Sri Lanka’s mountain biodiversity

Saturday, 25 August 2012 02:27 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Stamp Talk by the Philatelist

“From the beginning, Sri Lanka’s destiny has been intertwined with India’s. Together they broke away from the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland 120 million years or so ago, and crammed full of all manner of life, rather like Noah’s Ark, voyaged northwards across the Tethys Sea, eventually joining up with Eurasia 40 million years ago.

The voyage lasted almost 80 million years, ending only with the great collision of continents that gave rise to the Himalayas. During its course, the dinosaurs vanished from the face of the earth and the mammals were soon to fill the vacuum they left; countless species came and went. When island India finally linked up with Asia, a massive exchange of species took place: Gondwanaland immigrants flooded into Asia, and Asian invaders fought their way into the Indian plains.

“Sitting unobtrusively at a safe distance at all the actions, Sri Lanka was immune to much of this turmoil. Over the ages, it has sat like a sponge at the foot of the giant Indian subcontinent, soaking up the steady progression of plants and animals that have made their way south.

In the scale of geological time, it has always been part of India. The present separation by the Palk Strait is probably only about 12,000 years old: if only Prince Vijaya, the half-mythical founder of the Sinhalese people, had opted to venture south a little earlier than he did, he might have walked.”

With these words, Rohan Pethiyagoda begins the introduction to his work, ‘Ours to Protect - Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Heritage.’

Moving away from mundane subjects, the Sri Lanka Philatelic Bureau released a series of four stamps on the theme ‘Mountain Biodiversity of Sri Lanka’ in 2003 on 22 May to mark World Biodiversity Day.

The stamps featured the Central Highlands which is one of the five main geomorphic regions based on the elevation and nature of the terrain. (The others are the Coastal Fringe, South-west Country, East and South-East Country, and North Central Lowland).

The Central Highlands, which includes the highest peaks as well as several isolated mountains in the lowland, form the major component of the mountainous environment of Sri Lanka.

Mountains are an important source of water, energy and biological diversity. In addition, other valuable resources such as minerals, forests and agricultural products also originate from these. As a major subsystem of the complex and inter-related ecology of our planet, mountainous environments are essential for the survival of the national and global ecosystem.

Of the four stamps, one (Rs. 4), features the Pidurutalagala mountain, the highest in Sri Lanka, rising to 2,524 metres. Overlooking the hills of Nuwara Eliya, the climb to the peak is not a tedious one and because of the high wind and mist, the flora in the region is unique with stunted and twisted trees. 41 plant families and 112 plant species have been recorded. Of the latter, 57 are endemic to Sri Lanka. Sixteen are very rare globally and are in danger of extinction.

Seven Maidens (one is reminded of the ‘Three Sisters’ in Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia) has got its name obviously because of the formation of seven hills in the mountain range as seen in the Rs. 4.50 stamp.

Located near Lakshapana waterfall, Seven Maidens also belong to the Nuwara Eliya district. The highest mountain in the range is Ballapennagala which is 1,276 metres high. The range was in the news globally when a plane from Indonesia with pilgrims en route to Mecca crashed there in the early 1970s.

The Rs. 16.50 stamp features Kirigalpotta, the second highest peak in Sri Lanka located near Horton Plains in the Nuwara Eliya district. It is 2,395 metres high. Horton Plains is a stretch of windswept plateau, 2,100 m above sea level about 30 km south of Nuwara Eliya with an expanse of grassland. The plains end abruptly on the southern side in World’s End, so called because the land plunges in an almost sheer drop of 1,500 m, offering a most striking sight.

Ritigala mountain seen in the Rs. 20 stamp is the highest peak in the North Central Province and is about 764.25m high. Located between Habarana and Maradankadawala, Ritigala is like a little bit of the hill country in the dry zone.

The range is clearly visible at a short distance from the Habarana-Maradankadawala-Anuradhapura road just past the village of Palugaswewa. The walk to the peak would take about four hours. Way back in 1893, Archaeological Commissioner H. C. P. Bell discovered more than 32 caves in the Ritigala range as well as several stone inscriptions.