Protect The Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem Through Eco-Tourism & Global Recognition

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The Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem comprises one of only three extended villu ecosystems found in Sri Lanka, two of which have been declared as Ramsar Listed Wetland Clusters of International Importance (as opposed to Individual Sites), under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (which was signed on the 2nd of February 1971). The aforementioned Wetland Clusters are the Wilpattu Forest Complex (within which Wilpattu National Park is contained), and Kumana National Park (which forms one protected area within the Greater Yala Complex). However, most people (as of April the 28th 2018), still remain unaware that the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem is not only a villu ecosystem, but also partially under the legal protection of Sri Lanka's relatively expansive protected area (hereafter referred to as PAs) network. The PA's in this particular instance are Flood Plains National Park (which forms one sector of the Wasgamuwa Tri - Park Sector), and Somawathiya National Park (which forms one PA within Sri Lanka's Eastern Terrestrial Protected Areas). Both national parks were declared under the Mahaweli Development Programme (now titled the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme), in 1984 (Flood Plains) and 1986 (Somawathiya) respectively. Currently both national parks are closed to the general public, with the only activities taking place in Somawathiya, revolving around the ancient Somawathiya Chaitya. As far as eco-tourism activities are concerned, the Department of Wildlife Conservation's decision not to open either national park to the general public, has been based around the inaccessibility of Flood Plains, and the lack of a management plan, with regard to effectively protecting the former, as well as Somawathiya.

As such, this lack of eco-tourism related activities/proper management plans has led certain rogue business and politically affiliated elements with society, to engage in activities which are in direct violation of both the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (hereafter referred to as the FFPO), and the Forest Conservation Ordinance (hereafter referred to as the FCO). Such activities include deforestation, cultivation of both edible and non-edible crops (i.e. bananas and tobacco), encroachment, illegal logging and grazing of domestic cattle with the boundaries of the park (illegal). The construction of the various water catchment projects (under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme), has also badly affected the seasonal water flows, as well as the overall carrying capacity of the villus contained within the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem (protected and un-protected). This loss of seasonal water movements by the aforementioned water catchment projects, will have an additional, detrimental effect as the ecologically rich grazing lands (i.e. the seasonally flooded grasslands), will loose their overall richness, and turn into grazing grounds which are poor in nutrition and faunal diversity, ultimately affecting the herbivorous fauna of the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem. It is also worth keeping in mind, that the loss of water within the aforementioned villus, has already started to have a negative impact on the overall eco-system, with invasive floral species such as the Common Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia Crassipes), the Giant Salvinia/Kariba Weed (Salvinia Molesta) and the Cocklebur/Burweed (Xanthium Indicum) already showing signs of significant expansion, putting such alien floral species in direct competition with far more delicate native floral species. Both the Handapan and Bendiya Villus (located with Flood Plains National Park) are already exhibiting the characteristics of unnaturally altered villu ecosystems, with the accelerated loss of important herbal species a crucial indicator of such unnatural alteration.

Protecting the full extent of the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem (it's two PAs included), is of significant importance and should be accomplished with a real sense of urgency. The ecological diversity within Flood Plains National Park alone is staggering, with over 14 species of mammalian fauna, an estimated 75 species of avian fauna, approximately 10 - 20 species of reptilian fauna and an unknown array of aquatic freshwater and brackish water species (a significant percentage of which could turn out to be endemic). As far as floral diversity is concerned, 231 floral species have been recorded within Flood Plains National Park, contained within a host of different examples of contiguous vegetation, including dry zone riverine forests, fresh/brackish water swamp forests and marshlands, riverine gallery forests and seasonally flooded grasslands. In the case of Somawathiya National Park, the ecological diversity is of a similar importance and variety, with both national parks playing host to an avifaunal diversity that rivals national parks such as Bundala (which forms one PA within the Southern Avian and Elephant Conservation Region), Kumana and Wilpattu, with estimated mixed avian populations (endemic, resident, vagrant and migratory), numbering between 4000 - 8000 individuals (dependent on the season/time of the year). Additionally, both national parks are important feeding grounds/migratory channels for large numbers of Sri Lankan Elephants, of which an estimated 200 are recorded to inhabit/traverse Flood Plains, while approximately 300 - 400 have been counted living within/migrating through Somawathiya. Such is the overall importance of both PAs, as well as the river that they collectively protect, the Mahaweli River (alternatively titled the "Great Sandy River"), which itself (due to the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Scheme), irrigates 386 square miles/999.74 square kilometres of agricultural land, and provides approximately 40 - 50% of the island's total electrical energy production cementing the urgent need for complete protection and sustainable management.

 As such, the motivation behind/purpose of this petition is to push for the opening of both Flood Plains and Somawathiya National Park to the general public, with a heavy emphasis placed on eco-tourism activities such as safaris, sustainability and community-driven conservation. This would serve to discourage the range of illegal activities (mentioned in detail above), from taking place within either PA, while simultaneously bolstering the economic prospects and livelihoods of the various communities that live in the vicinity of both Flood Plains and Somawathiya. This petition also calls for the expansion of the PA Network within the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem, which is only (through the two national parks mentioned), 549.984 square kilometres as of April the 28th 2018. Considering the total square kilometerage of the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem is approximately four to five times the size of it's PA Network, it is imperative that the sizes of both Flood Plains and Somawathiya are significantly increased. Anyone who has been to either Wilpattu National Park or Kumana National Park will be aware of the sheer beauty, as well as the ecological diversity contained within both national park's numerous Villus or "Natural Lakes". These sand-rimmed water basins or "depressions" are of incalculable value, particularly with regard to conserving avian fauna (endemic, resident, vagrant and migratory). Consequently, this petition calls for the listing and declaration of the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem, as the island's third Ramsar Listed Wetland Cluster of International Importance, as opposed to Single or Individual Site (under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance). For reference, 38 Villus have been recorded within Flood Plains, while 20 Villus have been documented within Somawathiya (a total of 58 Villus), and that isn't taking into account the countless other Villus which are located outside these two national parks, but within the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystem. Finally this petition calls for accountability, on the part of the DWC (with regard to securing and protecting both Flood Plains and Somawathiya National Parks), as well as the added cooperation of the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC), the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (MASL) and the Department of Irrigation (DOI), with regard to creating a competent management plan (under which the restoration of seasonal water movements is included), so that the Villus within and outside the Greater Mahaweli Flood Plain Ecosystems PAs can effectively recover and rejuvenate at an ecological level. Dialogue and mutual collaboration between the both the Ministry of Sustainable Development & Wildlife, and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development & Environment would help expedite the resolution of such issues, without incurring both bureaucratic stalemates and barriers (commonplace within Sri Lanka's administrative framework).