Some highlights from the plant and animal life of Sri Lanka
by Kamalika Pieris
Millions of years ago, the continents of Antarctica, Australia, Africa, South America and India formed a single landmass. Researchers gave it the name of Gondwanaland. This landmass broke up and India with Sri Lanka attached, moved upward into Asia. Then, about 12 million years ago, Sri Lanka separated from the Indian subcontinent. At that time, the island consisted only of the south, south western and central parts of present day Sri Lanka. The largest number of endemic species of plant and animal life are therefore found in the south west and central areas. Many of these endemics are rare and some are considered relicts of Gondwanaland.
Little or no animal migration has taken place between the island and the mainland in the past 500,000 years. Sri Lanka torrent frog has been isolated in the island since dinosaurs roamed 65 million years ago. The Sri Lanka horned lizard separated from its Indian kin more than 13 million years ago. The horned lizard, the gecko, and the depath naya are unique to Sri Lanka. A DNA analysis published in Science last year showed that some of Sri Lanka’s crabs, shrimp, snakes, fish and amphibia also evolved in Sri Lanka from ancient stock. They did not migrate to Sri Lanka from India. (Sunday Leader. 14.11.2004 p 9.)
Fossil remains indicate that animals now extinct once roamed in our island. During the ice age, three of the extinct elephant breeds were living here. One was the progenitor of the Indian elephant. Fossil remains of Bengal tigers have been found near Ratnapura, in 1962 and near Kuruwita in 1982. (Island. 24.2.2005 p II). Similarly, fossil remains of lions were found in Ratnapura in 1930 and at Batadomba lena in Kuruwita, in 1983. The fossils were dated to 13,000 years and are considered to belong to a rare Asiatic lion now found only in Gujarat. The hippopotamus also lived here but became extinct around the stone age. Our hippo was as large as the African hippo and had more teeth. (K. Manamendra-arachchi, Sri Lanka Nature. 1(2) 1998 p 19-22)
There are wild species of buffalo, livestock, fish and fowl even today, but excepting for fish, the country relies heavily on imported strains. The local poultry are fast disappearing despite the fact that the genes of local varieties have resistance to tropical diseases. With regard to other wildlife, Sri Lanka is today one of the few places where you can spend one day among elephants in the jungle and the next day among sperm whales in the sea. Trincomalee is considered a good whale watching location. There are also dugongs, dolphins and porpoises in our sea. The Ceylon leopard is also getting much attention. A study in progress in Yala indicates that Sri Lanka may have one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world.
Sri Lanka is known for its spectacular biodiversity in both plant and animal life. Southwest Sri Lanka has been identified as one of the world’s 18 biological "hotspots". A biological "hotspot" is a piece of land or sea where there is a great abundance and diversity of plant and animal life. Sinharaja is a ‘hot spot within a hot spot’. It is renowned globally for its biodiversity and endemic plant and animal life forms. 65% of Sri Lanka’s 220 endemic trees and woody climber species and 270 species of vertebrates have been recorded there.
Sri Lanka is an amphibian hotspot too. 15 of the 32 species of amphibians are confined to Sri Lanka. Of the eight known species of marine turtles five are found in Sri Lanka. (Anselm de Silva, Sri Lanka Nature. 2(3) 1999) Sri Lanka is also significant for frogs and snails. It is home to more than 140 species of frogs and in addition, a hundred new rain forest frog species were discovered recently. This represents about 7% of the world’s known frog species and puts us well ahead of the former record holder, Costa Rica. Other tropical islands, including Borneo, Madagascar, and New Guinea, which are ten times larger, have similar numbers of frog species. Sri Lanka has an even higher number of endemic snails. Total number is around 250 of which over 80% are unique to Sri Lanka. About 50 more have been discovered recently, some of which are not found even in India. There are 12 endemic species of garden lizards of which 3 are found exclusively in Sri Lanka. These lizards do not live in gardens, they live in forests. (K. Manamendra-arachchi, Sri Lanka Nature. 2(1) 1999 and Manamendra-arachchi and R. Pethiyagoda, Sri Lanka Nature. 2(2) 1999)
The data on other species is less complete. 242 species of butterfly, 117 species of dragonflies and 233 resident species of birds have been counted. 23 birds and 52 dragonflies are endemic. (G. de S. Wijeyeratne, Sri Lanka Nature. Jan. 2001). The endemic birds include the jungle fowl, wood pigeon, malkoha, parakeet, coucal, and myna. To this has been added recently, a new owl, from Sinharaja, called Serendib Scops Owl.
