Tropical rainforests are magical places. Walking through them is like walking through a completely different world. The humidity hangs thick around you and the constant threat of rain hangs over you, but these are soon forgotten as one bears witness to the myriad wonders that call these places home.

The Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve encompasses Sri Lanka’s last remaining patch of viable primary rainforest [1]. It is one of the most important and biologically diverse areas in the country. The reserve covers an area of nearly 36,500 hectares in the island’s southwest quarter and is home to an astonishing array of fauna and flora, many of which are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Sinharaja is an ancient tropical rainforest ecosystem. Its flora descend directly from that which covered the supercontinent Gondwanaland, that existed over 200 million years ago [1],[2]. To put that into context, when Sinharaja had already been thriving as a tropical rainforest for several millennia, Gandalf the Grey was still in diapers. The multitude of ferns and other pteridophytes that make up much of Sinharaja’s understory [3],[4], gives it an allure of distinctly primeval persuasion, and one can fully imagine the prehistoric megafauna that did indeed trundle through these very jungles. 

As amazing as Sinharaja’s biodiversity is, what’s truly remarkable is the degree of endemism it harbours within it. It is estimated that around 60% of Sinharaja’s trees are endemic to Sri Lanka [5],[6],[7],[8]. This includes 90% endemism within the different Dipterocarpaceae species that constitute the majority of Sinharaja’s canopy and emergent layers [6],[8],[9]. It also includes 32 endemic orchids found in Sinharaja out of a total of 80 recorded species [6],[8]. This comprises Gastrodia gunatillekeorum discovered in 2020, which has been found in only three undisturbed patches within Sinharaja [10],[11]

Gastrodia gunatillekeorum, a new species of potato orchid. Photographed by Champika Bandara.

Faunal endemism within Sinharaja is similarly high, with 144 of the 448 recorded animal species in Sinharaja being endemic to Sri Lanka [12]. Of this, 25 animal species are point-endemic to Sinharaja [12]. Of 34 endemic Sri Lankan birds, at least 32 call Sinharaja home [13],[14],[15]. The brilliant Ceylon Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) has become an icon of Sinharaja, while the elusive Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmani) known to science only since 2004 is globally endangered [6],[16],[17]. Likewise, high rates of endemism can be found with mammals, freshwater fish and insects, with 3 species of freshwater crab and 1 species each of mammal and spider occurring only within Sinharaja [12].

Sri Lanka blue magpie (Urocissa ornata; L) and Serendib scops owl (Otus thilohoffmanni; R). Photographed by Kasun Chathuranga.

However, the group of fauna that defines the endemism and species richness of Sinharaja and of Sri Lanka’s lowland tropical rainforests as a whole, are its herpetofauna. Sri Lanka is home to 116 species of amphibian and around 233 species of reptile [18],[19],[20]. Of these, 107 (92%) amphibian species and around 146 (63%) reptile species are found nowhere else on Earth [18],[19],[20]. According to a recent study, 47 amphibian species were recorded just from the lowland tropical rainforests of Sri Lanka including Sinharaja, of which 36 (77%) were found to be endemic to these lowland tropical rainforests [18]. 71 reptile species have been recorded in Sinharaja alone, of which 34 (48%) are endemic to Sri Lanka [21]. Out of these, 9 species of amphibian and 11 species of reptile are completely endemic to Sinharaja [12].

Furthermore, discoveries such as Gastrodia gunatillekeorum in 2020 [10],[11], a species of endemic Day Gecko, Cnemaspis godagedarai in 2019 [22],[23] and a new species of endemic Pygmy Grasshopper, Cladonotus bhaskari, the first new Twighopper species discovered in over a century, also in 2020 [24],[25], all within Sinharaja, shows just how much is potentially yet to be discovered from within this wondrous place.

Godagedara’s day gecko (Cnemaspis godagedarai). Photographed by Chien C. Lee.

