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SL is a global biodiversity hotspot: Should we be proud of this?

By Zaineb Akbarally

From an outsider’s perspective, we can marvel at the beauty of our lush forests, cascading rivers, and other wonders of nature that we on our island are blessed with. However, in the recent past, the deterioration of the environment in Sri Lanka has been widely recognised. How broadly have these human-driven activities interrupted our ecosystems, and what is our current situation like? 

Sri Lanka: A biodiversity hotspot 

The buzz phrase “biodiversity hotspot” has gotten popular appeal amongst various quarters, with Sri Lanka often marketed as a biodiversity hotspot. Despite the positive annotations derived at first glance, the term is actually a way to inform conservation planners and donors on regions to be prioritised for conservation. To garner the term, an area needs to meet a set of strict criteria. Biodiversity hotspots are home to 0.5% or 1,500 of the world’s vascular plants, and have lost 70% of their original vegetation. Therefore, biodiversity hotspots are places that are exceptionally rich in biodiversity but are deeply threatened – and in crisis. Today, 36 regions globally, located predominantly in the equatorial tropics, are designated global biodiversity hotspots.

Sri Lanka, along with the Western Ghats of India, is recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot. Since it met these established criteria, a staggering 93% of the originally occurring vegetation in the region has been lost. The region is also home to 0.7% of all plant species on Earth. All this confirms the deterioration of Sri Lanka’s lush environment. Sadly, the entirety of our nation’s vegetation is categorised under “biodiversity hotspot”, and is considered deeply threatened.

What makes Sri Lanka so unique?

Despite the disturbing reality of such technical classifications, the term also implies a biological richness in the area that makes it unique. Sri Lanka’s biological richness is a product of the way the country has evolved over millennia. Its historic and geologic isolation from the continental landmass, topography, and climate have shaped its biogeography and biodiversity. The southwestern quarter of the island and its perhumid forests are home to a vibrant diversity of endemic fauna and flora. The region is a biological refuge where species have survived and evolved independently of other parts of South Asia, where changes in climate during periods in Earth’s history made it inhospitable for species to survive in surrounding regions. Thus, this part of the island hosts several point endemic/range-restricted species (found in only one location) and even monotypic endemic genera.

One such source of national pride is the Sri Lankan relict ant (Aneuretus simoni), the only surviving species that belongs to an otherwise extinct subfamily Aneuretinae that has been around for over 50 million years. It went as far as to pique the interest of Edward O. Wilson, the father of biodiversity, who in the year 1955, as a young scientist aged 25, ventured into the forests near Ratnapura to search for and study this species.

However, this part of the island also has the least amount of formally protected areas under the Wildlife and Forest Departments – and the highest population density – thus demonstrating the vulnerability of our most remarkable biodiversity. The world recognises Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, but continuous downward trends only diminish this natural paradise as things currently stand.   

What does the future hold?

Forest cover on the island has shrunk significantly over the last 100 years. The loss, fragmentation, and alteration of habitat, climate change, the spread of invasive species, the mismanagement of waste, and the agrochemical pollution of streams and waterways are some of the threats affecting the survival of biodiversity. Compounding matters, the recent actions by the Sri Lankan Government in revoking Circulars 05/98, 5/2001, and 02/2006, removing Other State Forests (OSFs) from under the jurisdiction of the Department of Forest Conservation and placing the making of decisions regarding their use in the hands of divisional secretariats, is alarming. This was done with the issuance of circular MWFC/1/2020 in November 2020, which effectively vested divisional secretaries with authority to use OSFs for economic and other purposes, with the credence that they will not harm the ecosystem within these areas. OSFs are forest patches that have not received formalised protection but serve as a crucial link in harbouring and ensuring the connectivity of forests for biodiversity to survive.

A combination of poor decision-making and a lack of a long-sighted vision for protecting our biodiversity means Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads today. The health of our ecosystems that sustain biodiversity and provide a range of services for communities hangs in the balance. It is now conclusively established in science that healthy ecosystems help build climate resilience. Mangrove forests and seagrass beds store carbon and protect coastlines from storm surges and tsunamis, and forested watersheds ensure access to water, supporting people, and livelihoods.

Sri Lanka needs sensible and thought through strategies and policies to safeguard our vested natural capital, which will allow for sustainable economic development and the country’s progress. Sri Lanka’s sixth “National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity” recognised the need for synergy between agencies to facilitate discussions to engage development practitioners and conservationists. The prevailing disconnect and mistrust between these groups have led to terrible environmental consequences. Also, more importantly, an apex body that can co-ordinate the activities of various government departments vested with the responsibility of the environment needs to be established, as wildlife, forest, biodiversity, and marine environments have never been under one agency.

Ultimately, protecting biodiversity ensures a safety net for our own survival and provides the country with opportunities to thrive. 

In 2018, the Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL) was the technical partner in preparing Sri Lanka’s sixth “National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity”. The Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment initiated and led the preparation process under the Biodiversity Secretariat, with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Learn more about the current status of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity by reading the Biodiversity Profile – Sri Lanka (2019) via https://bit.ly/3alQwut.

(The writer is a Senior Science Officer of the Environmental Foundation Ltd. [EFL])