Status and trends of biodiversity, including benefits from biodiversity and ecosystem services
Sri Lanka is an island nation, exhibiting remarkable biological diversity and considered to be the richest country in the Asian region in terms of species concentration. Ecological, climatic, soil and topographical variability across the country provides favourable conditions for many types of species of flora and fauna in most localities. According to the National Red List (2012), Sri Lanka counts 253 land snail species, 245 species of butterflies, 240 birds, 211 reptiles, 748 evaluated vertebrates, 1,492 invertebrates, 336 Pteridophytes and 3,154 flowering plants. This biological richness is further accentuated by exceptional levels of endemism, including a large number of historical relics and many point endemics. Presently, a quarter of the 3,000 angiosperms occurring in the country are endemic, along with 43% of indigenous vertebrates (excluding marine forms), with the highest rates recorded among amphibians, freshwater fishes and reptiles. Furthermore, and despite its small size of 6,570,134 ha, Sri Lanka exhibits a wide array of ecosystems, ranging from forest to agricultural, aquatic and marine environments. The several climatic zones that exist in the country are characterized by specific forest types, including rainforests, mountain cloud forests, dry zone monsoon forests and arid thorn scrub forests. With 1,620 km of coastline, rich marine and coastal biodiversity is also represented, notably including 208 species of hard coral and 756 species of marine molluscs. In addition, more than 1,300 species of marine fish have been reported in Sri Lankan waters, supported by important ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds, salt marsh vegetation, sand dunes and beaches.
Sri Lanka’s wetlands are also diverse, comprised of 103 major rivers and associated marshes, and about 12,000 irrigation tanks harbouring wetland species. Sri Lanka also has rich agro-biodiversity due to a unique hydraulic system that has flourished in the country for many centuries, and to the selection practices of farmers and adaptation to varied ecological conditions.
However, at present, Sri Lanka’s unique biological diversity is facing general decline. Twenty seven percent of 240 identified species of birds are threatened, along with 66% of amphibian species, 56% of mammals, 49% of freshwater fish species and 59% of reptiles. In particular, one of Sri Lanka's flagship species (elephant) has been affected by a population decline in both dry and wet zones (a population of 10,000 at the turn of the century has dwindled to a mere 3,000 today). As for flowering plants, 1,385 species of the 3,154 identified species are classified as threatened, the high majority of which (594) are endemic to Sri Lanka.
The area covered by closed canopy dense natural forests declined markedly from 44% to 26.6% and 23.8% of the land area in 1983 and 1992, respectively, and to 22.5% in 1999. As a result of various conservation measures, the rate of deforestation dropped to 20,000 ha per year between 1994 and 1999, revealing that the trend in forest loss had considerably slowed down, although was continuing nonetheless.
Benefits derived from biodiversity contribute considerably to the Sri Lankan economy. Indeed sectors such as fisheries, agriculture and tourism depend highly on the preservation of a high level of biodiversity and the critical sources of revenue derived from it. There are about 1.42 million home gardens in Sri Lanka (totaling about 76,483 ha) that are considered the heart of the country’s agricultural biodiversity. They are widespread throughout the country, existing in dry zones to wetlands. Home gardens perform an important role in conserving hundreds of useful plant species and their genetic diversity, while providing rural and peri-urban households with a steady supply of nutritious food such as rice, yams, underutilized fruit species, indigenous vegetables, leafy vegetables, spices, as well as medicinal plants used in home remedies and traditional medicine. High crop genetic diversity leads to rich agro-biodiversity in the country. About 452 crop wild relative species were recorded during the conduct of the Crop Wild Relatives Conservation Project. In addition, 1,370 medicinal plants (nearly 10% of which are endemic) exist in Sri Lanka, providing an important opportunity for the prospecting of genetic resources for primary health care and business ventures. Agriculture contributes about 11.1% to the total Gross Domestic Product (2012), with a substantial contribution from export agriculture based on bioresources (mainly tea, rubber and several other export agriculture crops). Likewise, the fisheries sector earns valuable foreign exchange through the export of marine and aquaculture products, and provides direct employment to about 150,000 people, while indirectly sustaining at least one million. Finally, tourism is viewed as the fourth most important foreign exchange earner, with direct and indirect employment having reached 67,862 persons and 95,007 persons, respectively, in 2012.
Main pressures on and drivers of change to biodiversity (direct and indirect)
The main threats include habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, overexploitation of biological resources, loss of traditional crop and livestock varieties and breeds, pollution, human/wildlife conflicts, the burgeoning spread of alien invasive species and increasing human population density. Habitat loss is the result of land use change in forests, ad hoc reclamation of wetlands, indiscriminate use of coastal lands and landfills in wetlands and deforestation (the latter constituting the most serious threat to terrestrial biodiversity, with the island having lost approximately 50% of its forest cover within about 50 years). In marine and coastal ecosystems, coral mining for the lime industry has caused extensive damage to coral reefs, while other serious threats include conversion of coastal habitats, destructive fishing practices, pollution from ships and adverse impacts from land-based activities.