Keepers of their forest

Villagers of Kodigahakanda, a little-known place in Horana have banded together to help the owner of 18 acres of shrub forest, to protect it in the face of deforestation that’s taking place all around
By Lankika de Livera

The little “dola” (brook) bubbles its way over small rocks that we gingerly step over to get to the community centre at Kodigahakanda. The village folk are gathered here for a meeting headed by the village school mathematics master Mr. Munagama to rally them as to the importance of protecting the Kodigahakanda forest pocket.

This patch of scrub jungle, 18 acres in all is just a 40-minute drive from Colombo in Horana. The little group call themselves “Mihithala Mithuro” (friends of the Earth) and have made it their mission to preserve it in a fast changing landscape.

Stretching as far as the eye can see:The view from Kodigahakanda

In the past the forest was much larger in extent and even leopards are said to have roamed here, as did deer and sambhur. Gradually as the land around was sold and commercial development took place, the number of deer and other creatures dwindled.

Mouse Deer, the Hog deer, the Fishing Cat and the Wild Boar quite common in the past have not been sighted for the past ten years. But bird life is abundant in the forest as are the butterflies.

Many rare plants and trees are still to be found, with the larger trees like the Bo, Wild Breadfruit, Guru Keena, Davata, Havari Nuga, Rukattana, Mango and Kithul being among them. The endangered and very rare, nocturnal Slender Loris has also been spotted here. In fact the village folk have videoed it.

Sadly, like many other scrub jungles, deforestation in the surrounding areas and industrial activity has had its effects and many streams that ran through this village have dried up. Thus this local community has banded together to try and save their little forest with its water resources and fauna and flora which they have learnt to love, appreciate and value, and without which, their very survival is threatened.
Stressing that the most valuable assets we could bestow on our children would be fresh air, fresh water and fertile soil, Mr. Munagama warned that if we did not protect the fauna and flora with more enthusiasm we would soon face ecological bankruptcy.

The 18 acre forest was bought by Rohan de Soysa to preserve the forest and bio-diversity of the area as the surrounding lands once belonged to the de Soysa family.

"There was an urgency to protect the jungle here. Adjacent to this was earlier the Wawulkanda and Bathalankanda caves and forest which were completely destroyed and cleared. The caves were blasted for quarrying which was a real shame. The quarrying and blasting went on in an uncontrollable manner,” Mr. de Soysa said.

“Meanwhile toxic waste was being discharged from a textile dye and yarn factory some distance away. It was adversely affecting the wells and paddy fields and streams that supply water to the area. These are affecting the health of the people in addition to killing off the many species of fish and amphibians in the waterways and also making the landscape ugly.

“I did not want to see Kodigahakanda and its rocky slopes suffer the same fate of being blasted and cleared. Also there was a need to save the wild life in the forest."

“Deforestation and mining dries up the underground water stores. Additionally, the often toxic pollution of various industrial processes makes much of the environment highly unpleasant and unusable. To reverse the trend, we need to restore the forest cover to at least 50% about double of what it is now,” says Mr. de Soysa.

Dr. Sarath Kotagama and Sri Lal Nishantha Hettiarachchi have both done research work in this forest. In his book on Kodigahakanda, Nishantha has listed all the fauna and flora he found here, including 17 species of mammals -the Slender Loris, Purple faced leaf Monkey, Toque Monkey, Porcupine, and Hare among them. An enormous variety of birds (72 species) can be spotted here, if one visits in the early hours of the morning. Migrants such as the Indian Pitta, Brown shrike, and Oriental Swallow too can be spotted. Birds of prey, are seen if one were to climb to the top of the Kodigahakanda which is a rocky slope.

As for butterflies, if you’re lucky you could encounter as many as 45 species - the Blue Mormon, Common palm fly, The Glassy Tiger and many others. For fish enthusiasts, 16 species of fish are reported in the forest waterways. Of these, six are endemic. Day's Killifish, Wemer's Killifish, Hora Dandiya and Crimson Carplet can be found here. The last two are listed in the Red Data Book of Endangered species.

Among the amphibians, the Hourglass Tree Frog, the Indian Bull frog and the Lanka Bandi Madiya( Rana gracilis) have been spotted here. Eighteen species of reptiles are also recorded including the Shaw's Wolf snake, the Checkered Keelback and the Rock Python etc.

The view from Kodigahakanda takes in Adam's Peak, Ratnapura and Colombo. In the times of the British colonial rulers a flag had been hoisted here and villagers say it was a guide to the ships in the ocean and hence, this place and the surrounding area came to be known as “Kodigahakanda”.

Those interested in visiting the forest could contact Rohan de Soysa on or Mr. Munagama on 071 3496971. “Mihithala Mithuro” welcomes university and school students to visit their little forest.

‘Historic’ house in sorry state

‘Uda Bangalawa’, the ancestral residence of the de Soysa family located close by is sadly in a dilapidated state. Many dignitaries like Sir Baron Jayatilleke, Sir John Kotelawala, and D.S. Senanayake had visited this stately home. Among the foreign visitors there were Thomas More, Robert Horton, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, the latter who in 1958, planted an Asoka tree in the wooded garden at the edge of the forest. When we visited, it was blossoming profusely in vibrant vermillion.

A significant event in this bungalow was the first meeting of the Sinhala Literary Federation under the leadership of Sir Baron Jayatilaka with the participation of many local cultural figures.

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