I have been on so many overseas expeditions but this visit to Sri Lanka is undoubtedly the best so far both in terms of biodiversity and hospitality. Such diversity within one canvas is just incredible,” says Josh Raper, a Falmouth University Marine and Natural History Photography graduate. Josh is among the group of visiting Falmouth [...]


Celebrating the uniqueness of Popham’s Arboretum

In a move to promote international research at this only naturally regenerated arboretum in the country, a team of research students was here from Falmouth University, UK

Growing wild: Popham’s vision realised. Pix by Indika Handuwala

I have been on so many overseas expeditions but this visit to Sri Lanka is undoubtedly the best so far both in terms of biodiversity and hospitality. Such diversity within one canvas is just incredible,” says Josh Raper, a Falmouth University Marine and Natural History Photography graduate. Josh is among the group of visiting Falmouth students on an expedition tour in the National Institute of Fundamental Studies (NIFS) – Popham Arboretum in Dambulla.

The research team of Conservation Photography students led by Dr. Margaret Upton, Senior Lecturer from the Falmouth University, UK, was here on a one-month tour in July. The first international visit of this scale to the Popham Arboretum, set up by the British planter and former naval officer, Francis Home Popham way back in 1963, it aims to promote international research at this only naturally regenerated arboretum in the country.

The arboretum which Sam Popham gifted to the then Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS), in 1989 is presently managed on behalf of NIFS now (National Institute of Fundamental Studies), by Ruk Rakaganno.

The tour was facilitated by Prof. Mayuri Wijesinghe from the Faculty of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo on a link made possible by Simon Lazenbatt, a member of Ruk Rakaganno. Simon, a one-time ‘pharmaceutical guy’ whose professional commitments first brought him here in 1984, was bowled over by the natural beauty of the island. “I kept coming for vacations with my wife who too fell in love with the place, so much so we both wanted to live here after my retirement and here we are having realized our dream,” says Simon who has made his abode in Naula.

Sam Popham

Simon who came to associate with the Arboretum through his involvement with Ruk Rakaganno initially linked up the Zoology Faculty of University of Exeter. “The zoological tour which did not materialize last year, finally evolved into an educational tour of photography this year with Falmouth University tying up,” explains Simon who sees it as a stepping stone to more progressive ventures in time to come. A database of photographic material is being generated and will be donated by the Falmouth group. This valuable resource material, with proper management and the will and vision to utilise it properly, can be used to produce promotional materials and items for sale to visitors, says Simon. “Currently there are no informative or souvenir items available for sale, which means a huge opportunity to support the Arboretum has been lost up to now,” he notes.

NIFS-Popham Arboretum which is home to around 200 species of flora, among them, several endemics, is also a place to see the Slender Loris. The arboretum in the dry zone proudly proclaims its genetic diversity. “We couldn’t have expected a better place which would do justice to our theme of ‘Science meets Photography,” reflects Josh Pawlowski, second year student of Marine and Natural History Photography at the Falmouth University who is excited about developing a series of documentaries together with his fellow students.

These documentaries will bring under the spotlight the evolution and the importance of the Popham Arboretum and its flora and fauna with special emphasis on the Loris. Their specialist gear, including heat sensitive and night vision appliances, enable non-obtrusive observation of the wild life and more sophisticated documentation of the behaviour and ecology of the Loris population in particular. An exhibition celebrating the arboretum and its biodiversity, is also in the pipeline says Josh for whom the first time ‘tropical experience’ has been just overwhelming. Such exposure, as the young photographer asserts, it is hoped, will kindle interest in the Arboretum in UK-based wildlife media and other like-minded individuals.

Additional attraction: The slender Loris. Pic by Lewis Easdown

For Josh Raper, the visit had been a thrilling photographic experience, along with a food encounter with Sri Lankan pumpkin and spinach! For Meike Simms, a Zoology graduate, currently working in wildlife tourism, the Popham Arboretum also offered insights into other issues such as what levels of tourism should be best for Sri Lanka in terms of sustainability without disturbing the natural equilibrium, especially in wildlife parks, she notes. Our potential for wildlife tourism is enormous, says Meike who also asserts that collaborations of this nature become a bonus in the process.

The mud hut which is at times an auditorium transforms into a lunch room where all youngsters help themselves to a simple Sri Lankan lunch where papadam seemed to hold sway and monkeys keep them amused! Held in nature’s rapture, they look forward to the next visit to the island, with the Kandy Perahera and tea estates on their bucket list.Lauding the NIFS-Ruk Rakaganno collaboration which made the visit possible, Dr. Margaret Upton looks forward to similar student-centric encounters in the near future. “With the intervention of Prof. Mayuri Wijesinghe, hopefully we can enter into a MoU with the University of Colombo, so that a mutual learning experience will be possible and exercises of this nature could be sustained.”

The conservation of the Arboretum fuelled by schemes of this nature becomes increasingly decisive, given the exclusivity of the place, says Prof. Wijesinghe. “Compared to the wet zone, endemism in the Dry Zone is poor further intensified by the post-war phase where forests have been cleared at an alarming rate. In this backdrop, the Arboretum emerges an exception with its rich biodiversity converged into an inclusive landscape of around 36 acres,” she observes.

Margaret Upton

Several interactive sessions were held with leading researchers and scholars including Prof. Wipula Yapa, Head, Department of Zoology and Environment Sciences, University of Colombo and Prof. Siril Wijesundara, Research Professor from NIFS.

The visit of the students had been at a ‘critical juncture’, says Prof. Siril Wijesundara who serves on the management committee of the Arboretum. He urges for sustainable scientific collaborations both local and international which would reflect positively on research as well as the Arboretum which requires upgrading. “Although we have had on-site research programmes before, this is the first time a venture of this scale is taking place and through the proposed tripartite MoU, we hope to promote theme-based research,” he says.

With the more consolidated partnership between NIFS and Ruk Rakaganno coming into place, the conservation efforts of the Arboretum certainly appear to be more encouraging, asserts President, Ruk Rakaganno, Kamini Vitarana. “With both Prof. Wijesundara and Prof. Wijesinghe on board, more robust undertakings look possible,” says Ms. Vitarana, adding that international spotlight is a step in the right direction.

The house Geoffrey Bawa built for Sam Popham
The vessel-shaped granite cottage designed by iconic architect Geoffrey Bawa for Sam Popham renders the arboretum a Bohemian flavour, while celebrating the naval officer in the visionary naturalist.  The cottage has been Jayantha Amarasinghe’s second home since 1994 as Manager of the Arboretum. The much loved ebony tree still stands beside the cottage as in Popham’s time, he says, leafing through old photgraphs. “He wore many hats as a naval officer, teacher, planter and above all a naturalist. Mr. Popham would not even touch a twig of a tree, allowing nature to take its own course,” reflects Jayantha who is now responsible for the management of the arboretum’s 36 acres.The visiting team of youngsters keeps Jayantha happily busy. The additions to the place such as the first ever camping site in the arboretum which was put up for the students will serve similar groups in future.


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