(By Dhaneshi YATAWARA) — Declared as a nature reserve on December 5, 1969 and later in March 1988 upgraded to a National Park under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, Horton Plains and its forests were subjected to much discussion being affected by bio-pirates.
Spreading across over 3,169 hectares of land Horton Plains had been originally known as Mahaeliya and has been known as ‘Elk Plain’ in the colonial period. Mahaeliya was renamed as Horton Plains attributing credit to the British Governor of Sri Lanka Sir Robert Wilmot Horton (1831 – 1837).
Due to its unique biological and aesthetic value Governor Horton took steps to protect this plain following his visits. Though white shadows of the British rulers have long left our shores the names still remain.
“Contribution to the environment from the Horton Plains is immense being the catchment area of almost all Sri Lanka’s major rivers,” said Park Warden of the Horton Plains, G.U. Saranga. As he explained having the main hydro power plants with its reservoirs in close proximity of the plain proves its water retaining ability. Before the British destroyed the montane and cloud forests to cultivate tea, the Kings of Sri Lanka took special steps to protect these unique forest covers declaring it as King’s protected land. Ancestors knew these cloud forests were the heart beat of the environment.
Located between northern latitudes 6 degrees, 47 minutes and 6 degrees and 50 minutes and in the Eastern hemisphere between 80 degrees 46 minutes and 80 degrees 51 minutes, Horton Plains is at 2,100 metres above sea level, nestled in the highest tableland of Sri Lanka in the southern end of the central mountain mass. The annual average rainfall of Horton Plains exceeds 5,000 mm as it rains almost everyday.
Horton Plains is affected both by the Southwest and Northeast monsoons. The area is ‘dry’ from January to March with an average temperature of 15 centigrade. Ground frost is common from December to January. Minimum recorded temperature is between 2 – 3 centigrade. Wet Patana (grasslands) are combined with the montane cloud forests in making this undulating plateau. The western slope of the Horton Plains National Park comprises most extensive breath taking montane cloud forests.
“This is an isolated national park,” Saranga said. Which means it is not connected to a stretch of forests whereas other national parks are patches of regional forest cover. The 18,060 hectares of natural forest surrounding Horton Plains is a buffer zone to protect it from threatening human activities of border villages. The surrounding forests belongs to the Forest Department. Ohiya, Pattipola and Dayagama located closer to Horton Plains are situated over 11 kilometres from the park.
Horton Plains consists of four eco systems such as, Montane evergreen forests, grasslands, marshylands and its aquatic eco-system. The top soil of the plain has more humus as deterioration of organic material is less in the environment due to the low temperature. Thus the half deteriorated organic matter with lot of fibre mixed with soil acts as a sponge absorbing water rather than making it muddy and slippery. This specific marshyland feeds water mainly to Agara Oya, Bogawanthalawa Oya and Belihul Oya.
Agara Oya is one of the main tributaries of the Mahaweli River. Bogawanthalawa Oya begins from the Kelani River and Belihul Oya from Walawe River. Kirigalpottha and Totupolakanda Mountains, the second and the third highest mountains located within the same eco region, are the star grounds for some of the main rivers.
Before Horton Plains was a National Park, the Agricultural Department of the then Government commenced cultivating potatoes in these plains from 1950 to 1969. Parallel to this the Irrigation Department built a irrigation system which is known today as the Chimney Pond.
Fauna and flora
“In Horton Plains 50% of its species are endemic,” Saranga said highlighting the importance of protecting its bio diversity. Including ‘Binara’ (‘Exacum trinervium’) with its distinct purple flower and ‘Nellu’ (‘Strobilanthes sp.’) with blue mauve coloured flowers and intoxicating seeds, 744 plant species are nestled in Horton Plains; 5% of plant species found here are endemic.
The endemic ‘Keena’ (Calophyllum walkari’), ‘Syzygium rotundifolium’, ‘Syzygium sclerophyllum’, ‘Wal Kurundu’ (Cinnamomum ovalifolium’) and ‘Polkatugaha’ (‘Actinodaphne speciosa’) dominate the forest canopy which is approximately 20 metres in height. Rhododendrons (Maharathmal), commonly found in the plain, brings a sparkling beauty with its crimson red flowers.
The Drawf bamboo, smallest bamboo found in Sri Lanka, grows in marshy lands in the Horton Plains. Two invasive plants are common in Horton Plains introduced by the British. One is a tall thorny shrub with bright yellow flowers called European gorse and the other one a bright green fern named Warella. An African exotic grass called ‘Kikuriya’ (‘Pennisetum clandestinum’) is another fauna introduced by colonists for cattle grazing.
