The Sixth Mass Extinction

ISLAND. July 1, 2015, 12:00 pm

by Ranil Senanayake

The world is embarking on its sixth mass extinction, according to a Standford University study of tigers and other threatened species (AFP)

The world is embarking on its sixth mass extinction with animals disappearing about 100 times faster than they used to, said a study led by experts at Stanford University, Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley. But Sri Lanka is different, here we are finding new species at a rate of about 100 times faster than they used to and all this in a background of rapidly disappearing habitat throughout the island. Apart from the ability to attract the tourist market with claims of high biodiversity or the narcissist need to become a ‘discoverer’ what does this mean? Is Sri Lanka different to the rest of the planet? Are we indeed a ‘Land like no other?’.

The resolution of the conundrum above has to invoke, evolutionary theory, biogeography theory, taxonomic rigor, etc. No doubt that we will soon receive some explanation as to this unique trend in Sri Lanka, from our biodiversity experts.Till then however, it is very important to consider how sustainable all these named species are, especially as many are restricted to small forest patches, remnants of the once vast stretches of forests that covered the Island not so long ago.

These remnant forest patches often represent the only habitat for rare, indigenous or endangered species. Most remnant forest patches go unrecognized because they are not a part of any scheduled or protected area and are cut over or ploughed up at the whim of the local politician. The ability of the area presently scheduled or under protection, to provide habitat to all the endemic species represented in Sri Lanka is poor, as many remnant ecosystems exist only as small patches of refugial forest, scattered over the landscape and are not scheduled, recognized nor included in areas under protection. The
irony of our conservation policy is that over 90% of our endemic species have less than 10% of their habitat area protected.

Between 1990 and 2010, Sri Lanka lost an average of 24,500 ha or 1.04% per year of its forest cover. Thus 20.9% forest cover or around 490,000 ha was lost during this time.

Although the previous Government boasted that “33 per cent of land area of Sri Lanka to be covered by forest by 2016, this will be accomplished with an investment of Rs. 10,500 Million for the period from 2007/16″. Nothing much seems to have happened. It is now 2015, thus some evidence of the results of the Rs.10,500 million should be visible now.

According to the FAO, 28.8% or about 1,860,000 ha of Sri Lanka is forested, of this 9.0% ( 167,000 ) is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. The response to this massive loss was to invest in ‘planted forests’, the FAO in its study quoted above, suggests that Sri Lanka had 185,000 ha of such ‘ planted forest’. Will these forests help to slow the mass extinction event?

Studies on forest biodiversity indicate that trees account for 1 % of the biodiversity of a forest or less. What is known by science reveals the forest as an ecosystem of tremendous complexity. The trees, while providing an essential framework of a forest constitutes only a fraction of its total biodiversity. A forest contains a huge array of organisms, which continually change in form and function. Thus biodiversity is what gives a forest its identity. It should also be borne in mind that, from the small bushes of an area after a fire to the tall growth fifty years later, the species and architecture goes through many changes, and all these ecosystems are expressions of the growing, maturing forest.

It is not that there was no national awarenessand the will to understand and express this.In 1996 the following statement was made by Sri Lanka at Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP III, in Buenos Aires.

On the question of forests, our thinking has been greatly influenced by the teachings of Lord Buddha who states ” The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demand for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity”. Thus we are concerned that the issue of biodiversity of forests have not received the attention that it deserves. We, with the scientists and traditional peoples of the world appreciate the fact that a forest which is comprised of a myriad interacting parts, is still being dealt with as an entity comprisedonly of trees. It is patently clear to us that the real nature of a forest resides in its biodiversity, thus we see the need for and wish to propose that the conference of Parties develop a mandate on forests similar to the Jakarta mandate on coastal biodiversity and adopt a program of work, This we firmly believe will be the way that we can deal with forest ecosystems as an organic whole.

Sadly, back at home, the will to implement such a national vision was found to be lacking in the subsequent years and timber remained the only focus of forestry. Thus the 185,000 ha of planted exotic even aged monocultures, will only help to accelerate the Global Extinction Event, not slow it down. It seems that the Forestry administration of Sri Lanka was following the dictum of Fenrow, the Head of US Forest Service, who pointed out in 1920 that for Foresters; ‘The first and foremost purpose of a forest growth is to supply us with wood material; it is the substance of the trees itself, not their fruit, their beauty, their shade, their shelter, that constitutes the primary object,’.

There was no interest in creating a forest, merely plantations for biomass and the hope that it conserved some biodiversity. The traditional responses to forestry concerns using the functional aspects of tree crops were ignored. Traditional systems, using native species as in the case of the farmers of the Puna zone of the Peruvian Andes, or exotic species as in the case of the farmers of the west coast of Sri Lanka, were found worldwide, but each groups particular use of tree crops, provided the highest degree of agricultural sustainability for that particular environment. Traditional forestry encompasses the diverse forms of tree farming termed Village Forest, Forest Gardens, Mixed Tree Farming Etc. This type of activity has been recorded in many traditional societies, it is based on the functional or utilitarian features of trees, should have been the models for forestry.

But none of this experience was brought into the practice of modern forestry. This observation is even more pertinent when the history of contemporary forestry in Sri Lanka is examined. The diverse forests planted by the foresters of this country in the early days of the department are now examples for all to see. The excellent forest that straddles the Dambulla – Kurunegala road just out of Kurunegala is a case in point. The trees have now attained the size that gives it the appearance of a mature forest. Many species of plants and animals of the natural forest have established populations within it. The soil is rich in organic matter. There can be no argument that this forest meets many more modern needs than exotic monocultures. Yet, somewhere in the history of the department polyculture was rejected in favour of monoculture and the baby was thrown out with the bathwater! It seems as if the role of forestry has to be examined critically if the multifarious needs of today’s society is to be served efficiently.

Perhaps we should participate in slowing down the rates of extinction, not by creating new species but by protecting all unprotected remnant habitats and by creating man made forests that mimic the forests that we lost, so that the few species we still have, do not contribute to the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’.

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