Recognized as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a nation with many natural wonders. Let it be the mind-blowing golden shores, the amazing cascades, the extensive range of wildlife, fantastic Botanical gardens, and what so not! Indeed, all of them are true beauties of mother nature, on this splendid island of Sri Lanka. However, among them, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve happens to be a highlight, being a hotspot in biodiversity. Thus, we thought of exploring its delight through this read. Excited, isn’t it? Here we go!
What is Sinharaja Forest Reserve?
The Sinharaja Rainforest is one of Sri Lanka’s least disturbed, largest and biologically special lowland rain forests. It is a foremost eco-tourism destination and one of the few remaining virgin rain forests to date in Sri Lanka. And yes, Sinharaja Rainforest is simply a wonder of mother nature, owing to its exceptional biodiversity. Thus, UNESCO declared Sinharaja Rainforest in 1989, as a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
And something interesting! This lowland evergreen rainforest has a legend and mystery. The term ‘Sinharaja’, can be further divided into two parts, ‘Sinha’ as lion and ‘Raja’ as king in English. This combination is associated with the history of Sri Lanka as well. That is because it refers to the belief of the origin of Sinhala people. As per the legends, Sinhalese comes from the settlement between a princess and a lion king who lived in this forest a long time ago. And yes, the name of this magnificent forest resembles it.
However, this forest has drawn the attention of scientists as well as nature lovers. Thus, hundreds make trips into this jungle to discover and admire its many natural wonders daily.
Geological Features and the Climate of the Sinharaja Forest
Sinharaja Rainforest is a huge forest covering an area of 8,864 hectares. To be specific, it consists of 6,092 hectares of Forest Reserve and 2,772 hectares of Proposed Forest Reserve. This rain forest covers an area from east to west of Sri Lanka of around 11,187 hectares. The length of the RainForest is approximately 21km and the width is 3.7km from north to south. Moreover, it ranges from an altitude of 300 – 1,170 meters.
Moreover, cool waterfalls, flowing streams and clear freshwater streams are among the beautiful things the forest offers. The most significant geological feature of the Sinharaja Rainforest is the existence of a “Sinharaja Basic Zone”. This includes hornblende pyroclasts, basic charnockites pyroxene amphibolites and scapolite.
Furthermore, the forest lies within the transition zone of two important groups of rock types. Namely, they are the south or western group, which contains metasediments-charnockites and scapolite bearing calc granulites, and the highland group comprising khondalites of metamorphosed sediments and charnockites. Considering all these points, there is no harm in mentioning that Sinharaja Rainforest is an ecological place with rich treasures!
However, the best starting point for visits is Deniyaya Mederipitiya to the East or Kudawa to the North. This narrow strip of land includes a series of ridges and crisscrossed valleys by a complicated network of streams.
Soil at Sinharaja
The soils of Sinharaja mostly belong to the group of Red Yellow Podzolic soils, with clearly different horizons of varying soil depths. The well-drained soil is of a very little gathering of organic matter.
Ecosystem Service at Sinharaja Forest
In addition to its biodiversity importance, Sinharaja has a remarkable value, in terms of ecosystem services. For example, the water that flows into them through the forests of the Sinharaja complex enriches the headwater of a few of Sri Lanka’s main rivers such as Nilwala and Gin Ganga. Sinharaja rainforest consists of a series of constant ridges, aligned roughly in an east-west direction and lies between the tributaries of the Kalu Ganga in the north and the Gin Ganga in the south.
Temperature and Rainfall
The average annual temperature of this forest ranges at around 23.6 Celsius. Moreover, in and around the Sinharaja forest, rainfall estimates show values ranging from 3,700 to 5,000 mm.
Human Life around Sinharaja Rainforest
Twenty-two villages surround Sinharaja Rainforest with an inhabitants of approximately 5000 people living a tranquil lifestyle. Only two villages namely Warukandeniya and Kolonthotuwa are located within the reserve. The long history of human habitation in and around today’s reserve combines the problem of managing and safeguarding the forest. Most of the ancient inoffensive people are found along the southern boundary of the reserve. To be exact, that is on the bank of Gin Ganga with a few found on the north-western side. Numerous ancient footpaths exist on the border of the reserve while three footpaths run across the interior of the forest.
