Nearly 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s wildlife cannot be found anywhere else on earth

C OLOMBO — Huddled in a treehouse well above the ground, Deevaka Weerakoon waited for elephants. When the herd didn’t show up at the usual time, Weerakoon and fellow researchers climbed down from the safety of the tree house onto a concrete ledge below when they saw them.

The elephants had taken a different route, sneaking up on them from behind. Suddenly, several tons of elephant flesh were upon them. Terrified of being trampled, Weerakoon and his companions did the only thing they could. They froze, clinging to their small slice of space next to the tree as the leathery behemoths shuffled past.

“I could have reached out and touched them, but if one of us got excited, all of us would have died that day,” Weerakoon said.

Until recently, elephant-rich Sri Lanka wasn’t on a lot of travelers’ bucket lists because of the island’s prolonged civil war. After the bloodshed ended in May 2009, tourists began paying more attention to this South Asian island, one of the world’s top biodiversity hot spots.

The wildlife is so ubiquitous visitors become aware of it as soon as they step out of the Colombo airport terminal. Monkeys clamber through trees eagerly watching to see if people drop any food. Tourists quickly learn not to leave backpacks or purses open because the little rascals will jump in.

There’s something for everyone: the majestic leopard, massive elephant, beautiful birdlife, and whales just offshore. There are monkeys, mongoose, sloth bears, jackals, crocodiles, water buffalo, wild boars.

While it took outsiders a long time to discover this hidden gem, the people of Sri Lanka have been embracing its animals and climate since ancient times.

Weerakoon is a conservation biologist in the Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences at the University of Colombo. He’s spent many years studying the wildlife, plants, and biodiversity of the island and loves to talk about it.

“In this one country within maybe four hours, you can see the largest animal in the ocean, come back, go to a close-by national park and see the largest terrestrial animal, and you can see the smallest animal in the world,” Weerakoon said. “We are blessed with many different kinds of species.”

Nature conservation, of both sea and land, has a prominent history here. The island’s first nature reserve was established in the third century B.C. by King Devanampiya Tissa, in this category at least, a man before his time.

Now, Sri Lanka, the 25th largest island in the world, has almost 15 percent of its land protected by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Weerakoon said this kind of protection is vital because several species will disappear from the world forever if they go extinct in Sri Lanka. Twenty-six species of birds and 16 animal species can be found nowhere else.

In addition to wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, there are 22 national parks. The first park was introduced in 1938, with four parks added as recently as 2015. Some of the older parks are in areas affected by the civil war, which shut them down periodically. All 22 parks are now operating.

Each park has its own claim to fame. The most popular host leopards, elephants, sloth bears or hundreds of species of birds.

Covering the countryside in the southeast, Yala National Park is the most famous. The park’s popularity comes from its diverse collection of wildlife. In Yala, a visitor can see all of Sri Lanka’s boast-worthy animals within a single park’s perimeters.

“Udawalawe is one park where you can walk in any day, any time and see an elephant,” Weerakoon said of another popular preserve. “If somebody tells me, ‘Show me an elephant,’ that’s the place I will take you.”

Udawalawe sits in the dry plains and has monkeys, crocodiles, leopards, birdlife, and even large flying squirrels in addition to its elephants.

The largest congregation of Asian elephants can be found in Minneriya National Park one season a year. The park, located on the shore of an ancient reservoir built by a king more than 1,700 years ago, lies along a corridor where elephants migrate between the parks seasonally. In August and September, more than 300 elephants migrate to the Minneriya Tank. The event is marketed as “The Gathering.”

This annual elephant conclave has gone on for centuries, but only more recently have tourists discovered it, which raises concerns for wildlife conservationists. They fear the added traffic could negatively affect the fragile ecosystem of the reserve and the behavior of animals within the park. Conservationists worry about safari vehicles approaching elephants too closely and disrupting feeding or mating patterns.

The problem is the animals don’t always stay in the parks. When that happens, they tend to damage and destroy crops. In response, farmers attack and sometimes kill them. And once they’re gone, they’re gone.

