Sri Lanka’s Lowland Tropical and Sub Montane Forests, with John Wilson

In light of World Rainforest Day 2021, Small Cat Advocacy and Research and John Wilson representing the Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka decided to have an open discussion about the lowland tropical and sub montane rainforests of our Island.

John is a passionate wildlife conservationist who began his career as a Protected Area (PA) specialist and field guide. The data he has collected while travelling the island has been a valuable contribution to preserving and sustainably utilising these wilderness lands. John is also an executive member of Reforest Sri Lanka and Director at Rainforest Rescue International.

During this detailed discussion we cover the following topics:

  1. The history and background of lowland tropical and sub montane rainforests of Sri Lanka.
  2. PAs that contain / are constituted of lowland tropical rainforests and sub montane forests.
  3. Rainforest flora and fauna (behaviour, ecology, endemic species and contiguous vegetation types).
  4. Threat’s these rainforests face.
  5. Parliamentary legislation, national policies, government circulars and the overall institutional framework of Sri Lanka (GoSL) , associated with lowland tropical rainforests and sub montane forests of Sri Lanka.

So let’s dive deep into into learning about these rich ecosystems teeming with life and find out what we can do to preserve them for the future!

Below are some questions that our audience asked, but John was unable to answer during the talk.

What is the real situation behind the debate that’s going on about Sinharaja? Some say it’s being cut down, and others say it is not actually the forest, but privately owned lands. What is the real situation behind this?

The difficulty surrounding the actual situation relating to the Sinharaja Protected Area (PA), stems from the multiple layers of legal protection that Sinharaja is officially gazetted with. An example of this is the original gazette, which listed Sinharaja’s total extent at 65 square kilometres, while the subsequent National Heritage Wilderness Area Gazette lists Sinharaja’s total extent at 116 square kilometres. As such, depending on which gazette you referred to, arguments could be made that illegal deforestation, illicit land grabbing, unregulated biopiracy (amongst other environmental crimes), were not taking place within the actual boundaries of Sinharaja. In addition, up until the most recent Sinharaja Gazette, the physical boundary markers that defined the geographical extent of Sinharaja were not fully installed by the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC), which had to fight against other Government Entities and against political interference to finally install the aforementioned boundary markers throughout Sinharaja (as per the current gazette).

What is the difference between a low montane forest and a rainforest?

Lowland Tropical Rainforests occur on relatively flat land, predominately at elevations between 0 and 1000 metres, receive between 1800 and 2500 mm of rainfall annually and constitute a warm (though not excessively hot), albeit wet climate year round, with humidity levels ranging between 75% and 90% normally. In contrast, Sub Montane Forests occur on significantly more elevated land, usually at elevations between 1000 and 1500 metres, receive between 2000 and 2200 mm of rainfall annually and constitute a cool, albeit wet climate year round, with humidity levels ranging between 70% and 85% normally.

Are our forests decreasing or increasing?

There is significant confusion regarding the actual extent of total contiguous vegetation cover (including all forest types). The biggest issue is that the definitions for contiguous vegetation types haven’t been properly formulated and released by the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC), and no consideration is given for the differences between “primary”, “secondary” and “open” vegetation. As such, whenever an example of “deforestation” occurs huge arguments tend to erupt, over if this means that “forest” cover is actually increasing or decreasing. Sadly, the reality remains that all contiguous vegetation types are declining at a significant rate, due to the recent acceleration of construction and infrastructure style development projects.

Are the lowland tropical forests and the sub montane forests considered protected areas? If so, are they available for public viewing?

There is no single way to answer this question, as both Lowland Tropical Rainforests and Sub Montane Forests are currently identified as a mix of Protected Areas (PAs), Other State Forests (OSFs) or State Forested Lands (SFLs), depending on the individual situation of each such wilderness area. At the moment, the only Lowland Tropical Rainforest and Sub Montane Forest Protected Areas (PAs) that are officially open to members of the general public for the purposes of ecotourism are Sinharaja, Kanneliya – Dediyagala – Nakiyadeniya, Yagirala and Dunumadalawa and Knuckles (though Knuckles covers the Sub Montane Zone, as well as the Montane and the Upper Montane Zone as well, due to the vast size of the Knuckles Protected Area).

Will abandoned plantations spring back to their original form over time? Or are they permanently damaged?

Abandoned Oil Palm and Pinus Plantations will not regenerate Lowland Tropical Rainforests and Sub Montane Forests respectively, due to the devastation caused to the surrounding water table and to the nutrient value of the soil. However, abandoned Tea and Rubber Plantations will regenerate the above mentioned forest types very slowly, though they will face issues with inclement/seasonal weather conditions and the possibility of being overrun by multiple invasive floral species, which tend to favour regions which are comprised of rejuvenating vegetation and open landscapes.

What’s the recommended level of percentage of these forests by area of Sri Lanka, for it to be considered as healthy?

At present, the recommended ecologically viable and healthy contiguous vegetation (including all forest types) percentages have been calculated at between 30 – 40% of Sri Lanka’s total landmass. I would personally like to see at least 40% of the island covered in contiguous vegetation types, with little interference from invasive species.

Do you agree that the rest of the protected areas should be opened to the public? Would that help their protection (regarding Kanneliya areas)?

The way I see it, more Protected Areas (PAs) should definitely be opened to members of the general public for the purposes of ecotourism. That way local communities living in the vicinity of such Protected Areas (PAs) can both directly and indirectly benefit from the existence of such wilderness areas as well. This will also help to promote ecologically oriented education and provide a platform for local communities to involve themselves with the management, landscaping and conservation efforts, mitigating any examples of Human – Wildlife Conflict (HWC) in the process and providing economic value to and financial dividends from Protected Areas (PAs). Having said that, I do still believe that 20% of the total Protected Area (PA) Network should remain off limits to the general public, at the very least to provide wilderness areas within which both flora and fauna remain undisturbed and free of interference. In the case of Kanneliya – Dediyagala – Nakiyadeniya (KDN) specifically, I feel that Dediyagala should also be opened to members of the general public for the purposes of ecotourism, but Nakiyadeniya should continue to remain closed in order to provide an “ecological refuge”, for all the fauna that reside within the KDN Forest Complex.

How can people promote these places? Media?

Using social media is one of the best tools to promote Protected Areas (PAs) that are unknown to the public, regardless of whether it is through photography or videography. However, when promoting a Protected Area (PA) and all its ecological treasures, you must do so in full adherence to the existing rules and regulations, and never take unnecessary risks as these can potentially get you seriously injured/killed. Have fun and enjoy, but always remember that wilderness areas (whether legally protected or not), are the home of wildlife, and you are simply a visitor in their spectacular homes!

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