Country Profiles

Sri Lanka - Country Profile

Biodiversity Facts

Status and trends of biodiversity, including benefits from biodiversity and ecosystem services

Sri Lanka is an island nation, exhibiting remarkable biological diversity and considered to be the richest country in the Asian region in terms of species concentration. Ecological, climatic, soil and topographical variability across the country provides favourable conditions for many types of species of flora and fauna in most localities. According to the National Red List (2012), Sri Lanka counts 253 land snail species, 245 species of butterflies, 240 birds, 211 reptiles, 748 evaluated vertebrates, 1,492 invertebrates, 336 Pteridophytes and 3,154 flowering plants. This biological richness is further accentuated by exceptional levels of endemism, including a large number of historical relics and many point endemics. Presently, a quarter of the 3,000 angiosperms occurring in the country are endemic, along with 43% of indigenous vertebrates (excluding marine forms), with the highest rates recorded among amphibians, freshwater fishes and reptiles. Furthermore, and despite its small size of 6,570,134 ha, Sri Lanka exhibits a wide array of ecosystems, ranging from forest to agricultural, aquatic and marine environments. The several climatic zones that exist in the country are characterized by specific forest types, including rainforests, mountain cloud forests, dry zone monsoon forests and arid thorn scrub forests. With 1,620 km of coastline, rich marine and coastal biodiversity is also represented, notably including 208 species of hard coral and 756 species of marine molluscs. In addition, more than 1,300 species of marine fish have been reported in Sri Lankan waters, supported by important ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds, salt marsh vegetation, sand dunes and beaches.

Sri Lanka’s wetlands are also diverse, comprised of 103 major rivers and associated marshes, and about 12,000 irrigation tanks harbouring wetland species. Sri Lanka also has rich agro-biodiversity due to a unique hydraulic system that has flourished in the country for many centuries, and to the selection practices of farmers and adaptation to varied ecological conditions.

However, at present, Sri Lanka’s unique biological diversity is facing general decline. Twenty seven percent of 240 identified species of birds are threatened, along with 66% of amphibian species, 56% of mammals, 49% of freshwater fish species and 59% of reptiles. In particular, one of Sri Lanka's flagship species (elephant) has been affected by a population decline in both dry and wet zones (a population of 10,000 at the turn of the century has dwindled to a mere 3,000 today). As for flowering plants, 1,385 species of the 3,154 identified species are classified as threatened, the high majority of which (594) are endemic to Sri Lanka.

The area covered by closed canopy dense natural forests declined markedly from 44% to 26.6% and 23.8% of the land area in 1983 and 1992, respectively, and to 22.5% in 1999. As a result of various conservation measures, the rate of deforestation dropped to 20,000 ha per year between 1994 and 1999, revealing that the trend in forest loss had considerably slowed down, although was continuing nonetheless.

Benefits derived from biodiversity contribute considerably to the Sri Lankan economy. Indeed sectors such as fisheries, agriculture and tourism depend highly on the preservation of a high level of biodiversity and the critical sources of revenue derived from it. There are about 1.42 million home gardens in Sri Lanka (totaling about 76,483 ha) that are considered the heart of the country’s agricultural biodiversity. They are widespread throughout the country, existing in dry zones to wetlands. Home gardens perform an important role in conserving hundreds of useful plant species and their genetic diversity, while providing rural and peri-urban households with a steady supply of nutritious food such as rice, yams, underutilized fruit species, indigenous vegetables, leafy vegetables, spices, as well as medicinal plants used in home remedies and traditional medicine. High crop genetic diversity leads to rich agro-biodiversity in the country. About 452 crop wild relative species were recorded during the conduct of the Crop Wild Relatives Conservation Project. In addition, 1,370 medicinal plants (nearly 10% of which are endemic) exist in Sri Lanka, providing an important opportunity for the prospecting of genetic resources for primary health care and business ventures. Agriculture contributes about 11.1% to the total Gross Domestic Product (2012), with a substantial contribution from export agriculture based on bioresources (mainly tea, rubber and several other export agriculture crops). Likewise, the fisheries sector earns valuable foreign exchange through the export of marine and aquaculture products, and provides direct employment to about 150,000 people, while indirectly sustaining at least one million. Finally, tourism is viewed as the fourth most important foreign exchange earner, with direct and indirect employment having reached 67,862 persons and 95,007 persons, respectively, in 2012.

