secondary school was out and about in the different corners of Sri Lanka. This year the WWW program that I coordinate had trips in Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Arugam Bay, Bandarawella, Kitulgala, Hikkaduwa, and Galle. There were major changes this year in that the older students got to choose and then participate in the planning of their trips- modeled on the MUWCI Project Weeks that Raina and I were involved with a decade ago. This coming week we are having a WWW exhibition to share all the learning with our school community.

Forest Department map of Sinharaja

Forest Department map of Sinharaja from a signboard at the Kudawa entrance.

Sinharaja_WWW_group#1(LR)(01_13)

OSC 2013 WWW Sinharaja group at Martin’s about to hit the forest in new leech socks.

Stream at sunrise, Sinharaja

Primary forest stream at sunrise, Sinharaja

Biodiversity in Sinharaja (clockwise from upper left): Odonata sp,, Imatiens sp. , Cyrodactylus subsolanus and Nepenthes sp.

More biodiversity  that we witnessed in Sinharaja (clockwise from upper left): Pied Parasol (Neurothemis tullia), Impatiens sp. , Sinharaja Bent Toe Gecko (Cyrodactylus subsolanus) and the Sri Lanka pitcher plant  (Nepenthes distillatoria).

Medical camp run by Indrika and our OSC students at the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Medical camp run by Dr. Indrika Senaratne and our OSC students at the Rainforest Ecolodge village for tea workers.

Rainforest Ecolodge: Night and Day.

Rainforest Ecolodge: Night and Day.

View north and east from the Rainforest Ecolodge. The high ridge has notable peaks on it with Suriyakanada's towers  being at the far right.

View north and east from the Rainforest Ecolodge. The high ridge  (@1,300 m) has notable peaks on it with Suriyakanada’s towers being at the far right. Morningside is a short distance away over the forested foreground. Click on image to enlarge.

More biodiversity ():

More biodiversity (clockwise from top): Kendrikcia walkeri, ferns on the Sinhagla trail and a female Sri Lanka frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger)

Cave on Sinhagala trail

Chandra, the  only female nature guide working at Sinharaja, at the Gallenyaya cave on Sinhagala trail. She has been working with OSC students groups for the last seven years.

Submontane rainforest canopy from the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Sub-montane rainforest canopy from the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Leaving the forest on a beautiful morning with creation light.

Leaving the forest on a beautiful morning with creation light.

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.