2020 Aug 13
Sri Lanka is called ‘The Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ for good reason. Home to some of the most remarkable biodiversity in the world and considered Asia’s richest country in species diversity and concentration, 23% of flowering plants and 16% of mammals found in Sri Lanka are endemic, meaning if they disappear from Sri Lanka, they disappear forever, from the world.
- 33% of Sri Lanka’s inland vertebrate fauna and 61% of its flora are threatened.
- 21 species of endemic amphibians have not been recorded during the past 100 years, and these species could, for most purposes, be considered extinct.
- One in every 12 species of Sri Lanka’s inland indigenous vertebrates is currently facing an immediate and extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species counts over 60 species in Sri Lanka as endangered or critically endangered.
So what are the biggest threats to Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna?
Deforestation and Habitat-Loss resulting from unplanned or poorly-planned development is arguably the biggest environmental threat in Sri Lanka.
Deforestation leads to habitat loss.
At the start of the 20th century, about 70% of the island had forest cover but by 2005 this dropped to an alarming 20%. Rapid urbanisation, post-civil-war seemed to be the main reason for the rapid forest loss, which happened over a span of a decade. At present, primary forest cover in Sri Lanka is as low as 17% and Sri Lanka has one of the highest recorded rates of primary-forest destruction in the world.
Presently, environmentalists and activists are working hard to oppose the proposal to amend Sri Lanka’s ‘5/2001 Forest Department Circular’ which will potentially expose over 640,000 hectares (750,000 acres) of forest cover to ‘development’ i.e. deforestation – this is an incredible 1/5th of Sri Lanka’s last remaining forest cover. The negative impacts of losing this much-forested land would be unprecedented.
Negative results of deforestation in Sri Lanka are many:
- Human-Animal Conflict: This year so far, we have had 7 reported cases of Leopard deaths all resulting from the human-animal conflict. In 2019 we had the highest ever recorded number of elephant deaths – an astonishing 405 elephants were killed in a single year and 100 humans – all resulting from the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC). And did you know that Sri Lanka has the highest HEC rates in the world.
- Inability to mitigate climate change: Sri Lanka has been identified as one of the major hotspots (according to a report by the World Bank, a hotspot is a location where changes in average weather affect the living standards negatively), and over 4 million people in the country are said to be severely affected due to climate change.
Forests are an integral part of the water-cycle, depleting forest cover would mean a change in rain patterns and weakened rain-fall. Not only will this impact Sri Lanka’s agricultural outputs, but it will also place an unimaginable strain on the daily lives of over 6 million locals as 31.8% of Sri Lanka’s population engages in agricultural activities. That’s not all, over 20% of Sri Lanka’s energy needs are met by ‘large hydro’ power. It is interesting to note that presently all major hydropower and irrigation reservoir catchments are within areas deemed as ‘Wildlife Land’ meaning forests.
- Financial & economic impacts: The results of extreme heat and rain have severe negative implications for productivity and cultivation on the island. Taxpayer money will go towards increased incidents of managing ‘Natural Disasters’ (floods, droughts etc.), cost of living will be driven up, food shortages will become more common and more money will have to be spent on food imports. The extreme weather will also result in more health issues which mean increased budget demands on health-care.
- Loss of tourism: Loss of habitat means loss of wildlife. Even though 12% of the island is declared for wildlife protection, wildlife does not understand administrative boundaries and a large proportion of them live outside Protected Areas (PAs). For example, 70% of Sri Lanka’s wild elephants live outside of PAs like wildlife parks, mostly using areas classified as ‘other state forests’ for their sustenance and survival (Centre for Conservation & Research – CCR).
The rampant degradation of wildlife habitat will obviously impact wildlife severely.
For some this may only make sense once translated into monetary terms:
Sri Lanka’s tourism is largely a ‘Nature Based Tourism’. Meaning tourists come to see our forests, elephants, leopard and other animals, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. They do not come to see agricultural land or development projects. Last year Sri Lanka made over LKR 2 billion from our Wildlife Parks alone.
In addition to this, tourism creates many jobs in Sri Lanka. In 2017, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism generated 404,000 direct jobs, equal to 5.1% of national employment. All this will be at risk when the tourists stop coming to Sri Lanka.
- Impacts on ‘Economic Services’: Biodiversity influences ‘Ecosystem Services’ which are provided free of charge by nature and so, they are most often underappreciated and almost always ignored. The air we breathe, the temperate climate we enjoy, the food we eat, the water we drink, the medicines we rely on to cure our illnesses – are all simple examples of such services.
Deforestation and Habitat-Loss is a serious environmental issue which we must all do our utmost to stifle. Even though to most, this environmental issue is one to be tackled by environmentalists alone, we often forget that it is a healthy environment which makes human life both possible and worth living. Therefore, protecting Sri Lanka’s environment should be a priority for every Sri Lankan, and the conservation of biodiversity and safeguarding ecosystems should be a key objective in terms of any country’s ‘development’ if one were to be serious.