de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Mini Gardens of Eden. Living. March-April 2007. Pages 38-39. Volume 2, Issue 4. ISSN 1800-0746.
Encouraging nature lovers to set up urban refuges that will attract many species of wildlife.

A rainforest regeneration

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne visits a rainforest being regenerated by a visionary woman

Something black was hugging the tree line and hurtling down the side of the hill at great speed. At that speed, size and color, it could only be one thing. A Black Eagle. I have always enjoyed Black Eagles. They frequent forested ridges. In flight, they have long wings with the outer flight feathers spread out like long fingers with gaps in between them. They can soar on thermals or catch the merest current of air over a forest canopy and glide hugging the canopy. A chorus of alarm calls from giant squirrels herald the arrival of the black raptor. Death can strike from the skies and it can be swift for an animal which is not alert to danger. Black Eagles symbolize the wilderness, perhaps this is why they are such a favorite with birders and strike a chord with those who seek a refuge in the wilderness.

With deforestation a serious problem, all plants and animals in Sri Lanka which need forest cover is inevitably at some degree of risk of extinction. Private individuals and corporates who afforest their estates will play a significant part together with the state agencies in safeguarding the future of Sri Lanka’s wilderness. Nalini Ellawala is one of what may be a new wave of visionaries who will fight to put the wilderness back. Better known for a long career in social work, she has now embarked on an ambitious project to afforest 37 acres of rubber land and convert it into good quality lowland rainforest.

Any re-forestation or afforestation project, whether it is in the heart of a city or adjoining an existing forest is a welcome initiative. But as in the real estate business, location matters. Say for example, someone attempts to create a rainforest in the heart of Colombo. It will certainly create a refuge for wildlife. It will also serve as an important carbon sink. But it will suffer from what is known as the island effect. As it is an isolated path of forest surrounded by a sea of urbanization, the number of species which can colonize it naturally will be limited. Just as much as wild elephant or leopard is unlikely to colonize a ten acre forest in the heart of Colombo, neither will the tens of thousands of invertebrate species which are found in rich lowland rainforest. But don’t let anyone be discouraged from creating urban refuges for wildlife. My eight perches in Borella has attracted over a hundred species of animals.

However, choose the right location and you are off to a head start. One of the reasons why I was keen to visit Mahausakande was because Chanaka, Nalini Ellawala’s son had told me it was besides a 500 acre rainforest reserve under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. Any estate near such a rich reservoir of bio-diversity can simply allow the estate to run wild. Over time it will revert to a secondary rainforest rich in species colonized by the adjacent headland of bio-diversity. But Nalini Ellawala wants to see results in as little as five years and she has begun to accelerate the process. When I visited in December 2006, she had already planted over three thousand rainforest tree species. Seven large ponds had been excavated. If she continues at this rate, in just a few years the results will show.

Nalini has also created a dormitory with ten beds, for genuine enthusiasts and researchers. A Discovery Center explains rainforest ecology and provides a focal point for school teachers who bring school groups to walk in the many color coded trails she has set up. She has three guides. My family walked on the trails with Krishantha who had joined the project two years ago. The time he had had in the field with people like Dr Channa Bambaradeniya showed. He had an impressive knowledge of the fauna and flora and would confidently give the Latin names of the beautiful dragonflies which had colonized the artificial ponds. The butterfly host plants were already working the magic and I crawled gingerly up to fresh grass yellow butterfly.

A stream flowing down from the reserve will transport animals and seeds into the new rainforest reserve. Wind borne pollen and birds will disperse native seeds. The insects, amphibians, fish and other animals will move further down the forest hill extending their range as the new forest is grown. Sometimes the miracle of life is in human hands.

The Black Eagle dove into the trees as the base of the hill. My eye caught another shape in the sky. Another raptor, with more rounded wings than the black eagle, somewhat reminiscent of the familiar brahminy kite but without the wings being bowed. A two noted whistle reminiscent of a Serpent Eagle rang out. An Oriental honey-buzzard was quartering the air. The flock of Indian swiftlets flitting through the air at dizzying speed would be too fast for it. I am sure if I spend enough days seated on the verandah, I will eventually see a shahin falcon, formula 1 material in the aerial world.

Spending time on the verandah would certainly be a pleasing prospect. It looks onto a distant ridge which appears largely un-inhabited. That morning, a swirl of mist had curled around it. The mist had hugged it until the sun rose high and the sky became filled with the noisy calls of endemic Layard’s parakeets and the shrill three noted calls of endemic Ceylon hanging-parrots hurtling overhead, like the green gremlin in spider man movies. Go out now and plant a few native trees if you have a garden.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known writer, photographer, wildlife populariser and tourism personality. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.