The unique swamp forest known as the Walawwewatta Waturana, the only known habitat for two endemic plant species, has been given legal protection almost thirty years since the re-discovery of these plants from this patch of forest in 1979.The protection has been afforded by declaring the area as an Environment Protection Area under the provisions of Sections 24C and 24D of the National Environmental Act by the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by an order published in Gazette Extraordinary No.1598/21 of 24.04.2009. The area that has been afforded protection is called the "Walawwewatta Waturana Environment Protection Area" and covers an extent of 6.2045 hectares.
This swamp forest is located in the Bulathsinhala Divisional Secrataries division in the Kalutara District and is part of the private property known as the Walawwewatta, owned by the Wijesekara family. It is a narrow strip of forest bordering two canals known as Batapota Ela and Kukulu Ela which joins south of this forest and joins the Kuda Ganga near the old estate bungalow (locally known as the Walawwa) The Kuda Ganga is a tributary of Kalu Ganga. The patch of swamp forest is a 1.3 kilometer long strip along the Batapota Ela and is about 100 meters to 120 meters in width. This area gets inundated during periods of heavy rain and the water would rise to 3 to 4 meters but the waters recede quickly after the rains but much of the area remains a swamp during most of the year.
The Walawwewatta Waturana became known when Professor A.J.Kostermans and Professor Nimal Gunatilleka re-discovered the endemic plant Known as Stemanoporus mooni in October 1979, till then considered to be extinct from Sri Lanka. This re-discovery was due to the following-up of a hunch of Professor Gunatilleka who hails from the Bulathsinhala area that this plant may still be present in the remaining Waturana forest patches in his area. This led to the expedition in search of the plant and they also found the plant known as Mesua stylosa, till then known only in cultivation and was therefore presumed to be extinct in the wild. The efforts to get the two species and their habitat protected was initiated by the two professors immediately after the discovery but were successful in getting the two species being declared as protected plants in 1993.The forest was protected by the owners of the estate although there was no legal protection and this still continues in a very satisfactory manner due to their interest in protecting the area for the biological value.
The plant known as Hora-wel (Stemanoporus mooni) was the species sought out by the two professors and was not known to have been found in the wild since specimens were collected by Moon in 1820 and deposited in the National Herbarium in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. The plant was named by Thwaites in 1858 in honour of Moon. Thus the rediscovery came 159 years since the initial collection of the specimens and 121 years after it was described as a new species. It is a thin tall plant that grows up to 4 to 5 meters in height, usually as a single woody stem. A bunch of long, lance-shaped leaves are at the apex of the stems. The leaves are about 45c.m. long but only about 8.0 c.m. in width. The tender leaves are reddish and droop down along the stem. The small flowers are white in colour and the small fruit is globular, and about 3.0 c.m. in diameter. There are less than fifty plants in this habitat and is a slow grower.
The other species that was re-discovered is Suwanda (Mesua stylosa), a species of the genus to which the Na-tree belongs to and is a large woody tree. The trees found at present are rather small but it could be that all the larger trees would have been cut down over twenty years ago, as was evident to us by the cutting down and sawing of one large tree that was witnessed in 1988.This species bear white flowers similar to Na which have a very pleasant smell, as can be ascertained from the Sinhala name. It is found grown in the Gampaha (Henara-thgoda) Botanical Gardens and the Royal Botanical Gardens Pera-deniya. They bear viable seed and plants from those in the botanical gardens are grown in several other localities.
In addition to these two unique species, this small forest is the habitat for more than twenty other endemic plants. Amongst these are a wild Cinnamon known as Sewala-Kurundu(Cinnamomum dubium), Lene-Thari(Areca concinna), a wild Durian known in Sinhala as Katu Boda(Cullenia rosayroana),three species of Rattan vines or We-wel (Calamus species),Wesak-Mal(Dendrobium maccarthiae).The swamp and the canals are the habitats of more than 35 species of fish including 12 endemics, but there could be more if an year long survey could be conducted. The number of birds recorded is over seventy species with about 12 endemics but there could be more. It is needed to survey other animals, notably the amphibians. The need for surveys is felt because we have been adding new species to the lists of plants, birds and fishes from every visit to the area.
A noteworthy observation and addition was made during the most recent visit, made on 22.07.2009 with officials from the Central Environmental Authority(CEA). On this occasion, a hitherto observed but not identified species of aquatic plant of the genus Cryptocoryne was identified to be the rare, critically endangered and endemic species Cryptocoryne bogneri. During the previous occasions, the plants were either submerged or were very small but on this visit, there were mature plants which made an identification possible. This species was described and named only in 1978 but was presumed to have become extinct in the wild by 1980 due to over- collection for the aquarium fish and ornamental plant trade.
This plant is grown in European countries, notably in Germany from those taken from Sri Lanka but was never seen in the wild for nearly three decades. However, some German growers are aware of its remaining populations as seen by the photos and descriptions in their web sites such as the Crypts pages. The photo attributed to a locality in South-Western Sri Lanka could well be this site. It could probably the only existing habitat of this plant as well.
The Walawwewatta Waturana is cared for by the owners and the management of the estate and the legal protection will further enhance their efforts. The declaration does not affect the ownership of the area and is not inimical to the interests of the owners. The amendment to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance on the previous occasion (Act No. 49 of 1993) made both the Stemanoporus mooni and Mesua stylosa to be protected plants. The recent amendment (Act No. 22 of 2009) has added Cryptocoryne bogneri to the protected list. Therefore it is an offence to harm,including the collection of parts, or the destruction of these plants. This will further enhance the conservation efforts. It was also seen that illegal activities such as the collection of valuable plants has stopped due to the efforts of the owners and we hope that this will be continued.
A looming threat to the habitat are the invasive plants. It was seen that a number of Invasive Alien Species are growing in and around this swamp forest at present. These include the aggressively growing trees such as Havari-Nuga (Alstonia macrophylla) and Para (Dillenia suffruticola) Other invasives inclue the Kosterís Curse(Clidemia hirta), Kaha-karabu(Wedalia trilobata),Guinea Grass (Panicum maximum) and the Drunken Sailor(Quisqualis indica). It was seen that these are still in the fringes and have not penetrated into the deep forest areas. However, since the forest is a narrow stript, this could happen rather quickly and needs prompt attention of the authorities to control and eradicate the invasive species and to keep an eye on recurrences.
An interesting and intriguing question that will be never answered will remain forever with the Walawwewatta turana.That is, why was this patch left by the predecessors of the Wijesekara family when they initially planted rubber and by their descendents. Since they could not have been aware of the unique species and since the area would have supported rubber, it could well be that they wanted to preserve part of the initial habitat and that this was continued subsequently. We have to be eternally grateful to the generations of the Wijesekara family for preserving this forest patch.If not two of our endemic plants would have been lost forever, not only to Sri Lanka but to the whole world.