Ian Lockwood


Putting Sky Islands on the Map

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Monsoon breaking over the Palani Hills. Part of a series of four images exposed on Konica Infrared film with a Mamiya 6 in July 1998. Original image printed on 14” x 56” Hahnemühle Photo Rag for the November 2023 Sky Islands exhibition in Mumbai.

The Sky Islands exhibition scheduled for November 23rd -December 3rd is a celebration of landscapes in monochrome as well as a call to protect these sensitive mountain landscapes of southern India. The exhibition has been produced in collaboration with the Center for Environment & Humanity at Kodaikanal International School. In my last post, I reported on the preparations earlier in the year. We are now in high gear and less than a month away from the inauguration of the exhibition on November 23rd, 2023. In this post, I want to share some of the developments with map making that I am pursuing to illustrate themes of the Sky Islands in the Western Ghats/Sri Lank biodiversity hotspot.

The Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot map created by the author for the 40th Anniversary issues of Sanctuary Asia (September 21). The map emphasizes relief -something that for a long time was conspicuously absent on many older maps of southern India. The Western Ghats boundary is also highlighted and I have tilted the axis to align Sri Lanka with the Sahyadris.


In the months after the pandemic receded from our lives, I was starting the unit on biodiversity & conservation in my IB Environmental Systems and Societies class and was dumbstruck to find that my students could not locate the Western Ghats. Furthermore, they had a limited idea about how the Western Ghats were connected to Sri Lanka and the reasons that the area is a shared hotspot! I have good students; diverse in all aspects and generally curious and energetic. The idea that they are learning and growing to be agents of change is even embraced by many of them. They had studied biodiversity hotspots and looked at  Madagascar as a case study but somehow, they had neglected to learn about the hotspot that they lived in! I suppose it had something to do with the fact that we had covered so many of the units remotely over Zoom calls and online lectures. Regardless, I was left feeling that I needed to act.

This recognition of the gaps in their learning forced some soul-searching and I brushed up my lectures and activities for the class. Around the same time, Sanctuary Asia was looking to mark their 40th Anniversary issue and contacted me about a submission. I wrote back to Lakshmy Raman, Bittu Sahgal and the team and suggested a fresh overview of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka hotspot. Readers who know me well, understand that this heterogenous, biologically-rich and utterly fascinating region has been the focus of much my my personal exploration, writing and photographic documentation for the past several decades. In fact, Sanctuary readers are probably a bit tired of me sharing photographs and writing about this theme. However, I wrote the article (“Mountain Transitions…”) with my students and a new generation in mind, assuming that many readers were equally unaware of the intriguing connections between the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. The article focused on themes of shared ecology, fragile landscapes, change and biogeography.

Sanctuary Asia’s 40th Anniversary issue from October 2021. The cover art is by the gifted Svabhu Kohli. My illustrated essay “Mountain Transitions” features in this special issue.


For decades I have worked hard to create maps to illustrate the themes of my photo essays and writing. The Survey of India’s 1:50,000 topo sheets were an important part of my kit from my earliest forays into the remote Palani Hills. To make my own maps, I traced smaller-scale maps (1: 250,000) and worked on sketch maps from memory. When I needed a map for the Western Ghats Portrait and Panorama exhibition brochure in 2001, I traced a map from J. P. Pascal’s Wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India. This was then inked in with my father’s drafting pens. The map was scanned and included in the handsome brochure designed and printed by Reza Rahman at  Drik

In 2007 I was exposed to GIS tools and thus began a journey to learn the software to better accomplish my mapping tasks. This blog has recorded notable steps on that journey (see GIS Related posts) to become an amateur cartographer using modern tools. For map making I continue to use ESRI’s ArcMap or QGIS software. Of course, as all users know, ArcMap is being phased out in favor of ArcPro. John Nelson and other mapping superstars provide excellent guidance and I am in transition. For my recent publications and for the upcoming Sky Islands show I fell back on methods that I have developed using ArcMap.

The theme of the Sky Islands: An Endangered Indian Landscape exhibition is to look at an old landscape in new light. In my selection of images, I hope to evoke a sense of the unique Sky Islands landscape using black & white imagery. The 34 images printed on fine art Hahnemühle paper are selected to communicate strong conservation themes and appreciation for the fragility of the Sky Islands landscapes. The maps support the educational goals of the exhibition and will help viewers to understand the spatial aspects of the Sky Islands in the larger Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot.

Sky Islands exhibition map (Version 1) emphasizing the key boundaries of the Western Ghats/ Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot as well as areas above 1,400 meters. The poster is designed to be printed at A0 size. The bathymetry (25m, 100m, & 500m) illustrates the edges of the Indian plate.

Sky Islands exhibition map (Version 3) emphasizing the broad land cover patterns of the Southern Western Ghats. The multi-spectral imagery was gathered by Sentinel 2 satellites over a period of three different years (2018-21). The data was selected by the author to obtain cloud-free views of the landscape. The poster is designed to be printed at A0 size. The bathymetry (25m, 100m, & 500m) illustrates the edges of the Indian plate.

This map started out as a draft for a new book on Ecological Restoration (published in July 2023) but there wasn’t enough room after contributing three other maps. I have now focused on Sky Islands rather than the key restoration sites. The color-shaded relief has been clipped out around the Western Ghats boundary at 400m in Sri Lanka to show mountainous areas while Sky Island areas are shown (above 1,400 m) in red.



Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Biodiversity Hotspots. Web. (see link for Western Ghats projects)

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Ecosystem Profile: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot (Western Ghats Region). May 2007. Web.

Ecological Restoration: Moving Forward Using Lessons Learned. 2023. Print & Web.

Gunatilleke, et al. “Ecological Approaches to Forest Restoration: Lessons Learned from Tropical Wet Asia.”

Gunawardene, Nihara Reika et al.  “A brief overview of the Western Ghats – Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot.” Current Science. December 2007. Web.

Kadidal, Akhil and Ian Lockwood. Gems of the Western Ghats: A Vision for Creating Wealth Through Biodiversity. Bangalore: Biogen, 2014. Print.

Kadur, Sandesh and Kamal Bawa. Sahyadris: India’s Western Ghats-A Vanishing Heritage. Bangalore: ATREE, 2005. Print.

Mittermeier, R. A. et al., Hotspots Revisited: Earth’s Biologically Richest and most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions, Cemex Mexico, 2005. Print.

Myers, Norman. “Threatened biotas: ‘hotspots’ in tropical forests.” Environmentalist, 1988, 8, 187–208.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.”  Nature, 2000. Web.

Pascal, J. Wet evergreen forests of the Western Ghats of India. Pondicherry: French Institute of Pondicherry, 1995. Print.

Pethiyagoda, Rohan and Hiranya Sudhasinghe . The ecology and biogeography of Sri Lanka: a context for freshwater fishes. WHT Publications, 2021. Print & Web.

Robinson, Francis, Ed. Cambridge Encyclopedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. UK: Cambridge University Press ,1987. Print.

UNESCO. Western Ghats (as a World Heritage Site). 2012. Web.

Vijayan, Robin et al. “Reassessment of the distribution and threat status of the Western Ghats endemic bird, Nilgiri Pipit Anthus nilghiriensis.”  Current Science. August 2014. Web.

Ward, Geoffrey. “Western Ghats.” National Geographic Magazine. November 2002. Print.

Western Ghats Biodiversity Portal. Web.

Weller, Richard J.,  Claire Hoch & Chieh Huang. Atlas of the End of the World: Western Ghats & Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot Map. 2017. Web.



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2023-11-02 at 7:24 pm

Sky Island Pathways

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Sky Islands flier for potential sponsors. Photographs by Ian Lockwood, Design by Stephanie Cauvet and the KIS Marketing Team.

This November I will be exhibiting a body of work at the Piramal Gallery, a part of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. The show is entitled Skyislands: An Endangered South Indian Landscape and is being produced in association with the Centre for Humanity & Environment (CEH) at Kodaikanal International School (KIS). In an age of colossal human impact and accelerating climate change, the exhibition highlights the concept of the Sky Islands in southern India with an overarching message of conservation. The initiative will raise funds for the CEH to address its mission of “offering innovative experiential programs and research opportunities for students, educators, organizations and agencies that lead to practical solutions for crucial human-environment issues.”

I last exhibited my photographs in Mumbai at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) more than two decades ago. The Western Ghats Portrait and Panorama show in 2001 highlighted the landscapes and ecology of a mountain range that was often overshadowed by its taller northern neighbors. Thematically, the collection of hand-printed black & white images emphasized the role of the Western Ghats as a treasure trove of biodiversity and a vital player in water security for peninsular India. The 40+ images were printed in my darkroom in Dhaka after a period of learning and workshops with world-class fine-art printmakers. The negatives that were the source of the material were shot on medium format film. At the time, photographic material availability limited the size that I could print (a few 15”x15” or 8”x 20”, but mostly 10”x10” prints).

Now 22 years later I have fresh work to share in Mumbai. I have visited a broader swathe of the Western Ghats, explored Sri Lanka in-depth and focused on the higher elevation Sky Islands of the ranges. In the last few years, I have collaborated on several significant studies in the Palani Hills that have investigated the biogeography and change in land cover of the Sky Island habitats in the Western Ghats (see links below). Maps and satellite imagery help us understand the patterns and relationships of the landscape and I have been developing geospatial skills to better analyze changes in land cover and vegetation in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. I continue to write articles and produce photo essays for Indian-based publications though most of my energy is devoted to maintaining my blogs. My last exhibition was The Hills of Murugan at Dakishna Chitra, in Chennai (2018).

