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No ‘Parking’ for Lantana at Udawalawe

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) recently launched a well coordinated programme to remove the invasive Lantana camara from the Udawalawe National Park. In the midst of this endeavour, however, a leading Sunday Newspaper, last week, published a story delivering false information, under the title “Udawalawe set on fire; Project flops”. Here, the writer who was a volunteer in the campaign analyses the project based on her personal experience, data and facts. The writer asserts that the fire had no connection to the project and the project itself was not a flop.

Text and pix by Nimashi Amaleeta
Lantana camara, locally referred to as Gandapana and Baloliya, is a well known, smelly weed with pretty flowers. The plant is a rugged evergreen shrub, common in the tropics. The species generally grows to 6 ft (1.8 m) in height and may spread to 8 ft in width.

Lantana in Udawalawe
The Global Invasive Species Programme (1999) defines ‘invasive alien species’ as “non native organisms that cause or, have the potential to cause, harm to the environment, economies or, human health.”

Lantana camara is, essentially, an invasive species in Sri Lanka, for it impacts agriculture and park management. It proliferates in disturbed native forests, becomes the dominant under storey species and disrupts succession patterns and decreases biodiversity. Lantana camara is considered one among the worst 57 invasive plants worldwide. It is believed to have been introduced to Sri Lanka from South America, as an ornamental plant.

The Udawalawe National Park (UNP) lies between the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces, of the dry zone in Sri Lanka. Udawalawe was declared as a NP on the 30th of June 1972, in order to protect the Udawalwe reservoir catchments area and to protect our flagship species, the elephant. The park presently spans an area of approximately 320 square kilometers. The park has the capability of accommodating an elephant population of 500 – 550 animals.

Prior to the declaration of the NP, the Udawalawe area was heavily utilised by people engaged in chena cultivation. Thus the habitats essentially consisted of disturbed native forests, secondary forests, fallow lands and grasslands. Grasses like mana, illuk and ginigrass were common, while mana remains to be the most abundant to date. Such disturbed habitats proved ideal for elephants. Thus following the declaration, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) launched many rehabilitation and restoration programmes to upgrade the NP. Unfortunately however, the disturbed habitats – the very factor that was advantageous initially – unexpectedly doubled up as a ruining factor, affecting the park adversely. The invasive Lantana camara, proliferates rapidly in disturbed habitats. And the UNP in turn, proved to be an ideal habitat to facilitate the unabated spread of this plant. The case has been so for the past twenty to thirty years or so. Presently, the plant has spread in a total of 10,000 hectares.

Dense spreads of Lantana often dislodge indigenous vegetation, exposing bare soil and increasing erosion. They also overtop the indigenous vegetation, depriving the plants of sunlight and thus causing them to decline. The decline of indigenous vegetation, in turn, renders changes in associated plant and animal life.

Lantana has also interfered with agricultural activities in Sri Lanka by encroaching upon arable land. Besides, Lantana flowers and berries are toxic to elephants as well as humans. The fine thorns on the plant and the hairs on the leaves, render the entire plant inedible to most native animals.

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Means to improve

The organisers should launch a comprehensive public awareness programme, well in advance. Distributing leaflets on the site alone does not suffice. Improving on providing information, education, and public awareness of alien invasive issues by all sectors of society, is fundamental in such campaigns, for, control and eradication of alien invasive species. Such campaigns are more likely to be successful if supported by enlightened and cooperating communities.

There should be proper selection criteria in selecting potential ‘workforces’.
The villagers around the park know the place better than those who come from far away. Therefore, these programmes should essentially focus on harnessing the best of these village communities. However, it is unlikely that they would contribute to such a programme ‘for charity’. But the DWC could encourage them to contribute in exchange for incentives.

Finally, publicity is necessary, for the message needs to reach the masses. Publicity should be brought about in an ethically acceptable manner. On the other hand, media organizations should refrain from delivering false information, as highlighted earlier in the article.

The Nation expresses its sincere gratitude to the park personnel of the UNP, Dr, Nihal Dayawansa, the 3rd and 4th year zoology batches of the Colombo Campus and students of the Science Faculty who participated in the cleaning campaign, as well as to the GMSL.

