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Hikkaduwa - Corals, Sands and Future Dreams

By Anuradha Alahakoon

The morning sun shines on the golden sands of the Hikkaduwa beach. The sea was rough. The boat with the glass bottom passes the coral area and “Lokka”, the boat operator tells me that it is the “out season” for the tourists. Ranjan, better known as “Lokka”, operates a glass bottom boat, in Hikkaduwa coastal town, where the tourists come for sun, sand and scuba diving among corals. The glass bottom boat will carry tourists for nearly 20 minutes around the coral area for a fee. The boat stops amid the coral area and clumps of corals become visible through the glass bottom. Colourful fish swim around the corals. Lokka throws some bread in to the water and fish flock to feast on that. The boat operators such as Lokka depend on this beach and corals for their livelihood and their common future will depend on the sustainability of this ecosystem.

The big time tourism starts in Hikkaduwa from November to March every year. The hotels, restaurants and small huts which lodge the back packers come into life in this season. The beginning of this year, according to the hoteliers of the area, saw a rise in tourist arrival. Statistics also show a 50% increase in tourist arrivals during January to May compared to the last year. This is not surprising as the country was lucky to get rid of decades of civil war and peace began to creep in to the mind of everybody to travel around the country.

Sri Lanka, a natural beauty surrounded by a beautiful coastline, attracted many foreigners in the past and the decades of war and security uncertainties cut off the major part of tourist income for the country. The tourism industry is one industry that suffered heavily because of the war. After the war, the international media also gave green light for tourists in their countries to visit Sri Lanka. National Geographic Channel named 20 new countries to travel in 2010 and Sri Lanka was nominated as the second on the list. In the US, New York Times newspaper also nominated Sri Lanka as one of the best countries to visit. Two beach stretches in down south and southwest of the island were ranked by the international Forbes magazine amongst the most beautiful beaches around the world. In this scenario, it is not surprising that the coastal town of Hikkaduwa also looks forward to the coming season for a hefty income.

Given the beauty of the beach and the wonderfully located coral reef, Hikkaduwa attracted hoteliers from early days. Beginning from only a single big hotel in 1960, around 9 big hotels were build in the area along with 125 guest houses and more than 40 restaurants. This indicates the attractiveness of the area to the investors in hospitality business. After the ending of the civil war, now the hoteliers are optimistic.
“We observed a tourism increase in the last season. Actually after the war, we began to think positively about the industry,” said an Executive Chef at Amaya Reef Hotel, Lalith Haputhanthri, Hikkaduwa who possesses nearly 32-years of experience. Some hotels are refurbishing and building new facilities to accommodate more tourists.

Tourism has become a major source of income in Hikkaduwa not only for the big and small hoteliers, but also for the people who loiter on the beach. One community is the beach boys who depend on selling small souvenirs to visitors. Some of the beach boys consider themselves as “guides” and W.A. Rohana, who met us at the beach said that he has been guiding tourists for about 25 years in Hikkaduwa. He said his livelihood mostly depended on operating a glass bottom boat and showing the tourists around. This shows how much the locals depend on this beautiful surrounding which attracts visitors.

A unique reef
Coral reefs are environmentally important marine ecosystems in the world as those are highly productive and rich in marine habitats. Coral reefs are limited to tropical warm seas in a relatively small area of the world’s ocean. But 25% of world’s sea creatures are found in the coral reefs. These reefs are built by colonies of small animals called “Polyps”. They excrete lime (calcium carbonate) as a skeleton surrounding it and these skeletons are the mechanical strength of the reef.

The Hikkaduwa shore is unique as it has a high diversity coral reef with a rich biodiversity. It hosts a shallow reef lagoon which is 0.5 – 1 metre in depth at the shore side. The coral reef is what experts call a “fringing reef”. Corals are normally classified to different varieties/species. The Hikkaduwa reef is dominated by the coral species called “Montipora”. Those are bush like corals. In inshore area contains other species - massive branching corals- such as corals belonging to Favidae and Fortidae famillies. Hikkaduwa’s coral diversity is high as there are 60 species of coral belonging to 31 genera.

