THE RAINFORESTS OF GALLE

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). The Rainforests of Galle. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan. November-December 2004. Pages 35-37.
Galle is set to become the rainforest gateway of Sri Lanka.

The Rainforests of Galle

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that Galle can become the rainforest gateway of Sri Lanka

With a thunderous roar, a wave broke over the rocks, sending a curtain of salt spray into the air. Seawater forced its way through the barrier of rock and rivulets flowed rapidly coalescing into waves onto the beach. In seconds, the wavelets receded, to begin anew the ceaseless quest of the sea to eat away the beach. I sat on the terrace of the Lighthouse Hotel & Spa, one of Geoffrey Bawa’s masterpieces observing the clash of earth and water, tidal energy versus the shoreline. It was still too dark to make out the four hundred year old Dutch Fort, a UNESCO living heritage site, in the distance. A hint of light was appearing in the darkened sky. My companions arrived on the terrace. Laden with photographic gear we headed out for the Kottawa Rainforest Arboretum.

We were in Galle, better known for its historical association with the colonial rule of the Dutch and fine hand woven lace. Mention rainforests in Galle, and people are puzzled. “Rainforests?” They would say quizzically, and somewhat incredulously, “in Galle?”. Even veterans in tourism are surprised that Galle can become the gateway to rainforest tourism in Sri Lanka. Galle has always been seen as a small city on the coast. A point to rest and recuperate for a few days on a tour of the country or for divers and snorkellers to access nearby reefs, during the dive season.

But Galle has been served three rainforest trump cards. The Kanneliya-Nakiyadeniya-Dediyagala rainforest complex, simply known as Kanneliya is one of the largest remaining wet lowland rainforests in Sri Lanka. It is simply huge. Unfortunately it was heavily logged in the 1970s. It still remains rich in botanical terms, but lacks the richness of animals found in a better preserved rainforest such as Sinharaja. Kanneliya lacks the rich mixed species feeding flocks famous in Sinharaja. Nevertheless, it still remains rich in animals, evidenced from the presence of the Serendib Scops Owl, discovered only a few years ago by Deepal Warakagoda.

Our first visit was to a rainforest very much smaller, almost minuscule in comparison, but very much closer. The Kottawa Rainforest and Arboretum is no more than half an hour’s drive from Galle. It is a part of the Kottawa Kombala Conservation Forest of 1,800 hectares. It has a wide track which runs for a kilometer or less through the gloom of the rainforest. Its close proximity to Galle and the ease of access for visitors of varying ages and physical mobility, make it a superb introduction to the rainforest. As it is also an arboretum, many of the trees are identified with name boards at the entrance. Giant Dipterocarps tower overhead, engaged in a bitter race for light. The canopy can absorb as much as ninety per cent of the incident light, robbing the plants below of the life giving energy of the sun. Seedlings lie in the darkened floor in a state of arrested growth. Some of the seedlings may look only a few weeks old, but long-term research in rainforests have found that they may be as old as thirty five years. They are waiting patiently for one of the forest giants to die and rot away or to fall in a storm. The gap in the canopy will allow sunlight to pour through and begin a fresh race to the canopy, where the edge of darkness meets the god of light.

One of my companions was Hasantha Sanjeewa, the naturalist at the Lighthouse Hotel & Spa. Whilst I marveled at the cathedral of plant life, he kept his gaze on the ground. A flicker of movement in the leaf litter betrayed his target species. He had found for me a Rough-nosed Lizard. A small lizard, only a few inches long, it is dark and nondescript in colour, looking like a twig on the forest floor. It is found only in Sri Lanka in the wet-zone forests. A weird cackling call drifted from the canopy as if some demented witch was up on a tree. It was an endemic Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill. A pair of Yellow-browed Bulbuls flew past murmuring softly and a Black-naped Monarch, flitted anxiously.

We set off after the hornbill and suddenly Hasantha exclaimed. A few feet above the ground, on a small tree besides the trail was a displaying Hump-nosed Lizard. It looked magnificent with its lyre shaped head in green and body in yellow, with patches of blue on the face. The colours on this lizard can be quite variable. At around a foot from the tip of the head to the tip of the tail, a displaying male can look quite threatening even to a human. The Hump-nosed Lizard is largely confined to the lowland rainforests of Sri Lanka. The genus Lyriocephalus, in which scientists place it, has only it as a member. Relaxing in the luxury of the better hotels in Galle, who could imagine such jewels of bio-diversity can be found within half an hour’s drive of the southern port.

