Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sinharaja Forest Reserve information
The last major undisturbed area of rainforest in Sri Lanka, this forest reserve occupies a broad ridge at the heart of the island’s wet zone. On most days the forest is shrouded by copious rainclouds that replenish its deep soils and balance water resources for much of southwestern Sri Lanka. Recognising its importance to the island’s ecosystem, Unesco declared the Sinharaja Forest Reserve a World Heritage Site in 1989.
The only way to get about the reserve is by foot, and excellent park guides, or freelance guides available through many hotels, can lead you along slippery trails pointing out the wealth of stunning plant, bird and animal-life.
Landscape & History
Sinharaja (Lion King) is bordered by rivers: the Koskulana Ganga in the north and the Gin Ganga in the south. An old foot track that goes past the Beverley Estate marks the eastern border, close to the highest peak in the forest, Hinipitigala (1171m). Towards the west the land decreases in elevation.
The reserve comprises 189 sq km of natural and modified forest, measuring about 21km east to west and 3.7km north to south. It was once a royal reserve, and some colonial records refer to it as Rajasinghe Forest. It may have been the last redoubt of the Sri Lankan lion.
In 1840 the forest became British crown land, and from that time some efforts were made towards its preservation. However, in 1971 loggers moved in and began selective logging. The logged native hardwoods were replaced with mahogany (which does not occur naturally here), logging roads and trails snaked into the forest and a wood-chip mill was built. Following intense lobbying by conservationists, the government called a halt to all logging in 1977. Machinery was dismantled and removed, the roads gradually grew over and Sinharaja was saved. Much of the rest of Sri Lanka’s rainforest stands on mountain ridges within a 20km radius of the forest.
There are 22 villages around the forest, and locals are permitted to enter the area to tap palms to make jaggery (a hard brown sweet) and treacle, and to collect dead wood and leaves for fuel and construction. Medicinal plants are collected during specific seasons. Rattan collection is of more concern, as the demand for cane is high. Sinharaja attracts illegal gem miners, too, and abandoned open pits pose a danger to humans and animals, and cause erosion. There is also some poaching of wild animals.
Wildlife & Plants
Sinharaja has a wild profusion of flora. The canopy trees reach heights of up to 45m, with the next layer down topping 30m. Nearly all the subcanopy trees found here are rare or endangered. More than 65% of the 217 types of trees and woody climbers endemic to Sri Lanka’s rainforest are found in Sinharaja.
The largest carnivore here is the leopard. Its presence can usually be gauged only by droppings and tracks, and it’s seldom seen. Even rarer are rusty spotted cats and fishing cats. Sambar, barking deer and wild boar can be found on the forest floor. Groups of 10 to 14 purple-faced langurs are fairly common. There are three kinds of squirrels: the flame-striped jungle squirrel, the dusky-striped jungle squirrel and the western giant squirrel. Porcupines and pangolins waddle around the forest floor, mostly unseen. Civets and mongooses are nocturnal, though you may glimpse the occasional mongoose darting through the foliage during the day. Six species of bats have been recorded here.
Sinharaja has 45 species of reptiles, 21 of them endemic. Venomous snakes include the green pit viper (which inhabits trees), the hump-nosed viper and the krait, which lives on the forest floor. One of the most frequently found amphibians is the wrinkled frog, whose croaking is often heard at night.
There is a wealth of birdlife: 160 species have been recorded, with 18 of Sri Lanka’s 20 endemic species seen here.
Sinharaja has leeches in abundance. In colonial times the British, Dutch and Portuguese armies rated leeches as their worst enemy when they tried to conquer the hinterland (which was then much more forested), and one British writer claimed leeches caused more casualties than all the other animals put together. These days you needn’t suffer as much because all guides carry antileech preparations.
Tickets are sold at the main Forest Department office at Kudawa and at Deodawa, 5km from Deniyaya on the Matara road.
The drier months (August and September, and January to early April) are the best times to visit.
See www.sinharaja.4t.com for detailed information on the history, flora and fauna, and the challenges faced by the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.