Govt. wants India to double its facilities – The Island
By Ifham Nizam
Sri Lankan engineer-turned-naturalist Dr Rohan Pethiyagoda, who recently became the first Sri Lankan to be awarded the Linnean Medal for outstanding contribution to science and the second Asian to be a recipient of the Medal, says he now wants to help solve some of the problems caused by the current economic crisis.
Sri Lanka faces a decade or two of extreme stress and poverty, he said The Island “My main concern is the under-12 generation, who are at serious risk of suffering from malnutrition. Anything we can do to make sure every child gets enough food, especially protein, is worth doing. Malnutrition will result in stunted growth, reduced intelligence and poor school performance. This is the greatest challenge of this hour, and I want to engage in it. There are many more who are willing and able to address the biodiversity crisis.
Pethiyagoda channeled proceeds from his book, Sri Lankan freshwater fish to a foundation he created, the Wildlife Heritage Trust (WHT) dedicated to research on biodiversity in Sri Lanka. Based in Agrapatana, WHT has become a national focal point for emerging scientists. “We have built up a huge reference collection there,” explains Pethiyagoda, thanks to the zealous fieldwork of Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi, Mohammed Bahir, Sudath Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gabadage and others. WHT then hosted a large number of world-renowned scientists such as Robert F. Inger, Alain Dubois, Maurice Kottelat, Peter Ng, Fred Naggs, Franky Buossuyt, Chris Schneider and James Hanken. They, in turn, mentored young Sri Lankan students, most of whom became extremely productive.
“Four of the students who worked closely with WHT in the early 2000s are now university professors,” says Pethiyagoda, “Madhava Meegaskumbura, Suyama Boyagoda, Anjana Silva and Kalana Maduwage. I think Anjana and Kalana were maybe -be the youngest to be appointed full professors at their respective universities,” proudly states their former mentor. “Kelum was perhaps the most productive. He was responsible for the discovery and description of dozens of new species of amphibians, while Bahir focused primarily on crabs, later describing some 40 new species Madhava became the first graduate in Sri Lanka to be the first author of a paper in science, which is among the most respected scientific journals. eminent in the world. In total, I believe that more than 150 new species have been described from the collections of WHT.
As a result, the turn of the century saw immense activity in biodiversity research in Sri Lanka. WHT published more and more papers, of which Pethiyagoda was the author of more than 60. And WHT specimens were widely studied by other scientists across Sri Lanka. Not content with research, WHT has published over 30 natural history books written by others, including guides to amphibians and snakes (also in Sinhalese), as well as biographies of prominent naturalists such as WWA Phillips and GM Henry. He has also published a peer-reviewed scientific journal, “South Asian Journal of Natural History” and a popular magazine “Sri Lankan Nature”.
“The biggest initiative that I undertook was to create a National Biodiversity Research Institute,” says Pethiyagoda. “Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe, who were president and prime minister at the time, supported the project wholeheartedly. Donors pledged more than US$20 million to establish the institute and, through an endowment, to fund it in perpetuity. It would be a government-owned but privately funded research institution, much like SLINTEC. But he came before his time. This was all too much for some people, and a vicious campaign against the institute began. Unfortunately, several people associated with leading NGOs such as the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society, Ruk Rekaganno and EFL have also taken a cudgel against the institute. The opposition was so vicious that eventually I gave up and the donors pulled out. Eventually the millions of dollars went to India. Sri Lanka’s loss was India’s gain.
“In 2008, the atmosphere was so toxic that I also decided to close WHT. I donated the WHT specimens to the National Museum, where it is now perhaps the largest component, certainly in terms of type specimens, of their collection. Much of WHT’s library went to Peradeniya. And I myself decided to emigrate to Australia and accept a scholarship at the Australian Museum.
Pethiyagoda continued his research work. “We have so much talent, and the dedication, passion and ability of these young people is amazing,” he says proudly. “They give me so much hope for the future.”
So what excites the Linnaean medalist these days? “When I see a teenage birdwatcher carrying a well-flapped copy of Professor Sarath Kotagama ‘Siri Lanka Kurullo’, published by WHT in 1998,” he says, “my eyes look up. It was the first comprehensive birding guide published in Sinhalese, and it transformed birdwatching from a pursuit of the English-speaking urban elite into a pastime for the masses. If that was all I had done in my life, that would have been enough.
But this was not enough, and Pethiyagoda went on to found the Agra Arboretum. Here, in 1998, he set about transforming a 50-acre tea estate into submontane forest. “Now, almost a quarter of a century later,” he explains, “we have learned valuable lessons about how this can be done at the landscape level. Even after selling the property in 2008 to Raja Gnanam, he and his sons continue the reforestation and conservation work and Sudath Nanayakkara, who has managed the property since its inception, continues to manage it. This project also received recognition from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2000. In a way, it complements Sam Poppham’s arboretum in Dambulla, although 1500 meters higher.