In the lone hills of southern Sri Lanka, there lies a belt of tropical rain forest called Sinharaja. Like all ancient forests, it once stretched out across the country, linking the burning coastline to the cool, lingering highlands.
'Sinharaja' is literally the 'lion king', which refers to the original "Royal Forest of Sri Lanka". The small 8,000 hectare fragment that remains today is the last of its kind, and its survival into the present day has been ensured, not by the blessings of royalty, but the diligence and stewardship of one single man.
Over thirty years ago a young tracker named Martin Wijesinghe joined the Forest Department, bringing with him nothing but a love of nature and an overwhelming desire to learn from the wilderness around him. He was assigned to Sinharaja, and thus began a union that continues to this day.
Martin came at a time when environmental concerns were the last thing on most people's minds.
Even the powers that be were not overly concerned with the country's fast-deteriorating forest resources, and Sinharaja was low on their list of priorities.
As Martin's knowledge of the forest grew, so did his worries for its future.
Experts came and went, but none stayed long enough to absorb the real necessity for the forest to be protected. The timber merchants from home and abroad took their toll on the hardwoods and softwoods of the forest.
The forest fragmentation was to have disastrous consequences for the highly specialized animals of the forest. Sinharaja is home to 19 of the country's 20 endemic bird species, among them, the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, and the Red-faced Malkoha, cited as one of the fifty rarest birds in the world.
Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
photo by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
Tea estates swallowed up the surrounding lands, and slowly began to encroach over the forest's boundary. Herds of elephant that once migrated seasonally, from one region of the forest to another, gradually vanished. And the characteristic 'sawing' call of the leopard faded from memory too. When Sinharaja was finally declared a strict National Reserve, it was barely a fraction of its former size.
Through it all, Martin stayed put, and in time became the foremost authority on Sinharaja's plant and animal wealth.
His knowledge of the forest's herbal plants, its unique insect life, and the secretive animals that hide within its depths, has made him an invaluable consultant to various conservation projects and Sinharaja's eventual establishment as a Man and Biosphere Reserve. Martin remains a respected teacher to hundreds of school children that have visited Sinharaja. And all from a humble tracker without a single qualification.
During the few times that I have visited Sinharaja, I have been amazed to hear Martin rattling off plant and animal names, as he spots them - in both their common AND scientific names. He is a walking encyclopedia and his knowledge is to be treasured by his country.
Martin has been awarded special commendations for his work, and has been granted residence in a department bungalow within the forest itself, which has now been expanded inot a guesthouse.
From there, with his family, he works to keep the forest alive; maintaining a watchful eye on every leaf, and every feather, and every hair. Guarding the forest. Delivering it into the future.
Sinharaja, photo by Nihal Fernando