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2023 is of vital importance for our environment

2023 is of vital importance for our environment

3 months ago | By Naveed Rozais

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  • Marking World Wildlife Day

Friday (3) marked this year’s World Wildlife Day – the United Nations international day to celebrate all the world’s wild animals and plants and the contribution that they make to our lives and the health of the planet. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which was signed in 1973. 

Sri Lanka and wildlife is famously complicated. Our wildlife (and overall biodiversity) is one of our key resources – for tourism, for business, for life. Despite our small size (some 65,000 sq. km), 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 well as 22% of its amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles. It’s also worth noting that despite Sri Lanka’s size, approximately 95% of our endemic species live in our wet zone (about a quarter of Sri Lanka’s landmass is located in the southwestern portion of the island). Incidentally, this is also where a huge part of our population lives. 

As such, conservation is of vital importance. However, Sri Lanka sees staggering levels of pollution (even outside disasters like the sinking of the MV X-Press Pearl), ever-increasing habitat loss due to human encroachment, and rapidly escalating human-wildlife conflict. Reflecting on World Wildlife Day, The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to a few conservationists for their thoughts on what 2022 has meant for conservation and how we can move forward for a more impactful 2023. 

Wildlife and Nature Protection Society Sri Lanka (WNPS) President Jehan CanagaRetna shared his reflections on World Wildlife Day with Brunch: “The year 2022 continued to be a turbulent year for wildlife conservation. We have continued to experience unprecedented environmental destruction in Sri Lanka last year as never before. Deforestation and the targeted killings of Sri Lanka’s iconic species, the leopard and the elephant, were widespread. 

“Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) has reached numbers that we find hard to comprehend, with about 433 elephants being killed and about 145 humans losing their lives due to the conflict. Imagine a country losing this many elephants and 45% of these killings being attributed to gun shots, hakka patas (jaw bombs), and electrocutions. With leopards, whilst we have an official figure of about 14 known leopard deaths, the unofficial count can be greater than 25. Therefore, the ecological impact of the deaths of this umbrella species to our biodiversity is shattering.”


Challenges on dry land

Our national troubles have affected all of our lives in the day-to-day and they have also had an impact on the broader issues we grapple with as well; this is true even with conservation. 

“Last year was turbulent and some [conservation] issues have become more aggravated,” University of Colombo Department of Zoology Professor in Zoology Devaka K. Weerakoon shared with Brunch. “For example, we have seen [human-wildlife] conflict increasing in farming and part of this is because, for struggling farmers, the conflict has become a more sensitive issue.” 

In addition to human-wildlife conflict, dire economic straits have led to more people resorting to illegal activity that impacts wildlife. “Based on conviction and detection rates, it appears that poaching and illegal hunting is on the rise, and this is mainly because of the economic downturn which makes them depend on natural resources to meet their basic requirements,” Dr. Weerakoon said.  

Dr. Weerakoon also noted that across the board, habitat loss had become a huge concern when it came to conservation, both due to large development projects and due to smaller-scale human encroachment. Such encroachment contributes directly to human-wildlife conflict and Dr. Weerakoon opined that this habitat loss was one of the key root causes of such conflict: “We continue to expand our land use and this expansion results in increasing habitat loss and makes animals use our resources, which invariably leads to conflict.” 

Sri Lanka 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, Dr. Weerakoon highlighted that human-wildlife conflict was transferring beyond the traditional conflicts we’re used to – one emerging issue is conflict between humans and animals like peacocks, wild boar, porcupines, and monkeys. This is even more troubling given recent announcements that these animals can now be killed. 

Under the sea

As an island, we cannot forget our marine environments, and The Pearl Protectors Co-ordinator Muditha Katuwawala explained that 2022 had not seen much in the way of progress when it came to marine conservation. 

“The biggest challenge for marine conservation has been a lack of enforcing and monitoring of marine areas – that’s not to say there has been zero monitoring, but it is very low,” Katuwawala said, stressing that private entities could only do so much and the common refrain heard through 2022 had been that the country was going through an economic crisis and there was no money to effectively monitor and enforce Sri Lanka’s marine environments. However, this does not serve as an excuse and the present gaps in monitoring and enforcement are being exploited by several parties, both small and large scale, and causing significant harm to marine wildlife. 

“Just this past week, we had several fishermen tell us stories of how when they catch their fish, they sometimes find turtles entangled in their nets, and to save their nets (and avoid having to fix them), they simply cut off the turtles’ flippers and throw them back to sea where the turtles die slowly,” Katuwawala said, adding that economic duress had made such behaviour more common. “People are now more focused on themselves and surviving the day, and with those values, marine life becomes less of a priority and leaves space for other illegal activities to take place.” 

