WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka




Dense, dark, wet and mysterious - Sinharaja is a primeval forest for meditation, relaxation and for scientific exploration. This relatively undisturbed expanse of primary forest is a Sri Lankan heritage - the last patch of sizeable lowland evergreen Rain Forest still remaining more or intact or undisturbed in our island.

The forest is steeped in deep legend and mystery. The word Sinharaja means, lion (Sinha) king (Raja) and the popular belief it that the legendary origin of the Sinhala people in Sri Lanka is form the descendants of the union the lion king who once lived in the forest and a princess. 

Today, the spirit of the legend remains captured in solitude in the silent forest and the rising mist of the early dawn. More than time however separates the modern explorer in the Sinharaja forest from its legendary inhabitants, man has rapidly penetrated the seemingly inaccessible wilderness of the Sri Lanka's rainforest which once covered perhaps over 100,000 ha. of the South Western hills and lowlands. The present reserve is but a glimpse of its former glory, occuphying a narrow silver of land 21 km. in length and 3.7 km. in width, covering 11187 ha. of undisturbed and logged forest, scrub and fern land. It was declared an International Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978, then a National Wilderness Area in 1988 under the National Heritage Site in 1989.

To the casual observer, the forest represents a tropical rain forest with a dense tall stand of trees, steep and rugged hills etched by numerous rocky streams and rivulets. The value of forests such as Sinharaja are well known for their functions as watersheds and store houses of great biological wealth. It is a rich treasure treasure trove of nature with a great diversity of habitats and a vast repository of Sri Lanka's endemic species found no where else in the world. Sinharaja therefore, represents an irreplaceable genepool, a refugia for all those rare and endangered forms of life, both fauna and flora.





Records in History

The links between the Sinharaja Forest and the Sinhala peoples of Sri Lanka are lost in the mists of legend and lore. Both the forest and the people derive their names from the word "Sinha" lion, and according to legend, the race is the result of the union between a King's daughter and a mighty lion who lived in the forest. The Sinharaja Adaviya i.e. forest, therefore lies embedded in the national consciousness of the Sri Lanka people and occupies a special position of importance. Legend also claims that the forest was royal territory belonging to the ancient Kings (rajas) of the country and in some early colonial records the forest is referred to as the "Rajasinghe Forest". Yet another states that the forest was the last refuge of the lion, no longer found on the island.

Like all myths, these legends do not state the exact boundaries or location of the forest, and the name seems to have been loosely applied to a group of forest that existed in the south-western section of the island, stretching south form Ratnapura and north form Galle. In fact, taken literally, the name may refer more simply to the "king-sized forest" of the Sinhala people, which perhaps reflects the perception that the local communities had of the forest which seemed to have stretched on all sides around them. However, though precise boundaries were not marked in ancient times, it seems very probable that the forest which lies on the route from Galle to the sacred mountain of Adam's Peak was well known and traversed often. In the past, Galle was the premier port of call for foreign ships and travelers. All pilgrims to the Peak therefore would have disembarked at Galle and made their way through sections of the forest to Ratnapura to begin their ascent of Adam's Peak. Such a journey is in fact described by the famed Arab traveler Ibn Batuta in the 14th century.

proper  documentation  of  the  area  begins  with  the Portuguese, the first  European  power  to seize control of the maritime districts of Sri Lanka. During their  administration from  1505 to 1656, t he Portuguese carefully compiled lists of villages  so  that  the  task  of  collecting  taxes  would be made easier. These lists (thombos)  contained  not  merely  names  but detailed descriptions of the location and extent of each village as well as  of  the  agricultural  produce, including timber and  fruit  trees,  fount  there.  The antiquity of certain  village is made  manifest in these  Portuguese  records  for  modern  towns  and villages in the Sinharaja region such  as  Kalawana  and  Pothupitiya  still  bear  the same name they had when the Portuguese wrote about them four centuries ago.

The next European power, the Dutch, (1656 - 1796) not only took over and  maintained  these  records  but  also made  a more  important  contribution  of charting  the area  on  maps. By 1789, the Sinharaja region  had  been  demarcated on  a  map  that also traced  the course  of the two large rivers, the Gin Ganga and the Kalu Ganga which had their head waters in the Sinharaja. 

