brand logo
PLANT: An initiative for private conservation

PLANT: An initiative for private conservation

22 Jan 2023 | By Naveed Rozais

Conserving our environment is now more critical than ever. While Sri Lanka is an idyllic paradise in many ways, we do face several issues with wildlife and conservation. Sri Lanka is a small island of some 65,000 sq. km. Despite its small size, Sri Lanka is known as a global biodiversity hotspot for its high number of species, both endemic and otherwise. About 27% of the country’s plants are endemic as are 22% of its amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles. 

It is also worth noting that despite Sri Lanka’s size, approximately 95% of its endemic species live in the wet zone (about a quarter of Sri Lanka’s landmass which is located in the south-western portion of the island). Incidentally, this is also where a huge part of its population lives. 

A hotspot in hot water

The state of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity in relation to its population and development has been the topic of discussion for some time. The country has one of the highest recorded rates of primary forest destruction in the world and has lost its closed canopy forest cover from about 84% in 1881 to about 26.6% in 2010 due to the conversion of forests to other types of land use such as human settlements, plantation crops, and agricultural activities. 

As such, habitat loss is one of the leading threats to Sri Lanka’s native ecosystems and species. It should come as no surprise that 30 species of mammals, 14 species of birds, 13 species of reptiles, 75 species of amphibians, 121 species of fish, and 298 species of plants in Sri Lanka are listed as ‘Threatened’ as per the IUCN Red List 2020. 

Additionally, extreme weather conditions such as extended droughts and monsoons have led to increased incidences of flooding and landslides.

Human-wildlife conflict involving some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic and endangered wildlife species, such as elephants and leopards, is rapidly escalating. The year 2022 alone saw 433 elephant deaths, the highest number ever recorded. A huge factor that contributes to human-animal conflict across the board is deforestation and the reclamation of land for farming and other development. This sees habitats for animals decrease, pushing them closer and closer to humans and leading to inevitable conflict. 

The effects of deforestation in particular are far-reaching, especially economically. Wildlife tourism is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest draws – natural wildlife events like the annual Elephant Gathering at Minneriya are world-famous and draw huge tourism interest but recent data shows that there has been a 95% decrease in numbers at the peak of the Elephant Gathering from 2016-2021 (389 elephants in 2016 as opposed to 20 elephants in 2021). This is largely attributed to shrinking elephant habitats and the blocking of elephant corridors. 

In light of the many environmental issues Sri Lanka faces, conservation is more critical than ever, especially conservation that thinks outside the box. This is what PLANT (Preserving Land and Nature Trust) – a new initiative by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) – looks to do; mitigate the effects of deforestation with a different approach. It does this by giving private actors an impactful way to make a difference. 

PLANT – a fresh approach to conserving land and habitats

The WNPS is one of Sri Lanka’s most eminent conservation organisations with a history going back over a century. The WNPS is the third oldest nature protection society in the world (and the oldest in Sri Lanka) and works to conserve nature in all its forms, from the country’s rich wildlife and plant life to all its natural habitats, including landscapes and seascapes. The formation of the WNPS set the framework which decides Sri Lanka’s many national parks and drove some of its key environmental legislation like the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. 

For the last 127 years, WNPS has been working with many stakeholders including scientists, researchers, policymakers, conservationists, activists, and the general public to protect Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity. Partnering with companies and supporters who share the same vision allows the WNPS to springboard its efforts in protecting Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna for future generations.

Through PLANT, the WNPS hopes to bring private conservation to the forefront. The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to WNPS Past President and PLANT Chairman Sriyan de Silva Wijeyeratne on PLANT and how it came to be. 

Sriyan explained that given the rate of deforestation that Sri Lanka was facing, the decision had been made two years ago within the WNPS to strongly bring in the notion of private conservation – private landowners and businesses contributing to conservation efforts through the considered use of their land – into Sri Lanka. 

“The concept of private conservation has been practised for many years in many parts of the world, it’s just not that prevalent in Sri Lanka. What you mainly see is little isolated blocks where someone is trying to do something, but not really a big notion,” Sriyan explained, adding that in the UK and South Africa there were many privately-managed nature parks that were useful examples of private conservation in practice. 

How PLANT drives private conservation

PLANT is a not-for-profit guarantee company that will hold land in trust for generations to come and work with other landowners to preserve and conserve land for the future. 