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Absurd!

This programme was a first of its kind in Sri Lanka, with most aspects well organized and the situation well handled. The DWC provided transport, food, accommodation and equipment for the cleaning campaign. All these matters, to the best of my knowledge were well organised. Yet, however, The Nation noted some absurd situations, which could have been easily avoided.
Hanging earrings and high heels!

In one instance, on the morning of August 10, we were quite surprised to see a group of ladies step out of a four-wheel, all overdressed, to participate in the campaign. Perhaps, people are expected to have more commonsense. Dressed in such a way, is not at all suited to contribute to a feat of this sort. On the other hand, the organisers should have politely explained matters to such groups, instead of rushing forward to provide them with food and beverages, which otherwise could have been given to other genuine participants.

Inappropriate selections
Certain schools, particularly from Colombo, arrived at the site totally unprepared. They had no idea what Lantana was, let alone why it should be removed. The little girls and boys, in fact, suffered abrasions in the process, trying to remove the plants with their bare hands. The boys of a leading public school in Maradana, had even removed Kohomba and Palu, along with Lantana. The girls were no better. Unable to withstand the harsh conditions, they were retreating to the buses from time to time, to apply creams and the like. Employing such unsuitable workforces, certainly, has repercussions. Perhaps the organisers should have had a better criteria to select potential ‘workforces’.

Dirty propaganda
No matter how well intentioned this programme was, yet one cannot expect it to have a zero political propaganda. , in fact, came across many instances, which appeared to be deliberately staged to gain publicity.

In one such instance, there was a man patrolling our plot with a video camera. He was from a State owned television institute. He roamed freely videoing us, while his wife and son leisurely looked on. This behaviour was condemned by many. On the one hand, it was ethically wrong to video us without our informed consent.

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Removing Lantana

The Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the DWC, approached the problem from a different facet. They organised a massive shramadhana campaign to harness the efforts of the general public, university students, environmental organisations and school children, to remove the invasive. This cleaning campaign was held on from the 5th – 11th of August.

The Nation spoke to the Sub Warden, UNP, Prasanna Wimaladasa, with regard to the programme. “This is the first time we organised a campaign to garner public support,” he explained. When asked how successful the programme was Wimaladasa said, “The outcome of the project is very commendable. We chose the boundary of the park as the site of the project and subdivided it into 31 plots of 1 ha each. The plots were characterised according to their canopy cover. Plots with a canopy cover of more than 70 % were designated ‘high density’, 30% – 50 % were designated ‘medium density while plots less than 30 % were designated ‘low density’. This was a shramadhana campaign. Therefore, we were entirely dependent on the service offered by the people voluntarily. But, we are happy to note that the majority of the participants did a great job despite the harsh climatic conditions. 17 plots have been completely cleared up to now. (August 10) In fact, their endaevours are very much appreciated. We are very thankful!”

When queried whether the programme was a success he said, “Of course. The programme was exemplary. The fallen Lantana seeds would soon germinate. This is Wimaladasa’s opinion on tacking this situation. “Removing the tender plants, obviously, would not be as difficult as removing the big bushes. We hope to extend this programme, while also hoping that the volunteers would return to tend to the plots they cleared this season.”

When asked what his comments were on the degree of participation he said, “Up to date, (Aug 10), 22 schools 14 NGOs and 2 Universities participated.”
All 31 plots were demarcated along the boundary of the park. When asked what the criteria was for this selection he said, “After all, the park boundaries are of little use to wildlife.

They hardly inhabit this area. Thus wouldn’t it have been more beneficial for wildlife, if the authorities chose to clear the interior instead of the boundaries?. “This programme was the first of its kind. Therefore we chose the boundaries, so that on the one hand even if something went wrong the impact to the interior would be minimal. On the other hand, we cannot keep track on large crowds once they enter the park.

They could get lost, or worse, they could be even threatened by wildlife. Apart from these there’s another reason. The Udawalawe reservoir is located immediately next to the boundary. Therefore we chose to clear this area, so that elephants could have easy access to the reservoir, which was otherwise obstructed by dense growths of Lantana.” explained Wimaladasa.

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