Sinharaja Experience: A Story of the Living Told in the Voices of Fauna and Flora 

Do you ever wish you could take a break from your hectic schedule and spend a day in the woods? Many of you may say yes, but it is clearly not a simple task. Which is why we decided to introduce a calmness to your busy lifestyle through a glimpse of the beauty of nature.

Today, we will take a stroll through the last viable tropical rainforest in the country, Sinharaja. The forest is an orchestra itself, playing one enchanting symphony after another, leaves dancing to unheard beats, whispering their songs to the wind. Every kind of life, from the humble bug to dazzling birds of every color, is protected by the trees.

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What is Sinharaja?

The Sinharaja forest reserve is one of Sri Lanka’s least disturbed and biologically diverse tropical humid evergreen forests. The forest currently spans over 8864 hectares in the island’s Southwest and was designated a World Biosphere Reserve in 1978 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 owing to its rich and unique plant and animal life.

The legend goes that the forest takes its name from a lion king that is assumed to have once lived in the forest. One strand of the legend goes on to say that the Sinhala people in this island nation are descendants of this very same lion. One may also hear whispers about an invincible lion that lived in the forest region which caused numerous injuries to villagers while evading each attempt to hunt or kill the mighty predator.

However, from one legend or another, ‘Sinharaja’ has gotten its name from a lion that once lived amidst its lush greenery. 

“I call Sinharaja ‘the land of endemics.”

Said Mevan Piyasena, naturalist and wildlife photographer, who was more than willing to share his experience of the wonders of this rainforest. To the untrained eye, the forest may only appear to be a dense canopy of trees, but it is considered as one of the highest biodiversity hotspots in the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Flora and Fauna

Sinharaja is a shape-shifter with vegetation of a Tropical Humid Evergreen Forest. The height of the dominant trees, the straightness of their bole, the abundance of regeneration, and the diversity of species are some of the forest’s most notable features. The average height of trees ranges from 30-40 metres. Some can reach heights of up to 50 metres.

It’s a natural treasure with a diverse range of ecosystems and a vast variety of Sri Lanka’s endemic species found nowhere else on the planet. More than 60% of the trees are endemic. There is a noteworthy degree of endemism among butterflies, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The green pit viper and the hump-nosed viper constitute the majority of the reptile population, and tree frogs are among the amphibian species found in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

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Birds in Sinharaja 

Sinharaja is also home to a multitude of bird species. There are approximately 147 bird species recorded, and numbers change with annual bird migration. Our focus shifts to birds as the holiest song of a choir of birds echo in the earthy browns of the forest. 20 to 21 of the 26 endemic birds found in Sri Lanka can be found in Sinharaja.

The red-faced malkoha, an elusive canopy bird, blue magpie, the most charismatic bird, the Serendib scops owl (2004) the newest member of Sri Lankan endemic bird list and if you are lucky enough, Sri Lanka whistling thrush (“aranga” as it is fondly referred to), the endangered endemic bird, can also be sighted at higher elevations towards the northern side of the forest. 

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I’m lucky to say that I have seen all these 20 endemics and my record is seeing 19 of them in one day. That’s a bit of luck, I would say. It’s not really easy because even though you walk through the whole forest, you might not see them, but it was one of those lucky days, they came and landed closer to the pathway where we were going.” Mevan added.

He also spoke of the ‘bird wave,’ which is a unique phenomenon that occurs in Sinharaja, where various bird species fly in one direction to feed themselves. It is possible to see visible participation of various species. What is most interesting is that this participation is not limited to just birds, but it also includes certain mammals. Squirrels and even deer have been known to join the Sinharaja Bird Wave. 

What a sight to behold! A swarm of birds sweeps through the forest, devouring insects and plant matter in their path. You may also be curious as to how these birds gather in groups. The Sri Lankan Crested Drongo is the leader of this bird flock. He’s the one who calls at dawn at which point they all congregate. If he sees a threat, so much as an eagle in the sky, he lets out an alarm call, and the entire flock falls silent. The ashy-headed laughing thrush and the Orange-billed babblers are known as the drivers of the flock. They are the ground feeders and make sure flycatchers get their fair share of the day. Malabar Trogons, Red Faced Malkoha and Nuthatches, Bulbuls and Minivets bring color to the parade. You can find approximately 7-12 different species in one flock. 