The Sky Islands exhibition focuses on the unique but threatened ecosystems above 1,400 meters- the Sky Islands or Shola Sky Islands of the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot (see my December 2020 blog post for a detailed review of the Sky Island concept in the Western Ghats context). With the advent of digital photography, photographic tools have changed completely- in how images are captured, in their printing and sharing. Thus, while staying focused on documenting the Western Ghats, my workflow is completely different than back in 2001. I still have a quantity of 120 negatives exposed after the BNHS show which I have been scanning and then printing digitally. The Sky Islands show will present fine art images printed on archival Hahnemühle paper and printed at larger sizes (20”x 20” and above) to emphasize detail and give viewers a richer sense of the landscape. As is usual in my exhibitions, there will be supporting information panels of annotated maps.

The exhibition is scheduled to open up on November 23rd and will be open to the public for the next 10 days. The Piramal Gallery is well known for promoting photography as art and is one of India’s premier galleries of photographic art. The goal is to engage with the conservation community, school groups and people interested in photography as art. The KIS alumni/parent community is a special group of people that we want to reach and we are planning a special showing and talk for them on Friday, November 24th. In the coming months I will be sharing much more information and hope that you can come to see the show in person!


Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Dodge, Natt. “Monument in the Mountain”. Arizona Highways. Phoenix, Arizona: Arizona Highway Department. March 1943. (Wikipedia Link)(Sky Islands Alliance link)

Lockwood, Ian. “Palani Hills Sky Islands.” Ian Lockwood Blog. December 2020.Web

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution In Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Shola Sky Islands. Web

Vijayan, Robin,  Anindya Sinha and Uma Ramakrishnan. “Ancient Geographical Gaps and Paleo-Climate Shape the Phylogeography of an Endemic Bird in the Sky Islands of Southern India.” PLoS ONE. October 2010. Web.

Vijayan, Robin. “Unexplored Areas: Sky Islands.” JLR Explore. February 2018. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2023-07-14 at 5:27 am

From Reef to Rainforest Part 2 (Sinharaja)

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OSC’s annual Geography IA field study combines face-to-face interviews in the Kudawa area with biodiversity encounters in and around Sinharaja’s rainforest. Students worked in small teams to interview a broad range of respondents and learn about their home gardens, and lives in a challenging economic situation. The emblematic Sri Lanka Blue Magie (Urocissa ornata) is a species that we saw at our guest house (Martin’s Jungle Lodge) and heard on the edges of the forest boundary during the course of the fieldwork.

Within a week of returning from the Maldives (see previous post) I was in the field again-this time in the northwestern edges of Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja rainforest. This was the 19th OSC group that I have brought here (not including DofE teams). Villagers and Forest Department officials protecting the World Heritage Site are familiar with OSC groups and our studies are based on these relationships. Four of the students who had been on the Maldives field study were also in the Geography class, so the five of us were really immersed in field-based experiential education in May! Our goal was to conduct a household survey that would help students write individual internal assessment reports. This year’s cohort included six students with the support of three adults. Desline Attanayake was back again providing key logistical support and helping the students to make bridges with the community. Our friend Sushma Sen, a former KIS & Woodstock teacher who has been working in the OSC math department for the last two years, joined us. This year’s field study was characterized by solid data collection (we ended up with 58 complete surveys), relatively good weather (with almost no rain during the days) and rich encounters with a variety of people and rainforest creatures.


Portraits from Kudawa (clockwise from upper left): Desline and Mali on the trail to the Sinharaja research center, the artist Iresha and her husband at Kudawa bridge, guide Ranjit sporting a new Sinahraja t-shirt, Sushma going to see Sri Lanka frogmouths, the author and the six  Class of 2024 students, Inoka the granddaughter-in-law of Martin Wijesinghe, Indramanaya cooking up (exceedingly delicious) pol-rotis on a granite slab,  owner at the spurfowl home at Katala Patala. Bottom: A classic home garden scene with a traditional adobe house (the owners have moved into a cement block home while keeping the older structure intact).

Setting the  Course

I usually try to visit Sinharaja and stay at Martin’s once or twice in the months preceding our Geography field study. This year I went in February and was accompanied by several friends including Nirosha, Rumeth & Priyanath. This spring trip was more personal and allowed me to focus on getting pictures of birds, amphibians and other species. It is also a time when migrants are sound and there is potential to see and photograph rarities. Many of the species from this post were photographed on that visit. It was surprisingly wetter in February than May-the complete opposite of what you would normally expect. 

Sinharaja amphibians and butterflies (taken in February). From top: Long-snouted tree frog (Taruga longinasus), Purple Mormon (Papilio polymnestor), Ceylon tree nymph (Idea iasonia) Hallow snouted shrub frog (Pseudophilautus cavirostris)

Common Survey Analysis & Findings (thus far)

My approach to gathering sufficient quantitative data for the Geography IA continues to involve using a common survey with a variety of questions that help each student answer their own fieldwork (research) question. We now have a pool of standard questions that stay the same every year -this allows longitudinal analysis. Students then add their own questions focusing on themes of energy, overall wealth, education, health and resources. There were significant findings from the 2023 survey. Firstly, students gained an appreciation for the hard work and challenges of running a home garden in Sri Lanka. Secondly, we saw that there had been a spike in electricity costs mirroring national trends. Tourism to Sinharaja is still recovering and visitor numbers are not yet back to pre-pandemic levels. Further analysis is underway as the students crunch the numbers over the summer. They will hand in rough drafts that I give feedback on before the final IA is submitted in October.

Examples of the home gardens near Kudawa. Virtually every plant in the garden serves some useful purpose that helps farmers be close to self-sufficiency in terms of food needs.

Home gardens are small private holdings where families practice a combination of subsistence and (small-scale) commercial agriculture. The home of Kudawa almost all depend on tea, grown on relatively small plots (1 -2 acres). Families are versatile and creative with other crops that they grow (manioc, banana, cinnamon, papaya, coconut etc.). Self-sufficiency in a time of economic challenge is a benefit but home gardens struggle to stay out of poverty. The 2019 import ban on key inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) greatly affected yields- something that our results showed. Several families now have one or two members that work as Forest Department employees or as private guides. This collage shows a work shed of a home garden near Katala Patala.


Map from ESRi’s Survey 123 showing responses from the IA survey on electricity usage in 2023.



2023 OSC Geography class with their teachers, Chandralatha, her sister & Chamara the guide at Martin’s Lodge.


Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

Geography IA Trip 2017

Geography IA Trip 2018

Geography IA Trip 2019

Geography IA Trip 2020

Geography IA Trip 2021 (Cancelled because of COVID)

Geography IA Trip 2022

General Sinharaja Reflections



De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. Print.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Geiger, Klaus. “Characterizing the traditional tree-garden systems of southwest Sri Lanka.” Tropical Resources (Yale School of the Environment Tropical Resources Institue). 2014. Web.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site.Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Humke, Matthew. Tourism Assessment Report: Sinharaja Forest Reserve Complex. Colombo: Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP).July 2018. Web. Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print & Web.

Liyanage, L. P. K. et al. “Assessment of Tourist and Community Perception with Regard to Tourism Sustainability Indicators: A Case Study of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, Sri Lanka.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Social and Business Sciences. Vol 12 No. 7. 2018. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Sinharaja: The Heart of South Asian Biodiversity.” Sanctuary Asia. April 2020. PDF

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve: 2020 Conservation Outlook Assessment. IUCN. Web.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000) 2nd Edition. Colombo: 2017. Maps & Spatial Data.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.


From Reef to Rainforest Part 1 (Maldives)

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Fulhadhoo reef restoration site with our team being taught by Sendi to clean “coral plugs.”

In the space of two weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to extend learning opportunities for my students from the turquoise, ethereal water of Fulhadhoo Island in the Maldives to the steamy rainforests and home gardens of north-west Sinharaja here in Sri Lanka. Both learning experiences helped students engage with global issues of resource use, environmental stewardship, reef & rainforest ecology and ecological restoration. 

The Overseas School of Colombo(OSC) has an established and rich history with the Maldives. Maldivian students have been attending OSC for several decades and Maldivian parents have been involved with stewardship during this time (our current board chair is Maldivian). One of our most prominent alumni, Nasheed Mohamed, has been a global leader in climate change negotiations. Last year I had the privilege of taking, what I believe is, the first OSC field study to the Maldives. That was facilitated and made possible by Omar Razzak and Aminath Zahir. Working on the success of last year’s visit and with Omar’s continuing support, I once again led a group of DP1 students for an immersive field study in the Maldives.

Scenes from Fulhadhoo,Innafushi, Malé and the flight approach to Hulhumalé.

Fulhadhadhoo Island was the site of this year’s OSC field study.