The Nature of the Houses Built Around
The houses have a small floor area, be an average of 25 sq. meters and constructed of wattle and daub. The thatched roof of the houses contains leaves of a forest treelet called Beru or Bamboo leaves. Lately, however, coconut leaves for thatching and clay tiles have started to increase more acceptance as roofing materials. Furthermore, the family structure is of an extended family with parents, children and grandparents living together.
The staple food of the villagers is rice, Yams such as sweet potato and Manioc (Cassava), Breadfruit and Jackfruit, grown in home gardens and often used as alternatives for rice. Other plants often found in home gardens are vines of betel (Piper betel) black pepper and passion fruit. Fruit trees such as papaya and banana are also common around. For most of their other needs, the villagers depend upon plants regularly found in the forest. Villagers obtain the fluid needed for the manufacture of Jaggery, which is a local brew and vinegar, by tapping the kitul flower. Additionally, the exudates from Kekuna (Canarium zelani-cum) are used as a seal for damaged boats and as glue for home purposes.
These villages in between forest patches require the setting up of planned home gardens which in turn can support the biodiversity corridors. Moreover, a key crop cultivated in the area is tea, but tea plantations are not ecologically friendly. Finding alternative livelihoods for tea growers living adjacent to the forests is a vital step.
However, these villagers live in harmony with nature, deriving many benefits from the forests. Yet, poverty converts some of them to engage in illegal and harmful practices.
How the Villagers Interact with the Forest
The properly combined reserve with the local population who live in some dozens of villages is scattered along the border. The villages are more in number along the southern border whilst the existence of some large lands along the northern border has only a few villages. The locals collect herbal medicine, various fruits, mushrooms, and other non-timber forest products from the fpresty area. Moreover, local people walk in the forest to collect those items when they are free from their other agricultural activities. In addition, the clear water coming from streams is the main water source for all people living around the reserve. Besides, for generations, local people walked through the forest from south to north to make their annual journey to Adams Peak.
The villagers collect and sell numerous plants used in the native ‘ayurvedic’ system of medicine. Particularly, the stem of Weniwel (Coscinium fenestratum) used by most Sri Lankan as an antidote for tetanus. Beraliya (Shorea megistophylla) provides a fruit, used as a substitute for flour. Another source of income is the making of baskets and mats from rattan on ‘wewal’. The villagers also exploit other plant products. Some of them are wild cardamom, resinous exudes used as fumigating agents from Nawada ( Shorea stipularis ) and other shorea species. Since the above traditional activities do not harm the Sinharaja forest, villagers are allowed to live feasibly in the rainforest.
Flora of Sinharaja Forest
Certainly, the Sinharaja Rainforest’s vegetation is either a Tropical Lowland Rain Forest or a Tropical Wet Evergreen Forest. Besides, the flora at Sinharaja covers an extensive range, and is enormous from its values.
The height of the dominant trees, the straightness of their trunk, the great quantity of restoration and the range of species are certain prominent characteristics of the forest. Additionally, some families such as Dipterocarpaceae show an endemism of more than ninety per cent. The unused genetic potential of Sinharaja flora is enormous. Out of the 211, woody trees, so far identified within the reserve is 139 (66%) and is endemic.
Also, high levels of endemism are visible even among the lower plants like ferns, and epiphytes. Out of 25 general endemics to Sri Lanka, 13 are visible in the Sinharaja forest. The property’s flora is a relic of Gondwanaland. It provides an important component to our scientific understanding of continental drift and an outstanding site for the study of the processes of biological evolution.
Furthermore, endemism within the property is extremely high. Protecting the last viable remnant of Sri Lanka’s tropical lowland rainforest, Sinharaja is home to at least 139 endemic plant species within two main types of forest: remnants of Dipterocarpus in the valleys and on the lower slopes, and secondary forest and scrub where the original forest cover is detached. Sixteen of the endemic plant species within the property are rare, including endemic palms Loxococcus rupicola and Atalantia rotundifolia.
