Land constraints inherent in an island ecosystem

Islands constitute a special class of ecosystem management.

On an island, wildlife populations are constrained and wild areas are limited by the size of the landmass. Unlike their continental counterparts wildlife populations are unable to disperse beyond the island’s boundaries, limiting their collective ability to adapt to changing conditions.  For most species, the influx of new genes from an outside population is extremely unlikely making the conservation of the existing gene pool that much more important.

As such it is important that on a relatively small island like Sri Lanka, which is just 65,610 square kilometers, that the wild lands still existing within do not become irreversibly fragmented – virtual islands within an island.

In the past 80 years the forest cover of this island has been reduced from 80% to ~ 20%. The launch of the coffee and tea industry by the British colonial government in the 1890’s resulted in the large-scale clearing of forests and the beginning of a massive conversion to plantation lands in the hills. This followed the advent of coconut, rubber and spice plantations in the low and middle elevations, which were already taking their toll with regards to forest fragmentation.  In addition to this the construction of multiple large dams for irrigation under the Greater Mahaweli Scheme in the 1970s and 80s resulted in further wilderness land being inundated and lost to wildlife populations.

The 20% wilderness that is left is therefore patchy with approximately 12-15% of it under state protection. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC), who is responsible for all National Parks and Strict Reserves together with the Forest Department whocontrols forest reserves are responsible for these lands.

Outside of these protected lands there are still crown lands that are wilderness, though of a some what mixed and patchy composition. Adding to this the extensive plantation lands and the intricate network of home gardens within the island, a matrix of vital connector forest and wilderness emerges.  Most wildlife populations are not averse to using these connections and we hope are still able to move between secure populations existent in the larger forest areas.  Continued access for these fragmented populations of wildlife is essential for the long term conservation of individual species as well as the maintenance of a robust ecosystem. The importance of these connections cannot be overstated, especially in view of the burgeoning human population and increasingly invasive land use practices that have the potential to render these existing links untenable. In Sri Lanka the protection and active regeneration of forest corridors is therefore essential.

Although the controversy over the costs and benefits, as well as the shape and extent of jungle corridors continues, it is unarguable that forest connections between larger wilderness areas are vital.

Aims of the Project:

  1. To chart the actual extent of usable connector forest cover and wilderness connection within the island of Sri Lanka. (The actual ground situation of an area and its use by wildlife is often different to the existing charted maps).

  2. To understand how fringe habitats and other land use areas, such as plantations and riverine belts are utilized by wildlife populations.

  3. Research of dispersal routes of sub adults of selected species and their land use patterns.

  4. The eventual protection of important forest connections – the ridge forest in the montane zone area above 6000 ft, and above the tea plantation zone is the current focal point of this project.

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