Sinharaja stands today four times larger than what it used to be only a few months back. Thanks to a parting ‘gift’ by the former president Maithripala Sirisena, much of the outlying forests have recently been added in to the formal Sinharaja Reserve.
The gazette is finally out and the billions of lives that come under its purview would at last receive due protection that this unique biodiversity hotspot was denied for decades. The entire complex of forests covers over 36000 hectares today –a significant increase from the 11000 hectares that came under Sinharaja Nature Reserve.
The resulting inclusion of much of the outlying forests has been a long held dream of the nature loving community as it would provide desperately needed addition and strength to the small strip of territory that was called as Sinharaja Man and Biosphere Reserve comprising of 21kms in length and a mere 3kms in width, which is still recovering from the mass scale destruction caused as a result of logging until 1977.
Converted in to a World Heritage by UNESCO in 1988, this unique treasure of mankind is one of the very few remaining biodiversity Hotspots in the world-a title richly deserved since Sinharaja is home to more than 50% of all species endemic to Srilanka with more than 60% of its trees considered as the same. The remarkable tally includes 21 species of birds out of nearly 200 that frequent the forest, more than 10 species of Fish, over 30 species of Orchids and countless other fauna and flora, most of which could only be found within this ecological treasure .
Still, Sinharaja is yet to reveal much of its secrets .It was only in 2011, that a number of white monkeys were discovered, while Serendib-Scops Owl, a new species, was first sighted there in 2004. In May 2020 a new species of Orchids was to enter the books– a not so rare occurrence in Sinharaja where the discovery of new life forms is the norm.
This pristine treasure trove of nature, the glory of which is literally venerated today, was sentenced to ruin and eventual destruction five decades back, however. If not for the defiance of a young woman and her equally indefatigable sister, the story of Sinharaja would be different, or little would have been left to write about.
Struggle for survival
Kamini Vitharana’s fight for Sinharaja, which she waged since her days at the University of Colombo would be the only flicker of hope for the then mysterious region of thick rainforests called Siharaja Adaviya. Stacked against her tiny organization Ruk Rakaganno would be the might of socialist fervor which had ignited a storm of Soviet style mass developments during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike era. Fate of Sinharaja, declared as a Reserve by the British in as early as 1875 was about to be sealed with the setting up of the State Plywood Manufacturing Corporation facility at Kosgama.
In 1968, it was the UNDP and FAO that made the original assessment for this evergreen forest as a viable location for systematic logging, and selective felling, thereby giving the seal of approval for what was to befall. The technical knowhow for the ill fated destruction of the forest came from Canadian Reid Collin Associates Ltd. By 1970 the road network was well on the way of penetrating in to the deeper recesses of the forest. Systematic tree felling began from Kudawa, on the North Western edge of the forest cutting deep in to its heart. More than 5000 hectares were earmarked as ideal for logging due to its abundance of trees standing over 40 meters in the earmarked region. Much of the road network of today has been the leftover remnants of the systematic destruction of the region that took place 50 years ago.
Meanwhile Sinharaja was to lose her entire South Western sector in Kalutara District due to haphazard and ill-conceived mass scale cultivation projects that were launched during the same period.
Kamini ‘s battle for Sinharaja ,along with that of Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of which she saw a member since her university days, had little number of recruits in those heady days of Early 70s with nearly 50% of the island still under forest cover. Yet her determination to carry forth the fight for Sinharaja would eventually bear fruit, with the banning of logging in 1977.But by then more than 2500 hectares of the interior of Sinharaja were already destroyed, with the muddied road network, up to 15 feet wide, and numerous skids- trails set within the forest reserve contributing its own destruction to the evergreen forest.
It’s been five decades since the environmental catastrophe and Sinharaja could hardly nurture the destroyed parts of the forest. Large sectors of destroyed lands came under Pine plantations, as well as plots of Mahogany, a non-native tree, thus adding to further ruination of the ecology. It’s quite possible that an untold number of species may have become extinct as a result of the massive destruction that took its toll for 5 long years from 1972 until 1977.
It’s however an irony of ironies that UNESCO deemed Sinharaja as a Man and Biosphere Reserve and World heritage in 1988, perhaps being aware of the damage proposed to this unique biodiversity treasure by two other UN organizations that sanctioned its destruction only two decades earlier.
Sinharaja Adaviya of today is not free from its share of threats, with a plethora of issues it has to contend with at present, from poaching, Gem mining, encroachments, over-use of agro chemicals in tea small- holder plots etc, and not to mention the ill conceived road widening within the forest complex that could further increase the threats to this national treasure..
But its lot has significantly improved, thanks to the bringing together of most of Sinharaja Adaviya under the umbrella of legal protection. Kamini Vitharana during her last days in July this year would‘ve been smiling, since her pioneering efforts through Ruk Rakaganno that started in 1975, to save Sinharaja from destruction and secure its survival has won its share of victories, with legions of young nature lovers taking up her cause, to protect what’s left, not just in Sinharaja but elsewhere as well.
Sadly her contribution remains lesser known. Even the obituaries by the mainstream media failed to mention her defiant efforts to save Sri Lanka’s Nature, with almost all of them being ungrateful or ignorant, to recognize this indefatigable warrior of the forests, merely as the dear departed wife of her politician husband.