Katuwawala also said that while 2022 had not seen any major milestones related to marine conservation, one positive development for 2023 was the proposed plastic ban from 1 June. Plastic pollution is a huge issue for Sri Lanka, which in 2017 was famously ranked among the top five marine plastic polluters of the world. While there have been developments in terms of reducing pollution, it is still very much a critical issue and such initiatives can serve to make a positive impact. 

Climate change still plays a crucial part in Sri Lanka’s conversation landscape. Katuwawala explained that each year the ocean became warmer and that The Pearl Protectors had observed a concerning growth of bioluminescent algae over the past year, spurred on by both climate change and pollution. This uptick of algae is a concern because of the impact they have on marine environments – these algae are very nutrient and oxygen intensive and also block sunlight, which has a huge impact on marine ecosystems. 

Coastal construction also threatens marine environments, especially with recent moves to degazette parts of the Vidataltivu Nature Reserve near Mannar, home to extensive mangrove and seagrass ecosystems. Katuwawala shared that the Government had not given a clear response to these moves to degazette parts of the reserve yet and the possibility remained that Sri Lanka’s largest mangrove nature reserve was in danger. 

Also addressing the topic of Vidataltivu and its impact on long-term conservation, CanagaRetna of WNPS noted: “The Government insists on building shrimp farms on already gazetted land in Vidataltivu in the Mannar District, removing a thriving mangrove habitat. 

“Mangroves are important as they are a mitigative method for climate change as they absorb more than four times the CO2 as tropical rain forests, function as a protector from catastrophic events like floods and tsunamis, and can provide a source of livelihood like fishing for rural communities. Why take this shorthanded approach and destroy the very mangroves that can protect our environment? 

“In a nutshell, our environment is being destroyed and there are really no positive milestones that we have achieved as a country.”

Moving forward for a better 2023

One very positive move in 2022 that Dr. Weerakoon noted was a national recognition of the value of Sri Lankan wildlife. “There was some focus on trying to use our natural biodiversity to raise funds for Sri Lanka,” he explained. “They were trying to think of new financial instruments and leads to mobilise funds and find global financing opportunities. Interest was very high, though it has now waned off a bit. There was lots of negotiation, but asking for these funds is a very tedious process.” 

However, that step of recognising the value of biodiversity has been taken and in future can be taken to a reasonable conclusion, which is a victory in and of itself. In terms of practical goals for 2023, Dr. Weerakoon stressed that reforestation needed to be a key strategy and that he was part of such a project that focused on the plantation sector. 

“There is a palpable amount of natural forests scattered around the estate landscape and just over the past five or 10 years, we have found that they harbour critical species and can function as refuges for protecting biodiversity. Distributionally, plantation companies manage about 50,000 acres of natural habitat and this can contribute heavily to conserving endemic species. We are hoping to come up with conservation management strategies starting this year and over the next five years. The year 2023 is going to be very exciting in terms of biodiversity conservation.”

CanagaRetna also commented on broad goals for conservation in 2023 from the WNPS’s perspective, noting that chief among their focus activities would be working on the Human-Elephant Mitigation Plan provided by the committee appointed by the Presidential Task Force and implementing it, gazetting the Other State Forests for protection, and gazetting mangrove areas and community and try and increase the mangrove cover from a 0.32% to 2% of our landmass.

From a marine perspective, Katuwawala shared that the biggest goal for 2023 should be stronger monitoring and enforcement. “There has been a huge increase in illegal fishing, from dynamite fishing (blast fishing) locally to deep-sea trawlers from India trawling the seabed in the north and massively compromising marine life. This is, in large part, because of lack of enforcement. 

“In 2023, if we don’t get these enforcing officers, resources, and facilities established for better procedure, we will likely see what happened in Tanzania happen to our marine ecosystems – from 2002 to 2009 a lack of marine enforcement saw severe blast fishing, resulting in Tanzania losing its marine ecosystem permanently. Reefs were reduced to rubble with no way of restoring them.” 

Katuwawala also stressed that given Sri Lanka’s economic troubles, it was vital that we did not sideline our wildlife and biodiversity, even for the sake of potential revenue sources such as tourism (recently, The Pearl Protectors have received reports of unsanctioned blast fishing being allowed by the Police because it is being carried out by tourists and tourism should be allowed to thrive). 

“If we don’t do something to protect our wildlife and environment, that’s it. It will be the end and people will look back at this time and realise that this is when we lost it and blame the administration and the enforcing agencies. It is imperative that we protect our environment and not let it slip away,” Katuwawala said. 

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