This year seven DP1 ES&S students were joined by two DP1 biology students. Their teacher and my colleague Liz Harrison joined us once again. We were based in one place for most of the five-day experience. Fulhadhoo Island is part of the Goidhoo Atoll in the Baa Atoll administrative area and was our home for three nights. Omar had recommended this plan and it was really worthwhile to get to know one area in more depth. Crucial to the success of our learning program was his childhood friend Hussain ‘Sendi’ Rasheed. Sendi was our guide and mentor and acted as a natural bridge to the island, its people and ecology. He made our visit deeply meaningful and rich in experience. We stayed at Palm Retreat-a most delightful Guest House run by Amy, a migrant from Thailand who has married a Fulhadhoo man.

Crucial to the success of our learning program was his childhood friend Hussain ‘Sendi’ Rasheed. Sendi was our guide and mentor and acted as a natural bridge to the island, its people and ecology. He made our visit deeply meaningful and rich in experience. We stayed at Palm Retreat-a most delightful Guest House run by Amy, a migrant from Thailand who has married a Fulhadhoo man.

Sendi speaking with OSC students on our first afternoon at Fulhadhoo Island.

Portraits from the 2023 OSC Field Study in the Maldives. Clockwise from top left: Sendi and his grandson, Lara & Maya at Goishoo mangroves, Akash at Fulhadhoo, Shinara at Fulhadhoo, Chirath at the reef restoration site, Yusoof in UV light, Yaman in Hulhulmale, Maya & Lara at the Coral Masjid, Ethan at Soneva Fushi, Antoine & Isa at Hulhulmale. The author and group at Innafushi- a highlight for all of us.

Coral Ecology & Restoration

The first focus of our learning was on coral reef ecology and restoration. Sendi took us to the north-western edge of Fulhadhoo to snorkel at a ‘house reef.’  The reef is fairly healthy here (we saw larger healthy corals the next afternoon on the inner lagoon of Fulhadoo). 

The efforts to restore reefs using frames and plugs were fascinating to learn about. Last year we were introduced to efforts on Villingilli (near Malé). We learned that almost every resort island in the Maldives and lots of other places are making efforts to restore reefs. Sendi like to call it “revival” rather than restoration. He demonstrated how the coral plugs that the Maldives Coral Institute is experimenting with work. Our students had a chance to clean algae off the bottom of the plugs. We also snorkeled over the frames that have a variety of branch corals. Liz had brought along Coral Watch cards and we did a morning of assessing coral health. On our third night, we came back and snorkeled over the same reef in the night using UV lights. That was an outstanding and unique experience (the shaky GoPro pictures do not do it justice). 

Reef restoration and studies at Fulhadhoo Island. From left to right: frames with plogs that are removable, Lara & Maya collecting Coral Watch data and traditional frames with new coral.

Sustainability Initiatives On An Island Resort

On our 2nd day at Fulhadhoo, we motored north-east across a deep channel to the fabulous Soneva Fushi. It is well known as a high-end island resort with a commitment to sustainability. Thanks to Omar and Sendi’s introduction we were given a chance to take a tour of their facilities with a special emphasis on waste management, recycling efforts, organic gardens and innovative maker spaces for reusing materials. Different members of their teams took us on a tour of the waste management facility, organic garden and maker spaces where key resources are reused. We were also treated to an illustrated lecture on coral ecology and restoration efforts. 

Back at Fulhadhoo the next day our team snorkeled along the edge of the northern dropoff of the Goidhoo Atoll. We did a drift snorkel, flowing with the current while the boat stayed alongside us. Visibility was very clear and we saw a wide variety of larger reef fish, Hawksbill turtles and even a pod of dolphins (most likely Spinners).

Our boats crossed a shallow channel on the way into the inner Goidhoo Lagoon.

In the afternoon we visited the nearby Innafushi Island. We had to wait for high tide and then motored into the lagoon across a shallow channel. Innafushi is only a narrow bank of sand with a slim patch of vegetation and it brings to mind the classic desert island that one might imagine Rubin Cruso being washed up on. In fact, the 16th Century French mariner François Pyrard de Laval was shipwrecked here. He left one of the earliest European accounts of the Maldives after escaping imprisonment. The shallow sand banks, powdery beach and translucent water made this the most scenic place that we visited. The videos and images make it clear why this was a highlight for the whole group.

Urban Maldives Experience

Scenes from Hulhumalé- a new development that has been built to accommodate Male’s growth. We spent our last night here and our brief visit gave us a sense of how rapidly things are changing in the Maldives.

For our last 24 hours, we took a speedboat back to Malé and stayed in the Phase 1 area of Hulhumalé. We had several key people to meet and we also wanted to see this new face of the Maldives. The contrast with the uninhabited island was stark: there was still turquoise water but broad avenues with trees, sidewalks and multi-storied buildings fill the space. Cars, scooters and people buzz around. There is a constant buzz of seaplanes landing and taking off at the seaport next to the main international airport.  The streets are tidy and it feels very modern.

OSC group out for dinner Hulhumalé with Yaman from the OSC Class of 2016.

We met up with Yaman Ibrahim from OSC’s class of 2016. Over dinner, it was great to catch up with him and learn about his very cool work with Water Solutions, a Maldivian surveying company. They use all kinds of sensors, GIS software and gadgets to survey underwater and terrestrial areas. It seems like the perfect job for someone with a Physics background, an interest in marine environments and an aptitude for using 21st-century technology. 

OSC Class of 2024 students meeting with H.E. Mohamed Nasheed, former OSC student, climate change champion, former President of the Maldives and Speaker of Parliament.

On our last morning, Omar arranged for us to speak with former President and Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed. He, of course, has been a global spokesperson for taking action on climate change. There is a special link for us since Nasheed was a student at OSC in the early 1980s. He spoke to us about current issues in the Maldives, coral challenges, new efforts to tax plastic bags, debt swapping and his work supporting Sri Lanka on their own climate change initiatives (he advises them on an official level). Our students had a chance to ask questions and he was encouraging of their generation to make an effort to make a positive change.

Scenes from a sacred space carved from coral blocks and rosewood: the Friday Mosque in Malé.

Before we flew back to Sri Lanka the group had a chance to tour key parts of Malé. Notably, we visited the 17th Century Friday Mosque, built from exquisitely carved coral blocks and rosewood beams. Interestingly, it was built on the foundation of a pre-Islamic Buddhist or Hindu temple. The fish market was equally fascinating. Like the rest of the city, it was compact. At its docks rays came into feed on scraps. We were enthralled as dozens of them, along with an array of reef fish paraded right underneath us on the edge of this packed human habitation. It was a wonderful way to wrap up our five-day visit and we returned to Colombo with a sense of rapture from all that we had observed and learned.

The author and ES&S/Biology group on Innafushi Island. From left: Yusoof, Shinara, Chirath, Isa, Antoine, Ethan, Lara, May, Liz & Akash.

References & Interesting Links

Godfrey, Tim. Atlas of the Maldives:  Reference for Travellers, Divers and Sailors. 6th Edition.” Malé: Atoll, Editions, 2019. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “ESS Field Study in Male, Maldives.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2022. Web.

MIT Self-Assmbly Lab. “Growing Islands.” ND.  Web

Rasheed, Hussain ‘Sendi.’ “Why Seaweed is not a Weed.” ​TEDxBaaAtoll. 2022. Web.

The Voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil. Google Books. 1887. Web.

Tibbits, Skylar. “A new way to “grow” islands and coastlines.”  TED. 2019. Web

Voiland, Adam. “Preparing for Rising Seas in the Maldives.” NASA Earth Observatory. 9 April 2021. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2023-06-05 at 10:44 pm

Ticket to Jaffna

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The Nallur kovil is one of the most important landmarks in the Jaffna peninsula. Jaffna Fort, started by the Portuguese, strengthened by the Dutch and utilized by the British never saw conflict until modern times when it was severely damaged during fighting between the LTTE and government forces. It has now been partly restored and is an important point of interest for visitors and Jaffna residents. Tickets are required…

The northern part of Sri Lanka offers visitors an opportunity to see, taste and experience a distinctly unique, yet undoubtedly Sri Lankan, part of Serendip. At the end of January Raina and I took a modest-sized group of OSC students on a five-day exploration of the area’s landscape, culture and natural history. The land sits on a limestone bed devoid of hills and just a few fragile meters above sea level. Expansive lagoons are interwoven between human settlements, palmyra forest patches and fields of paddy. The climate is dry for much of the year with the North East monsoon (October to January) accounting for most of the rainfall. The culture of the Jaffna peninsula is influenced by the Tamil community with their rich history, Tamil language, links to southern India and minority faiths (Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism). In the mid-1950s the politicization of the choice of an official language for the newly independent nation of Ceylon created a communal rift that eventually cascaded into a fearsome civil war and the displacement of large numbers of people in the north. Nearly 30 years of armed struggle and war that ended in 2009 have left a mark on the Jaffna peninsula: empty, overgrown art deco houses are interwoven with vividly repainted gopurams and new storefronts. Most of the once ubiquitous military checkpoints have been removed, schools are thriving, business is vibrant and the roads are repaved signaling a new page in the area’s story.

OSC groups have visited Jaffna before-we sent the first Week Without Walls (WWW) group up with Amanda Lenk and Suren Rajadurai in 2013 when things were still quite raw. COVID interrupted these visits and our other experiential education programs so it was good to renew our association with a new batch of students ten years later. During this time while coordinating the program, I have worked on developing ecology and hiking-oriented experiences in the south. This year Raina and I got a chance to revive the Jaffna trip. Our family has visited Jaffna several times (see my 2011 post for the first account). Of course, we have a special connection to this part of our island home thanks to my paternal grandparents Edson and Dorothy Lockwood who taught at Jaffna College for 30 years.