Our island has had a settled agriculture for thousands of years. The climate was favourable. There was an ever-wet south western quarter with limited rain in the remaining area. The far northwest and far southeast alone were semi arid. This enabled a large number of crop plants, fruit trees, spices, and livestock to develop and right up to the 20th century, new strains, were emerging. About 10 wild species of pepper have been identified in addition to the existing varieties. Ten wild races of cardamom have been collected from the Sinharaja and adjoining forests. A new species of ebony was found in 1996.
There is no comprehensive inventory of the plant life of the island. As a result there are no statistics, but the figures that have appeared are impressive. As many as 119 woody plants were recorded in a single forest in a recent survey. There are around 170 species of orchids, 1500 species of fungi and 600 species of mosses in the island. (S. T. W. Kirinde Island. 12.8.02 p 12.) There are 300 species of ferns and fern allies and 5% of these ferns are endemic to Sri Lanka. There are about 170 ornamental plants of which 74 are endemic. Of the 3368 flowering plants discovered in the island, 879 are endemic, and many of these endemics are extremely rare. One plant is known to be restricted to a small swamp forest at Waturana. Another is confined to a small area in Knuckles.
Sri Lanka is recognised as having one of the largest varieties of rice among the rice producing countries. About 2800 of the known genes of rice are available here. Several thousand years of selection and cultivation augments by traditional practices produced this variety of rices with their great adaptability to various conditions. There are varieties which are flood resistant like Kunduiuduwee and others which mature early like Dahanala. Some kinds such as Kaluheenati were said to have medicinal properties. There are also 200 varieties of wild rice indigenous to the island, which contain a high nutrition content, aroma, and flavour. These are no longer commercially cultivated by paddy farmers (Financial Times on Sunday. 31.8.03) We have had a great number of seeds and cereals in ancient times. Four varieties of Millet were grown. Cereals such as kurakkan, meneri, mun-ata, olu, kollu, amu, thala are still used in the remote areas.
Medicinal plants are a special feature of the plant life of the island. They are used in the indigenous systems of medicine and for home remedies. Over 500 medicinal herbs have been identified, but many medicinal plants remain unidentified. Many of them are getting extinct, due to over harvesting and deforestation. Plants were traditionally used as pesticides too. Farmers in remote areas use plants as pesticides even today. Red onion juice with crushed karapincha is used to control the Goyam messa. It could be argued that these traditional methods were successful because the pests species seen today are not native to Sri Lanka.
Nurtured by abundant radiation, high temperature, sufficient and long growth periods, Sri Lanka was a land of rich tropical forests. The rainforests of southwest Sri Lanka date back a hundred million years when an unbroken stretch of forest covered peninsular India and Sri Lanka. The tall trees of the forests, which died out elsewhere, continued to grow in Sri Lanka because, the climate retained sufficient humidity in the south-western parts for the plants to survive. That is how trees like Hora, Dorana, Dun, Beraliya, Hui, and Mandora survived. The Ritigala strict nature reserve contained wet zone plants though set in the lowland dry zone.
Some of the trees and plants mentioned in the Mahavamsa are still with us. They include bo, nuga, attikka, maha-andara, kadamba, puvak, tal, kesel, aralu, bulu, tembili, tabu, flowers such as sapu, pichcha, nelum, olu and the helamba tree in Nuwarakalaviya. Jak was known as bajja. Three kinds of bamboo are mentioned but they cannot now be identified. There are many more species of bamboo today of which seven are endemic. This includes katu una and yoda una. The traditional flute is made from bata una.
