Sri Lanka's Primeval Rainforest

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Friday, May 18, 2007

If any place exists in Sri Lanka that may produce the next healing drug, Sinharaja is that place. Sinharaja is also wet, wild, and primeval--a combination rarely found these days in Sri Lanka, as much of its tropical moist forests have been logged, cleared, and settled. As such, Sinharaja offers time machine to those interested in the past, present, and future of these forests.

Tea plantations, home gardens, and secondary forests surround the park. The boundary and its protected status are what keep Sinharaja what it is--full of life unshackled by human dominion, in a manner of speaking, yet still very much connected with people.

But unlike many nature reserves, where fences are constructed around the periphery in a desperate effort to keep wildlife inside and humans outside, Sinharaja is a Man and the Biosphere Reserve.

To me, this is interesting, because one mission of the park becomes creating harmony between man and the other organisms in and around the park: the boundary begins to melt. The more harmony, the more the boundary melts. Fences are no longer necessary, if all goes well.

Many researchers have found that rainforests may well produce more long-term income remaining as rainforest as opposed to being cleared for soybean or tea plantations. I sampled this first-hand with Pali, my highly enthusiastic guide and owner of the small Sinharaja Rest in Deniyaya, southeast of the park. This was show-and-tell in one of the most interesting biological classrooms on earth.

Things he showed me (there were more):

One. A tree snail (one of many endemic Sri Lanka tree snails) that produces a clear liquid pain killer. When you take the snail from the tree, it secretes the liquid as a defense mechanism. He poured a small amount from the munchkin-sized (for you Dunkin' Donut Fans) shell onto the palm of my hand. As the liquid entered my skin cells, I felt like a shot of novocaine had just been administered. Many tree snail species only live here.

Two. A plant that cures malaria. Yes, another alternative to quinine, also a plant-derived cure.

Three. A palm tree that produces syrup, similar to maple syrup in New England. New England has its golden-brown blueberry pancakes topped with melted creamery butter and 100% maple syrup (Aunt Jemima? Forget it.). Sri Lanka has its treacle and curd. Treacle is a rich brown. Poured on fresh curd and inserted into your mouth, it slides over your sweet taste glands with ease. Treacle is harvested in and around the park from the kithul palm, which is cut below its flower to produce the sap. Soon you might see this in your local supermarket.

Four. Honey: Forest bees have nests high in the trees. Villagers pound bamboo posts into the trees to climb the immense trees--at night--to brave the bees. "It's very dangerous," said Pali, craning his neck as he followed the posts up the tree to the hives.

Five. A tree called cinnamon grows in these forests. You might be familiar with it as well as...

Six. Wild Coffee. Seven. Wild Pepper. Eight. Mango Tree! (with ripe mangoes) Nine...About a dozen or more plants the locals use to cure their ailments. And on and on.

If you live near Sinharaja, you don't need Merck. Actually, it's Merck that needs Sinharaja.

Although small (you can hike across it in one day), Sinharaja remains a place of biological discovery. In 2001, for example, a new species of owl was discovered--the Serendib Scops Owl. As I passed dozens of small insects along the trail and watched as moths and beetles flew to fluorescent lights, I wondered how many of these species were unknown to science, undescribed.

At Martin's Guest House on the other side of the park, I met a researcher from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. IUCN keeps a Red List of Endangered animals and explores biodiversity. "I just described five new species of frog here," he mentioned with a little scientific braggadocio.

Other researchers were looking for more frogs, as scientists predict that 5% of the world's frog species live in Sri Lanka. Along the trail, I saw many of these frogs--in the forest litter, on trees, in pools of water.

Traveling around the park from Pali to Martin's took seven hours. I could have hiked to Martin's quicker, but the road followed switchbacks for hours through rugged terrain and couldn't easily cross the spine of Sinharaja's tall hills.

Martin, a guide turned guest house operator, came highly recommended from Dr. Mark Ashton, one of my professors in graduate school. After graduation, I worked for him for nine months, researching forest dynamics in a New England forest along with "monkey boy" and "prism pimps" [Forestry terminology for specific research duties] Adrian and Joe. The guest house, high in the forest, was right near the park entrance gate, surrounded by Sinharaja.

I asked Martin what his favorite animal was: "I like all of them," he replied.

"That's a good answer," I said.

Mark Ashton's research in Sinhaja is best described by the man himself:

"I foresee that upland forests in humid regions of the world, after two centuries of dramatic decline and degradation, will become critical resources for the sustenance of global services (water, climate amelioration, recreation) and products (genetic reservoirs of new products, specialty timber and non-timber products) demanded by society. My research concentrates on the ecological adaptations by which trees of various species of these complex forest types become established naturally after disturbances that make vacancies in the growing space. The kind of knowledge gained is a key part of the basis for developing silviculture [the art, practice, and science of growing forests] that will sustain and augment the various forest values of the future."

From Martin's strategic location, I hiked into Sinharaja with a highly-knowledgeable guide who was full of excuses not to stay in the forest. Guided walks are supposed to last all day. By 11 a.m. he was leading me back to the park exit. I told him that I didn't want to go and that he could go to his daughter's school meeting no problem (he hadn't told me this before). It wasn't any problem for me as I'd rather hike in Sinharaja alone. It was a priviledge.

One of the highlights of my hike alone was running into a mixed flock of birds. In order to detect predators more easily or just to socialize among vocal forest species, the flocks moved through Sinharaja, turning a forest of frog calls and cicada droning into a wide array of sound, with birds flying around similar to the TIE Fighters and X-Wings battle scenes of Star Wars.

First, all was calm as I followed the drilling beak sound from a couple of Crimson-backed Flamebacks. The sound is best described as a marble dropped from five inches onto a kitchen counter. Soon, a group of Ceylon-crested Drongos flew from tree to tree in the mid-story, with Orange-billed Babblers jumping frantically from branch to branch in the understory. Five Red-faced Malkohas entered the scene from high above in the dense canopy trees. A pair of Ceylon Scimitar Babblers and six Ashy-headed Laughingthrush added to the scene. All of these bird species, along with several dozen others, are endemic, found nowhere else on earth.

But that depends on your definition of a species and whether you're a lumper or a splitter. All of these birds are definitely unique organisms, but many have similar cousins elsewhere. Whether they are unique species or subspecies is the question. If you're a lumper, the subspecies are grouped together into one species with a wide range. If you're a splitter, each unique entity is called a separate species--the previous subspecies are then given new species names and are "upgraded," without the birds' knowledge.

Continuing on, I climbed up a high ridge to the top of one of Sinharaja's tallest peaks. The sun blinded me as I left the dense, dark forest below--strange, as May was supposed to be one of the rainest months. Views of the rainforest stretched in all directions across undulating hills. I sat and looked at the landscape, the canopy, underneath which lay leopards, undescribed animals, medicinal plants, and people harvesting the honey, the treacle, the medicinal plants, the spices, and more.
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