22 February 2005

Sri Lanka's coral reef reserves still intact

The first assessment of damage to wildlife caused by the Asian tsunami has found that nature has been surprisingly resilient to the devastating effects of the giant waves.

More than 200 000 people are believed to have been killed and entire coastal settlements wiped out in the aftermath of the Boxing Day earthquake which sent a huge tsunami across the Indian ocean, affecting a dozen countries.

But scientists who have just completed an extensive investigation into the tsunami's impact on the wildlife of Sri Lanka - one of the worst affected countries - have found little lasting damage to the natural landscape.

Sanjayan Muttulingam, a Sri Lankan born scientist with the Nature Conservancy in the United States, said that the two-and-a-half week field trip with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society entailed a survey of the country's largest coral reefs and terrestrial wildlife parks.

"We carried out four different surveys of the marine environment and we found low to minimum damage to the coral reef although the water is still very murky," said Muttulingam.

Scuba divers who visited the reef saw much evidence of the mayhem caused on land in the form of debris ranging from shoes to large metal poles and abandoned fishing nets, although much of the coral was still healthy and intact.

"The coral showed only minimal signs of recent breakage, most notably at Hikkaduwa (a marine park) where several large fragments of live coral were found. In all, the live coral seemed to have fared well through the tsunami," Muttulingam said.

In terms of Sri Lanka's coral reefs, which are an important attraction for the tourist industry, the main threat now is from the debris that still continues to scrape away and destroy the delicate coral lifeforms, he said.

The survey team also investigated the impact on Yala National Park, which constitutes 250 000 acres of protected dry scrub forest and estuaries.

Yala has 85km of mostly undisturbed coastline.

Land along the coast had been devastated and the human settlements reduced to fields of rubble but the destruction was localised.

"The impact of the tsunami on the intact coastline of the Bundala and Yala National Parks is severe, at least at first look, but localised."

"There is major structural damage to the vegetation and the grass is almost uniformly brown in areas inundated by the water. However, there is already extensive signs of re-growth and regeneration," Muttulingam said. "As we went deeper into the jungle, the signs of obvious destruction and human loss receded," he said.

In one place, the tsunami inundated the forest for up to 3km and the land looks like a moonscape. But most other areas look untouched, he said.

The scientists estimated that between five and eight percent of Yala National Park has been affected but even in many of the affected areas the grass and trees are already beginning to regenerate, he said.

One of the worst problems could be the invasion of the forest by prickly pear cactus plants - an alien species to Sri Lanka - which have been dispersed by the wave from towns to the countryside.

A British expert on tsunamis left this week for the Maldives where she will attempt to assess the damage caused to these remote, low-lying islands.

Sue Dawson of the University of St Andrews, an expert on coastal erosion and sea-level change, said that she will study the sediment left behind by the tsunami to assess its wider impact.

"We are gathering a geological record of the damage previous tsunamis have caused," she said.


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