Rohan Pethiyagoda rushes through life as his own one-man band. After playing the roles of scholar, scientist, government official, author and venture capitalist, this 44 year-old master-of-many-trades is orchestrating an ambitious crusade to preserve, protect and explore Sri Lanka’s unique biodiversity. This is being achieved by reclaiming tracts of land that serve as new, protected homes for a whole catalogue of endangered species. For this ongoing project, which fellow conservationists believe will have lasting, long-term benefits for both Sri Lanka and scientific research at large, Pethiyagoda has been selected as an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards.
Pethiyagoda’s title of Managing Trustee of the Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka only hints at the full scope of his involvement. He is also the non-profit organization’s founder, head publicist, most persuasive lobbyist and chief financial backer. The project took form in 1987 when Pethiyagoda left his government posts as a top official at Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health and chairman of the Water Resources Board. Dismayed at public apathy toward the shrinkage of the nation’s once vast rainforests to fewer than 750 square kilometres, he decided to start writing about the problems. Two years later, he used the royalties from his first best-seller to underwrite the Trust’s establishment, intent on running it like a well-managed private enterprise.
Rehabilitating the Forests
The Trust has to date purchased 35 hectares in the country’s central mountains where it has created the Agrapatana Arboretum. There it has established a breeding centre for some 50 threatened native species of lizards, mice, shrews and frogs, and expansion is already under way to double this number during the next two years. The Agrapatana project is also being developed as a miniature mountain rainforest. It will take at least 30 years, though, for the afforested trees to reach canopy height and become an ecological microcosm for an entire host of indigenous species. In 1999, the Trust purchased an additional 37 hectares in the Knuckles mountain range. This acquisition will enable it to undertake a similarly long-term project to rehabilitate forests that have been degraded through poor land-use practices.
Fiercely independent, Pethiyagoda has adamantly refused to turn the Wildlife Heritage Trust into an official non-governmental organization. Neither he nor his colleagues have actively sought outside donations. Instead, Pethiyagoda has assigned to the Trust part of the income from two companies he helped start and has also established an in-house publishing arm that now helps pay bills from book sales and the advertising revenue from its magazines. The publishing venture also plays a crucial role in the Trust’s educational efforts, which include donating books to more than 5,000 schools.
For Pethiyagoda this proves that conservation activity need not rely on charity. "Something I am very proud of," he states, "is that the Trust does not depend on hand-outs from government or aid agencies. It has demonstrated that biodiversity conservation, exploration, research and awareness programmes can be self-supporting in a developing country."
Beacons for Conservation
The Wildlife Heritage Trust’s field work has helped Sri Lanka to be recognised as one of the world’s most biologically diverse environments. Prior to the Trust’s pioneering research, for example, the scientific community believed that only 36 frog species existed in the island nation. Within a few years of its studies, the Trust discovered some 200 additional new ones, all new to science. Over the years, it has catalogued hundreds of new vertebrate species, including fish, lizards, freshwater crabs and small mammals — the "neglected groups", says Pethiyagoda.
While the Agrapatana Arboretum and Knuckles Mountain forest projects may seem relatively small and lack the glamour of big game sanctuaries, these reserves nevertheless provide fertile research opportunities and serve as beacons to future nature conservation planners. Within their confines, they contain entire ecosystems where thousands of species have the chance to thrive, forming living laboratories that could eventually lead to hundreds of scientific breakthroughs.
A Model for Others
"Amphibian populations worldwide are declining catastrophically and inexplicably," Pethiyagoda notes. By preserving these and other neglected species, the Trust is paving the way for further academic inquiry that will have impact on areas far beyond Sri Lanka’s borders.
Pethiyagoda hopes that by winning a Rolex Award he will convince his country’s official conservation establishment to go beyond mere protection into the realm of scientific management of natural resources. He also hopes that it will encourage similar action elsewhere. "There is no reason why the Wildlife Heritage Trust example cannot be replicated in other developing countries," he says. "The recognition from Rolex just might make people sit up and say, ‘So perhaps there IS something in what this guy’s doing after all'."
Published in 2000