Main pressures on and drivers of change to biodiversity (direct and indirect)

The main threats include habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, overexploitation of biological resources, loss of traditional crop and livestock varieties and breeds, pollution, human/wildlife conflicts, the burgeoning spread of alien invasive species and increasing human population density. Habitat loss is the result of land use change in forests, ad hoc reclamation of wetlands, indiscriminate use of coastal lands and landfills in wetlands and deforestation (the latter constituting the most serious threat to terrestrial biodiversity, with the island having lost approximately 50% of its forest cover within about 50 years). In marine and coastal ecosystems, coral mining for the lime industry has caused extensive damage to coral reefs, while other serious threats include conversion of coastal habitats, destructive fishing practices, pollution from ships and adverse impacts from land-based activities.

Measures to Enhance Implementation of the Convention

Implementation of the NBSAP

A strategy for the preparation of a National Biodiversity Action Plan was developed by IUCN Sri Lanka in 1994. This was followed by the preparation of a Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan (BCAP) which was approved by Cabinet in 1998 and published in 1999. The BCAP outlines conservation objectives and recommended action for four priority systems (forests, wetland, coastal and marine, agriculture), as well as for several priority cross-cutting and inter-sectoral thematic areas, namely: ex situ conservation; biodiversity information; biodiversity-related legal measures, research, education and awareness; institutional support for biodiversity conservation and valuation. However, the BCAP has not yet been implemented in a holistic manner. A review of implementation of 86 recommendations, concerning in situ and ex situ conservation of various ecosystems, found that implementation of 26 recommendations was seriously hampered due to inadequate capacities, while no action had been taken at all to implement 9 recommendations. In 2003, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MoENR) thus initiated the preparation of an addendum to the BCAP to review recommendations which had been acted upon, while noting new issues and priorities to be addressed. It was envisaged that this would also help draw up a strategy for implementing the BCAP in a purposeful and holistic manner.

Actions taken to achieve the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets

Among the already noticeable signs of progress are the considerable slowing down in forest loss, eradication of forest encroachments and illegal logging in the biologically-rich wet zone, protection of 28% of the land area within reserves (with 60% of the closed canopy natural forest or 55% of all natural forests under protection), and the mechanisms that have been put in place for the prevention and eradication of invasive alien species.

As a response to the National Red List (2007), two recovery plans have been prepared, namely: a single species plan for Puntius bandula and a multi-species plan for the Morning Side Amphibian hotspot at the Sinharaja World Heritage Site. The National Red List (2012) evaluated all existing species of flora and fauna and identified priority areas for research and conservation. The re-discovery of an extinct species of amphibian from the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary also highlights the importance of conserving areas that are prone to the negative impacts of climate change and anthropogenic influences. The Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MoERE) has taken the initiative to launch biodiversity surveys of isolated forest patches and areas of high biodiversity value. Other projects for conserving groups of threatened taxa have targeted halting the slaughter of small cetaceans and turtles and addressing the human/elephant conflict. Initiatives for ex situ conservation of indigenous threatened fauna are relatively few, two examples of which are the programme for elephants carried out by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the breeding and reintroduction of a threatened endemic species of freshwater fish (Puntius bandula) by the Biodiversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MoERE). The National Botanic Gardens is also currently involved in the propagation of indigenous orchids, many of which are threatened. There are also several programmes for ex situ conservation of genetic diversity of crops and their wild relatives with potential economic, food or medicinal uses.

