Sri Lanka has an ethno-botanical tradition with its own version of Ayurveda medicine (of Indian origin) which may go back over 2,000 years. But there is very little on record of any studies of natural history in the modern sense by Sri Lankans until the 19h century when E.F. Kelaart, born in Sri Lanka to [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Early naturalists to modern scientists and popularisers


Sri Lanka has an ethno-botanical tradition with its own version of Ayurveda medicine (of Indian origin) which may go back over 2,000 years. But there is very little on record of any studies of natural history in the modern sense by Sri Lankans until the 19h century when E.F. Kelaart, born in Sri Lanka to parents of Dutch descent published a series of works culminating in his ‘Prodromus faunæ Zeylanicæ’ (1852). However, it is possible that the island’s people were influenced by the teachings of early natural philosophers as far back as Aristotle.

Modern natural history studies in Sri Lanka began with the 16th-century voyages of Europeans in search of trade, an outcome of which was the collection of specimens for cabinets of natural history curiosities being accumulated in the West. So great was European interest in Sri Lanka’s plants that the three decades between 1717 and 1747 saw the publication of three comprehensive floras, by Paul Hermann, Johannes Burman and the ‘father’ of botany himself, Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’s revolutionary work Systema Naturae in 1758 included a number of the island’s plants and animals. The latter introduced the binomial system of naming species that we still use to this day. The colonization by the Portuguese was followed by the Dutch and the British, the last two nations in particular had a strong scientific interest in collecting specimens.

Unpublished drawing: Ceylon Junglefowl by G.M. Henry

The botany and zoology were subject to collecting and scientific description by a number of European professional and amateur naturalists over a span of four centuries. New impetus was given to this enterprise with the establishment of the Colombo Museum in 1877, still arguably the most prominent piece of architecture in Colombo. Natural history studies flourished in the island, albeit mainly through the hands of European visitors and settlers, P.E.P. Deraniyagala being the rare exception among native Sri Lankans to make an outstanding contribution to the field.

Following the botanists came the zoologists anxious to describe Sri Lanka’s fauna. Loten’s Sunbird, for example, was among the many species named from drawings made for Gideon Loten, the Dutch colonial governor of the island from 1752-1757, who collected natural history specimens and also maintained a menagerie. The tradition for the publication of books for an audience of wildlife watchers (this book is part of that tradition), was largely the work of British colonial naturalists, some of who were planters or in the Ceylon Civil Service. Early writers included Sir James Emerson Tennent (Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon, 1861), Captain Vincent W. Legge (History of the Birds of Ceylon, 1878-1880), L.G.O. Woodhouse (The butterfly fauna of Ceylon, 1942), and G.M. Henry (A guide to the birds of Ceylon, 1955). For more on the early history see ‘Pearls, Spices and Green Gold’ (2007) by Rohan Pethiyagoda.

Sri Lanka’s association with foreign scientists, naturalists and conservationists continues with recent examples including work on Whales and Dolphins, (e.g. Hal Whitehead, Abigail Alling, Jonathan Gordon etc., in the 1980s, more recently Charles Anderson), Dragonflies (e.g. Matjaz Bedjanic, Karen Conniff) and primates (e.g. Wolfgang Dittus, Anna Nekaris) amongst others. One of the most significant recent interventions by a foreign naturalist was by Swiss national and Chairman of the Ceylon Bird Club, Thilo Hoffmann, who spearheaded a campaign to save the Sinharaja rainforest from logging in the 1970s. Botany had a strong scientific tradition supported by government institutions, not least the two-centuries old Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, and witnessed projects such as the 15 volume ‘A revised handbook to the flora of Ceylon’ (Dassanayake, M. D., Fossberg, F. R., & Clayton, W. D. (eds.), 1980–2004), which updated an earlier key work by Henry Trimen (A hand-book to the flora of Ceylon, 1893-1900). Botany was integrated into the wider ecological and bio-geographical context by later botanists such as Nimal and Savithri Gunatilleke with their long-time collaborator Peter Ashton.

In the 1980s, Rohan Pethiyagoda founded the Wildlife Heritage Trust which included notable field workers such as Kelum Manamendra Arachchi, and their range of work made key contributions to discovering new species especially in amphibians, fish, freshwater crabs and reptiles. They overturned the notion that Sri Lanka was well explored biologically and spawned a renaissance in biodiversity exploration. A number of Sri Lankan scientists now work on areas from land molluscs (e.g. Dinarzarde Raheem), herpetofauna (e.g. Anslem de Silva, Madhava Meegaskumbura, Ruchira Somaweera, Mendis Wickramasinghe), cetaceans (e.g. Anouk Illangakoon, Ranil Nanayakkara, Asha de Vos, Hiran Jayawardene), butterflies (e.g. Michael van der Poorten), Elephants (e.g. Prithiviraj Fernando, Manori Gunawardana, Shermin de Silva), primates (Jinie Dela) leopards (Anjali Watson) to ornithology (e.g. Ceylon Bird Club, Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka), to take a very small sample of workers. In the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, the Sri Lanka office of IUCN staffed by people such as Shiranee Yasaratne and Channa Bambaradeniya pro-actively engaged with the private sector and also produced a raft of scientific and popular publications.

The current work was preceded by an important period in the early 1980s which saw a home-grown conservation movement led by organisations such as March for Conservation. Part of this movement was the charismatic Sarath Kotagama, who took birdwatching to the Sinhala reading public and followed in the tradition of British wildlife popularisers such as G.M. Henry and John and Judy Banks who later in the 1980s published pictorial guides to birds, mammals and butterflies.

Unfortunately for Sri Lankan natural history, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has been seized by ‘patriots’ to raise the red herring of international bio-piracy. Although the intentions of some of the detractors may at times be honest and noble, their actions are counter-productive to Sri Lankan natural history and the development of Sri Lankan scientists in the international arena. One unintended consequence of the CBD has been to create an environment that is hostile to research and stifles international engagement. Furthermore, the CBD has also become a weapon in the politics of envy.

One response to this has been the emergence of the ‘Monetisation School’, led by people like myself. Monetisation of wildlife has complemented or even turned away from research as the prime focus, to the socio-economic benefits of wildlife conservation. We argue that conservation is justified, and indeed vital in wildlife-rich parts of the island on the grounds of ‘Ecosystem benefits’ and direct translation into cash at the bank, through the creation of livelihoods from wildlife tourism.

This article has been adapted from the forthcoming ‘Wild Sri Lanka’ due in September 2013 from John Beaufoy Publishing (UK).

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