Last year, in order to plan our learning experience, Raina and I visited the Jaffna area with the aid of a school van. We were accompanied by OSC’s driver Nishanta. This gave us an opportunity to visit places that we would stay at and the sites that we would visit to build the learning around. We packed in a number of places to our busy schedule, Mihintale (on the way up), Jaffna Fort, Point Pedro, Kankesanthurai,Keerilmalai springs, Kayts, Nainativu docks, the baobab tree on Pungudutivu, and Hammenhiel fort. On the way back we overnighted in Anuradhapura and visited the remote Sesseruwa hermitage. There were many critical visits for our WWW experience (one was discovering Lavin’s a south Indian restaurant with first-class dosas and filter coffee).

Getting down at Anuradhapura station-the furthest north that we could go by train (there was major track work going on just north of the city). We weren’t the only tourists in the area.


The most challenging aspect of our trip was the distance and trying to squeeze in as much as possible in the five days that were allocated to the learning experience. We planned to go straight from Colombo to Kankesanthurai (KKS), the northmost train station. Riding Sri Lankan railways was an important part of this but we could only get as far north as Anuradhapura as there was maintenance work going on just north of the station. Our groups of 13 students and three adults assembled at the school campus at the rather un-holy hour of 4:00. Raina and I were supported by our colleague Gayani Bentotage who handled key negotiations, kept track of accounts and was crucial to the success of the trip. While we went to the station in a borrowed bus our own vehicles (led by Anthony a tri-lingual, multi-talented driver) went ahead to meet us in Anuradhapura. The train ride was enjoyed and the transition back to the road was smooth. At Elephant Pass we stopped to see the bulldozer-converted war memorial that commemorates the Sri Lankan army’s achievements in this once-contested spit of land connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island. My highlight was spotting a large flock of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) across the tracks just north of Elephant Pass. There is no way to predict when you can see these majestic migratory birds and seeing them in the Jaffna area is a rare treat. Sri Lankan birders (not unlike the author) go to all kinds of logistical gymnastics to see and photograph them (usually in Mannar). So we stopped and the students had a chance to see the birds through our scope. Interestingly it was the same area that our family had stayed over at in December 1977. The Rest House where we stayed, with its verandah overlooking the lagoon, was regrettably lost during the years of fighting.

Memorials celebrating the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the LTTE are a key feature of the built landscape in once-contested areas. These images are from the Elephant Pass memorial.

Watching Greater flamingos near Elephant Pass. There is no way to predict when you can see these majestic migratory birds and encountering them in the Jaffna area is a rare treat.

Our drivers took us through short, intense monsoon showers to Point Pedro, the northernmost Point in Sri Lanka. Raina and I had brought postcards and stamps and all the kids wrote and sent cards home from the northernmost mailbox. We did an obligatory stop at the Unity in Diversity sign in the same area as the lighthouse and then drove westwards to KKS for our first night, spent at the army-run Thalsevana Resort across from KKS station.

Point Pedro snapshots: We sent postcards from the northernmost post box in Sri Lanka and then appreciated the “Unity in Diversity” sign. Some of the postcards reached parents before we returned five days later.

Words of wisdom at the spanking new Kankesanthurai (KKS) railway station.

Sri Lanka’s northernmost train station is at Kankesanthurai (KKS). It adjoins a harbor and the airport (now with international flights to Chennai) at Palali. The station and all the railway connections north of Vavuniya were rebuilt after the war with support from India and China.


On our 2nd day, we left the coast and did the short drive south into the city of Jaffna where we were based for the majority of our trip. On the way, we visited Keerimalai and the next-door Kovil. The seaside spring is well known for its therapeutic water. Our group was prepared and after a tour of the Kovil we bathed at Keerimalai in the designated parts for males and females). We shared the space with pilgrims and visitors from all over Sri Lanka. A Buddhist monk and Catholic priest were recording a message of unity for a TV program. Kids from a nearby school had cycled up to swim. There was a family of Sri Lankans from the diaspora settled in Toronto. By the time we resumed our ride, we were refreshed at all levels. Before reaching Jaffna center we stopped to see the Kadurugoda Viharaya, a mysterious Buddhist site set amongst houses and towering palmyra trees.

Snapshots from a bathing ritual at Keerimalai and the visit to Keerimalai Naguleswara Kovil.

Pilgrims Rest at Keerimalai, an important architectural treasure in the process of being restored.

Kadurugoda Viharaya, a mysterious Buddhist site set amongst houses and towering palmyra trees near the Jaffna suburb of Chunnakam.


At KKS we had stayed in barracks-style rooms with no complaints. In Jaffna city, the group was treated to the more upmarket Thinnai Hotel. That gave us good access to a number of sites and we also relished their fine Jaffna-style cooking. Visiting Jaffna Fort, the Jaffna Public Library and Nallur temple were all key features of our stay. We spent our first afternoon exploring the ramparts and interiors of Jaffna Fort. On the 2nd full day, we visited the Jaffna Public Library. Raina had established a good connection through our student Chirath who had just completed an internship at the Asia Foundation in Colombo. That relationship helped pave the way for a meaningful exchange and tour of the site. Raina and her Room to Read service group had collected reference books to donate to the library so these were delivered when we visited. In the evening Raina and I took the group to Lavin’s for dosas. That was a major hit with all the kids. It worked so well that we ate a second meal there on Wednesday. There were other short trips to Nallur, to the dry fish market and the minister’s crumbling mansion (Manthri Mannai).

This staged picture from the lobby of the Thinnai Hotel sums up the good-natured, playful and open-minded approaches of our wonderful cohort of OSC students.

Details and sweeping views at Jaffna’s historic fort.

OSC students & teachers visiting the Jaffna Public Library.


Our longest visit outside of Jaffna involved traversing several lagoons, to Kayts,  and Pungudutivu before taking the ferry to Nainativu (see attached map). This small island is an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. It seems that all good visitors to Jaffna make the visit (luckily we went on a non-poya weekday). The boat ride is short-sitting on top was refreshing and probably safer than the interiors (Amanda Lenk had warned me about this years ago). Both shrines have been redone and repainted in recent years. Next time we hope to make the longer ferry ride to Delft. A select group of our team returned to Kayts on the last day to look for birds. The sheer abundance of ducks, waders, egrets, ibises, storks and other waterbirds was extraordinary. We saw another group of flamingos on the way to Pungudutivu but they were very far off.

Approach to the Nainativu ferry on Pungudutivu.

Boat ride to Nainativu-a service of the SL Navy.

OSC group at Nainativu in front of the Kovil.

Twelve of sixteen: Portraits by the author of the Jaffna Northern Narratives group (most of it) in action in various parts of the experience.


On Thursday we started our journey south to Pidurangala where we broke the journey and spent a night in tree houses. Anthony took our bus via the Sangupiddi bridge and Pooneryn. The road is in excellent condition (compared to our 2011 visit) and the scenery is still stark and spectacular. The vast lagoon, a veritable sea, stretches in all directions. A few sail-powered boats were out checking crab traps but otherwise, the shallow water was devoid of human activity (and flamingos, unfortunately). A series of giant wind turbines now tower alongside the south bank of the peninsula. Near Omanthai we visited with a local Tamil-medium school. Raina had set up a meeting with a principal so that we could deliver boxes of books to five different schools. These had been collected in a community drive and were going to be distributed to schools identified by our parent members working at the ILO. It was a good visit and we left wanting to return to spend more time to develop a meaningful relationship.

Dropping off donated books from OSC’s Room to Read service group to the Omanthai schools.

At Mihintale, the place where Buddhist teachings were first introduced to the island, we took a rest to explore the exquisite Kaludiya Pokuna. This is one of my favorite, off-the-beaten track sacred places and is ideal for introspection and exploration. No one in the student group-including the Sri Lankans had been there previously and it was our privilege to share the worn boulders, mad-made lake, caves and other structures with the group.

OSC students at a monastic cave near Kaludiya Pokuna in Mihintale.

OSC students at Kaludiya Pokuna-a special sacred place that is ideal for exploration, introspection and reflection.

We pulled into Pidurangala in the very last light of the day. As usual with any Back of Beyond property, I always have a feeling of coming home. They had ensured that all of our team got to sleep in tree houses. Most of us were thrilled with this arrangement though a few had doubts. My treat from the BoB team was special: A small Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) had been found and it had been left alone so that I could catch and photograph it. Unfortunately, it was lodged in a rafter outside Gayani’s room (later, I discovered that she has a fear of snakes and didn’t get much sleep that night). Working with Anaanda (of BoB) I fashioned a crude snake stick, climbed a ladder, and got it into a basket. The dry zone individuals have green eyes which I had not seen before so I was thrilled. I released it near their pond.

No Week Without Walls experience is complete without some natural history. This gorgeous Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) fulfilled our need to experience some of Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity. Special thanks to the team at Back of Beyond Pidurangala, including Ananda and Vajira, for locating the individual.