The model PLANT uses to drive private conservation is three-pronged:

  • Raising funds that PLANT can use to buy land outright to conserve – this is driven by donors and the land is held by PLANT in its own right as custodians. 
  • Leasing land from individuals – where PLANT leases land for long durations (20-30 years) and during that time conservation strategies and activities are put in place. 
  • Partnerships with landowners – where PLANT works together with landowners to conserve their land (sometimes in full, sometimes in part) for the next 20 years. 

“Our philosophy is that we can’t afford to buy all that land and so we can build partnerships with private parties that encourage them to set aside parts of those land to be conserved,” Sriyan explained of WNPS’s perspective behind driving these different modes of private conservation, adding: “There is a conscious choice to use this land as a conservation space and this is different to having trees or an overgrown forest. It’s an agreement to help with restoring forests that are degraded, to conduct biodiversity research, and enrich and protect the forest as well as start building forest connectivity as more and more parties and individuals come on board.” 

Symbiotic private conservation

PLANT recently formed one of its first conservation partnerships with Anne and John Boyce, the owners of Ravana’s Secret – over 100 acres of neglected hillside tea land surrounding the Upper Ravana Falls a few miles above Ella. Anne and John have purposely allowed most of the land to go ‘back to nature’ like a private reserve, encouraging local flora and fauna with the vision of making Ravana’s Secret a haven for small numbers of nature-loving tourists. 

The property includes four buildings in different places, each surrounded by trees to minimise the impact on the environment and the Boyces do limited organic cultivation mainly to feed themselves and their guests. Guests are encouraged to plant trees and learn about the species to be found on ‘jungle walks’.

Speaking to Brunch, Anne Boyce shared that their partnership with PLANT took place in the shape of an MoU which allowed Ravana’s Secret and PLANT to work together on research and also allowed Ravana’s Secret to keep its property more effectively secure, especially from unscrupulous parties looking to infringe on the property for the wrong reasons. 

“Being foreigners here (my husband John and I are both British), it’s important for us to attract the right sort of people and not those who don’t care about the landscape,” she explained. “I myself am a bird fanatic and have been for many years and we’re very happy for tourists to come to our place [...] and the WNPS will help us attract the right tourists.” 

What defines the right tourist? The one who has a keen understanding of nature and the need to protect it. 

Part of the charm of Ravana’s Secret is that one of its boundaries falls along the origin of Ravana Falls, an area which is a particularly powerful hotbed of biodiversity, but opening this up for tourism always comes with the risk of tourists (and businesses) treating the area irresponsibly and compromising the biodiversity that makes it so special in the first place. 

“There are so many beautiful areas that are destroyed or are being destroyed and we are determined to see that it doesn’t happen here,” Anne stressed, explaining that this was why Ravana’s Secret had chosen to partner with the WNPS, to drive research into the area’s flora and fauna species and better protect the area for the years to come. 

“My husband John and I were lucky to discover this magical place when we retired to Sri Lanka 20 years ago. Although we own the land, we feel like caretakers and seeing the destruction of so much natural beauty in the name of ‘development’ since we have been here, we are determined that this area on top of the famous Ravana Falls should be protected for the future of the environment long after we are dead. For that reason, we are delighted to join with WNPS/PLANT in an area of over 60 acres to protect and improve the land for the future.”

Sriyan also spoke on PLANT’s partnership with Ravana’s Secret, saying: “We are very encouraged and excited to have a partner like Ravana’s Secret coming in because unlike a corporate, this isn’t in aid of a big carbon offset or feeling like they have some KPI to meet, but from a really built-in love for nature.” 

Private conservation as a deforestation management tool going forward

WNPS’s vision for the long term is to protect species by protecting ecosystems and preserving habitats in which species can thrive. 

“Protecting what you have is faster and more economical than reforesting,” Sriyan explained. “If we can get more parties to come and transform their land into conservation spaces instead of thinking ‘there are other forests out there,’ we can create more spaces and protect what we have as a first step with reforestation being secondary.” 

PLANT also puts more active responsibility on private parties because as Sriyan sums up: “We have to stop leaving the future of conservation only in the hands of selected parties in the country. It’s not only a role for the State but for all actors.” 

More News..