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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: An Island Hotspot of Biodiversity

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DE RUEHLM #0068/01 0290705
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 290705Z JAN 10 ZDK RUEHIL
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 1195
INFO RUEHZN/ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COLLECTIVE
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RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 9351
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RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 9912
RUEHKP/AMCONSUL KARACHI 2664
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA 0513
RUEHLH/AMCONSUL LAHORE 0139
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI 7188
RUEHPW/AMCONSUL PESHAWAR 0402
RUEHRC/USDA FAS WASHDC
RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000068

SIPDIS

USDA FOR THE FOREST SERVICE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV ECON CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: AN ISLAND HOTSPOT OF BIODIVERSITY

COLOMBO 00000068 001.4 OF 002


1. SUMMARY: Sri Lanka consists of a land area of 65,610
square kilometers, covering low-lying wetlands, mountainous
rainforests, and expansive jungles. Despite its relatively
small size, the country possesses a high level of
biodiversity and represents a biodiversity hotspot. One
feature of Sri Lanka's biodiversity is its number of endemic
species. The country's biodiversity has been protected by a
blend of culture and legislation, though much more needs to
be done to protect endangered species. The main threat to
biodiversity is the increasing demand for land for human
habitation, agricultural use, and development. END SUMMARY

2. ESTHOff met with key stakeholders in Sri Lanka who focus
on biodiversity - contacts in NGOs, universities, and with
the government - and noted that 2010 is the United Nations'
International Year of Biodiversity. All noted the remarkable
nature of the island's biodiversity and the fact that, since
1988, Sri Lanka has been on the list of biodiversity hotspots
compiled by Conservation International. Unfortunately, this
designation has done little to slow the destruction of
habitat and loss of species. Still, despite millennia of
human habitation, centuries of ecosystem change with the
arrival of Europeans, decades of lax protection, and a high
population density, Sri Lanka continues to enjoy remarkable
biodiversity.

ALARMING THREATS TO ENDEMIC SPECIES

3. A recent survey by the International Union for
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the country's endangered
species "red list" points out some alarming statistics. Sri
Lanka's biodiversity has a high proportion of endemic species
among its flora and fauna: 24 percent of flowering plants, 16
percent of mammals, 84 percent of amphibians, 44 percentof
fresh water fish are endemic to Sri Lanka, and new species
are still being discovered. In some cases, due in part to
their limited population and range, many newly classified
fauna are already severely threatened. According to the
report, a third of the country's vertebrate fauna and half of
the evaluated flora is endangered. IUCN officials note that
21 species of endemic amphibians and 72 of the 1099 plant
species evaluated are likely already extinct while 223
species of terrestrial vertebrates, 157 species of selected
inland invertebrates and 675 plant species evaluated are
categorized as nationally threatened.

PROTECTION

4. The country's biodiversity has been protected by a blend
of Sri Lankan culture and legislation, though much more needs
to be done to protect endangered species. Currently, roughly
26 percent of land is protected, for example as national
parkland or forest reserves. Sri Lanka lacks legislation
like the Endangered Species Act but in some situations action
is taken to protect vulnerable species. For example, the
government, working through the IUCN, recently moved an
entire population of snails from its degraded home valley to
a nearby protected valley to improve its survival chances.

5. Fish provide over 65 percent of the country's animal
protein requirement. The Ministry of Fisheries has
recognized the threats to the marine ecosystem caused by
resource depletion due to illegal, inappropriate, or over
fishing in near-shore areas. A case study on an "ecosystem
approach" to fishing is being carried out by the government
in the north western coastal region to demonstrate the
importance of applying environmental management while
maintaining a sustainable fisheries sector.

6. Interestingly, one important reason for the country's
continuing biodiversity is cultural. Many Sri Lankans are
vegetarian, vastly reducing the amount of land required for
animal husbandry. The country lacks a tradition of trophy
hunting, and its Buddhist and Hindu religions also discourage
the unnecessary taking of life. Still, in the modern era,
these fortunate circumstances are not enough to protect the
country's rich biodiversity.


COLOMBO 00000068 002.4 OF 002


LAND USE AND SUBSISTENCE LIVING

7. The main cause of biodiversity loss is habitat destruction
linked to the expansion of cropland. Since 1995,
approximately 33,000 hectares of forest cover have been
destroyed. Sri Lanka derives almost 20 percent of its GDP
from agriculture and fisheries and over 75 percent of the
population remains rural and agrarian. Slash and burn
agriculture (a long-standing agriculture practice of rural
farmers) increases stress on land and fuels the
human/elephant conflict (to be reported septel). According
to the IUCN, the government is attempting to regulate slash
and burn agriculture in order to preserve biodiversity and
reduce contact between humans and animals, but to little
effect.

8. Unfortunately, Ministry of Environment officials (MOE)
concede that it lacks adequate personnel to provide effective
protection, even for the most vulnerable or best-protected
areas. Prof. Sarath Kotagama of the University of Colombo
noted that GPS satellites are now being used to demarcate
forest boundaries to assist in preventing further
encroachment. The wet zone, which includes most of the
southwestern part of the island, is home to most endemic
species although it has only 3 percent of forest cover
compared to a total forest cover of 22 percent country-wide.
It is in this region where perhaps the most vulnerable
populations of endemic species are found.

AN OPPORTUNITY

9. With the conclusion of the 30-year civil war in May 2009,
Sri Lanka - and the international community - has an
unprecedented opportunity to explore the thickly forested
jungle region in the North of the country, home of Sri
Lanka's renowned (and threatened) leopard population.
Contacts note that they "have basically no knowledge of
what's there, what the micro-climates and ecosystems support,
and what kinds of endemic species may be threatened." IUCN's
Vimukthi Weeratunga said that he is working on a proposal to
receive funding and expertise from international donors to
map the region and determine what needs immediate protection.
(NOTE: Post will forward proposals to interested USG
counterparts upon receipt. END NOTE.)

COMMENT

10. Environmental awareness has increased significantly over
the past decade with the environment included in school
curricula and the media reporting frequently on environmental
issues. With the country's recent graduation to a
middle-income country, Sri Lanka has lost some donor support
for environmental projects. Unfortunately, this comes at a
critical time when many species' survival is in doubt and Sri
Lanka simply cannot protect its biodiversity alone.
BUTENIS

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