Letting out more secrets of Sinharaja

Book Facts : Sinharaja- Portrait of a Rainforest by T.S. U. de Zylva. Published by Victor Hasselbad Wildlife Trust.

Dark and mysterious, the Sinharaja rainforest has exerted a strange fascination over nature lovers in this country. In his foreword to this book, Dr. Nimal Gunatilleke, Professor of Botany of the University of Peradeniya describes it as ‘the crown jewel of Sri Lanka’s natural landscape’ and indeed it is hard to match its amazing wealth of fauna and flora and the abundant eco-system that thrives in this 11,000 hectare land on the Rakwana massif. However often visited, there still remains an element of the unknown, more secrets lurking in its forested depths that draw the visitor back.

Author Dr T.S.U. de Zylva, well-known ornithologist, photographer and author of many previous tomes on the bird life of this island relates how he was persuaded to undertake this pictorial book on Sinharaja despite having misgivings about the challenge it represented and the time constraints he faced as a busy medical practitioner. A few visits to the ‘green aisles’ had him hooked and he began work on the higher elevations of Sinharaja’s eastern sector. What we have now in this hardcover volume represents almost seven years of work.

Regular excursions with references, notebook, cameras and binoculars were made and as he somewhat ruefully admits that ‘having embarked on this venture rather late in life, I began to realise that as we grow older, the hills become steeper’. Yet it is clear his fascination with the forest only grew despite some areas becoming more difficult to access. Receiving grateful mention are his wife who accompanied him on all his treks, and his other assistants who had to lug his heavy photographic equipment.

The author makes no bones about the fact that this is not a scientific tome—no attempt was made at scientific identification of the species presented neither does it lay claim to being a comprehensive catalogue of the species found here. It is essentially a guide for the layman- a pictorial glimpse of this UNESCO World Heritage site, that came perilously close to destruction in the misconceived logging initiatives of 1977.

Like Nihal Fernando's sterling book ‘Sri Lanka: A Personal Odyssey’ where his photographs were also accompanied by a rich vein of writing from many sources like John Still and W.S. Senior, here too the author does not rely only on his own writing, though he is blessed with a lucid and descriptive style that allows his words to paint a more than evocative picture. “Whenever I entered the Sinharaja reserve, I was overawed by the cathedral hush of the forest and the sheer immensity and grandeur of those canopy trees. They were monumental unbranched trunks, rising like columns and supporting a verdant roof-garden” he writes in one descriptive passage.

There are many gems, like the reference to the first written account of a rainforest –by Christopher Columbus in 1492 when he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain of trees that seemed to touch the sky and very lofty mountains- after seeing the forests of Hispaniola (today divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It comes as some surprise to find references made by Plato and Pliny the Elder to deforestation. Elsewhere we learn that the 14th century Arab traveller Ibn Batuta had also made his way through Sinharaja when he made his well documented foray to Adam’s Peak.

But literary references and limpid prose aside, there is solid factual information on what goes into the forest. Of course it all begins with getting there and then the reader is given a brief outline of the climate, the forest stratification- the layers that scientists have identified – the canopy of ceiling; the emergents (though these he says do not constitute a separate layer); the sub canopy; the under storey;the shrub layer and finally the ground layer.

Crab spider Strangler roots The Purple-faced Leaf Monkey

Then we meet the lianas, the flowers, like the stunning thebu, the vivid beauty of the Kendreckia walkeria; then what the author calls the sinister strangler- the plants that reach for the coveted canopy by stealth, the rattans, and the medicinal herbs, fungi and wild orchids too. Not to be forgotten are the many denizens of the forest- the mouse deer, the rare pangolin, even the occasional elusive leopard and of course, - the Western Purple-faced Leaf Monkey and Indian palm-civet, its complex bird life like the unusual frogmouth, the highly distinctive Ceylon Blue Magpie and Ceylon Trogon and the feeding flocks, the insects and reptiles that dwell here, all pictorially depicted.

The bugbear of many excellent books- that of the occasional typographical error does surface but this is a mere technicality, as the author’s evocative descriptions and enthusiasm for treading the ‘untrammelled pathways’ are infectious. If Dr. de Zylva’s aim was to whet our appetites to explore more, he has amply succeeded. The book will have you planning your next weekend to Sinharaja without delay.

(Sinharaja: Portrait of a Rainforest is available at its pre-publication price of Rs. 3,000, at Media Expressions, 732, 2nd Floor, Maradana Road, Colombo 10.Hotline: 0777 360862, Web :

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