In the morning we got the whole group up early and did the trek up to Pidurangala to watch the sunrise on Sigiriya. The weather was muggy so there really wasn’t a sunrise but we had a good time and it was a fitting way to complete our experience. We coasted home via Dambulla, Kurunegala and the new Central Expressway (not quite complete but it helps cut some stressful driving). Along with all the other WWW teams, the Jaffna Northern Narratives will be sharing its learning at the annual Experience Sri Lanka Exhibition on February 17th.


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Fabry, Philip. The Essential Guide For Jaffna And Its Region. Colombo: Perera Hussein Publishing House, 2012. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Windows on the Long Road to Jaffna” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2023-02-13 at 10:17 pm

ES&S Field Study in Malé, Maldives

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OSC’s ES&S class learning about coral reef restoration at Maafushi Island superimposed on the gorgeous Embudu Village dock.

Sustainability -the idea of meeting our needs and maintaining ecological balance while not depriving future generations of opportunities to do so- is a core concept to the interdisciplinary DP Environmental Systems & Societies (ES&S) class. OSC’s ES&S students look at current challenges- issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, pollution etc.- at both a global and local scale. The class has a Sri Lankan/South Asian focus and field work outside of the traditional classroom is vital to learning. Nearby urban wetlands, scrap dealers, recycling enterprises, UN project offices and tropical rainforests all serve as learning venues. Over the Vesak weekend the Class of 2023’s ES&S class extended its field work deep into the Indian Ocean where we had a unique opportunity to explore concepts of sustainability across a diverse selection of coral islands near the Maldivian capital of Malé.

The approach into Malé’s airport gave us a tantalizing overview of a string of coral atolls to the north of the capital. The right images shows Kudabandos and Bandos where we spent our last afternoon.

The South West monsoon was just becoming active during our time in the Maldives.

The field study was generously planned and supported by his excellency Omar Abdul Razzak, the Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka and father to DP1 student Eleez. He organized a diverse array of learning events that took us to different islands, project sites and resorts near to Malé. Our focus was learning about freshwater access, energy production, solid waste management and coral reef restoration. The very real issue of climate change and efforts to adapt to its impacts was a part of all of our conversations with experts. We started on Maafushi island and then moved to Embudu and finally Malé for our last night. The class had a chance to interact with island council planners, coral restoration experts and solid waste managers. The monsoon was active but we had several excellent underwater sessions where the class was snorkeling amidst a dazzling diversity of marine life. We appreciated the role that tourism has played in propelling the country’s development-visitation was booming and most places that we visited were at capacity. Staying at Embudu Village resort and spending an afternoon at Bandos courtesy of Nik Olegard’s parents were highlights for the eight students and their two teachers.

Embudu Village dock during our morning of snorkelling.

The study of coral reef ecology and restoration was a key learning objective of the field study. On our final day Beybé, from the NGO Save the Beach, gave us an onsite lecture at Villingili island and then took us on a snorkeling tour through the coral gardens that his organization is restoring. The water clarity was excellent and the fish life abundant. The recovery of a variety of corals placed on submerged metal frames was impressive. The older the restoration, the more abundant and diverse the other marine life.

OSC’s DP1 ES&S students underwater to better understand the ecology and restoration of coral reef systems.

(GoPro) Snapshots from our reef explorations at Maafushi & Embudu.

Perhaps the most unusual part of our trip was getting an informative tour of the solid waste dump on the island of Thilafushi. In past years this was a notorious site with smoldering waste. It is now a landfill and there are future plans to build a waste to energy incinerator on the island. Like Sri Lanka, the Maldives struggles with the high consumption and production of non-biodegradable waste. The limited options for managing this waste and that fact that tourist associate the Maldives with pristine environments provides motivation to make changes that more sustainably address resource use.

Snapshots from tours of Maafushi, Embudu and Thalafushi where we learnt about energy generation, freshwater provisions and solid waste management.

Satellite map of Male and environs showing my Strava heat map of a 7.77 km walk around the city and across part of the new bridge to the airport and Hulhumalé on our final morning.

Our last night was spent in Malé – a place that most tourists don’t see it. That gave us an opportunity to walk its compact streets and peek into Maldivian urban life. Mr and Mrs. Razzak hosted us for a meal on the nearby Hulhumalé where we got to see the expanded urban area on this reclaimed land. At the end of our fourth day we flew back to Colombo impressed by the biodiversity and atoll landscapes of the Maldives and curious about their ongoing efforts at sustainability. The class came away with a new appreciation for the Maldivian approach in using tourism as a strategy of development.

We had a brief but happy reunion with OSC alum (and veteran of the Class of 2017 ES&S class) Ahnaf Ibrahim in Malé on our last night. The photo was taken by Liz Harrison, OSC Science head and Biology teacher who accompanied us on the field study.

Just as we were leaving Bandos to go to the airport a group of Spotted Eagle Rays (Aetobatus narinari) came to feed at the resort’s beach area.


Coleman, Neville. Marine Life of the Maldives & Indian Ocean. UK: Atoll Editions, 2019. Print.

CNA. “Overhauling Trash Island, the Maldives’ mountain of waste.” YouTube. April 2022. Web.

European Space Agency. Copernicus Sentinel-6 over the Maldives. October 2020. Web.

European Space Agency. Maldives from Space. 30 July 2021. Web.

European Space Agency. Haa Alif Atoll, Maldives. 5 June 2014. Web.

European Space Agency. Earth from Space: Malé, the Maldives. Web.

Godfrey, Tim. Dive Maldives: A Guide to the Maldivian Archipelago, 3rd Edition.  UK: Atoll Editions, 2018. Print.

Høyland, Elin. “Maldives ‘rubbish island’ turns paradise into dump.”  Guardian. 3 January 2009. Web.

Kuiter, Rudie H.  & Tim Godfrey. Fishes of the Maldives & Indian Ocean. UK: Atoll Editions, 2020. Print. Web Link.

Mulhern, Owen. “Satellite Imagery: How the Maldives are Adapting to Sea Level Rise.” Earth.org. 23 April 2021. Web.

“Preparing for Rising Seas in the Maldives.” NASA Earth Observatory. 9 April 2021. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-05-30 at 10:03 pm

Defying the Odds (again ) in Sinharaja

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OSC’s annual DP Geography field study in Sinharaja investigates patterns of land use, home garden agriculture and the impact of tourism in the shadow of a critical Sri Lankan protected area.

In the DP geography class, current patterns and cases studies play a vital role in helping students understand broad concepts such as power, change, globalization and economic development. The ongoing political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been an unfortunately clear case study that provides multiple teachable moments. During recent field work students from OSC’s Class of 2023 witnessed these issues in real life, as seen in surveys of a rural settlement near Sinharaja rainforest.

At the end of April OSC’s IB DP2 Geography class spent four days conducting field research in village areas next to Sinharaja rainforest. This UNESCO-designated World Heritage site located the south-western “wet zone” of the country is well known for its rich biodiversity. OSC classes have been conducting field work in Sinharaja since 2005 and we have established a positive relationship with the community. The location offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. As usual, we were privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijesinghe’s Jungle Lodge. He sadly passed away last November but his daughters are continuing to provide a fine, basic guest house for people interested in learning about the area.

Kudawa fieldwork and SInharaja explorations are accomplished on foot in a variety of settings.

The Class of 2023 geography class is composed of seven young men and women from six different countries. The class embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches and seemed to relish the village meals and local vegetables. Thevuni and Thisathma, as Sinhala speaking individuals, played a key role. The other team members including Huirong, Josh, Lucca Sam and Sara all played important supporting roles. OSC’s logistic coordinator Desline Attanayake provided support in the interviews and took part in all aspects of the study. We hired three Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in leading us through home gardens and helping the students to get a better understanding of the area. The surveys were gathered on foot in rain or shine. We also interacted with two different groups of university professors and students that were in Sinharaja at the same time. It was intriguing to learn about their studies and see how others conduct academic research in this unique rainforest ecosystem.

OSC’s DP Geography students conducting field work in the Kudawa village area in April 2022. Each of the students had an individual research question that could be answered through a face-to-face survey. Their questions were combined into a common 50 question survey that was loaded onto the Survey 123 app. Responses were also collected on paper as a backup. Over the course of two full days of house to house visits 48 responses were collected in the Kudawa area.

Each of the students explored an individual geographic research question but pooled all of their sub-questions into a single survey that small groups could run. The survey of 50 questions could take up to 20-30 minutes with introductions and a look around their properties. The respondents were gracious with their time and several teams were invited to have refreshments. With three different teams going in different directions we collected 48 different interviews. Responses were collected using Survey 123 a GIS-enabled data gathering app that all the students could run off their phones (we also recorded every response on paper). This allows students to map their results and do basic spatial analysis on the findings using ArcGIS, the GIS software package that they are learning to operate.

It’s amazing how much you can see on a relatively short visits to Sinharaja. This collage features amphibians and reptiles from the IA trip that were photographed while on our walks or in the evening near Martin’s.

Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) that we found on a night walk looking for frogs. It was not as docile as the individual that we had seen during the day.

Long-snout(ed) Tree Frogs (Taruga longinasus) photographed in Sinharaja during the IA visit. Female on the left and two different males in the center and right. This is an endemic species closely associated with the lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka’s wet zone. I hear it every time I visit Sinharaja but they are usually in the canopy and are tricky to find. On this trip with my geography students pre-monsoon showers had dampened conditions and a few were at eye level. I’ve posted images of the other two Taruga sp. in earlier posts.