You have to go and experience that tone, it’s difficult to explain and you can’t film it and show it, you have to see that. They’re all over the place and within a second everyone goes silent. It’s like there are no birds at all. Otherwise, they’re so noisy because there are so many different birds,” added Mevan.

Some birds are not so noisy they enjoy their day in quiet darker clusters of dense green vegetation. Serendib scops owl, Sri Lankan frogmouth are some of those hidden jewels of this bird paradise. 

There are no specific locations where you can find it. Identifying them is a difficult task. It could take a day or more to locate one of them. Even if it’s very close to you, the bird is so well camouflaged that you can’t see it.” Piyasena explained.

Can elephants survive in a rainforest?

Elephants do live in tropical rainforests, but there are only two remaining in Sinharaja, the only surviving rainforest of the country. They may not be genetically distinct from the elephants in other parts of the country. However, they are a little smaller in stature than a typical elephant. It is extremely difficult to locate them, but Mevan was one of the fortunate individuals who had the opportunity to photograph one of these elephants.

By virtue of living in an undisturbed rainforest, these elephants do not take kindly to encroachment into their territory. 

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Even if you have set up a board or anything else that is alien to the jungle, they will remove it and simply throw it away.” 

People who associate the forest reserve for generations believe they are on regular “migration” across the reserve and mostly spend their time away from human habitations.

Mr. Martin is the best person to talk to if you go to Sinharaja, he was a forest worker. He is the only remaining person who knows how to get in and out of Sinharaja, and he will tell you all these elephant stories.

Martin Wijesinghe is a name that is associated with the Sinharaja rainforest, as its “unofficial caretaker”, and one of the pioneers in the process of declaring the rainforest a man biosphere reserve in 1978. In 1959, he and his wife moved to Kudawa, a settlement on the Sinharaja forest’s northeastern boundary. He joined the Forest Conservation Department in 1968 and has helped all local and foreign researchers who have visited the forest throughout the years, and has exchanged scientific expertise with them. 

Indigenous medicine, biology, zoology, cultural heritage, history, and science are among his areas of knowledge. He is also well-known for telling stories about the forest. Mr. Martin can certainly be described as a national treasure.

He is one of the few people left from the previous generation that believes in coexistence. Coexistence with the rainforest is a better approach than doing things head-on, to understand and feel its features. This, however, is something today’s society fails to understand. We must always remember that we belong to the earth, not the other way around.

Tips for your visit to the rainforest

While you can visit Sinharaja at any time of year, the best period to visit might be between December and early April or between August and September. 

There are three designated entry points to the reserve, Kudawa via Weddagala, Kalawana, Pitadeniya and Suriyakanda. It is highly recommended that you begin your Sinharaja tour from the Weddagala entrance if you want to observe many birds and other Fauna. You will also be able to see crystal-clear water flowing in many streams. Pitadeniya Sinharaja entrance is popular among travelers coming from the South as it is the entrance close to them. If you choose this entrance, you will get to see spectacular waterfalls.

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Visitations open at 6.30 and close around 4.30 in the evening. You require a permit to enter the forest and it is mandatory to take a guide with you. In Sinharaja, there are many guides who are knowledgeable about the forest and the animals. There is also an information center where you can find out more about the forest and its habitat. The best way to experience the true essence of Sinharaja Forest Reserve is by hiking or trekking the various trials that have been formed for this very purpose.

Make sure to bring along your binoculars and camera as you will have plenty of opportunities to use them. Don’t forget to carry a leech repellent and a raincoat because rain is always a possibility.

Here is the most important tip from Mevan, “You must be patient, walk slowly, speak less, and don’t speak at all because it isn’t like visiting a national park. It’s a completely dark forest, and you’ll think, ‘There’s nothing here or nothing is moving’, but if you wait and listen, you will notice things moving and happening, as well as small animals emerging.”

Allow yourself to wander through nature’s green cathedral and appreciate its beauty and majesty, most importantly “fill your life with adventures, not things. Have stories to tell, not stuff to show.”

Written by Isora Liyanaarachchi

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