Fauna of Sinharaja Rainforest
Indeed, faunal endemism is also high in Sinharaja Rainforest, particularly for mammals, birds and butterflies, exceeding fifty per cent. Twenty endemic birds are currently detectible in the forest. Sinharaja Rainforest, which is also home to leopards and Indian elephants, both of which are threatened species. Wildlife conservation authorities manage both research and nature-based tourism. However, unlike a national park, a forest reserve is possibly open to human events. Still, it is under a rigid permit structure, thus allowing non-destructive forest actions that are central to the livelihoods of communities living adjoining the forests.
The most common deer species in the forest is the Sambhur. The forest is also home for Monk deer and Barking deer. Even though the sighting of leopards is occasional, provenly, tracks and other signs have confirmed their frequent visit. Initial studies on the fauna of the Sinharaja Rainforest stated that there is a high point of endemism among the butterflies, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Moreover, ninety-five per cent of the endemic birds of Sri Lanka are observable in Sinharaja.
Moreover, out of the larger mammals, even though the sighting of elephants is fairly common in the past, the sighting of elephants during the last 15 years is rare. However, there are reports of sighting a few other animals in the Eastern Sector. Moreover, Brown Mongoose and the golden-palm civet are occasional visitors. The most commonly available primate in the forest is the purple-faced leaf monkey.
Birds at Sinharaja
Certainly, one of the most exciting and colourful spectacles found in the Sinharaja Rainforest is the presence of mixed species of foraging bird flocks, a wonder commonly found in rainforests. Even though hundreds of such flocks are observable and studies reveal that some flocks contained 48 species including 12 endemic species. Out of the birds noted in the western sector of the reserve, seventy-two per cent were resident non-endemic birds while thirteen per cent were migrant birds. Additionally, the rare endemic birds in Sinharaja Rainforest are as follows.
- Red-faced Malkoha
- Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
- Ashy-headed Barbbler
- White – headed Starling
- Green – billed Coucal.
Amphibians and Reptiles at Sinharaja
Among the snakes, the green Pit Viper and Hump-nosed Viper are frequently visible in this forest and are endemic to Sri Lanka. The amphibians represent fairly well in the reserve and the reserve identifies nine endemic species.
Furthermore, the agamids are the best-represented group of reptiles. The most common existence, the Green Garden Lizard is of special significance and the sightings of Calotes liolepis are an arboreal species.
The only tortoise recorded in the reserve is the hard-shelled terrapin and the spotted skink of the skink species is often visible. A fair number of amphibians signify the reserve and nine endemic species are obvious. In most streams and marshes of the Sinharaja Rainforest, the Wrinkled frog and the Sri Lanka Reed frog are visible.
Ramanella palmata, a rare endemic species, is the only microhylid verified so far, while the yellow- banded Caecilian is the only apodan recorded.
Exploring Sinharaja Rainforest
Certainly, exploring an unforgettable view of the dense Sinharaja Rainforest, enjoying the serenity of an ecosystem rich in flora and fauna, waterfalls and much more on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka is indeed a remarkable experience. Undoubtedly, walking under the enormous trees that form a natural canopy resulting in very little sunlight reaching the forest, giving it a faintly lit look is a visual delight. A Green layer of soft grass and moss forms a slippery but velvet-like ground that seems like a carpet specially placed for you. The numerous streams that are existing in the forest lead to its beauty. The sound of the clear running water of the waterfalls crashing on the rocks contributes to the perfect natural setting of the reserve.
And yes, ranges of tour guides and tours to explore the Sinharaja Rainforest, under different price are available. The tour makes more sense when one is educated about the things existing in the forest to comprehend more about the Sinharaja Rainforest, which the tour guides are capable of doing.
Hiking or Trekking at Sinharaja Forest
The best way to experience the true essence of Sinharaja Forest Reserve is by hiking or trekking the various trials that have been formed for this very purpose. There are around 16 hiking trails within this wonderful forest. Hiking trails have varying lengths. Hence, exploring the Forest Reserve by joining several tours is possible. When one takes a hike or nature walk through the forest reserve, one is sure to be surprised to find numerous insect species that are very uncommon in one’s are exotic only to this forest reserve.