In addition to conducting the surveys, students got a flavor of being ecotourists in a tropical forest. They walked the different forest trails, encountered birds, snakes and spiders, and soaked their feet in jungle streams. Just before returning to Colombo on Saturday we hiked up Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of Sinharaja. It was a challenging adventure but all members of the team made it up and down safely. The sky was exceptionally clear and we could see the Indian Ocean in the south and east and Sri Pada in the north. It helped round off an exhilarating adventure in geographic learning. The students are now working on processing their data and writing up their IA reports.

On our last day the class and I did the traditional Moulawella hike before heading back to Colombo. It a short but tough climb up through secondary and then primary forest to the ride and peak with its panoramic view over the western part of Sinharaja rainforest. The experience gives hikers a sense and appreciation of Sinharaja and its conservation value. We were blessed with clear weather such that we could see the seas in the south and Sri Pada looking to the north.

Moulawella south panoramic view (April 2022)-a view that I was eager to share with Professors Nimal & Savitri Gunatilleke.

Here is a new way of looking at the same image-through a Panoramic viewer.

OSC’s Class of 2023 IBDP Geography class- continuing a tradition of learning about the rainforest and its hinterlands through the support of Martin Wijesinghe’s family.


Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

Geography IA Trip 2017

Geography IA Trip 2018

Geography IA Trip 2019

Geography IA Trip 2020

Geography IA Trip 2021 (Cancelled because of COVID)

General Sinharaja Reflections



De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. Print.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site.Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print & Web.

Liyanage, L. P. K. et al. “Assessment of Tourist and Community Perception with Regard to Tourism Sustainability Indicators: A Case Study of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, Sri Lanka.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Social and Business Sciences. Vol 12 No. 7. 2018. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Sinharaja: The Heart of South Asian Biodiversity.” Sanctuary Asia. April 2020. PDF

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000) 2nd Edition. Colombo: 2017. Maps & Spatial Data.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-05-29 at 4:38 pm

Remembering Martin Wijesinghe (a Personal Narrative)

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Poster of Martin Wijesinghe. The picture captures a rare mischievous smile taken in 2015 during an OSC DP Geography IA visit. The three endemic species were all photographed within sight of his guest house while he was alive. (all photos by the author).

In November last year Martin Wijesinghe passed away at the advanced age of 82. He was and continues to be intimately associated with the remarkable story of the protection of a logged forest that became the resplendent Sinharaja Man & Biosphere reserve. This large area of lowland and montane tropical rainforest in the Rakwana hills of south western Sri Lanka was a bleak and unappreciated landscape five decades ago. The forest was the site of industrial logging before a hard fought non-violent citizen’s campaign in the 1970s put a stop to that plan. Nearly 50 years later, Sinharaja has made an astounding recovery, illustrating the resilience of nature to recover after harmful human activities. Martin lived through this period of transition serving in the agency that sought to profit from timber and then becoming a guardian and voice for its conservation.

In Sri Lanka, Martin’s story is the stuff of legends. He worked in the Forest Department serving in a variety of roles. He started as a cook but when his sharp naturalist skills were recognized he extended himself into guiding and supporting researchers who were studying forest dynamics and species in the early 1980s. He had interactions with leading scientists such as Professor Balasubramaniyam, P.B. Karunarathne, Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, Peter Ashton and Sarath Kotagama. My understanding is that it was Professor Kotagama that encouraged Martin to set up a guest house for bird watchers in the early 1990s. Uditha Wijesena’s blog post from 2016 on Martin details these facets of his beginnings as a conservationist. By the turn of the century Martin was known as the man to go to if you wanted to know about Sinharaja.

Snapshots from my first visit to Sinharaja with Anna Lockwood in March 2000. From top: catching a ride to Sinhagala with a researcher (note the open roads that are now under the forest canopy), Ian with Martin after one of the long hikes, with the two Finnish birdwatchers on the veranda at Martin’s place. (photos taken by Anna Lockwood)

Early Personal Forays

I first heard about Martin through publications from the Oriental Bird Club (OBC). In the mid-1990s I was dipping my toes in the world of serious birdwatching and become a member of the OBC. Birding complimented my interest in natural history, landscapes and efforts to document their changes in key South Asian habitats. I had just started working as a teacher in Bangladesh and one of my first steps was to invest in a pair of Leica Trinovid binoculars (a purchase that took a good year of saving to afford). On weekends I started going on birding expeditions with the towering pioneers of the field in Bangladesh including Dave Johnson, Paul Thompson, Ronnie Halder and Enam Ul Haque. Their stories and articles from the OBC’s journals led me to Thailand and also helped me better understand the unique birds of the southern Western Ghats. In 1997 the OBC published a thin but enormously valuable supplement entitled A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (part of OBC Bulletin). The pamphlet written by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne emphasized the importance of Sinharaja as the key site to visit for most Sri Lankan endemics and notable species. In those days there was only one place to stay at in Sinharaja and it was run by a man named Martin.

In April 2000 my cousin Anna and I found ourselves negotiating rough, monsoon-gouged roads in an uncertain direction towards the Kudawa entrance of Sinharaja. Sri Lanka, its food, culture and people were familiar because of our family’s long connections in the northern areas of the island. Our grandfather Edson had been a birder accompanying Sid Bunker on many an outing in the wetlands and coastal areas around Vaddukkodai in the 1940-60s. Now a half century later the grandkids were on their own adventure in a very different part of this diverse island.

The route to Martin’s was not clear and our van driver was new to the area. At the time, Sinharaja was far off the beaten path for most tourists. The driver became quite agitated in the final few kilometers as the old logging road wound its way up through small home gardens and tea plantations from Kudawa to Martin’s place. It took 4-5 hours from Colombo (today we can do the trip in 2.5 hours thanks to the vastly improved roads). Upon arrival we were greeted by Martin and his family. His place was simple with 3-5 rooms that were grouped around his family home and a plot of tea on the edge of the forest. There was no power or solar-heated water but we were in a superb birding location. A partially covered verandah with a dining table was where we spent most of the time when we weren’t walking. It overlooked the edge of secondary forest that had been logged three decades earlier. Across the valley towering emergent trees created a wall of undisturbed rainforest vegetation. We sipped tea and waited for different feathered delights to fly over. Anna and I dedicated four days to Sinharaja and had a chance to explore the key trails to the Research Center, Sinhagala and Moulawella peaks. In the evenings we spoke with Martin, enjoyed the company of two very serious Finnish birdwatchers and tallied our lists of species seen.

In 2005, married to Raina and with our son Lenny aged 18 months, I returned to Sri Lanka to teach IB Diploma Geography and Environmental Systems at the Overseas School of Colombo. Previous to my arrival, there was low enthusiasm for conducting the required IA field work. It was an anxious time as the war was raging in the north of the island. In my job interviews I proposed conducting the field work using the safe and homey location of Martin’s as a base. Laurie McLellan, the Head of the School, seemed interested and perhaps my enthusiasm for both Sinharaja and Sri Lanka helped secure my contract. On my first visit with students in October 2005 I was lucky to be able to request Professor Kotagama and his PhD student Chaminda Pradeep Ratnayake to accompany us. That really helped as I started to establish learning and data collection routines for the students in the forest. Over the years the focus of the data collection has gone from ecology-oriented studies to looking at human interactions in the landscape outside of the protected area boundaries. The learning experiences were successful (we recently completed the 17th IA study) and we continue to come back for annual studies-usually in May at the end of the DP1 academic year.

Martin’s Forest Lodge played host to OSC classes over the final 16 years of his life. The place grew in a somewhat haphazard manner; new rooms were added and the verandah area was enlarged. Around 2018 grid electricity was extended to Kudawa. Sadly the home-made dynamos that Martin had rigged up went into disrepair. Meanwhile the secondary forest grew and today there are virtually no signs of the ravages of the logging in the 1970s. When you stay at Martin’s it is a true home stay and after a few nights you are part of the family. That family is now global and includes most serious birders and naturalists who have visited Sri Lanka as well as the many Sri Lankans who visit regularly. I always enjoy interacting with other visitors who have come to Martin’s with a similar approach to escaping the city in search of Sinharaja’s serenity and enormous diversity. I’ve crossed paths with Deepal Warakagoda, Sarinda Unamboowe, Michal & Nancy van der Poorten, Vimukthi Weeratunga, Uditha Hettige, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Mevan Piyasena and many others while at Martin’s.

Martin has left us with a legacy of love and respect for Sinharaja and Sri Lanka’s rainforests. Through his life and efforts so many of us have learnt to love what previous generations might have dismissed as a leech-infested, jungle only worth its weight in timber.

Over the years OSC geography students have had a chance to speak with Martin and learn more about his experiences in Sinharaja.

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OSC students from the class of 2020 speaking with Martin. Luca asking questions next to Rashmi and Anouk. Josh and Arnav are also seen while Savi, Seth and Neha are out of the frame. Taken on the delayed IA study that happened in September 2019.


de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne. “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka.” OBC Bulletin Supplement. 1997. Link.

de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan. Birds of Sri Lanka: A Pictorial Guide and Checklist. Colombo: Jetwings, 2010. Web.

