Should there be another entrance to Horton Plains?

The Imbulpe Pradeshiya Sabhawa wants to open up a Belihuloya entry way to Horton Plains. But Wildlife officials are not enthusiastic about that plan.

Declared a National Park in 1988, Horton Plains is currently accessed through two entrances; the Ohiya and Pattipola Gates.

Rich in biodiversity this montane grassland and cloud forest is where three of Sri Lanka’s major rivers, the Kelani, the Walawe and the Mahaweli begin.   It is home to many endemic species, some that are only found within the Horton Plains.  As well, the Plains, along with Ohiya, Ambewela and Pattipola  is said to be an area inhabited by birds, nearly 21 species  found only in Sri Lanka.  Additionally, a Wildlife Corridor exits between two protected areas; Sri Pada and Horton Plains, while conservationists have also identified an area between Nagrakand Horton Plains as a Wildlife Breeding Ground.

And of course, the Plains are also attracts both local and foreign tourists, mostly to visit the sheer precipice known as Worlds End and the Bakers Falls.

Naturally, Hortons Plains becomes a tussle between tourism and wildlife!

Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabhawa,  S G V A Sri Lal Senarathclaims that a footpath into Horton Plains from the Belihuloyaside, has existed for over a hundred years. All he wants, he says,is to open up the entrance, so more people could visit and enjoy the beauty of the Plains and its tourist attractions, while the Pradeshiya Sabhawa too earns an income from the endeavour.   Speaking to Counterpoint Mr. Senarath explained that the entrance which will be from the Nonpareil Estate side would be maintained in a manner that would not cause any environmental harm.

“Part of the road is motorable, and visitors will be required to go the rest of the way by foot. We do not intend building a road, but use the existing one.  What’s more, we plan to give them a bag containing water and snacks, for a small refundable fee.  If they bring back the bag, with all the used wrappers and bottle etc. the fee will be refunded.  That is to ensure visitors will not litter the place.’

Claiming that the Divisional Secretariat has approved the proposal, Mr. Senarath adds that simply because a few people destroy the environment and do not observe conservation rules, it is unfair to punish the larger populace who do not create issues.   “Everyone must have the right to enjoy the beauty of our country.  Do we close the beaches, simply because a few mess up the place?” he asks.

It is his contention that those who are opposed to the Belihuloyaentryway are those who are up to nefarious activities such as gem mining and logging of timber within the Horton Plains.  He believes that all stakeholders should discuss the matter and come to an amicable arrangement.

Meanwhile, Director General of Wildlife Conservation, ChandanaSooriyabandara explains that, even though there are many footpaths leading to and out of the forests, it does not mean that those should be converted to official access ways.  There are conservation management plans, he points out, stating that any access ways are granted only if they fall within identified criteria.

Even if the footpath is a hundred years old, he says, the department cannot simply allow access.  Conservation management plans are reviewed every five years, he addd, stating that, it is quite possible when such evaluations take place, that even an entrance currently in use, could be closed down.  

  Dull-Blue Flycatcher, a victim of road-kill.(Photo courtesy Chaturanga Dharmaratne)

The area under discussion is a very sensitive site in terms of the ecology he explains adding that breeding patterns etc. of the animals and birds must be taken into consideration. “While tourism is important for the country, it is also imperative that our wildlife and forests are conserved.’

Recent studies conducted by a group of students from the Sri Jayawardenapura University showcase the importance of protecting this pristine forest area, especially owing to the various threats faced by the several endemic species that live on the Plains.

Ornithologist and Wildlife Biologist with the Felidae Carnivoraproject, and a member of the Sri Jayawardenapura study team,Chaturanga Dharmarathne who has extensively studied the behaviour of the Dull-Blue Flycatcher, whose habitat is the Horton Plains, explains that increased human activity seriously disturbs nesting and foraging patterns.    

The months of March to April have been found to be the usual nesting period for these birds, and, says Dharmarathne, it is also when there are more visitors to Horton Plains, mainly to Worlds End. This means that the pathways within the Plains are spruced up and branches cut down etc. which results in unsettling the animals, birds and other species that live there.   Road-kill is another hazard he pointed out, also stating that increased human activity and littering has attracted the jungle-crows that come seeking food amongst the garbage and in the process also prey on baby birds and eggs.

In other studies by the group, it was found that the population of three of the lizard species, the Niglibris, Stoddartii and Ceylanicahas also decreased over the years.  The study attributes the decline to the possibility of more human traffic in the area after Horton Plains was declared a National Park 9n 1988.  Their study too states that visitors to Horton Plains has attracted Jungle crows, as well, they say that the recent removal by Park Management of an invasive species Ulex eropaeus  (European Gorse) to which the Niglabris is partial to, could have resulted in a loss of a food source and made them more susceptible to predators.  The study also notes the danger of these lizards being traded on the illegal ornamental pet market. (Population densities and conservation assessment of three threatened agamid species in Horton Plains National Park, Sri Lanka, DulanJayasekara, Lakshika Keerthirathna,)

 

 Professor Mahaulpatha and her team. (Photo courtsey Chaturanga Dharmaratne)

Head of the Department of Zoology, Sri JayawardenapuraUniversity, Professor Dharshani Mahaulpatha, who guides the study team, says the issue is not about large scale restricting of visitors to Horton Plains, but ensuring that people are aware of the value of the place.  

It is pristine montane grassland and cloud forest though people only see the value of Worlds End.  “We need to educate the people, starting with school children about their behaviour and preserving the biodiversity of such places.”   She points to Pigeon Island as a prime example where over-commercialisation has now resulted in destruction of the reef, and also dissatisfaction amongst visitors.  Wildlife officers at Horton Plains are doing an admirable job in conservation, including the introduction of garbage bins with lids,she says, yet, it is necessary, she points out that if their efforts are to be successful, and the pristine Plains maintained and wildlife safeguarded, that park visitors too abide by the guidelines.

So, should there be more entrances to Horton Plains?  If that means an increase in visitor traffic and destroying the habitat of many species, some whose only home is the Plains, it may not be a great idea at all.

Tourism is indeed a mainstay of Sri Lanka’s economy.  But it is also a fact that one of the main tourist attractions is our wildlife and national parks.

Striking a balance between the two seems to be an urgent reality.

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