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Sunday, 8 July 2012





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A new look at Horton Plains

The first time I heard of Rohan Pethiyagoda was in 1986. As Chairman of the Water Resources Board he wrote to me inviting me to join in a publication on "A guide to the inland waters of Sri Lanka." Reflecting on this letter and on what has been accomplished since then to date, clearly indicate that publishing was in his system from his very early days. I first met Rohan in 1991, at Horton Plains. He had just published his first book "Freshwater fishes of Sri Lanka", and I was making an official visit to the park as Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Horton Plains: Sri Lanka’s Cloud-Forest National Park
Edited by Rohan Pethiyagoda
A WHT publication

I do not think it occurred to either of us at the time that that chance encounter would be the beginning of a long association during which we would collaborate on numerous projects. Perhaps prime among these was the production of first Field Guide to the birds of Sri Lanka(1994) and the greatly expanded Sinhala publication "SiriLakakurullo"in 1999. He was able to secure funding twice from a private organisation and the World Bank to provide a free copy of this 516-page volume to every one of Sri Lanka's 5,000 schools and in addition, to every field employee of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

That was the beginning not only of taking ornithology to every village, but also formal natural-history studies in the official language. Rohan and I have since gone on to do much else, but regularly kept in touch. It is therefore, additionally a pleasure for me to write this note on his latest book, "Horton Plains: Sri Lanka's Cloud-forest National Park".

Anyone who has visited Rohan's laboratory at Agrapatana, adjacent to the Agra-Bopath Forest Reserve, will know that he has a special affection for Sri Lanka's montane forests. Few places in Sri Lanka have been as well studied for their biodiversity: the forest-restoration project he began there has been so successful that it is now said to be one of the few places in which the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush ('arrenga') is regularly seen outside a pristine forest setting. It is not surprising then that he chose Horton Plains as the topic for his new book.

As he himself explains in a personal note in the book, he has visited the park regularly since his childhood. In fact it reminded me of my own younger years during which, as a student at St Thomas' College Gurutalawa in the 1960s. I used to visit Horton Plains and had even walked from Pattipola to the plateau along the cobble-paved horse trail. This, alas, is no more, having been replaced by a modern road. Horton Plains was a sanctuary at the time, becoming a national park only in 1988.

A lonely place then, it has now become Sri Lanka's most visited national park, with hundreds of thousands of local and foreign tourists visiting each year. It is also the national park that offers some of the island's best scenery, including World's End, Baker's Falls, and the Kirigalpotta and Totupolakanda peaks. While many people visit just for the scenery, especially a clear view from the top of the World's End precipice, the site's rich and unique biodiversity has come to be appreciated only more recently, thanks to the yeoman service done by several scientists in the past, including botanists such as Professors S. Balasubramaniam, Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, ecologists such as Dr U.K.G.K. Padmalal, and herpetologists such as Anslem de Silva , in addition to many others.

Rohan and his own team too, discovered many new species in Horton Plains, including several amphibians and freshwater crabs. They also photographed many of the rare small mammals of the highlands in life for the first time, including the endemic genera Srilankamys and Feroculus.

This is not the first book on Horton Plains. In 2007 there were two others, Savitri Gunatilleke's "A Nature guide to the World's End trail, Horton Plains" and Anslem de Silva's "The Diversity of Horton Plains National Park". These books, however, dealt with only a part of the Horton Plains story. Savitri's book explained what there was to see along the nature trail, while Anslem's book focused mainly on the herpetofauna.

Rohan's book takes a wider view of Horton Plains, starting with the discovery of the site by Europeans, the early visitors who wrote about it, including pioneers such as Ernst Haeckel and Samuel Baker and a lot of interesting details about the European exploration of Horton Plains in the 19th century.

It then goes on to provide a richly-illustrated account of the landscape, followed by similar treatment of the flora and macro-fauna, and finally a chapter on conservation. Rohan has wisely chosen not to try to write the entire text himself, but collaborated with 11 specialist co-authors, editing the entire volume while being lead author or co-author of 10 of the 13 chapters. I noted also that he has been careful not to overlap with the content of Savitri's and Anslem's books.

Instead, he provides a richly illustrated text on what there is to see by way of landscape, plants and animals treating the site as a pristine wilderness. It is the ideal guidebook (though its 2 kg weight may prevent some from carrying it with them). Even as I recommend this book strongly to the public, there are a few points on which I do not agree with Rohan.

Most importantly, for the birds he has chosen to use the common names given by Rasmussen and Anderton (2005) in their "Birds of South Asia", which still uses "Ceylon" instead of "Sri Lanka", which has been the official name of our country for the past 40 years. It would have been easier for Sri Lankan readers if he had used the common names in general national and international use, such as those recognised by BirdLife International. Another minor but relevant point is that the book refers to Horton Plains as being Sri Lanka's smallest national park whereas several others (e.g., Lahugala, Galway's Land, Ussangoda) are smaller, is less visited. A few similar errors are minor blemishes in an otherwise informative and comprehensive text.

But these are quite minor points and I do not hesitate to strongly recommend this book. Here at last is an excellent guide to all there is to see in Sri Lanka's highest and most visited national park. Whether you have already been to Horton Plains or are planning a visit, this is a book that will enrich your experience like no other. It provides in once place a beautifully-illustrated summary (in addition to the photos there are about 100 drawings of birds and mammals) of the best place to see Sri Lanka's highland biodiversity.

No tour of Horton Plains can be complete, or even meaningful, unless you have this book to refer to. Sites such as Yala and Sinharaja have benefitted from a large number of books, but these have mostly been coffee-table volumes with nice pictures but little information. Rohan's "Horton Plains", however, is probably the best national park guide I have ever seen in Sri Lanka. It will be valued by casual visitors, students and scientists alike. I hope it will lead to a new phase of discovery and appreciation of Horton Plains and serve as a model for similar books on our other national parks in the future.


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