Trekking through the leaf-strewn trails that weave through Sinharaja, it is fascinating to note how various fauna are most active within particular layers of rainforest vegetation. These niches are able to completely support the needs of their residents and these creatures in turn have evolved to make the most of it [26]. At the bottom lies the sparsely vegetated forest floor where sunlight rarely ventures. And yet life is plentiful even in its darkest corners. Hordes of termites, earthworms and microorganisms decompose all organic matter that end up on the ground into the nutrients that underpin and support the entire rainforest ecosystem [26]. A 2012 study on the species richness of ants in a 0.6 hectare plot in Sinharaja documented 100 different species including the endemic, endangered, relict ant Aneuretus simoni[6],[27]. Heavily armoured, yet highly endangered thick-tailed pangolins (Manis crassicaudata) amble across the forest floor, looking for a tasty meal of termites and ants [8], while the brown patchwork of the detritus provides the perfect opportunity for the endemic lowland hump-nosed pit viper (Hypnale zara) to test out its camouflage. The endemic spot-winged thrush (Geokichla spiloptera) can be difficult to spot (pun intended) as it tip-toes amongst the leaf litter hunting for insects and fallen fruit, its speckled brown plumage allowing it to near-disappear against its similarly-hued background. As night falls, endemic, yellow-striped chevrotains (Moschiola kathygre) cautiously venture out onto the forest floor, always on alert for even the slightest whiff of danger. Although rare in Sinharaja, the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) remains the apex predator within these humid jungles [1],[8]. Their distant cousin, the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) haunts the many pools and shallow streams that crisscross Sinharaja, looking for a piscivorous midnight meal [8]. Unaware of the fishing cat’s presence, the similarly whiskered Sri Lanka walking catfish (Clarias brachysoma) and the likewise endemic, but rather more colourful cherry barb (Puntius titteya) patrol the crystal clear waters [8]. They are just 2 of over 14 endemic freshwater fish that call the waters of this rainforest home [12].

Lowlands hump-nosed pit viper (Hypnale zara; L) photographed by Charinda Dissanayake. Spot-winged thrush (Geokichla spilopter; R). Photographed by Kasun Chathuranga.

The decidedly lusher understory overhangs the forest floor, and is populated by palms, large ferns and small trees, with conspicuous flowers such as the scarlet blooms of the endangered and endemic Loxococcus rupicola, which looks like a firework frozen mid-explosion [1],[28]. This is to attract pollinators even in the gloominess [26]. Spore-producing pteridophytes are one of the key floral inhabitants of the understory. A 2007 study recorded 15 endemics of 63 total species in less than half a hectare of Sinharaja [6]. Camouflage remains the name of the game, just of a greener nature. This is none more so evident than with the stunning endemic Sri Lanka green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus), its verdant greens and inky blacks making it a sight to behold as it hangs motionless from a tree branch.

Sri Lankan green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus). Photographed by Charinda Dissanayake.

This snake’s diet consists predominantly of frogs and lizards, of which Sinharaja is abundant [29],[30],[31]. Endemic Sri Lanka kangaroo lizards (Otocryptis wiegmanni) are a common sight within Sinharaja as they run amok through the shrubbery. Some of their agamid relatives, however, are far rarer and include two members of the endemic genus Ceratophora (C. erdeleni, and C. karu) and one representative from Calotes (C. desilvai), all three found only within Sinharaja [8],[12],[32],[33],[34]

Karu’s Horned Lizard (Ceratophora karu; L), Erdelen’s horned lizard (Ceratophora erdeleni; top R) and Morningside lizard (Calotes desilvai; bottom R). Photographed by Sanjaya Kanishka.

Likewise, frogs and toads are plentiful within Sinharaja. This is never more evident than during breeding season when their calls outdo even those of the daytime avian orchestra. Several of them including the wonderfully named cheeky shrub frog (Pseudophilautus procax) and the jaw-droppingly beautiful Poppy’s shrub frog (Pseudophilautus poppiae) are endangered and endemic to Sinharaja [8],[35],[36],[37].

Handapan Ella Shrub Frog (Pseudophilautus lunatus; L top), Cheeky Shrub Frog (Pseudophilautus procax; R top), Poppy’s Shrub Frog (Pseudophilautus poppiae; R middle) and Sinharaja shrub frog (Pseudophilautus simba; bottom). Photographed by Sanjaya Kanishka.

The dense canopy and emergent layers form a veritable roof above the forest below. Dipterocarpus spp. on Sinharaja’s valleys and lower slopes and Mesua-Shorea on the higher slopes are the primary canopy and emergent floral communities [1],[5],[8],[12]. Emergents such as Dipterocarpus zeylanicus use wind exposure to their advantage, for propagation through ingenious seed dispersal mechanisms. 

