Returning to Our Roots

Anjali Watson explains how our traditional affinity with nature will lead to wildlife conservation

Sri Lankans have always enjoyed closeness with wildlife and wild spaces – an interwoven relationship instilled from the time of its kings. Yet, with rapid development enveloping the country, the island’s biodiversity is threatened as its wilderness declines and people’s natural kinship with the wild reduces.

The country has experienced several phases of change – colonisation, independence, civil war and now, rapid development.

Anjali Watson – Managing Trustee of The Wilderness & Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT) – feels there is hope for the island’s pro-wild legacy amid all these changes.

She explains: “We have a traditional inclination to be close to wildlife – we’re a small island with no massive cities. Even in residential areas, our home and forest gardens, and green spaces have enabled us to enjoy connections to nature. This is why we have so much biodiversity in such a small country.”

“In the early days, Sri Lanka enjoyed wildlife conservation by default – there was no need to actively protect wild spaces,” she says, emphasising the need to think of conservation in parallel, given today’s unplanned and unforeseen development.

She highlights the growth centric changes impacting the survival of wildlife: “Land ownership has been loose – land was passed from generation to generation and agriculture was nomadic. This ‘weak system’ was advantageous to wildlife but with formal land ownership, humans continue to move forward while forests move backwards.”

“Moreover, Sri Lankans were not too ambitious about achieving economic gains in the past – farmers who sent cattle to graze in the forest weren’t too worried about losing calves to leopards. Yet today, our economic mindset is causing problems for wildlife,” Watson maintains.

To worsen the blow, Sri Lanka’s weak legal system governing wildlife – which hasn’t been an imperative but is of paramount importance today – cannot cope with pocketing wild spaces, increased poaching, snaring and other calamitous scenarios.

The country’s myopic plan to manage land and lack of development integration are also significant weaknesses that endanger its wildlife. “There’s a need for a holistic landscape level plan,” she avers, adding that “we’re not too late but cannot wait for more damage to start righting our wrongs.”

Bigger is not always better, according to Watson: “Sri Lanka has a small-scale homestead-based agriculture system that has enabled us to have wildlife.”

She cites the need to maintain traditional farming practices and cottage industries but with greater productivity through technology, saying “we must strive for small and productive, not big and destructive.”

However, Watson believes there is hope for Sri Lanka: “If we want our wild spaces and wildlife to remain, we need to look at what we had in the past and make it our future. All of us need to do this now.”