The British rulers were delighted with the trees they saw. There was Kurnbuk, described by Tennent as one of the noblest and most widely distributed trees in the island. Halmilla a ‘fine straight tree about forty feet in height’, exported in large quantities from Trincomalee and therefore known as Trincomalee wood. Calamander (Kalumadiriya) was ‘the most beautiful wood in the island.’ Ebony was also found in a great abundance in the island. J. W. Bennett said in 1843 that he had not seen the coconut palm grow to such a height in any other country he had visited. (Ceylon and its capabilities. p. 84)
Many of the trees, fruits and vegetables we fondly imagine to be indigenous are not indigenous at all. They are imports. The Dutch introduced rambuttan and breadfruit from Java, na\ nam from Malacca, soursop from Surinam, and lovi from Amboina, They also brought in mangosteen and durian. The British brought in cashew, sweet potato, manioc, chilli and pineapple. The araliya and the jam fruit tree arrived from tropical America, the flame tree from Africa. Many plants, now considered invasive and problematic such as nidikumba, lantana, water hyacinth, salvinia were introduced by the British. They were brought in as ornamental plants, regardless of its detrimental effect on the environment.
Sri Lanka has an extensive coastline in relation to its land area. Estuaries and lagoons cover a total area of 160,000 hectares. There is
considerable plant and animal diversity in these coastal ecosystems
as well. More than 300 species of reef and reef associate fish have been counted. Many of these are used as aquarium fish. 17 species of fish are considered endemic. 180 species of corals belonging to 68 separate groups have also been recorded and certain coral reefs are considered to be hot spots.
It is easy to forget that our plant and animal life carried Sinhala names long before the latinised technical names emerged. The Sinhala names are still in use today. Among the birds the Indian Pitta is known as Avichchiya, the stilt is known as Kalapu Kirala, and the blue magpie is Kehibella. There is the Watha rathu malkoha and Watha nil malkoha. The battichcha was also known as Eskaha demelichche and bambu kurulla. Among the animals there is Kola wandura, gona, diviya. Fish have colourful local names such as Bulath hapaya, gal pandiya, and pathirana salaya. Wood spider is known as Mukulana, makuluwa or kele makuluwa. Botanical checklists have indicated Sinhala names for 1410 plants plus a further 800 extra names. Some plants have several Sinhala names, sometimes about six per plant. These include variants of the existing names.
Sinhala plant names acquired some degree of fame. The Dutch botanist Burman listed local plants by their Sinhala names in his "Thesaurus Zeylanicus published in 1737. This was first European work on Sri Lankan plants. Thanks to this, the first south Asian plants studied by Linnaeus (1707-1778) were Sri Lankan. His ‘Flora Zeylanica, ‘was the first of its kind on a tropical country. He used Sinhala names, for about 15 plants. There is Kokoonia Zeylanica, taken from kekuna Mussaenda from bussanda, Nelumbium from nelum, Pavetta from pawatta and Corracana from kurakkan. With British rule a few more terms were borrowed from Sinhala. Talipot is taken from Sinhala talapata. However talapata refers to the tala leaf, not the tree.
The opposite happened with the birds. The distinctive names were dismissed by the British, probably due to difficulties of pronunciation. Polkichcha became dial bird, Ulama became devil bird, Madimuhana oil bird, Layasudu korawakka was sun bird, Battichcha, was tailor bird and Savulpenda diyasana was Jacana. Some were named after the British who ‘found’ them, such as Lotenge sutikka and the Shrike named after Legge. Some names referred to British personalities. Panduru bambu kurulla is called Blythes reed warbler, the Mailagoya was renamed as Lady Torrington's wood pigeon.
Much of the data given in this essay has been taken from the National Atlas of Sri Lanka, and ‘National resources of Sri Lanka 2000’ published by National Science Foundation.