By Anura Gunasekera
The term “sanctuary” immediately connotes an image of a vast stretch of jungle land, determined by statute, boundaries clearly defined, access restricted and the land itself well-policed and regulated by professionals in conservation. In this larger picture the smaller meanings, such as haven, refuge, oasis, shelter or retreat are lost.
In truth, any place or location, whether it be a suburban garden, a swampy patch in the middle of a town, a scrubland by the side of a highway, a village paddy field, a rainwater ditch alongside a walking path or the hedge surrounding a residence, becomes a “sanctuary” the moment it provides even temporary refuge to a small bird or animal which needs protection; and all such creatures need to be protected from externalities specially designed by humans, for their own benefit and welfare.
All over the world there is much attention paid to the conservation of large, designated sanctuaries, both natural forests and wild-life reserves, which are homes for the larger, more charismatic animal species. The latter are the most visible and exciting, be it leopard, bear or elephant. However, there are many species of smaller creatures, all of them vital links at the lower end of the biodiversity and ecosystem network, which are diminishing in number and, in some cases disappearing altogether, largely unnoticed and unreported.
One example are the amphibian species of Sri Lanka, reportedly over 120 in number, of which 90 species are said to be endemic to this country; that 85% proportion makes Sri Lanka the country with the highest amphibian endemicity in Asia. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s fauna portfolio represents the highest percentage of both extinct and threatened amphibian species in Asia, with around half of the 34 amphibian species which have gone extinct in the last 500 years, globally, apparently being from Sri Lanka.
Extinction, or the threat thereof, is largely the result of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and the environmental pollution resulting from the indiscriminate use of chemicals – herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertiliser. The threat is greatest in the case of the smaller terrestrial animals and amphibians which, by habit, do not migrate but confine themselves to small territories. The degradation of small streams, isolated patches of water and swamp, the clearing of green growth in land blocks, the reclamation of low-lying land, in combination propel many small species beyond the “tipping point”, unnoticed.
The killing of an elephant which has wandered into a village banana cultivation, the entrapment of a leopard in a wire noose or the shooting of a sambar will invariably be reported in both electronic and print media. Such incidents will also become the subject of social media communication and, justifiably, attract wide-ranging expressions of condemnation and concern. But the thousands of little creatures, terrestrial and amphibious, obliterated in the course of a landfill or the laying of a supermarket car park, the many reptiles and rodents flattened by passing vehicles which are a common feature on all our roads, will not even enter our consciousness. The number of small birds, butterflies and insects deprived of a habitat by the indiscriminate slashing of undergrowth, or the uprooting of flowering shrubs are not issues for even momentary consideration.
Biodiversity conservation in an urban, residential or agricultural setting is far more challenging than conservation in designated reserves. The reason is that the primacy attributed to human developmental needs invariably override, or completely ignore all other considerations. The sad reality is that in an era of exponential human growth, it is also impractical to seek to protect unregulated sanctuaries by statute or regulation; and in the absence of regulation there can be no policing.
The many urban parks which have come into existence in the last decade address a few of the above issues. However, the designing of such parks, which in reality is the reconfiguring of existing swamps, scrub jungle and, or, wetland, has, in itself, contributed to species diminution. When naturally occurring ecosystems are redesigned to provide surrounding human communities with outdoor gymnasiums, paved walking paths, cafés, fruit drink outlets, fast food stands and car parks, the fauna and flora inhabiting such locations are immediately diminished. Animals do not understand access limitations imposed by humans for their own convenience.
A more effective method of conservation, especially in populated settings, would be educating the community of the importance of protecting urban wildlife. The latter is unlikely to be an issue that normally concerns urban dwellers as conservation does not seem, on the face of it, to have any personal relevance. For the majority of people concepts such as biodiversity protection, ecosystem management and species conservation are distant, national or global problems, thought to be of relevance only to governments, environmental experts, NGOs, and eccentric activists. On the other side of the spectrum, rural dwellers and agriculturists, through their more direct and often intimate connection to the land, are more likely to be conscious of conservation-related issues than their urban counterparts. However, that community is also more likely to be witting and unwitting contributors to the degradation of the environment, through irresponsible land and crop management activities.
Conservation behaviour needs to be a natural and automatic response in one’s day-to-day thinking and lifestyle, reflected in the intelligent and sensitive management of one’s vegetable patch, flower garden or boundary hedge. For the majority of people, animal life – especially amphibians, reptiles and insects – are a personal threat. A visitor to a wildlife park will risk his life to get a better shot of a charging tusker but, confronted by a rat snake in his garden, will club it to death without hesitation. It needs education to convince people that even the least dangerous of animals can become a threat, when they themselves feel threatened. Each citizen needs to assume personal responsibility for the conservation of the environment over which they can exert personal control and that awareness will come only with education.
At the commencement of this writing I spoke of the importance of all spaces becoming sanctuaries, as animals do not understand habitat limitations. A migrant bird, for example, tired after flying 10,000 kilometres with winter on its tail will make landfall on the nearest convenient tree or garden. It may not fly directly to the breeding grounds of Kumana, Wilpattu, Mannar or Jaffna. In my garden in Hokandara I was visited some years ago by an exhausted orange headed thrush, which allowed itself to be hand fed till it was strong enough to fly away. The forest wagtail and the Indian pitta are annual visitors along with a host of other birds, common and uncommon. Returning from a walk last evening, a few feet away from me, I watched a family of porcupines waddling across the road, moving from one garden to another. In late evenings and early mornings the rallying call of the jackal is frequently heard. Along with hundreds of other families I live in a residential nature reserve.
Some years ago, my son Isuru and his friend Somanath Fernando, in collaboration, published a collection of wildlife images titled “Sanctuary”, from which I have appropriated both the title and the purpose of this writing. The theme of the book was a plea for the conservation of unregulated spaces as they too are habitats for species needing protection. Most of the images in the book, of both generally uncommon migrant and endemic species, were captured in unregulated settings, some in densely populated urban areas. A few are reproduced here to illustrate the importance of protecting your immediate environment, as that too is a wildlife habitat.
When contemplating the centrality of conservation to the overall wellbeing of the planet, it is important to bear in mind that all those species consigned to extinction by human activity, inhabited planet Earth for millions of years before the hominid became homo-sapiens; if not wiped out by human activity they are also certain to continue in existence long after homo-sapiens become extinct. Mankind’s overwhelming sense of superiority and assumed self-worth need to be leavened by a clear awareness of the precariousness of its own existence, and the knowledge that it continues to flourish at the expense of a largely non-renewable ecosystem which sustains it. Extinction is the fate of all species and mankind, on account of its irresponsible conduct, is likely to reach that destiny long before the other species which it is heedlessly preying upon.
(The writer is a retired plantation industry specialist, an amateur herpetologist, a keen bird-watcher and a passionate conservationist)
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-Governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.