The  Dutch  maps  made systematic exploration easier during the British colonial   period   (1796 - 1948)   that  followed.  Under  British  rule,  a  number  of expeditions  were  mounted  for  a variety of purposes. Some, especially the official surveys,  were  purely  commercial  in nature. The 1873 exploration by James Gunn, The  example  was meant to ascertain the suitability of the region for raising coffee plantations  and  for  the  possible  exploration of its timber resources. On the other hands,   George  Henry  Thwaites   in   the   1850's  was  responsible  for  the  first comprehensive   documentation   of   the  island's  flora  in  "Enumeratio Plantarum Zelaniae"  (1858 -1864)  which  made  numerous  references  to plants found in the Sinharaja.  The most  notable of early British explorations of the Sinharaja was that of  the  soldier-ornithologist, Captain Vincent Legge who incorporated the result of his  forays  into  his work, "The History of the Birds of Ceylon" (1880). In the latter part  of  the  nineteenth  century,  foresters, botanists  and surveyors occasionally visited the flora began to appear in recognized journals. For instance, The forest by Frederick  Lewis  a  forester,  appeared  in  1896 in  "The Ceylon Forester".  Further references  to  plant  life in Sinharaja appeared in Henry Trimen's "The Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon" (1893 - 1900).

As far back as 1840, the Sinharaja become Crown Property under the Wasteland  Ordinance,  Which  declared  all  forest  and unoccupied or uncultivated land in the country as crown land. In May 1875, Under an amended ordinance aimed at regulating the felling and removal of timber from land an area of 6,000 acres was declared   as   the   reserved  forest  of "Sinharaja Mukalana".  (Ceylon Government Gazette No. 4046 dated 8th May,1875.)

The Twentieth Century 

Thus by the dawn of the twentieth century the first step towards conserving at least part of the Sinharaja had already been taken. Between 1885 and 1907, with the formulation and enactment of the Forest Ordination,, and the establishment of the Forest Department, the forest came under the administration of the Forest Department. In 1907, the forest was again considered for reservation of the time under the Forest Ordinance on the recommendation of Mr. Mendis, a Sri Lanka forester. By 1909, a total of approximately 7,910 acres in the Galle and Matara Districts had been demarcated for this purpose. However, it took almost twenty years before the reserve was finally created. In May 1926, total extent of 9,203 acres was declared a climatic reserve purely for its watershed value. This area was mapped out in 1930.

The 1930's also saw the mounting of two more explorations the Sinharaja. The first was John Baker's three-month long expedition which resulted on the flora and fauna of the reserve. This account is a landmark in the history of Sinharaja as it is first example of a systematic study of the forest. The second expedition was made by one of Sri Lanka's foremost zoologists, P.E.P. Deraniyagala who made brief reference to the fauna  of the forest in his annual report as the Director of Museums.     

The Recent Past 

For the next two decades, the Sinharaja was to lie largely ignored by scientists and the general public. However, by the late 1950's its timber resources had been exhaustively analyzed (Figure 1). In the late 1960's the country began to turn to the lowland rain forests to meet its growing demand for timber. A fresh survey was carried out to confirm the potential of these forests as a source of plywood. Having established this potential the Plywood Corporation ventured upon an over-ambitious programme to exploit the forest of the establishment of a massive plywood sawmill and chipwood complex with to be set up at Kosgama, 85 kilo meters north-west of Sinharaja and to be fed with timber from the hitherto untapped forest of Kanneliya, Nakiyadeniya, Morapitiya, Runakanda, Delgoda and Sinharaja. By 1970, mechanized logging had already commenced in the reserves of Morapitiya and Kanneliya adjoining Sinharaga, and in 1971, amid much protest, logging was extended to the reserve  itself. Within a short period of two years of so, logging trails and roads had been established within the reserve and the forest was in danger of begin totally destroyed. Tow areas of which only one, in the eastern part of the forest (Figure 2), was of sizeable extent.