What is the Best Time to Visit Sinharaja?
The best months for exploring the Sinharaja Forest Reserve are from January to May and from August to December. The weather is perfect and the discovery of this large space of natural wonder provides a wonderful experience. It is better to avoid the monsoon season to visit any forest or natural reserves. Of course, during this time insects, bugs and mosquitoes are at their maximum numbers and diseases predominate. Also, the region receives heavy rainfall that makes it impossible for sightseeing and explorations. Besides, to enjoy hiking treks and other explorations, dry and colder months have more comfortable conditions.
Open Hours and Ticket Prices
Sinharaja Forest Reserve is open for visitors from 6.30 am to 6 pm. The entrance Fee per adult is Rs.644 and per child is Rs.325. As it is compulsory to walk in the Sinharaja Rainforest with a guide, it will charge another Rs.1000. Also, carrying video cameras inside the forest costs an extra Rs.560. Certainly, exploring the green canopy of trees overhead and the forest getting denser with every single step forward, undoubtedly, one will fall in love with the Sinharaja Rainforest. The only sound one can listen to is the chirping of birds, the humming of insects and the sounds you make while walking.
Conservation Value of Sinharaja Forest
The conservation benefit of Sinharaja is that it is Sri Lanka’s only vast geographical primary lowland tropical rain forest. It holds a large number of endangered plant and animal species and a number of plants that are of known interest to human beings. Sinharaja Forest Reserve, according to the IUCN Scientific Assessment, is the last viable remnant of Sri Lanka’s tropical lowland rain forest with over sixty per cent of endemic trees, many of which are rare and 21 endemic bird species, a variety of rare insects, reptiles and amphibians.
Threats to the Sinharaja Forest and Measures to Prevent Them
Over the years, this prime lowland rainforest and the areas around it, varying from illegal forest activities and cardamom production to unregulated settlements and gem mining, have faced numerous threats. The Sri Lankan government chose to join adjacent forests into the reserve to address this destruction of the land, effectively raising the size of the protected area four times to 36,000 hectares, which is 88,960 acres. It will help to avoid a range of threats such as invasion, hunting and over-harvesting of forest products such as agarwood by expanding the Sinharaja forest reserve.
However, the construction carried outside the property indirectly affects the site through the development of highways, which then open up routes and entry points to the property. Few authorities agree that the new declaration will provide necessary legal support for the conservation of these forests, which have a high biological diversity value, with realistic enforcement approval being the next move. The extension of the reserve area and the monitoring of the extent of the land by forest officials are likely to be comprehensive.
To verify safety, people believe that it is necessary to develop a greater presence. Sri Lanka has two different types of protected areas, one managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the other by the Forest Department. Sinharaja Rainforest falls under the jurisdiction of the latter, and the newly expanded area will be formally open as part of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, to be governed under the Forest Ordinance.
History of the Conservation Projects of Sinharaja Forest
Certainly, the forests surrounding the Sinharaja rainforest hold equally high levels of biodiversity and endemism as the central region. That was the reason why getting these forests into the network of protected areas began years ago. Published in 1997, the National Conservation Review (NCR) recommended that 12 of these satellite forests be chosen as a protected area for their conservation value. This would establish a contiguous forest area, known as the Sinharaja Adaviya (Sinharaja Range), containing the current reserve and the adjacent forests of Ayagama, Delgoda, Dellawa, Delmella-Yatagampitiya, Diyadawa, Kobahadukanda, Morapitiya-Runakanda-Neluketiya Mukalana, Warathalgoda, Silverkanda, Handapanella, Gongala and Paragala. Much of these proposed for absorption into the protected area under the new scheme.
Moreover, a conservator with the Forest Department says that it took a long time to divide new boundaries, in early 2000. Generally, the notice of a gazette declaring a protected area is one or two pages long. Yet, the recent gazette declaring the Sinharaja extension is 80 pages long. The concluded draft is awaiting a strong process of verification of GPS coordinates. And yes, this expects a delay to the publication of the gazette notice.
