By Dennis Mombauer
Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot with an abundance of ecosystems and many endemic species. Its animals and plants are greatly threatened by human activity and the impacts of climate change, putting the world at risk of losing this irreplaceable wealth of wildlife. If we want to preserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, actions need to be taken on all levels: by the government, by academia, by NGOs, and by everyone living on the island and around the globe.
Sri Lanka teems with life. Apart from 21 million humans, it is home to thousands of species of animals and plants. From mangroves to mud flats, rivers to rainforests, dry grasslands to mountains, and coral reefs to mixed evergreens, the tiny island hosts a vast variety of ecosystems, including man-made environments like paddies and plantations.
Even though the forest cover has decreased and human settlements encroach further into habitats every day, the abundance of wildlife is still immense. Together with India’s Western Ghats, Conservation International declared Sri Lanka one of 36 biodiversity hotspots that would reap maximum benefit from preservation efforts.
Many of Sri Lanka’s plants and animals are endemic species that are only found here; for example, 23% of flowering plants and 16% of mammals, as well as many other plant and animal species. The number of unique species is so large that their extinction would represent an irreplaceable loss: and they are already under threat.
According to the IUCN’s Red List, Sri Lanka has 66 critically endangered and 102 endangered animal species, plus a total of 156 critically endangered or endangered plant species. Among them are charismatic flagship species like the Sri Lankan elephant or the leopard, but also lesser known animals such as the pangolin, numerous frog species, crustaceans, or insects.
Sri Lanka’s National Red List of 2012 published by the Biodiversity Secretariat of the (then) Ministry of Environment and National Herbarium even has numbers that are significantly higher: according to it, 122 species of indigenous inland vertebrates, i.e. one in six, are critically endangered.
The Human Threat
Sri Lanka already suffers the impacts of climate change. Coastal ecosystems are beleaguered by sea level rise, ocean acidification, and storm surges, while terrestrial ecosystems are damaged by slow- and sudden-onset weather events like droughts, floods, and landslides.
More than any environmental factor, however, anthropogenic activity threatens the diverse ecosystems of Sri Lanka. Humans encroach into or destroy the habitats of countless species through pollution, infrastructural development, agriculture, industry, and unsustainable tourism. Wherever humans clear forests, build roads, and expand plantations without careful consideration, some part of the ecosystem is destroyed.
In some cases, the degradation, fragmentation or outright loss of habitats leads to open human-animal conflict: elephants raid paddy fields or trample villages while leopards are lynched by enraged townsfolk. Other species die more quiet deaths, like the tree frogs or the freshwater crabs threatened by extinction from habitat loss and industrial pollution.
Humans and Elephants
Elephants are probably the most iconic and culturally significant species of wildlife in Sri Lanka. Within Asia, Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants and is home to a unique subspecies, the Sri Lankan Elephant (elephas maximus maximus). They are the largest of the three subspecies of Asian Elephant, with distinctive depigmentation patches and a low occurrence of tuskers (only 7% of males and 2% of the total population).
Elephants are a prime example for the importance of conservation measures. In the past, the island might have been home to up to 20,000 elephants: today, their population has dropped to a mere 2,000-6,000 individuals. Even though tuskers are very rare and ivory therefore doesn’t play a huge role, an unknown number of calves gets poached or kidnapped every year for the captive trade market: but by far the largest threat to elephants are land-use conflicts with humans.
Up to 200 elephants and at least 80 people lose their lives in such encounters every year. As human settlements and farmland encroach farther and farther into elephant territory, their habitat has dwindled and the whole subspecies is now classified as endangered.
Humans and Leopards
Another flagship species for biodiversity in Sri Lanka is the leopard. While leopards do not populate the island in large numbers (750-950 individuals according to a 2015 study), many researchers consider them a keystone species that has a higher importance for the ecosystem than pure numbers would suggest.
Leopards are wide-ranging and exist in all of Sri Lanka’s habitat types, from montane to lowland and arid to wet. As apex predators, they have a long and largely peaceful relationship with humans, although human-leopard conflict has erupted in an ugly fashion over the last years, with villagers beating leopards to death and a series of leopard killings in the tea estate areas.
For conservation purposes, leopards can be considered an umbrella species, because their wide-ranging habitat overlaps with that of many other species (for example that of 86% of all other Sri Lankan mammal species). If leopards are allowed to roam the island, the protection of their habitat and the establishment of forest corridors will also protect these other species.
Protecting Sri Lanka’s Wildlife
Sri Lanka has committed itself to preserving biodiversity with several international conventions and national laws, but their enforcement is not consistent. The country joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1979, the Ramsar Convention in 1990, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1994. On a national level, biodiversity and wildlife conservation rest mainly on the 1937 Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), supplemented by other domestic laws like the Forest Ordinance, the National Wilderness Heritage Act, the National Environmental Act, the Fisheries Ordinance, and the Coast Conservation Act. These laws allow the creation of various protected areas and put certain species under special protection, including the Sri Lankan elephant.
However, according to some studies, overlapping or unclear responsibilities of government bodies and low funding and management may hinder the efficiency of these protections. To prevent the continued exploitation of natural resources, the rules of protected areas have to be enforced and local communities provided with alternative economic options to sustain their livelihoods.
Apart from the government, a number of organisations is working to protect the unique biodiversity of Sri Lanka and its wild animals, including flagship species like elephants and leopards, as well as to resolve human-animal conflict.
Sri Lanka has a wide range of unique animal species. As in many places all over the world, they are threatened by the impacts of climate change and especially by human activity: the encroachment into and destruction of their habitats, as well as poaching, direct land-use conflict, and various forms of pollution.
If Sri Lanka’s wealth of wildlife is lost, the world will be poorer, and many human livelihoods will disappear together with the animal species they depend on. The huge biodiversity of the island needs to be protected by laws that are strong on paper and strong in practise: they need to be implemented with clear responsibility, adequately funded, and enforced by well-trained personnel.
Beyond that, capacities and awareness need to be built in poor and vulnerable human communities, and economic diversification offered to prevent an unsustainable use of ecosystem resources. Civil society and NGOs need to work in tandem to cause a shift toward sustainable consumption, and a healthy coexistence with the animals that share this world with us.