Figure 1

Timber potential map of Sinharaja (Merrit and Ranatunga, 1959)

The imminent danger through destruction of a forest of a forest of historical significance raised an outcry and a sense of outrage unprecedented in the history of public concern for nature conservation in Sri Lanka. Spearheaded by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, and with support form the clergy, scientists and the general public, the protest movement forced the authorities to reconsider the decision to exploit the Sinharaja and to restrict logging operations within the reserve to a 3,000 acre plot. In 1972, to help support the campaign against logging. Thilo Hoffmann, then President of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, set off on a fact-finding mission, the results of which were documents in "The Sinharaja Forest - 1972, A Non - Technical Account" one of the few accessible general publications on the forest in recent times.

Figure 2

Area logged during the logging project and MAB Reserves proposed in 1972 

In 1977, a new government was elected, and one of its first acts was to halt all logging operations in Sinharaja. The workshop for servicing logging equipment set up inside the forest was dismantled and all the machinery withdrawn. In April 1978, the status of the forest reserve was enhanced when it was made an International Man and Biosphere Reserve and thus became of a world-wide chain of such protected areas. These measures were further strengthened in 1988 when the Sinharaja was made a National Wilderness Area and in 1989 when list of World Heritage Sites.

With the cessation of logging activities, scientists once more gained access to the forest. In 1978, a pioneer research progamme was launched by Savitri and Nimal Gunatilleke of the University of Peradeniya. Since then, other Sri Lankan universities, state agencies and institutions and voluntary organizations have been involved in research activities in the forest. Educational programmes on the ecological and conservation value of the Sinharaja have also been conducted for school children, the villagers in the area and members of the public. The reserve has now become the focus of interest for local and foreign naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts. Thus there seems to be some measure of hope that this unique Sri Lankan forest once threatened with total destruction would be preserved for the future.

Topography and Drainage

Topographically, Sri Lanka is divided into three morphological areas and Sinharaja belongs to the middle elevational range or the "uplands" which has a height range of 270 to 1,060 meters and a slope range of 100 to 350. The forest is located on the Rakwana massif which lies detached from the main central massif of the island.

The Sinharaja area consists a series of parallel strike ridges valleys. In the eastern part of the forest ,the ridges have an east-west trend while in the western part, the ridges have a northwestern to south-eastern trend. From north to south, the decrease in elevation is gradual while form east to west, the decrease is quite marked (1,100 to 300) meters). There are several prominent peaks in the eastern sector of the Reserve which includes the 1,171 meters high Hinipitigala Peak, the height peak in the Reserve. From this height the altitude often drops down to 90 meters in the valleys (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Prominent peaks in the Sinharaja area (Survey Department -Rakwana sheet, 1973)  

A large number of streams arise in the Sinharaja region and drainage occurs in a rectangular "trellis" pattern. The streams on the southern side form the headwaters of the Gin Ganga while those on the Kukulu Ganga, a major tributary of the Kalu Ganga (Figure 5)

Figure 5.   

Drainage map of Sinharaja   (adapted from Merrit and Ranatunga, 1959)

1  Koskulana Ganga 6  Maha Ganga
2  Kudawa Ganga 7  Maha Dola
3  Pitakele Ganga 8  Gin Ganga
4  Kalukandawa Ela 9  Gin Ganga
5  Napala Dola 10  Aranuwa Dola



The Sinharaja lies within a rainfall range of 3,000 to 6,000 millimeters. Rainfall figures available for the last 60 years show values ranging from 3,614 to 5,006 millimeters in places, in and around the Sinharaja. The mean monthly rainfall data for the year 1981 to 1984 indicates the general pattern of rainfall with a minimum of 50 millimeters even during the driest month and two distinct monsoonal peaks.

The high annual temperature of the Sinharaja is typical of the tropics, recording little seasonal variation, but with marked daily ranges. The lowest mean monthly temperature has been abserved during the wettest season and the highest during the driest season. Conventional temperature patterns however change during long periods of drought or excessive rainfall.

