Feature Story

Guardians of Sri Lanka's 'Knuckles' range

March 13, 2020

Landscape shot of Mahaweli River in Sri Lanka
The Knuckles range constitutes 30% of the watershed forest of the Mahaweli river catchment. It is a major source of water for agriculture and power generation. Photo: UNDP Sri Lanka

Mountain peaks blanketed by clouds, cascading waterfalls, symphonies of forest sounds, hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna, and enchanting landscapes; the Dumbara, or ‘Knuckles’ mountains have it all. Located in central Sri Lanka, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the range is named for its famed peaks that resemble a clenched fist.

The Knuckles mountain range spreads over 18,500 hectares in the districts of Kandy and Matale. Its densely forested domain is home to 34 peaks, critical watersheds, and a high level of biodiversity. Communities have lived for centuries on the edge of the forest in a balanced coexistence with their natural surroundings. But looming risks from poorly planned development and the increasing numbers of tourists threaten this balance.

Person walking through rocky forest landscape
The Knuckles mountain range spreads over 18,500 hectares in the districts of Kandy and Matale. Its densely forested domain is home to 34 peaks, critical watersheds, many river sources, and a high level of biodiversity.

Through the Small Grants Programme, funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), UNDP has helped support several initiatives by local volunteers who have been at the forefront of environmental conservation and jobs development.

Since 1987, Friends of Dumbara, or Dumbara Mithuro, a voluntary organization, has been one of the most committed advocates of the Knuckles and spreading awareness about the ecological importance of its ecosystems. It has more than 10,000 members throughout Sri Lanka and around the world. 

“Dumbara Mithuro is not merely an environmental organization,” says secretary Indika Arunakumara. “It’s a league of volunteers who care about protecting this amazing natural landscape and work to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the region.”

In the popular tourist attraction of Pitawala Pathana, Dumbara Mithuro has set up an eco-friendly rest area for visitors, information boards, and a 50 metre stone barrier which has helped preserve the habitat of the endemic Kirthisinghe’s marble frog, a rare amphibian that is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The group has also helped convert many farmers to organic agriculture and away from the heavy use of pesticides.

They assist more than 50 traditional doctors in the village of Ranamure with infrastructure to preserve the practices that have survived in this region for centuries. Several natural watersheds and natural springs have also been protected.

“The Small Grants Programme has really helped us reach out and intervene in critical areas that needed urgent attention. Today, we can be proud that we have helped create the sustainable solutions that these places always needed and given the means for these communities to continue this in the future,” Mr. Arunakumara says.

The magnificent Rathna Ella waterfall in Hasalaka is an awe-inspiring sight. For the residents the waterfall is a precious asset. It has become a popular tourist attraction which has brought new opportunities for the villagers.

The Eco-Friends of Rathna Ella, has helped protect the falls from pollution and helped entrepreneurs take advantage of the economic opportunities that have come with the influx of tourists.

Smiling Sri Lankan women
The Small Grants Programme supports more than 40 local entrepreneurs to improve their livelihoods through the Eco-Friends. These grant recipients weave palmyra leaves into products like mats and bags.

“The grant has really helped bring the community together,” says chairman Amila Krishantha. “We have used them to help support more than 40 local entrepreneurs and craftsmen who produce many types of products such as food products, garments, reed ornaments, and pottery. The community is very committed to protecting the waterfall and the surrounding environment because more visitors to the falls brings everyone more benefits.”

Credited with the discovery of more than 25 new species of reptiles and amphibians, and the rediscovery of several species believed to be extinct for more than a century, Mendis Wickremasinghe is one of the country’s foremost zoologists. The biodiversity of Knuckles has led to remarkable discoveries that have earned him an international reputation. A small grant supports his work.

Pseudophilautus cf. Simba
The Pseudophilautus cf. Simba is the smallest Amphibian in Sri Lanka.

“I initially set out to find two species, but we ended up discovering 10 new species. We had already discovered and published one new species: aspidura ravanai, commonly known as Ravanna’s rough-sided snake.” he says.

The process of officially declaring a species is a lengthy one which involves many hours of work both in the field and in the laboratory, in addition to the stringent procedures of peer reviews and publication in international scientific journals.

Mr Wickremasinghe firmly believes that his work can put pressure on authorities to create greater protections for the Knuckles mountain range and help preserve its pristine state.

“The Knuckles range is a very special place. It is home to many types of creatures that can be found nowhere else in the world, but there hasn’t been proper research into it. This is why we have been conducting more research,” he says.

 Mr Arunakumara says support from UNDP and GEF has allowed them to take vital steps to include others in the preservation of their ecosystem. “We have been able to go beyond our organization and motivate others to care about this natural treasure as much as we do,” he says.

This piece was originally published on Exposure by the UN Development Programme. Photos by UNDP Sri Lanka.