Gunatilleke, Nadidra. “Martin Wijesinghe: Unofficial ‘caretaker’ of Sinharaja.” Daily News. 1 April 2019. Web.

Raṇasiṃha, Ḍaglas Bī. The Faithful Foreigner: Thilo Hoffmann, the Man who Saved Sinharaja. 2015. Colombo: A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd , 2015.  Print.

Wijesena, Uditha.  “Martin Wijesinghe ……of Sinharaja Fame.” Uditha Wijesena Blog.  2016. Web.

Wijesinghe, Martin. “Nesting of Green-billed Coucals Centropus chlororhynchos in Sinharaja, Sri Lanka.” Forktail 1999. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-03-01 at 8:20 am

Down South Musings

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Room with an exquisite view at the Rainforest Ecolodge

The last three years have seen a series of unexpected events disrupt life, the economic bedrock and learning activities here in Sri Lanka. The Easter bombing on April 21, 2019 caused an initial body blow to the country. We were just getting our feet back on the ground when the COVID pandemic swept the world and caused the first lockdown in March 2020. Now in the spring of 2022, as the COVID problem has receded a political and economic mess of unprecedented scale has engulfed the country. The Overseas School of Colombo, where I teach and lead key experiential education programs, has managed these challenges with wisdom, creativity and fortitude. A casualty of the initial response was the cancellation of most sports and field trips for the better part of a year. That was hard on students and as well as teachers like me who based learning activities on getting students outside of the traditional classroom. In January this year, in the face of lingering doubts, we were able to defy odds and run our annual secondary Week Without Walls program Explore Sri Lanka!. One of the trips, affectionately entitled Down South, encapsulated the challenge and joy of running these learning experiences during such challenging times.

I designed the Down South learning experience to expose students to the culture and natural history of southern  Sri Lanka off the tourist beaten path. It joins a host of other Microtrips that are designed to get small groups of OSC students and teachers into the different corners of Sri Lanka where they can learn about the rich history, culture and ecology of our island home. In past years we had sent groups to the Hambantota area with a service focus. The new Down South  itinerary was designed to build on the geographic focus while incorporating some of the kinds of learning experiences (hiking, bird watching, natural history etc.) that have made the Sri Lanka Highlands microtrip so successful. Our team included 17 DP1 and MYP5 students, Desline Attanayake (OSC’s logistics coordinator), Melinda Tondeur (our new French teacher) and myself.

A collage of species as seen by the Down South Experience Sri Lanka team in southern Sri Lanka. From upper left clockwise wrapped around the leech sock image: Pseudophilautus poppiae at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area), Sri Lanka Woodshrike (Tephrodornis affinis) at Kahandamodara, a different Pseudophilautus sp. also at Enasalwaththa and a Blue-Tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) at Bundala NP.

Dry Zone Component

We spent the first three days based out of Back of Beyond’s Kahandamodara wellness center and then transitioned into the south-eastern Rakwana hills at the Rainforest Ecolodge. Few OSC students have stayed at a Back of Beyond property before their WWW experiences (OSC families are more likely to patronize the fabulous large hotels and resorts on the island). I appreciate Back of Beyond for their sublime locations, minimalistic yet tasteful approach, ecological design ethic, exceptional Sri Lankan cuisine and hardworking staff. Kahandamodara has a spacious campus with good dry zone vegetation and access to a relatively lonely stretch of beach on the southernmost coast near Tangalle. There are several bungalows, a pool and common area/yoga studio which makes it ideal for medium-size (under 20) school groups.

The significant day trip to us to the 2nd Century BCE Buddhist ruins and hermitage at Situlpawwa and then Bundala National Park. Situlpawwa is one of my favorite sites and had been a destination for an early WWW trip (with the Class of 2013). It is located within the protective boundaries of Yala but few visitors, other than religious pilgrims, go to Situlpawwa. In its sprawling area you can explore low hills, dagobas, monastic caves and pathways on foot. From the granite hillocks you get sweeping views over Yala’s forested interiors. Wildlife sightings are good-our class was astonished by the elephants, wild boar and sambar deer begging for food at the parking lot. My favorite sighting was a fly over by dozens of Malabar Pied Hornbills when our family visited Situlpawwa last year. We were standing at the Dagoba and they flew by at eye level, one wave after another heading east. The Down South group spent the second half of the day doing a jeep safari around Bundala. As is usually the case, we were the only jeeps in the protected area and enjoyed excellent sightings of birds including several rarities.

Down South group members climbing a hillock at Situlpawwa.

Bundala National Park is an excellent place to get non-birders excited about the joys of observing, photographing and identifying feathered creatures.

An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at Bundala National Park. Though these birds are common in many areas around the world they are quite rare in this part of Sri Lanka. We were thrilled to observe it in excellent afternoon light.

Rainforest Component

Mid-week we boarded our buses and moved north west up to Deniyaya and the edges of Sinharaja Rainforest at Enasalwaththa. The vegetation in the rolling hills and home gardens changed as we entered the wet zone and transitioned to the 1,000 meter plateau in this edge of the rainforest. Our two night say was a reminder that the Rainforest Ecolodge is a spell-binding and activity-rich area to bring our students too. We did a series of morning, daytime and nocturnal hikes looking to see as much of the biodiversity that Sinharaja is so well known for. Bird life was quite good. Flock activity seemed to be less than my earlier visit but we had a good encounter with a relatively rare Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti). Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) fly right through the property in the morning and they are sometimes followed by Red Face Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus) and other endemics . I found the frog watching to be especially rewarding. After quite a bit of hard looking with JagathJayawardana, the capable guide at the hotel, we found Pseudophilautus poppiae one of the critically endangered green frogs that has a narrow range in these hills and Morningside. Another interesting find was a Tarantula (Poecilotheria sp. of some sort) that lives in a dead log near the Ecolodge and regularly come out to awe guests.

OSC students birding at the Rainforest Ecolodge (right, both images)  and Situlpawwa (left).

OSC students and teachers on the trail near the Rainforest Ecolodge. Left: DP1 students Huirong, Eleez & Thevuni Center: Desline & Melinda warding off leeches with a homebrew spray and socks. Right: MYP5 students Chirath, Yali, Leonie and Vansh at the stream (our destination on the waterfall hike).

Arboreal biodiversity near the Rainforest Ecolodge: The stunningly glorious endemic creeper Kenrikcia walkeri flanked by Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti).

The endemic Sri lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) in forest near the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Amphibians and arachnid at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area). From top to bottom: Pseudophilautus sp. (perhaps poppiae) in forest /tea plantation edge. Unidentified tarantula (Poecilotheria sp. of some sort) at the hotel gate. Nannophrys ceylonensis from a wet rock face to the west of the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Montane forest canopy at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area). Taken in 2020 during a flowering of the principal canopy species Shorea trapezifolia. This was printed as a 20″20″ fine art print in a series of given to departing OSC faculty members in 2021.

The weather was good to us-cool and relatively dry as it usually is during the short dry season in January/February. A rain shower on our last day at the Ecolodge helped bring out the amphibians and I was happy about that. The clouds and blue sky (opening photo) were spectacular as we packed up to leave. The whole group would have gladly extended our stay. Nevertheless, we had a good sense of accomplishment returning to campus free of sickness and incident after so many rich experiences. The other WWW groups came in with a similar sense of elation, having beaten the odds to pull off this experience of learning across our island home.

2022 OSC Down South group at the waterfall near to the Rainforest Ecolodge.


Route map of the Down South WWW learning experience.

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De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2017. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira & Nilusha. Lizards of Sri Lanka: A Colour Guide With Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira 2009. Print.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

This post was started in February but the final draft of this post was published on 7 May 2022 and then backdated as I catch up on happenings.


Written by ianlockwood

2022-02-01 at 10:20 pm

In Rāvana’s Throne Room: A Journey into the Knuckles Range

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Dumbara Falls, a stunning site located deep in the Knuckles Range that was our home for two nights.

In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana the principle antagonist is Rāvana, king of Lanka. He is an intelligent and sophisticated deity who, through complicated circumstances involving key siblings, is cast in opposition to the hero Rama. I first encountered and read the Ramayana in Sally Noorullah’s South Asian Studies class at AIS/Dhaka. It was a bold move to incorporate an Indian epic in its entirety at a school that was otherwise quite American. At the time, we used a dense translation of Valmiki’s work that was challenging to get through (luckily the library had the visually-rich Amar Chitra Katha comic version to support our understanding). Ms. Noorullah, who later mentored me in my first year of teaching at AIS/D, brought passion and insight to the way she taught the themes of good/evil, dharma and the hero’s adventure. We capped off the learning with a week-long field trip to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the class looked for evidence of the epic in museums, on the streets, at various temples, on the Hooghly river and in the delicious food of a myriad restaurants. The sections of the epic involving Lanka, the monkey king Hanuman and the penultimate battle were fixtures in my imagination. Now, many years later, I find myself living in Sri Lanka, a place where Ramayana tourism is developing into a niche market alongside beach, tea and heritage tourism. At the same time, there has been a revival of interest in Rāvana’s legacy and rethinking his traditional role as the villain of the story.

