Ian Lockwood


Sinharaja: Ten Year OSC Study Anniversary

with 3 comments

Primary forest near the north-western entrance to Sinharaja.

Primary forest near the north-western entrance to Sinharaja.

Two weeks ago OSC’s IB Diploma Geography class spent four days conducting field research in Sinharaja rainforest. This UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site located the south-western wet zone of the country is well known for its rich biodiversity. This was a significant trip -not only for the eight students and their two teachers- but for the 57 year-old school. This is the 10th anniversary of OSC geography field work in Sinharaja -a location that offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work.

I had first visited Sinharaja in 2000 on a birding trip with my cousin Anna. It seemed like a natural choice of locations when I was asked to design the DP Geography Internal assessment (requiring field work) when I was hired to teach at OSC.  When we first started taking students to Sinharaja in 2005 we did so under the guidance of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka and their intrepid leader Professor Sarath Kotagama. Professor Kotagama, as well as dragonfly expert (and OSC parent) Karen Conniff, helped guide the original group of geography students. The focus of the early years’ field work was on ecosystems and biodiversity. This changed when the IB syllabus was revised and we transitioned to socio-economic, tourist and land-use studies. We’ve been privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijeysinghe’s Jungle Lodge during all this time. It continues to offer an ideal base for student field work, with access to the protected area, a range of habitats and home gardens.

Here is a brief review of the themes of ecology and geography that we have looked at over the years:

  • Tropical Rainforest Biodiversity in a “Biodiversity Hotspot.” Sinharaja is know as an exemplar lowland rainforest with very high levels of terrestrial diversity. Studies by notable academics at Peradeniya University, the University of Colombo and the Yale School of Forestry have documented and tracked plant diversity within Sinharaja. Others have studied the avian, amphibian, reptile and mammalian fauna. Professor Kotagama thinks that few other single forests have been as well documented as Sinharaja. Put together this provides a wealth of baseline data and information for any studies of the area.
  • Natural recovery of cleared forest areas: It was only 40 years ago that the area that is now well-trodden by ecotourists was being systematically destroyed as a part of a large-scale mechanical logging operation. Paradigms and attitudes about tropical forests have radically changed and today the same area has been allowed to recover. The recovery of the once logged areas is, frankly, mind-blowing! There is no perceptible evidence of the logging operations in Sinharaja today. It is a remarkable case study in tropical forest recovery with very little active attempts to restore the habitat. In recent years the Forest Department has been successfully working to thin pine plantations and restore native lowland rainforest species.
  • A model case study of ecotourism: Without intentionally trying, Sinharaja offers some of the most authentic opportunities for ecotourism in South Asia. The design of activities (walking, bird watching etc.), the low-impact accommodation and clear, benefit to the local community (through guiding and locally owned accommodation) help contribute to this. Sinharaja’s Kudawa gate on the north-west border is its most popular entry point. OSC students have been able to track numbers of visitors in the last 5-10 years and seen a steady growth of visitors. The calendar year has key high seasons with the winter (December to February) being the peak for visitor numbers. There are at least 3-4 times as many Sri Lankan visitors as foreigners, but because of ticket prices foreign visitors contribute more to the revenue. While some visitors are naturalists and bird-watchers most foreigners are curious beach revelers taking a day to explore a rainforest within reach of the coastal resorts.
  • Land use in the buffer and border areas of the protected area. The areas surrounding the PA boundary of Sinharaja highlight challenges to conservation. Many of these areas were only cleared for agriculture in the last 50-100 years. The dominant land use type is of home gardens (small land holding with a diverse range of fruit, vegetable and plantation species that are largely used for subsistence). Tea is now the  most preferred crop in many of the Sinharaja border areas. Unlike the high-grown tea, the tea in the Rakwana Hills is cultivated in small holdings (1-2 acres) by individual households (rather than large estates with their own labor, factories etc.). To better understand the cropping patterns we have been using 1:50,000 land use data from the Sri Lanka Survey Department in our GIS mapping of the area. This data is dated and we hope to acquire more up-to-date land use data to better understand trends in agriculture and land use.
  • Socio-economic studies of communities living on the edge of Sinharaja: OSC students have been able to conduct basics socio-economic surveys of communities living in the shadow of Sinharaja’s north-western border. DP Geography students have focused on energy choices, education, ecological footprints, housing and nutrition (for the first time this year).

The Class of 2016 geography class was a stellar group to take to Sinharaja. They embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches, lack of cell phone connectivity and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the Sri Lankan cuisine cooked up by Martin’s daughter. Each of them explored an individual research question with the Sinhala speakers working overtime to help others with the translations of survey questions. Once again the Sinharaja guides were essential in helping us to better understand the area. They are a key bridge to the surrounding communities. Dr. Indrika Senaratna provided support in the interviews and fully took part in all aspects of the study. We look forward to many more years of OSC field work Sinharaja.

OSC in Sinharaja. Above: Class of 2006 wiht Martin, Professor Kotagama, Karen Coniff an others. Below:  Class of 2016 with Martin, Dr. Indrika and their teacher.

OSC in Sinharaja. Above: Class of 2006 with Martin, Professor Kotagama, Chaminda Ratnayake,Karen Coniff and others (taken October 2005). Below: Class of 2016 with Martin, Dr. Indrika and their teacher (taken May 2015).

A cacophony of diversity: Snapshots of Sinharaja's flora & fauna from the May 2014 IA field study.

A cacophony of diversity: Snapshots of Sinharaja’s flora & fauna from the May 2014 IA field study.

Class of 2016 field work in households and amongst home gardens on the Sinharaja boundary.

Class of 2016 field work in households, home gardens and shops on the Sinharaja boundary.

OSC study site in Sinharaja elevation map using the (relatviley)new 30 m SRTm from USGS/NASA.

OSC study site in Sinharaja elevation map using the (relatively) new 30 m SRTM from USGS/NASA. Click on the image for an A3 150 dpi version.

Past Blog Posts on Sinharaja

Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

General Sinharaja Reflections


Abeywickrama. Asanga, Sinharaja Rainforest Sri LankaWeb. 2009.

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.

Harrison, John. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Ishwaran, Natarajan and Walter Erdelen. “Conserving Sinharaja: An Experiment in Sustainable Development in Sri Lanka.” Ambio. Vol. 19, No. 5. August 1990. Web.

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

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.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80 & 81 (1:50,000). Colombo: 1994. 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

2015-05-21 at 2:24 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian; Maybe you remember me; Phil Brighty; you helped my daughter Alice with her dissertation. This interesting stuff; fantastic detail.


    2015-05-26 at 12:56 am

  2. Hi Phil…great to hear from you. I still use your article on Dengue Fever in Sri Lanka for DP Geography case studies on disease. You had given me the editor’s contact information at Geography Review and I really must drop them a line sometime. Hope that all is well whereever you are! Greetings to Alice too!


    2015-05-26 at 1:02 am

  3. Hi Ian! Glad I found your site. I´m working on an essay about Sinharaja and Horton Plains for my geography studies at KIT Germany. Maybe you could answer my question – The UNESCO says the Sinharaja world heritage site (or the MAB) is about 88km^2 (~60km^2 proteced,~27km^2 planned protected area). Their outlines of the Sinharaja differ from yours on your maps. So is it just usual to show the whole 112km^2 Sinharaja even when talking about the the reserve? I have the intention the “National Heritage Wilderness Area” is used as the “World Heritage Site/(MA)Biosphere Reserve”. Is that right? And is the 1988 Reserve Area the same as the 1875 Reserve Area?


    2015-11-28 at 10:06 pm

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