My next visit a few weeks later was to explore another little known jewel in Sri Lanka’s bio-diversity crown. Hiyare Biodiversity Park is administered by the Galle Municipal Council and is set around the forest fringing the Hiyare Reservoir. It adjoins the relatively small Kottawa Kombala rainforest under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. Hiyare is a reservoir bordered by 600 acres of secondary lowland rainforest. The reservoir was established in 1911 and encompasses 55 acres. The efforts of the Municipal Council are laudable as they have recognized the value of the Hiyare rainforest as an educational resource and as a public amenity. The Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle has a small office inside and the members freely volunteer their time to guide visitors.

Once again we arrived early morning, earlier than they are used to welcoming visitors. A friendly chat with the watchman persuaded him to let me and Hasantha in, to catch the first light on the reservoir. A high pitched, staccato rising, loud call emerged across the lake. A pair of Sri Lanka Spurfowl were serenading. This extremely furtive bird is one of the hardest endemics to see in Sri Lanka. “Pritee dear pritee dear” called another endemic, the Brown-capped babbler. Another skulker of the undergrowth which can tease birdwatchers for hours, without showing itself. A clatter overhead alerted me to a pair of Green Imperial Pigeons, who perched on the top of a dead tree. I set up my video camera and was rewarded with a pair of Pompadour Green Pigeons flying on to the same tree. The Pompadour is among a clutch of new ‘splits’ in taxonomic parlance to be considered endemics, raising the total number of endemic bird species in Sri Lanka to thirty-three species.

Hiyare has a motorable road which runs a hundred meters or so past stands of rainforest onto the entrance gate, and then continues for a another hundred meters or so to a block of small buildings overlooking the reservoir. It is a scenic location and visions of a picnic on the lawn immediately spring to mind. Across the water, more rainforest reflects off the serene water.

For experiencing the rainforest, Kottawa is better. In Kottawa one actually walks, and in comfortable walking conditions, under the rainforest. The gloom of the understorey envelopes you from both sides. One peers hopefully into the forest gloom hoping to find an endemic animal. Perhaps as endemic Earless Lizard will be basking on the path or a Rustic butterfly will tantalizingly flutter by. Hiyare in contrast is tame and you view the rainforest from outside, with the reassurance of a manicured lawn bordering the reservoir. Comfortable and easy, but lacks the moodiness, the damp and the occasional leech, found in Kottawa. But for birdwatchers, Hiyare at dawn is a better bet. A typical morning may reveal at least six endemic birds and some of the commoner dragonflies and damselflies.

A crash in the branches alerted us to the presence of a Giant or Grizzled Squirrel. The wet-zone race found here of the Giant Squirrel is black above and yellow underneath. We had hoped to see the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey as well, but it was not to be today. There was still time for a late breakfast at the Lighthouse before returning to meetings in Colombo.

FACT BOXES

Kottawa
From Galle take the Udugama Road (B129). Just past the km 13 post on the B 129, on the right, is the Kottawa Information Center. Further along the road before the 14 km post are gates to the left and a large yellow sign board “Kottawa Arboretum Wet Evergreen Forest Kottawa Kombala”. The center which issues tickets is open from 08.30am to 5.00 pm. Approximately 17 km from Galle.

Hiyare
From Galle, take the Udugama Road (B129). A hundred meters past the 9 km post of the B129, take the road to the right. Hiyare is sign posted in Sinhala. 4.4 km later you come to a big bridge and the nature park is immediately to your left. Tickets are on sale from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm. The gates close at 6.00 pm.

For over three hundred pages of information on the fauna and flora of Sri Lanka visit www.jetwingeco.com, or e-mail eco@jetwing.lk

The writer, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is the CEO of Eco Holidays a wildlife & luxury travel company. He has written and photographed several publications on Sri Lankan wildlife. With weekly appearances in the media, he is one of Sri Lanka’s most visible wildlife & tourism personalities. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his free wildlife e-newsletter.