AFTER THE DELUGE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). After the Deluge. LMD. August 2003. Page 162. Volume 10, Issue 01. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne finds Sinharaja in a state of disarray after the flash floods in May
The Dorana Ella was foaming and spitting. Eddies swirled furiously around rocks and white water spewed violently over the rough, rock studded stream bed. The stream was violent as if it nature was still troubled and angry, three weeks after land slides and floods had claimed over two hundred lives around the island. I was in Sinharaja with Amila Salgado, having arrived to do our small part to contribute financial aid collected from our colleagues, for the village of Kudawa. Just over a month ago I had stood on the bridge over the Dorana Dola and photographed a Pearson’s Tiger, a species of Dragonfly. I had watched butterflies like the Common Birdwing, Great Eggfly, Blue Mormon and Common Mormon flutter by, in search of nectar. I had moved off the bridge when Amila had arrived with over thirty school children from an international school on an expert rainforest tour. Today, nearly a month after that fateful day on 17 May, there was no bridge.
The roar of the raging water was deafening and we gave up trying to shout across to Sunil, a forest guide. We hand signaled, suggesting that we abandon the crossing and take the longer route, which is about 3 kilometers along as opposed to the short cut which is 2.5 kilometers along.
At Kudawa we listened to eye witness accounts of the great flash flood. A section of the Forest Department’s accommodation facility at Kudawa had been torn off the bank and had caved into the stream that ran beside it. A tangle of masonry and roofing lay on the bank testifying to natures force. A hundred meters away lies the village. The rising waters had surged over the bridge rising nearly twenty four feet in height and coursed it way around the bridge over the road and onto the village. Eleven women and children had been trapped on the roof of one house. Some children had been taken up for safety onto Jak trees, as the water rose rapidly, cutting them off from retreat. Above, sections of the hill gave way and came sliding down
One child had called for help, threatened by rising water. A nineteen year old had swum out for the rescue and tragically been hit by a floating log. Concussed, the boy had been swept away to his death. Not far, a land slide had buried a house killing another. We also heard stories of heroism, against a backcloth of tragedy. With a loud bang, a landslide had buried a house and with it, its three occupant. A mother was inside with her two children. Quite fortuitously another village man had been present nearby and alerted by the bang he had using his bare hands dug furiously and rescued one child. Racing back, he had retuned to dig with an iron implement to retrieve the mother, still clutching the other child. Their nasal passages were partially blocked with mud, and death may have only been minutes away.
Many people had responded generously to call for help and provided food and clothing. We met Mr Seneviratne, the Grama Sevaka who was co-coordinating the rescue efforts and was allocating money to the most needy. As order slowly settled, the priorities were to resettle those who had lost everything and to re-build what could be restored. The shop keeper where we stopped for sweets and hakuru was re-building his walls. He was grateful to be alive.
Sunil forded the stream with the help of some fallen trees. They had been wrenched off the banks and were now snagged on rocks, which were covered in a film of turbulent seething water.
A distinguished scientist who has worked for many years in Sinharaja had suggested that the tourism trade support the work being done by local people such as Martin Wijesinghe to re-build the roads. Whilst in support of his sentiments, I had wondered whether it would me more appropriate for the travel industry to press the government to undertake this, as it was a key element of Sri Lanka’s tourism infrastructure. As we continued, it was soon apparent that waiting for the government may not be enough. Those who love and care for Sinharaja may have to step in.
A part of the problem lies in the differing agendas. The short cut was one of the old logging roads which had at least one important bridge at Dorana Ella. After the logging was halted, in 1977, the road was neglected and vehicular access along this road became impossible. Even access by foot was temporarily lost until the bridges were repaired to allow people across. Martin Wijesinghe was a humble labourer who had the good fortune to work with some of the greatest Sri Lankan field scientist including the late PB Karunaratna. In the 1980s he opened what still remains a simple guest house. Thanks to his lead, an older road was opened up and remained the only road through which vehicles could travel all the way to the research station inside the core area of the Sinharaja reserve. With each year the road deteriorated further.
Every time I visited Sinharaja and stayed at Martin’s, I could not but help think that the state of the road was a national embarrassment for what is the country’s showpiece site for bio-diversity. It appeared that no one was interested in maintaining the road to Martin’s. This is a pity as for over two decades, only he has provided suitable accommodation for the serious eco-tourist who wanted to stay over at this world heritage site. Admittedly the Forest Department did provide accommodation as well, but its usefulness was limited. Firstly, you had to make prior bookings in Colombo, a procedure which rendered it unsuitable for many independent travelers as well as those engaged in tourism. Secondly, it was at least half an hour away from the entry barrier. Not surprisingly birdwatchers, scientists and naturalists flocked to Martin’s simple lodge. Bewilderingly, the leading provider of rainforest tourism facilities receives little or no support to keep the road maintained.
After the floods, the issue has become critical. The short cut is unusable. Martin is spending a considerable amount of money to re-do the long cut to make it usable, certainly for foot traffic and hopefully at least for four wheel drive vehicles. But should road access to Sri Lanka’s principle bio-diversity asset be left in the hands of Martin and a few well wishers. If so, the road access to Sinharaja will remain a national embarrassment.
A sensible strategy would be to do up both the short cut and the long cut to a very high standard and create a one way loop for vehicles. I remember early in the 1980s I was able to reach Martin’s by a car. Creating this facility again will encourage the tourism industry to bring in more tourists. More tourists translates into more money. In contrast, if the present state of roads prevail, it will discourage even those who are already active in rainforest tourism.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.