A typical nature rivulet emerging from the dense forest of Sinharaja A common sight all over the wooded area with crystal clear water draining into the various waterways which makes the forest the most important watershed. This tropical humid rain forest plays a vital role in maintaining the quality and regulating the continuous supply of water. A numerous network of such rivulets found within the forest, feed the popular rivers Kalu Ganga to north and Gin Ganga to the south of Sinharaja.    


Geologically, Sri Lanka is divided into three main groups of rock types, viz. the highland group, the South-western group and the Vijayan Complex, all consisting of Precambrian crystalline rocks. The Sinharaja lies in the transition zone between the Highland group (Figure 7). The rock types found in the Khondalites of metamorphosed sediments and charnkite of the Highland group as well as the metasediments, charnokites and scapolite bearing calc-granulites of the south-western group.

Figure 7. The Sinharaja basic-zone (adapted from 
                 Munasinghe and Dissanayake, 1981)

The most significant geological feature of the forest is a distinctive zone of basic rocks which are referred to as the "Sinharaja basic zone", and which consist of horneblende, pyriclasts, basic charnokites, pyroxene amphiobolites inter-banded with minor accurrences of quartzites, garnetbiotite gneisses and intermediate chrnokites. The basic chrnokites and pyroxene amphibolites indicate an igneous origin prior to metamorphism, created by a low pressure. It is thought that this basic rock formation has led to the desilication processes in the surrounding areas of Ratnapura and Deniyaya which have gem-fields of cordierite-bearing rocks.

The basic zone also coincides with an aeromagnetic anomaly stretching from Nawalakande through Pitakele and ending at the Denuwankanda-Beverly Estate area.

Soils and Soil Microflora

The soils of Sri Lanka have been classified into 14 great groups. The soils of the Sinharaja belong to the Red-Yellow Podzolic group, with newly formed alluvial soils along river valleys. The origin of these soils is mostly residual while weathering of parent material into laterites and lateritic soils is increased by high rainfull and temperature. The soils are also impermeble due to the presence of ferrogenous and kaolinitic soil material rich in alumina. Traces of magnesia and lime prevalent in the original rock can be detected wherever leaching has not been excessive. Variation in soil depth is considerable and can range from a few centimeters in very rocks areas to 4 or 5 meters on lateritic soil on slopes.

While the mineral constituents of soil arise largely from parent material and bed rock, organic substances originate from the living matter above ground. Analysis of soil nutrient content in surface soils at the Sinharaja has shown greater concentration of exchangeable cations in the upper layers probably due to increased activity of soil micro-organisms as well as continuous enrichment by litter. Nutrient analysis of litter in the Sinharaja shows that nutrients from decaying plant matter are released in the order of potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen. Some studies on soil nitrogen fixation shows that the activity is highest in surface soils upto 10.5 centimeters, while fixation in leaf and twig litter is considerably less.

Not surprisingly rain forest trees have a well-developed surface root system, and are highly efficient in nutrient absorption, and even under high rainfall conditions, there is little or no leaching. The soil itself if poor in nutrients because the nutrients released from decomposing organic matter are immediately utilized by the vegetation. Therefore the nutrients are locked up in the bio-mass by very tight, highly efficient nutrient recycling.

The major agents of decay and nutrient recycling are bacteria and fungi. Studies carried out on the micro-fungi at the Sinharaja have revealed the presence of 35 different species, the commonest being Trichoderma harzinum and Penicillium simplicissimum. The more common fungal species are listed in Table 4.

Table 4. The more common microfungal species occurring in undisturbed forest soils at  Sinharaja

Division Phycomycetes Ascomycetes Fungi imperfectil
Species Circinella simplex Gelatinospora Brasiliensis(2) Trichoderma harzianum (3)
  Mucor hiemalis(4) Chetomium seminudum Penicillium simplicissimum (16)
  Mortierella rammaniana Botryphaerla ribis Aspergillus (8)
    Eupenicillium erhlichii Curvularia (5)
      Fusarium (5)
      Pestalatiopsis (4)
      Pithomycetes (2)
      Cladosporum (3)
      Arthrinium arundinis

Source: Maheswaran & Gunatilleke (1987) Within parenthesis is the number of species of that genus at Sinharaja.


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