Normally coral reefs are considered to be highly productive and diverse natural environments (ecosystem). A coral reef is home to many diverse sea creatures. There are fauna and flora which are adapted specially to the coral reefs. The Hikkaduwa reef is specially important as it is home to some of the fish species only found in Sri Lanka. Chlorurus rhakoura and Pomacentrus proteus are fish species only found in Sri Lanka, which are found in the Hikkaduwa coral reef. Also it is not hard to observe endangered turtle species such as Horks Bill, Green and Olive Ridley in the surrounding area of the Hikkaduwa coral reef.
The Hikkaduwa coral reef is composed of live and dead corals, typical of any coral reef. The reef has a shore-side as well as a seaward side. The seaward side has an outer slope covered primarily with limestone and some live corals. Several canals and riverines including the Hikkaduwa Ganga fall to the sea near the Hikkaduwa reef. This area is exposed to strong monsoon winds and currents and rough seas during a certain period of the year. Therefore, this reef is very important when comes to coastline protection.

Sanctuary under threat
Hikkaduwa became a protected area under the Fisheries Ordinance in 1961. This is to stop indiscriminate fishing. The major threat for the reef at that time was from net fishing, spear fishing and ornamental fish collection. Fish could not be caught without a permit by this act and also restricted a list of coral fish which could not be removed by any means. In 1979, the 44.5 ha area was declared as the Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary. The other milestone was the declaration of Hikkaduwa as a Nature Reserve in 1998 and protected area extended to 104 hectares. After this, the other important conservation measure was to declare this area as a National Park in 2002.

Drawing the attention of the authorities to the Hikkaduwa coral belt was made possible because of the efforts of some dedicated researchers and scientists. The National Aquatic Resources Research Agency played a main role in this endeavour. In 1985, the coral reef research team was formed and as one of their first tasks, they did a survey on the Hikkaduwa coral reef and the vicinity. Two prominent researchers - N. de Silva and A. Rajsuriya proposed a management plan to the Hikkaduwa sanctuary as a Marine Park. They proposed a three zone demarcation plan consisting of two interactive zones for visitors and a highly protected research zone.
It was due to the increased lobbying of the researchers that the Ministry of Tourism and Rural Industries and authorities like Urban Development focussed attention on the development of the Hikkaduwa sanctuary in a proper legal framework. The Department of Wild Life Conservation was given the responsibility to manage the national park. As a result, an office of DWLC was established at the sanctuary and boards displaying coral reef conservation messages were erected. These activities were carried out during 1992-1996 and it was a time which resulted in building up of at least some public awareness.

Even though a legal framework is in place now for the conservation and management of the Hikkaduwa national park, experts agree that actions taken at the ground level were few. The proposals after studying the coral reef were to limit the number of glass bottom boats and this was not done even legally as per the recommendations of the researchers. A high number of boats are operating at present and the question is the sustainability of their activities. The direct impact of boats on the reef damages the reef, and anchors and chains which are used to hold the boats also mechanically damage the corals. The spillage of diesel, kerosine and other oils also pollute the water.

Also the discharge of waste and sewage to the beach and lagoon from some hotels and restaurants still can be observed. Though some hotels are environmentally conscious, some still think in the short-term. Also the illegal constructions on the beach are detrimental to the natural current pattern. Still the tourists are largely unconscious of natural ecosystem degradation. Visitors stepping in to the corals and collecting corals and sea creatures are serious threats.
In 1998, coral bleaching effect occurred due to the climatic condition called El Nino. Natural living coral cover was reduced to 13 from 47 % . This further stressed this natural eco-system and increased human activities damage the remaining natural coral cover more. The collection of ornamental fish from the reef is also another threat to coral reef bio-diversity.

Challenge of sustainability
Any natural environment could not be conserved in a vacuum. Conservation could be achieved with the participation of people. The industries like tourism are needed to the society- for its own sake as well as for sustaining the country’s economic growth.
Developing and maintaining Hikkaduwa as a National Park is indeed a long-term strategy for the benefit of the tourism industry. On the other hand, the tourism industry can achieve long-term sustainability of the National Park by generating an income for day- to-day maintenance of it.
Surely, the role of the Department of Wild Life conservation is significant here. As recommended by the scientists in many of their proposals, the zonation plan of the National Park should be adhered to. For any national park this zonation pattern is important as it clearly defines an undisturbed area from human activities as well as an interactive area. The zonation of a national park is important for developing responsible and sustainable tourism activities.

Museums and public information centres are the better means of spreading the message of conservation. These are the areas we should be concerned about in future. We should not depend only on government authorities to getting through the conservation message to the public. The private sector also can initiate such campaigns and can show their commitment to the sustainability of this fragile ecosystem.