14th November 1999

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A paradise to save

Once one of the country's best known tourist destinations, Hikkaduwa now resembles a faded postcard, reports Tharuka Dissanaike

A paradise to savePriyantha scratched his head desolately. "Hardly any business nowadays, miss," the 20-year- old beach boy said. "Even locals are not coming to see the corals like they used to." Dozens of multi-coloured glass-bottomed boats bobbed around in the clear aquamarine water. Some were pulled up on the beach and lay, upside down in the fine white sand, where fisher children frolicked, playing truant during school hours.

Only one or two boats were actually taking out visitors, local or foreign. Every few feet on the beach, lounged scraggy youth, desperately trying to persuade you to take a boat ride. An elderly woman in cloth and jacket stepped up trying to hawk bright coloured wrist bands. "It's been a useless day," she sighs. "I haven't sold a thing."

The mood of Hikkaduwa's people appeared to reflect the sorry state of the resort town itself. Once, one of the country's best known tourist destinations, Hikkaduwa now resembles a faded postcard. A shadow of its former self. Even the tourists who do come seem to be of lower calibre.

They certainly don't spend much, one beach boy tartly pointed out.

The situation was aggravated a year and a half ago when a sudden rise in sea temperature totally destroyed the corals, which were Hikkaduwa's chief attraction. Today 80-90 percent of the beautiful 'coral garden' is devastated and dead, quite depressing to look at from the glass-bottomed boat. And because of the level of destructive activity and pollution at Hikkaduwa, the coral reef is taking longer to recover from the shock.

But the slump has not discouraged boat owners from putting more vessels in to an already overcrowded Hikkaduwa. On a weekend, when foreign and local tourists enjoy a dip in the clear calm sea, these motor boats zoom around the hundreds of holiday makers, often going too close to bathers, leaving oil and grease residue in the water. There is little compulsion to be gentle with the boat, its cargo or the corals. The boats often whack into the reef, breaking up the already fragile corals.

DWLC's Senevirathne"Ideally, there should not be more than ten boats running over the reef at a time," said Jayantha Senevirathne, Ranger of the Hikkaduwa Nature Reserve. "At present there are more than 80 boats operating, and on a Saturday or Sunday, more than half will be in the water at a given time."

Hikkaduwa was declared a Marine Sanctuary as far back as 1979, but the status afforded it little actual protection. Three years ago, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, under pressure to curb fishing, mining and other activities in the sanctuary area, appointed three staffers to oversee the sanctuary. Last year, Hikkadauwa's status was elevated to a Nature Reserve.

"Here, unlike in National Parks and Nature Reserves elsewhere in the country, it is very difficult to implement any of our laws," Senevirathne said. At first the DWLC officers operated out of a room in the local secretariat building in Hikkaduwa town.

A year ago they moved into a tiny, tin-roof shack on the beach which used to be a small grocery store. There is no phone for their use, or a fan to relieve the intense noon heat. They cannot even enjoy the sea breeze since the broken windows are tightly shuttered.

"It is very hard to command any sort of authority operating from an office like this," Senevirathne said. And as if to prove his point, beach boys loitering the area would peep in idly and some would even boldly demand who we were and why we were there.

Unlike in other designated wild life reserves, the Hikkaduwa Marine Reserve has no demarcated boundaries, making it even more difficult to enforce any rules or take trespassers to court.

The attitude of the beach boys and touts towards the DWLC men's presence on the beach has now changed from the pure venom of three years ago to a grudging acceptance.

"It has been very very tough working with these people. More than law enforcement, Hikkaduwa needs awareness programmes to teach people the importance of the reef and the need to protect it to protect their own livelihood." Senevirathne lamented that more and more boys were taking to beach jobs and this has gradually increased the pressure on the reef.

But despite the trying conditions, Senevirathne and his team have scored some successes. They managed to keep commercial fishing out of the sanctuary area. Only eight traditional fishermen have been licensed to use rod and hook for fishing on the coral reef. Fishing for ornamental fish has stopped entirely.

They have taken hoteliers to court for releasing their waste into the sanctuary area. They have managed to curb vandalism of the reef by visitors, who like to take away pieces of coral as mementos.

"We have formulated a long term plan," Senevirathne said. "The Department should have a good office cum visitor centre here with more staff. As in other Reserves, visitors should go through us and the glass-bottomed boat operation must be regulated by us." He said that issue of licences to the glass-bottomed boats now under the Pradeshiya Sabha should be controlled by the DWLC.

Once such an office/visitor centre is in place, all casual visitors, now lured into boat rides by touts who hang around on the Galle Road, will have to enter the beach through the Department's offices.

Hikkaduwa is also threatened by an influx of sand washing ashore. Severe siltation has occurred on the reef, in some places burying almost three feet of coral in sand. The beach too has widened. Many attribute this disaster to the developing of Hikkaduwa's Fisheries Harbour just a stone's throw away.

"We have asked our head office to liaise with the necessary departments to find the cause of the siltation and try to address it," Senevirathne said.

S.K. Ekarathne, professor of Zoology of the University of Colombo and Marine Biologist who works closely with the Department staff in Hikkaduwa felt that it was necessary to empower the staff further to carry out their duties.

"The staff is committed. But they really need an office worthy of some respect," he said. "The visitor centre is a good idea, but in the interim, the present place should be upgraded." Prof. Ekarathne said that he was working towards increasing their scientific knowledge on corals. He has involved the Department staff in the coral transplanting exercise that is being carried out in Hikkaduwa, where healthy coral from other reefs are replanted here to kick start the revival of the reef.

"The exercise has been successful and now the department should launch on a pilot project scale," Prof. Ekarathne said. He said as the guardians of the reef, the DWLC must have some commitment towards any work being done to rejuvenate the dying reef.

The reserve

The Hikkaduwa Marine Nature Reserve covers an extent of 251 acres. The reef is built up mainly of table and stag horn corals, which were worst affected during the 1997 bleaching incident that wiped out many reefs in the world.

Even the coral forms that were not bleached, and did not subsequently die, have had marked changes in their life patterns, Prof. Ekarathne said.

"There is a huge reduction in their reproduction. There is no fresh colonisation. Recovery has been very slow these past one and a half years."

The loss of the reef could impact on fisheries, since many species depend on the protection of the coral environment and could lead to added coastal erosion. It has already affected tourism and local patronage of the 'coral garden'.

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