“There’s a lot of conflict, mainly with elephants and other species,” Weerakoon said. “We lose 200-plus elephants a year mainly due to conflict.”

“It is not a matter of wildlife and people learning to coexist peacefully; it is just people learning to coexist with wildlife. Otherwise, there is no way that we can provide protection to a vast number of animals and their habitats.

Chinthaka Weerasinghe

He said poaching is not as big an issue as in Africa because all African elephants have ivory tusks, but only about 50 percent of female Asian elephants — and even fewer males — have tusks. But just because the island is less attractive to poachers doesn’t mean they aren’t here.   

In January 2016, the Sri Lankan government became the first in South Asia to publicly destroy a giant stack of 359 tusks confiscated from poachers —

its largest ever illegal ivory haul. The valuable tusks were crushed, then burned in an incinerator. Customs officials said they were sending a message that poaching would not be tolerated.

Yet, in this heavily Buddhist country, elephants remain important to temples, which use them during religious ceremonies and events. They are often chained within temples or used to dress up religious parades like the Esala Perahera, when 100 elephants are draped in colorful costumes and lights and marched through the streets of Kandy.

Capturing wild elephants has been banned for decades, but for just as long, an elephant in the backyard has been a sign of wealth, privilege and power. They are frequently used in weddings. Authorities have cracked down in recent years, confiscating dozens of elephants whose owners had no permit.

There are more than 6,000 elephants on the island, which considers them an endangered species.

With the abundance of wildlife and wildlife issues, comes an abundance of conservation efforts.

One of the leading conservation groups in Sri Lanka, and arguably the world, is the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society. SLWCS’s mission is to help communities continue economic development while protecting the ecosystem.

Chinthaka Weerasinghe is the operations manager at SLWCS.

“(The) majority of tourists that come to Sri Lanka are the sun, fun, and beach crowd,” Weerasinghe said. “Slowly and gradually, we are attracting tourists who are interested in observing the amazing natural wonders the country has, including its wildlife.”

With this much wildlife, of course, there are occasional risks, especially for tourists who get a bit too casual.

In September, Paul McLean, a 24-year-old British journalist for the Financial Times, left a popular surfing beach and ventured half a mile inland to relieve himself, afterward washing his hands in a coastal lagoon. A crocodile attacked, pulling him to the bottom of the lagoon, where he drowned. Crocodiles have also attacked fishermen. Earlier this year, a crocodile attacked an elephant. And in May, authorities issued an ominous warning: beware of stray crocodiles in areas inundated by the heavy rains.

Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka is special because nearly 90 percent of its wildlife is unique to the country, meaning it cannot be found anywhere else in the world because it has been evolving for millennia.

About 65 percent of its reptiles, 86 percent of its frogs, and 33 species of its birds are unique to Sri Lanka, he said.

“This is one of the reasons why we’re considered a hot spot,” Weerakoon said. “Because we have so many that are unique. If we lose them, the whole world loses them. That puts a lot of pressure on us.

“Compared to the size of landmass, the country harbors an extraordinarily rich biodiversity,” he said. “Even the territorial waters are rich with marine life and have one of the largest concentrations of blue and sperm whales and a large number of other whales and dolphin species.”

Weerasinghe said organizations such as SLWCS fill a crucial role of mediator between wildlife and humans. The organization’s motto is “Empowering people, saving wildlife.”

“It is not a matter of wildlife and people learning to coexist peacefully; it is just people learning to coexist with wildlife,” Weerasinghe said. “Otherwise, there is no way that we can provide protection to a vast number of animals and their habitats.”

Tourists can volunteer with conservation groups or visit places such as the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage that house orphaned or injured elephants. Others join guided safaris in national parks to photograph animals or camp out overnight.

With the exception of farmers whose crops get munched or trampled, the people of Sri Lanka are famously fond of their wildlife.

They are also fond of what it can do to their wallets. It takes only a cursory glance at the many safari ads in tourist magazines to see just how much Sri Lanka’s people and wildlife are intertwined. And how the island makes the most of it.

Author Lana Ferguson

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