Up here, Sinharaja’s famous avifauna comes into its own. Mixed flocks comprising dozens of species sweep through the trees searching for food. Issuing the marching orders is the Ceylon crested drongo (Dicrurus lophorinus), who acts as leader and main alarm-caller for the flock, while the orange-billed babblers (Argya rufescens), who sound like, and in reality, also is the most populous participant, stirs up the rest of the merry band with their on-point imitation of a broken AC belt. These flocks consist primarily of insectivores but also several frugivores. The winged tsunami flushes out disoriented insects into the air making them easy pickings for the birds. Besides better dining opportunities, membership also allows other benefits including safety in numbers. Aside from drongos and babblers, usual suspects include Malabar trogons (Harpactes fasciatus), yellow-browed bulbuls (Iole indica), black-naped monarchs (Hypothymis azurea), red-faced malkohas (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus) and yellow-fronted barbets (Megalaima flavifrons) [38],[39],[40],[41]

Sri Lanka Drongo (Dicrurus lophorinus), Orange-billed babbler (Argya rufescens), Malabar trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) and Red-faced malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus). Photographed by Kasun Chathuranga.

The canopy also contains an abundance of fruit trees, including Ceylon breadfruit (Artocarpus nobilis) and everyone’s favourite, Durian (Durio rosayroanus and D. ceylanicus), which provide an ample food supply to frugivorous birds as well as the mammalian residents of the upper levels such as troops of endemic purple-faced langurs (Semnopithecus vetulus vetulus), endemic dusky-striped squirrels (Funambulus obscurus) and the hugely important and highly endangered red slender loris (Loris tardigradus) which is number 80 on the list of the 100 most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) mammals of the world [42],[43].

If everything you have read so far makes Sinharaja sound like paradise, that’s because it is. The animals and plants mentioned are only a fraction of what has yet been discovered and constitute a mere smidge of what Sinharaja actually holds. However, there is trouble in paradise. Sinharaja faces a plethora of threats that endanger its pristine habitat and rich biodiversity. This has stemmed from an exponential population increase in surrounding villages since the early 1900s. Consequently, so has the demand for resources and infrastructure and the inevitable arrival of the juggernaut that is urbanization [6],[44],[45],[46].

Smallholder tea cultivators, illegal gemming, agricultural expansion are only some of the destructive enterprises that have sprung up around Sinharaja and its peripheral forests. The rise of tourism over the last decade or so has seen a number of hotels and “eco-lodges” established, however, many of these amount to greenwashing and operate with utter disregard for any good governance or ecotourism principles [6],[44],[45],[46].

The effects of these settlements on the rainforests are as numerous as they are extensive. From habitat loss and degradation to excessive littering, animal roadkill, poaching, the introduction of invasive species and the extraction of rare ones. Mini-hydro projects within the rainforest further tax water resources that are already stressed out by agricultural runoff and illegal gemming, while the construction of roads through Sinharaja only promises to worsen the massive habitat destruction that the rainforest already faces. The parceling out of state-owned lands on Sinharaja’s boundary and buffer zones at the behest of political and financial influence is another major threat to the reserve. These activities not only affect the rainforest and its inhabitants, but also local people as is highlighted by increased landslides and the sad fact that certain villages in watershed areas now need drinking water supplied to them by bowser [6],[44],[45],[46].

Images of deforestation from the proposed buffer zone on the boundary of Singharaja Forest Reserve. Photographs by Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka.

Today, Sinharaja is surrounded by settlements and other developments. Its extensive boundaries make it difficult for the Forest Department to adequately monitor. Insufficient personnel and resources only contribute to exacerbating this issue. On top of this, authorities typically adopt a command and control approach to stakeholder engagement which has led to a lack of communication and collaboration with local people, which is essential if Sinharaja and its forests are to be conserved. Despite some locals depending on the forest for their livelihoods, many do not, and this coupled with the poor relationship with the authorities has only led to burgeoning environmental crime in the area [6],[44],[45],[46].

However, there is cause for hope. In 2019, 25,000 hectares of additional forest was annexed to the Sinharaja reserve under gazette, increasing the total area of protected reserve forest to almost 36,500 hectares, which has vastly improved Sinharaja’s levels of protection [44],[45],[47]. Many environmental organizations, such as the Rainforest Protectors who are based in the area, work tirelessly in their conservation efforts and to expose crimes against the environment. Furthermore, the current improved public sentiment towards the environment is key to raising awareness and galvanizing action towards protecting Sinharaja as well all of Sri Lanka’s remaining natural resources [48].

Failure in our conservation efforts on paper could well result in Sinharaja’s loss of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status. On the ground, the results will be nothing short of catastrophic. 


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