Several initiatives have commenced to address climate change challenges. Timber felling has been reduced through the introduction of a transportation permit for most species of timber value, and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MoENR) has responded to water pollution issues by introducing environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures and an environmental pollution licensing scheme. Detailed guidelines for access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing (ABS) have been developed, while a National ABS Policy and Plant Breeders’ Rights Act have been proposed. Finally, some activities have been launched for the development of rural industries based on indigenous knowledge. A few NGOs have conducted field studies on indigenous knowledge and its conservation, notably in relation to women (traditional cultivation systems, traditional food preparation systems, weaving, etc.). Collection and documentation of information on traditional knowledge is led by the Biodiversity Secretariat.

Support mechanisms for national implementation (legislation, funding, capacity-building, coordination, mainstreaming, etc.)

The main pieces of legislation that relate to biodiversity conservation include the Forest Ordinance (1907), Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (1937), Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act (1996), Urban Development Authority Law (1978), as amended by subsequent Acts, National Environmental Act (1980) and Amendment No. 56 (1988), and the Marine Pollution Prevention Act (2008). This legislation is enacted through various policies and strategies (e.g. National Conservation Strategy (1988), National Environmental Policy (2003), National Forest Policy (1995), National Action Plan for the Protection of the Marine and Coastal Environment from Land-based Activities (1999), National Coastal Zone Management Plan), as well as biodiversity protection programmes and projects, such as the Protected Area Management and Wildlife Conservation Project and the Integrated Resource Management Project.

A direct result of implementing the BCAP was the setting up of a biodiversity unit within the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MoERE), later upgraded to a Biodiversity Secretariat and separate division within the Ministry, along with the decentralization of biodiversity conservation actions. Seven provinces have developed biodiversity conservation profiles with action plans, which integrate the BCAP into local planning and priorities. At the central level, the main sectoral institutions concerned with biodiversity comprise the Department of Forest Conservation (FD), Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC), Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) that function under the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MoERE). In particular, the forest and wildlife departments have invested heavily in institutional capacity-building for better managing and conserving forests. Likewise, the setting up of the Coast Conservation Department in the 1980s, the enactment of the Coast Conservation Act (1981) and the periodic review and updating of the Coastal Zone Management Plans and Special Area Management Plans are promoting the sustainable management of coastal resources.

Overall, biodiversity is poorly integrated in other sectoral policies, although some progress has been made in regard to national planning and development (e.g. EIA, solid waste management), tourism (all transport-related projects require environmental impacts assessments), industry (it is legally mandated that industries annually obtain renewable environmental pollution licences) and health (e.g. World Bank/GEF funded project for the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants).

A large majority of funds dedicated to biodiversity conservation comes from external donors (especially the GEF) although the government contribution has increased since the 1990s.

Mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing implementation

The BCAP provides indicators for monitoring the success of meeting CBD objectives through implementation of the BCAP. In 2007, an Addendum was prepared to update and implement conservation action. Thereafter, in 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy (MoERE) established the ‘National Action Plan for the Haritha Lanka’ programme to meet current and emerging economic and environmental challenges. Monitoring is organized in regard to the industrial discharge of effluents in waterways, air emissions and noise pollution; fisheries; forests; coral reefs and other important marine systems. Nevertheless, monitoring activities need to be significantly improved. Several surveys to identify and monitor trends in species diversity are institutionalized (e.g. biodiversity surveys have been piloted in seven protected areas to assess the status of biodiversity represented among mammals, birds, herpetofauna (mainly reptiles), freshwater fishes and vascular plants). In the future, the aim is to survey local biodiversity hotspots as identified by the National Red List (2012) Database and upgrade and gazette these areas as Conservation Forest/Protected Areas/Sanctuaries and instigate a regular system of biodiversity monitoring in protected areas managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and the Department of Forest Conservation (FD).