The sambur is Horton Plains flag species. They are found in large numbers during the hours of the day and in the evenings in their feeding grounds. The elephants are said to have disappeared from the area about 70 years ago. Though the grey slender loris was known to exist in the cloud forests the latest discovery is the red slender loris. There were early records of its existence yet no one saw the red slender loris alive until this year. Researches on ascertaining the number of loris in the cloud forests is on going. The leopard, otter, the long-tailed giant squirrel, the bear, monkey and the toque macaque are some noteworthy animals found in Horton Plains. Sighting the bird, Ceylon Arangaya (‘Myophonus blighi’) is a rare opportunity for a wildlife enthusiast. Numerous birds migrate from Europe and Northen Asia during winter to the highlands. Twelve endemic birds live in the Horton Plains.
Only two exotic fish species inhabit the streams, namely the carp and the rainbow trout. Many endemic crustaceans live in the aquatic eco-system of Horton Plains. Most of the amphibians living in Horton Plains are endemic. Though the reptile diversity is low in Horton Plains the Common Roughside and the Buff striped keelback common are in the Plains. Yet the agamid lizards are quite wide spread in Horton Plains.
Horton Plains is the only national park where visitors are allowed to trek along the tracks. Today Horton Plains attracts a large number of visitors each year, thus increasing the earnings. “There has been a slight decline in the number of local visitors to the plains this year. With terrorism wiped out from the country, the number of foreigners visiting the park has increased,” Saranga said.
“Local tourists had more places to visit with the end of war and I believe they less visited the traditional locations, such as Horton Plains. Parallel to this foreign tourists visiting Horton Plains showed a sharp increase in 2010,” Saranga added.
In 2009, 11,026 foreign tourists and 155,587 local tourists visited Horton Plains. Compared to the peak months of 2009 – the number of visitors doubled in this year. In February 2009 little less than 1,500 foreigners visited but in February over 2,500 visited. The highest number is in August. August 2009 number of foreign visitors was less than 1,500 but in 2010 it increased to over 3,000. “Though the number of local visitors is low at the moment we can expect it to increase in the months to come,” Saranga said.
There could be a threat to the environment due to the large number of visitors to the Plains. Especially in Horton Plains, where visitors are allowed to trek on designated path and are free to enjoy the beauty of the nature. Over enthusiastic visitors try to pick something this beautiful nature to take home. Birds, mammals, butterflies, lizards, plants and flowers are beautiful only in this breathtaking sceneries and not at one’s home. Visitors would pluck ‘binara’ flowers, Rhododendrons, ferns and twigs of trees on their tour and dump them close to the entrance on their return knowing very well the consequence of their illegal acts.
Nature plants fauna and flora in its appropriate place and humans being a part of the nature is incapable in over ruling mother nature. With the season around the corner visitors to Horton Plains should take interest to protect this unique environment.
“Enforcing rules and regulations will help protect nature,” said Director General of Wildlife, Botanical and Zoological Gardens of the Economic Development Ministry, Chandrawansa Pathiraja. “With more visitors to parks it is important to protect the parks with proper entry/exit points. In the case of threats from smuggling of plants and animals we need different parameters to prevent it as smuggling goes beyond rules and regulations,” he said.
Under the instructions of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa discussions are in progress to identify the present requirements to protect nature as well as to implement the rules and regulations established for environment conservation.
“Under the instructions of the Minister we are working on to bring amendments to the existing fauna and flora protecting rules and regulations to further strengthen them as we see there are loopholes in the existing legal frame work,” Pathiraja added highlighting particularly the importance of protecting the declared areas.
“As many development activities are land based and as the responsible authority both for development and environment protection development works and environment conservation should be carried out hand in hand,” he said. As Pathiraja further explained authorities plan to demarcate the present forest boundaries and take necessary actions to conserve the existing forests in the country.
The Economic Development Ministry, under the purview of Minister Basil Rajapaksa, works with the theme of linking tourism and our natural resources without destroying them. “With the end to terrorist threats in the country foreign tourists visiting our National Parks have doubled now. We could be prepared for the next tourist season from October to November,” he said.
“Horton Plains, Yala, Wilpattu and Kumana are visited national parks by foreign tourists and we are in the process of upgrading the facilities for visitors,” he said. “We are improving the parks to international standards”, he added. Measures have been taken to upgrade facilities like accommodation, sanitation and water supply.
Proper awareness on implementing the regulations would help protect the Horton Plains which is home to many of the rare primitive species of the world.