Stories of this mythic king filtered through my thoughts and dreams as a small group of us  trekked deep into a wilderness that is closely associated with the legend of Rāvana. In August my family and I had just returned to Colombo from a restful summer holiday in the Pacific Northwest. All of us had been vaccinated and there was a window of time before OSC started the new school year. We didn’t know it then but Sri Lanka was on the verge of entering another prolonged lockdown. With help from Nadeera Weerasinghe at Sir John’s Bungalow I was able to plan and set up a three day backpacking trek that would take us deeper and further into the heart of the Knuckles (Dumbara) Range than any previous trip. I recruited veterans from last year’s Sinhagala trek including my son Lenny, former student Rashmi Bopitiya and colleague Andry Dejong. Crucially we were able to get the expert services of KC, the talented guide and herpetologist that has assisted my field visits to the Knuckles on previous visits.

Our destination was Duwili Eli (Falls), a location that is spoken of in whispers amongst hiking fraternities but is rarely visited by others because of the difficult and tiring access. Andry had visited the area soon after she arrived in Sri Lanka and our friend Mangala Karunaratne had camped at several locations near the falls. The series of falls that is associated with Duwili Eli and the idea of a long trek in a primeval forest in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspots were enticing. In February on a long weekend visit to Sir John’s, KC had taken a different group of us towards the abandoned agricultural settlement of Walpolamulla, a stop about 4 km from the road head on the way to Duwili Eli. It was evident from that hike that this part of the Knuckles offered rich opportunities to experience forest wilderness and biodiversity. It was just a matter of having enough time and in August 2021 all the pieces came together serendipitously.

Beginning parts of the trail to Walpolamulla and beyond. The Forest Department maintains the trail.

Hikers in the Knuckles: (from left) Rashmi, Andry, KC and Lenny

Strava heat maps from our three days of hiking in the Dumbara Falls and Duwili Ella/Eli area.

Day 1

With the goal of reaching Duwili Eli, it works to plan a multi-day hike with different stages and a base camp. KC had done the hike numerous times and we followed his guidance. Our group took a prep day to drive from Colombo to Riverston and Sir John’s bungalow. That gave us a chance to start our first full day of hiking refreshed.

We did the 13 km hike to Dumbara Falls on the first leg of our trek . The path starts out at Pitawala and crosses the Telgamu Oya  before climbing up to the Manigala ridge. I had first been here with a group of OSC WWW students but torrential rains had forced us to retreat. The weather this time was relatively cool with a breeze and overcast skies-perfect for hiking. The path was surprising free of other trekkers-a consequence of the COVID situation and looming lock down. In the end, over the whole three day period we would meet only two other people on the trail.

At Walpolamulla we paused at the old terraced fields to take in a panoramic view of our paths ahead. The building at the former village have mostly been abandoned and it site now mainly used for grazing and a trekking campsite. From the terraces you get fine view over the Kalu Ganga valley towards Duwili Eli. On the opposite (eastern) slope several slivers of water in the forest were visible to the naked eye. The waterfalls were enclosed in dense forest and seemed rather far away. Above them loomed the distinctivly shaped Thunhisgala. This three summited mountain (1627 m) is also named Kalupahana for its tallest point. It is visible in the Meemure valley, especially on the route to the Nitrox Cave (see my Duke of Edinburgh blog post from last year).

View eastwards across the valley from Walpolamulla’s terraced slopes. Dumbara Falls, Duwili Eli and Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak are all visible. Note the clearing in the, otherwise dense, forest-a patch of grassland that may have been a chena (slash & burn) plot in years past.

The path descends into the valley on a forested path that is still used by buffalo herders during the wet season. The area is very wild but every once in a while we would see piles of stones and tile chards that indicated a human presence at some point in the past. At one stream, a slab of lichen-covered granite once must have served as an altar (there was no evidence of modern iconography and I wondered if it was pre-Buddhist). We had timed our trek during a relatively dry spell. The South Western monsoon was hammering the windward side of the Knuckles and the summits were usually incased in mist, as the name Dumbara (misty mountains) hints at. There were few leeches on the trail but we did discover ticks and chiggers later. For the rest of the hike there were few opportunities to see where we were and the trail was entirely under the forest canopy.

In the late afternoon the path wound through a gallery of tall trees and enormous boulders before taking us to Dumbara Falls, the site of our basecamp. Here, the water from upper tributaries break through ramparts of a granite canyon to cascade 20 or so meters into a dark, elliptical pool. Over millions of years the force of the water has ripped away chunks of rock in large, slab fragments. Several of those slabs provide ideal camping spots-above the torrent of water at a level gradient with a sweet view of the thundering falls.

Forest vignettes from the trail to Duwili Eli featuring a mix of native, cultivated and invasive species.

Day 2

After a camp breakfast we zipped up our tents, put away food and left our campsite on the 2nd day to explore upstream to Duwili Eli with light packs. It is a steep but relatively short 4-7 kilometers of walking (my Strava heat does not seem to be accurate because of the tree cover). The highlight this day was the exquisite forest and different streams. I was curious to explore out to a patch of pantana (grasslands) on the edge of the forest. It seems to have been a chena (slash & burn) plot from some time ago but KC was unsure of its origin. The grass was so high that I was not able to get my bearings or a decent picture of the surrounding hills.

Duwili Eli is the top-most in the series of waterfalls. It includes a cave that is part of a ledge that the water falls over. A Ficus tree has colonized the face and its roots provide a natural protective grate. We reached the area just as a midday shower blew down across the high Knuckles ridge. When it cleared, we took in the views back towards Walpolamulla and Riverston. The cave is a popular camping spot and there is ample dry space. There was a small inscription in a script that was not obvious and it looked as if the cave had been visited for many years. I wondered about it and what links to Rāvana’s legend it might hold.

The view looking westwards back to Walpolamulla from the ledge at Duwili Eli. On the opposite side of the valley (on the center left) is the small terraced clearing at Walpolamulla. The Manigala ridge is on the top right and Pitawala Pantana is a hazy line on the horizon. Dumbara Falls is located deep in the forested valley below.

I was prepared for macro photography on this trip but I found that much my energy was expended on just getting around and I came back with few exiting images. Rashmi was using her new pair of binoculars and we were on the lookout for birds on all days. On the path returning to camp I caught a glimpse of a female Malabar trogon and then a pair of Sri Lankan Grey Hornbills. The drone of the Yellow Fronted Barbet was our constant companion when we were away from the thunder of the stream. When we got back to camp we swam in the pool below Dumbara Falls-a great way to wash away the sweat and strain of the day.

Campsite at Dumbara Falls.

Day 3

For a 2nd morning in a row we awoke to the thunder of the falls and beams of sunlight streaming through the high forested ridge. KC’s cooking did wonders for our morale and Lenny and I certainly needed it. Though Dumbara Falls offers one the finest campsites that we have been in, our tent was pitched on bare rock and we had neglected to bring sleeping mats! KC cooked up fried eggs on a well-used frying pan and added them to our vat of Maggie noodles for our nightly meals. For breakfast we had cereal and hot chocolate -the simple things always make such a difference in the wilderness.

The trail back followed the same route.The major stream crossing at the Kalu Ganga gave us a chance to refreshed and rehydrated and to look for creatures. There were dozens of emerald winged dragonflies-most likely Shining Gossamerwings (Euphaea splendens) – filtering above the water. Moving away from the stream, KC found a Brown Vine Snake (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) consuming a (still alive) Dry Zone Lowland Kangaroo Lizard (Otocryptis nigristigma). Both of these are not commonly seen. The toughest part was climbing back up to Walpolamulla in the middle (and heat) of the day. Crossing the saddle near Manigala we encountered a brief, rather refreshing rain shower. We were back at the trailhead at Pitawala around 2:00. After dropping off KC our group of four returned to Sir John’s to have a night of rest before returning to Colombo. All of us were a bit sore from carrying the packs but when the lockdown set in 24 hours after returning we realized that we had been very fortunate to get away. As for Rāvana’s secrets, we need a few more lifetimes to explore the Dumbara Hills…

Life on the forest floor and in the canopy.

A mosaic of diversity from the Knuckles take on the August trek and February 2021 visit. From the top to bottom: Male Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii), Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara), Frog (not yet identified), Chalky Percher(Diplacodes trivialis),  Spotted Locust (Aularches miliaris), Female Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii).



Bambaradeniya Channa and S P Ekanayake. A Guide to the Biodiversity of the Knuckles Forest Range. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

Harinda. “Knuckles Duwili Eli through Walpolamulla – The Most Wanted trip of the year.”  Lakdasun Trips. April 24.  Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Knuckles Explorations.” Ian Lockwood Blog. January 2019. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Qualifying in the Time of the Pandemic: A DofE QAJ in Meemure.” CAS Pathways. 12 May 2020. Web.

Jayewardene, Sunela. The Line of Lanka: Myths & Memoires of an Island. Colombo: Sail Fish, 2017. Print.

Sanmugeswaran, Pathmanesan. “Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka: Ravana’s Sinhala Buddhist Apotheosis and Tamil Responses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 2019. Web.

A panorama of the Knuckles Range looking south from Riverston. Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak is visible in the far right. Sri Pada can be seen on the horizon to the right of the center. Panoramic image from February 2021 visit.

Written by ianlockwood

2021-11-06 at 10:40 pm