All conservation agencies should be under one ministry. In countries which manage their conservation sectors well, these agencies are under one ministry and that ministry does not have any other mandate other than conservation. As long as the sector is fragmented with different agencies having conflicting mandates, the problem will never be addressed. These were [...]


Conservation agencies should be under a single ministry, says former DWC DG

Marine biologist Nishan Perera dives into MPAs to look at corals

All conservation agencies should be under one ministry. In countries which manage their conservation sectors well, these agencies are under one ministry and that ministry does not have any other mandate other than conservation. As long as the sector is fragmented with different agencies having conflicting mandates, the problem will never be addressed.

Kottowa Forest – Pic sent by Dr. Sampath Seneviratne

These were the valuable suggestions of a former Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, when asked ‘What of the future?’ after a robust panel discussion on ‘Where is wildlife conservation today?’

Pointing out that most of the election manifestos in our country promise to bring all conservation-oriented agencies under one ministry, but when a party is elected this plan is usually thrown out, Dr. Pilapitiya said that the role of a minister is to give policy directions. “Unfortunately, politicians are involved in administrative and management decisions. In such a convoluted system, conservation obviously suffers.”

The panel discussion was held on May 29 in the Jasmine Room of the BMICH in Colombo 7, in connection with the 125th anniversary celebrations of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS).

Moderated by Dr. Pilapitiya, the four panellists dwelt on coral reefs (Nishan Perera); birds (Dr. Sampath Seneviratne); elephants (Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando) and leopards (Rukshan Jayewardene).

Looking at ‘Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) as a tool for coral reef conservation in Sri Lanka’, marine biologist and underwater photographer Nishan Perera who is also Co-Founder of the Blue Resources Trust, posed the question: What is an MPA?

Quoting the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) definition, he said that it is “any area of intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”.

The benefits, he said, include:

  • Conservation – to conserve and manage critical species, ecosystems and commercial fish.
  • Enforcement – to concentrate management efforts into a relatively small area.
  • Nurseries – to have nurseries and breeding grounds for commercially-important or threatened species.
  • Spill-over – to provide spill-over benefits outside the MPA boundaries.
  • Livelihoods – to support livelihoods and income for communities and management.
  • Culture – to protect traditions and cultural heritage.
  • Education – to promote education, awareness and research.

Mr. Perera said that in Sri Lanka there are five MPAs covering more than 32,000 hectares and 12 coastal MPAs covering more than 75,000 hectares. The five are – Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary; Hikkaduwa National Park; Pigeon Island National Park; Rumassala Marine Sanctuary; and Kayankerni Marine Sanctuary.

The large audience at the WNPS anniversary panel discussion. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

However, he lamented that the norm in Sri Lanka was small fragmented MPAs. They cover only 0.07% of the surface area and they are declared and managed without any information on ecology or biology.

Reiterating that a science-based rather than a popularity-based approach is essential, he called for the identification of critical habitats and resilient eco-systems which are important when considering the impacts of climate change.

“An MPA is an area of enforcement which gives us the opportunity to focus on management efforts and resources into one specific area. It is a refuge for animals to breed and restock populations,” he said, pointing out that there are benefits not only inside but also outside MPAs.

If there is a successful MPA, the fishing communities are able to have higher fish captures outside it. MPAs support livelihood and tourism in certain areas, said Mr. Perera.

On the ‘designing and management’ of an MPA, he stressed that it should be representative of all the habitats in the area, not just those that have glamour such as coral reefs or species such as whales and dolphins. It should be an eco-system based approach and not a species-based one.

He said: “MPAs should have a connectivity of eco-systems. Either it should be a large MPA or a network of small MPAs to make it more viable ecologically as fish do not always stick to boundaries. MPAs should also be inclusive of all user groups. Within a larger MPA, it is not only about conservation but also different users such as those in tourism, fisheries and research.”

He pointed out the need to have clear targets for conservation objectives in an MPA, which Sri Lanka did not have. “Saying we want to protect or conserve is a starting point, but we need to have targets where we want to be in three, five or 10 years.”

Diving deep into what seems like his favourite topic, Mr. Perera says that Sri Lanka’s five MPAs are primarily designed to protect coral reefs. They cover less than 1% of the country’s ocean area. Almost 30,500 hectares are within one MPA – the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary, while all the others make up 1,500 hectares and are small and fragmented MPAs.

