Enchanting Horton Plains
Declared as a nature reserve on December 5, 1969 and later in March
1988 upgraded to a National Park under the Fauna and Flora Protection
Ordinance, Horton Plains and its forests were subjected to much
discussion being affected by bio-pirates.
The Bakerís Fall
Spreading across over 3,169 hectares of land Horton Plains had been
originally known as Mahaeliya and has been known as 'Elk Plain' in the
colonial period. Mahaeliya was renamed as Horton Plains attributing
credit to the British Governor of Sri Lanka Sir Robert Wilmot Horton
(1831 - 1837).
Due to its unique biological and aesthetic value Governor Horton took
steps to protect this plain following his visits. Though white shadows
of the British rulers have long left our shores the names still remain.
"Contribution to the environment from the Horton Plains is immense
being the catchment area of almost all Sri Lanka's major rivers," said
Park Warden of the Horton Plains, G.U. Saranga. As he explained having
the main hydro power plants with its reservoirs in close proximity of
the plain proves its water retaining ability. Before the British
destroyed the montane and cloud forests to cultivate tea, the Kings of
Sri Lanka took special steps to protect these unique forest covers
declaring it as King's protected land. Ancestors knew these cloud
forests were the heart beat of the environment.
Located between northern latitudes 6 degrees, 47 minutes and 6
degrees and 50 minutes and in the Eastern hemisphere between 80 degrees
46 minutes and 80 degrees 51 minutes, Horton Plains is at 2,100 metres
above sea level, nestled in the highest tableland of Sri Lanka in the
southern end of the central mountain mass. The annual average rainfall
of Horton Plains exceeds 5,000 mm as it rains almost everyday.
Horton Plains is affected both by the Southwest and Northeast
monsoons. The area is 'dry' from January to March with an average
temperature of 15 centigrade. Ground frost is common from December to
January. Minimum recorded temperature is between 2 - 3 centigrade. Wet
Patana (grasslands) are combined with the montane cloud forests in
making this undulating plateau. The western slope of the Horton Plains
National Park comprises most extensive breath taking montane cloud
A sambur of Horton Plains
"This is an isolated national park," Saranga said. Which means it is
not connected to a stretch of forests whereas other national parks are
patches of regional forest cover. The 18,060 hectares of natural forest
surrounding Horton Plains is a buffer zone to protect it from
threatening human activities of border villages. The surrounding forests
belongs to the Forest Department. Ohiya, Pattipola and Dayagama located
closer to Horton Plains are situated over 11 kilometres from the park.
Horton Plains consists of four eco systems such as, Montane evergreen
forests, grasslands, marshylands and its aquatic eco-system. The top
soil of the plain has more humus as deterioration of organic material is
less in the environment due to the low temperature. Thus the half
deteriorated organic matter with lot of fibre mixed with soil acts as a
sponge absorbing water rather than making it muddy and slippery. This
specific marshyland feeds water mainly to Agara Oya, Bogawanthalawa Oya
and Belihul Oya.
Agara Oya is one of the main tributaries of the Mahaweli River.
Bogawanthalawa Oya begins from the Kelani River and Belihul Oya from
Walawe River. Kirigalpottha and Totupolakanda Mountains, the second and
the third highest mountains located within the same eco region, are the
star grounds for some of the main rivers.
Before Horton Plains was a National Park, the Agricultural Department
of the then Government commenced cultivating potatoes in these plains
from 1950 to 1969. Parallel to this the Irrigation Department built a
irrigation system which is known today as the Chimney Pond.
Fauna and flora
"In Horton Plains 50% of its species are endemic," Saranga said
highlighting the importance of protecting its bio diversity. Including 'Binara'
('Exacum trinervium') with its distinct purple flower and 'Nellu' ('Strobilanthes
sp.') with blue mauve coloured flowers and intoxicating seeds, 744 plant
species are nestled in Horton Plains; 5% of plant species found here are
The endemic 'Keena' (Calophyllum walkari'), 'Syzygium rotundifolium',
'Syzygium sclerophyllum', 'Wal Kurundu' (Cinnamomum ovalifolium') and 'Polkatugaha'
('Actinodaphne speciosa') dominate the forest canopy which is
approximately 20 metres in height. Rhododendrons (Maharathmal), commonly
found in the plain, brings a sparkling beauty with its crimson red
The Drawf bamboo, smallest bamboo found in Sri Lanka, grows in marshy
lands in the Horton Plains. Two invasive plants are common in Horton
Plains introduced by the British. One is a tall thorny shrub with bright
yellow flowers called European gorse and the other one a bright green
fern named Warella. An African exotic grass called 'Kikuriya' ('Pennisetum
clandestinum') is another fauna introduced by colonists for cattle
The sambur is Horton Plains flag species. They are found in large
numbers during the hours of the day and in the evenings in their feeding
grounds. The elephants are said to have disappeared from the area about
70 years ago. Though the grey slender loris was known to exist in the
cloud forests the latest discovery is the red slender loris. There were
early records of its existence yet no one saw the red slender loris
alive until this year. Researches on ascertaining the number of loris in
the cloud forests is on going. The leopard, otter, the long-tailed giant
squirrel, the bear, monkey and the toque macaque are some noteworthy
animals found in Horton Plains. Sighting the bird, Ceylon Arangaya ('Myophonus
blighi') is a rare opportunity for a wildlife enthusiast. Numerous birds
migrate from Europe and Northen Asia during winter to the highlands.