The long-term success of Sinharaja conservation depends, through community participation on the sustainable development of its buffer and peripheral zones. Building hotels in peripheral zones and building roads over protected areas is bound to cause irreparable harm to this World Heritage Site. Noted on October 21st 1988 as a national heritage wilderness area, the introduction of much of the area within the property into a forest reserve took place on the 3rd of May 1875, offering a long history of conservation.
Involvement of UNESCO in Conservation Projects
In 2013, there was a complaint from the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, UNESCO requested to stop the widening of an ancient road connecting the Lankagama area to Deniyaya along with a 1-km jungle patch inside the protected area. However, the construction resumed on August 10, 2020. That was following the requests of the villagers to the Sri Lankan Government. Still, a group of environmentalists conducted a large social media campaign. They requested the Sri Lankan Forest Department, the Ministry of Environment and the Central Environment Authority to end it.
However, the Government of Sri Lanka has decided to continue to increase the livelihoods of poor villagers in the area, as there will only be a clearance of 0.006% of the total landmass of the forest.
Continuity of the Conservation Projects
In addition, one of the most important individuals, Mr Martin Wijesinhe acts as the unofficial guardian of the Sinharaja Rainforest. Since the 1950s, he has been the protector and caretaker of the Rainforest.
The Divisional Forest Officer of the Forest Department directly administrates the Sinharaja world heritage property. Yet, it functions under the authority of the Ministry of Lands and Land Development. Under the national forest policy directives, management practices and carried out research are under the prescriptions of the respective management plans. The property management plans, prepared in 1985/86 and 1992/94, emphasize conservation, scientific research, management of the buffer zone, benefit-sharing, and participation of the community.
Legal Protection to the Forest
Sinharaja’s highest degree of legal protection is under the National Heritage Wilderness Area Act. Moreover, the high level of local community environmental awareness is highly effective in implementing guidelines for the management plan. However, the forest dependency of local communities is very low. Still, maintaining this healthy partnership with local communities is the main strategy to ensure future protection of this property. This forest was safe thus far because of its inaccessibility and steepness. However, the Forest Department priorities the protection of the reserve over development pressures and resource extraction.
Visitor numbers remain low since only the ones with permission get the opportunity of entering the reserve. Low staffing levels delay the policing of offences. Also, the lack of funding is a barrier to the effective, long-term management of the area. However, the management agency, the Sri Lankan Forestry Department designates the management of Sinharaja a high priority. Thus, it allocates funds according to the priorities spelt out in the management plan and on-going management programmes.
Natural threats to Sinharaja
Some special zones in the Sinharaja Rainforest cause landslides. These areas are made of smaller numbers of large trees relative to other forest areas. As a consequence of the landslide, the soil’s thickness appears to be dimensioned. Moreover, environmental changes are the cause of forest patches. The bare areas covered with these hard mineral substances within the forest consider forest patches. Even though, considering the results of the research, these environmental changes have a slight impact on making forest patches.
The forest fire is not a common occurrence but is rare in the Sinharaja forest. An additional cause for the `made forest patches’ is soil erosion. Both human activities and natural occurrence cause soil erosion. Normally, the average rainfall is very high in the Sinharaja Rainforest. The steep slope areas of the forest erode because of the heavy rains. Then the soil turns out to be dry and is poor in quality. There are numerous types of a hard mineral substance such as ‘quartz’, `Kabok’ etc. in the Sinharaja forest. Some plant species do not allow other plants to grow freely, such as ‘kekilla’. This is a strict green coverage plant and is another reason for the ‘made forest patches’.
Indeed, the remarkable Sinharaja Rainforest, surrounded by bruised clouds and spectral mists, is the island’s only remaining virgin tropical rainforest. Spread over an area of only 34 square miles, this fascinating and spectacular UNESCO World Heritage forest is alive with life, colour, and sound. Sinharaja is home to a wide range of rare and endangered trees, in addition to a vast number of endemic birds, reptiles, and mammals. This place is an important stop on any itinerary for nature enthusiasts and provides an exhilarating glimpse of wonderful scenery for casual tourists. Certainly, Sinharaja Rainforest is a magnificent forest in the world. So, make sure you visit it, when you arrive in Sri Lanka the next time. Happy and Safe Travelling!