Taking a close look at corals, he points out that the Pigeon Island National Park has live coral cover of 50% (considered the highest in Sri Lanka within an MPA); the most-recently declared Kayankerni Marine Sanctuary has 40%; the Hikkaduwa National Park has only 15%; the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary has 7%; and the Rumassala Marine Sanctuary has 6%. Around 30% of live coral cover is deemed “good”.

Human impacts of over-fishing, pollution and unregulated tourism have directly affected coral cover, while coral bleaching is a natural cause of coral destruction, an event not specific to Sri Lanka. It is caused by warmer ocean temperatures, an indirect impact of climate change, which leads to the corals losing their natural colours, turning white and dying off.

“During the mass coral bleaching around the world in 1998 and 2016, Sri Lanka was affected majorly. Managing climate change is necessary – it is not about the reef which has the highest coral cover, it is about which reef is resilient, can stand these stresses and recover better. To identify these resilience factors, we need better research,” he said.

Referring to the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary, Mr. Perera said that it used to have high coral cover of 78%-80% as there was no tourism or much fishing those days. Yet no management measures were declared. In 1998, the live coral cover dropped to 1% due to a global coral bleaching event and the reef almost died. Since then the reef has gone through a natural recovery. In 2016, when the last bleaching happened, the coral cover decreased to 7%.

Fragmentation has major impact on birds – Dr. Sampath Seneviratne

A colourful saree is what came on the screen first and soon after, cut up into strips, effectively destroying its beauty.

Like the saree’s beauty and purpose being lost, fragmentation of the landscape has had a massive adverse impact on birds, was the point of Dr. Sampath Seneviratne who is a Senior Lecturer in Zoology and Environment Sciences at the University of Colombo and current President of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL).

“With fragmentation, the birds too are disappearing,” he stressed, moving onto the “significant role” played by birds in the story of conservation. The health of the planet can be studied by looking at the migratory patterns of birds.

Ceylon Spurfowl – Pic sent by Dr. Sampath Seneviratne

Linking birds and humans through strong comparisons, Dr. Seneviratne said that birds provide a lot more than just colours and shapes in the landscape. Humans are different to other mammal species when taking into account mating and visual sensory complexities. Most mammals have either one or two dimensional vision, without colour vision. But like humans, birds even though not being mammals have colour vision.

Birds are socially monogamous similar to humans, sticking to one partner for life, whereas most mammals are polygamous. Most birds use vision for day-to-day functions, similar to humans. Birds also have learning like humans.

Unfortunately, birds are disappearing very fast. According to a global report of BirdLife International last year, 25% of birds of 10,000 species are endangered worldwide. The report expanded recently by the UN states that globally over one million species including birds are threatened with extinction.

He said that in Sri Lanka, the number of forest birds is dropping at an alarming rate, while home-garden species are not affected much. According to statistics collected from the Kottowa Arboretum, Galle, in the past 150 years, about 30% of the species, a majority being endemics, have simply disappeared, even though forest boundaries remained unchanged.

“If you have the full population in a connected manner, survival rates would be substantially higher, with a lower risk of extinction. When the population is broken up, each small segment becomes endangered. Connecting existing patches by creating home gardens and green corridors is the way forward in bird conservation,” said Dr. Seneviratne, adding that this is valid not only for birds but all wildlife, big or small.

Elephant filters needed in project designs
Pointing the way forward, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya showed what the WNPS could do.
n The WNPS should lobby development assistance agencies to influence their project designs to ensure that an ‘elephant filter’ is introduced so that the potential for the human-elephant conflict (HEC) is addressed at the early design stage, rather than as an afterthought (as it happens now). If development assistance agencies require such considerations in their projects, the government may eventually introduce this concept into its projects. This will basically attempt to minimize HEC issues through better thought out designs – preventing rather than trying to deal with the problem once it has been created.

  • As awareness of the importance of wildlife conservation in particular and biodiversity conservation in general is lacking in Sri Lanka, while continuing the school programmes which the WNPS is conducting, there is a need to launch a broader awareness campaign.
  • There is very little awareness of the long-term implications of ill-advised development decisions. The WNPS could target groups such as political authorities and the corporate sector to influence thinking and raise awareness on the need to consider these long-term implications. The WNPS has already commenced programmes on these lines but should intensify this initiative.


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