Twelve endemic birds live in the Horton Plains.
Montane forest blends with the aquatic eco-system
Only two exotic fish species inhabit the streams, namely the carp and
the rainbow trout. Many endemic crustaceans live in the aquatic
eco-system of Horton Plains. Most of the amphibians living in Horton
Plains are endemic. Though the reptile diversity is low in Horton Plains
the Common Roughside and the Buff striped keelback common are in the
Plains. Yet the agamid lizards are quite wide spread in Horton Plains.
Horton Plains is the only national park where visitors are allowed to
trek along the tracks. Today Horton Plains attracts a large number of
visitors each year, thus increasing the earnings. "There has been a
slight decline in the number of local visitors to the plains this year.
With terrorism wiped out from the country, the number of foreigners
visiting the park has increased," Saranga said.
"Local tourists had more places to visit with the end of war and I
believe they less visited the traditional locations, such as Horton
Plains. Parallel to this foreign tourists visiting Horton Plains showed
a sharp increase in 2010," Saranga added.
In 2009, 11,026 foreign tourists and 155,587 local tourists visited
Horton Plains. Compared to the peak months of 2009 - the number of
visitors doubled in this year. In February 2009 little less than 1,500
foreigners visited but in February over 2,500 visited. The highest
number is in August. August 2009 number of foreign visitors was less
than 1,500 but in 2010 it increased to over 3,000. "Though the number of
local visitors is low at the moment we can expect it to increase in the
months to come," Saranga said.
There could be a threat to the environment due to the large number of
visitors to the Plains. Especially in Horton Plains, where visitors are
allowed to trek on designated path and are free to enjoy the beauty of
the nature. Over enthusiastic visitors try to pick something this
beautiful nature to take home. Birds, mammals, butterflies, lizards,
plants and flowers are beautiful only in this breathtaking sceneries and
not at one's home. Visitors would pluck 'binara' flowers, Rhododendrons,
ferns and twigs of trees on their tour and dump them close to the
entrance on their return knowing very well the consequence of their
Nature plants fauna and flora in its appropriate place and humans
being a part of the nature is incapable in over ruling mother nature.
With the season around the corner visitors to Horton Plains should take
interest to protect this unique environment.
"Enforcing rules and regulations will help protect nature," said
Director General of Wildlife, Botanical and Zoological Gardens of the
Economic Development Ministry, Chandrawansa Pathiraja. "With more
visitors to parks it is important to protect the parks with proper
entry/exit points. In the case of threats from smuggling of plants and
animals we need different parameters to prevent it as smuggling goes
beyond rules and regulations," he said.
Under the instructions of Economic Development Minister Basil
Rajapaksa discussions are in progress to identify the present
requirements to protect nature as well as to implement the rules and
regulations established for environment conservation.
"Under the instructions of the Minister we are working on to bring
amendments to the existing fauna and flora protecting rules and
regulations to further strengthen them as we see there are loopholes in
the existing legal frame work," Pathiraja added highlighting
particularly the importance of protecting the declared areas.
"As many development activities are land based and as the responsible
authority both for development and environment protection development
works and environment conservation should be carried out hand in hand,"
he said. As Pathiraja further explained authorities plan to demarcate
the present forest boundaries and take necessary actions to conserve the
existing forests in the country.
The Economic Development Ministry, under the purview of Minister
Basil Rajapaksa, works with the theme of linking tourism and our natural
resources without destroying them. "With the end to terrorist threats in
the country foreign tourists visiting our National Parks have doubled
now. We could be prepared for the next tourist season from October to
November," he said.
"Horton Plains, Yala, Wilpattu and Kumana are visited national parks
by foreign tourists and we are in the process of upgrading the
facilities for visitors," he said. "We are improving the parks to
international standards", he added. Measures have been taken to upgrade
facilities like accommodation, sanitation and water supply.
Proper awareness on implementing the regulations would help protect
the Horton Plains which is home to many of the rare primitive species of