de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2001). Turning Dreams Into Dust. LMD. January 2001. Page 123. Volume 07, Issue 06. ISSN 1391-135X.
The importance of the Bellanwila Attidiya Sanctuary as an urban oasis for wildlife and its potential for eco-tourism with reference to the WWT’s Barnes Wetlands Center in the UK.

Is Colombo overlooking eco-dollars on its door step?

Would I like to be part of a small group of invitees to have a pre-view of the work in progress asked the lady from the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT) who called me up in London. Naturally I agreed and found myself on a summer afternoon visiting what had been once the Barn Elms Reservoir in Hammersmith on the outskirts of London. This had been a familiar place to me and I had come on and off on dreary winter evenings under a typical grey pall that marks the British wintry sky. The draw? Hundreds, sometimes thousands of wild ducks that had migrated here to escape the ice frozen lakes of north west Europe. For over a year the WWT had been active in converting the redundant reservoirs into a wetland. The WWT was set up by the Sir Peter Scott, an adventurer, naturalist, Olympic gold medallist and conservationist. The son of the Antarctic explorer Sri Robert Scott, he had left as his legacy a number of wetlands managed by the WWT.

In London, the WWT’s dreams were bolder and more ambitious. They were building from scratch a wetland with support from the local authorities and Thames Water. Their project is driven with the grand intention of creating an eco-tourism attraction which other European cities would find hard to beat.

So what is the parallel with Colombo? Here in Colombo we have a natural wetland on a larger and grander scale than London’s conservationists and tourism promoters could envisage. It is richer, bigger and packed with bio diversity goodies. A dream, a wet dream for planners and tourism promoters. Whilst London is spending an estimated Sterling 8 million (yes, that is in the order of Rs 880m!) to create a wetland, Colombo is all but extinguishing the last breath of life in its wetland. Colombo’s wet dream is slowly suffocating under garbage dumped into it in defiance of environmental laws.

The wetland in question is the Bellanwila Attidiya Sanctuary a stone’s throw away from the famous Bellanwila Temple. Each year tour groups of Birdwatchers visit the wetland in search of birds. Birds such as Bitterns which are a rarity in the Northern hemisphere are one of the draws. Perversely, some of its attractions are rather nondescript ‘Little Brown Jobs’ like the Rusty-rumped Warbler, itself a visitor from overseas. The sanctuary has recorded over 150 species of birds, 52 species of butterflies 39 species of fish, and over 37 species of dragonflies.

Talk about wildlife and most people think of large game like elephants and leopards. Here it is wildlife on altogether different scale. Gaudily attired Purple Swamphens and Pheasant-tailed Jacana strut in the swamp. Stately Herons flap by slowly and brilliantly colored Kingfishers flash past. Red Dragonflies maraud on unsuspecting insects. Colorful butterflies including Tailed Jays, Common Jezebels, Grey Pansies flit around as if they sprung from the imagination of a painter who had run riot with his color palette.

Green Garden Lizards found only in India and Sri Lanka, strut their stuff. They change color like chameleons, turning their heads a crimson red as if it is in danger of exploding, in pursuit of territory and a mate. Huge Water Monitors patrol the waters, looking a miniature version of their close cousin the Komodo Dragon.

To a city planner all this translates into eco-dollars. Sri Lanka does not have to look far for role models. In Singapore and Malaysia sanctuaries have a familiar formula. A car park, well maintained trails, information and guides and a Visitor Center providing refreshments and selling merchandise from books to souvenirs. In short money, eco-dollars.

Bellanwila Sanctuary has everything going for it to be developed as a premier urban eco site. Even if it is not developed for its eco-commercial potential it should be cherished and nurtured for its value as an urban reservoir of bio-diversity, a resource for schools, or just to be enjoyed.

As London creates, Colombo languishes. A tale of two cities.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

The author (gehandesilva@hotmail.com) is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka and the forthcoming A Pocket Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. As a keen eco-traveler he has trekked around the world including to Everest Base Camp, the Peruvian Andes and rain forests in Borneo.