Mangrove palm under threat | Sunday Observer

Mangrove palm under threat

Mangroves are unique ecosystems found in tropical and sub tropical regions around the world. With their roots submerged in water, mangroves act as a niche to a wide variety of organisms, forming a productive and dynamic ecosystem. Among the mangroves in Sri Lanka, there exist one unique species. Commonly referred to as Gin Pol, the uniqueness of Nipa fruiticans lies in the fact that it is the only palm in the world adapted to grow in mangrove habitats. Gin Pol displays a patchy distribution in the country, which is receding with time due to destruction of their habitats.

Gin Pol is found in fringing mangrove habitats and estuaries, growing in the area facing water, with its trunk growing horizontally along the water. “The stem of this tree grows under water, with the long leaves growing to a length of about 10 metres.

The flowers and fruits are also above the water, and the fruits are dispersed by water,” says Environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law, Jagath Gunawardana. He adds that the northernmost population of Gin Pol is found in Gin-Oya (in the North-Western Province) and is the only population in this province. It is also found in the Bolgoda Lake in the Kalutara District.The southernmost population is in Kahandamodara in the Hambantota District.

Gunawardana notes that Gin Pol is a protected plant species under Section 42 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, since 1993, and the protection was enhanced by further amendments in 2009. Also, Gin Pol falls into the Vulnerable (VU) category of the National Red Data list. “However, some of the Gin Pol habitats are still unprotected, leaving the populations vulnerable. As a result, large areas of Gin Pol habitats have been destroyed both directly and indirectly. Hence, there is an urgent need to give protection to the remaining unprotected habitats of this valuable species,” he said.

According to Gunawardana, the direct destruction of Gin Pol habitats is mainly due to land filling, burning and other illegal destruction to plant crops. Indirect destruction takes place in the form of pollution. In Bolgoda, the habitats were destroyed due to burning and landfill, while in the Thalalla lagoon it was caused by pollution from the textile industry.

“It was named a protected species in 1993, since it was already a concern at the time. Gin Pol has been declared a vulnerable species in 2012, though by then it was already under threat. Therefore, if immediate conservation efforts are not taken, this would lead to Gin Pol falling into the endangered list,” Gunawardana said.

Currently, destruction and damage of Gin Pol can be punished under section 42 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, according to Gunawardana. “Anybody involved in these activities can be arrested without a warrant, together with all the machinery, equipment and other devices used to carry out the offence,” he said.

At the same time, Gunawardana says, very few offenders have been prosecuted so far, mainly due to evidence being lost under the soil, by the time the offenders come to prosecute.

“If the area under destruction is not a protected area, it is difficult to find a culprit, and, difficult to prove. Therefore, one counter measure is to declare the remaining unprotected habitats as protected areas, under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, National Environmental Act, Coast Conservation and Coastal Area Protection Act or Forest Conservation Ordinance,” he said.

Unique population in Gin Oya

Gunawardana noted that the most unique Gin Pol population is located in Gin Oya, in the Puttalam District. This is a stretch of about six to eight kilometres in length, populated almost exclusively by Gin Pol. Gunawardana further said, its uniqueness also lies in the fact that it is an isolated habitat of Gin Pol, found in the Puttalam District. “This is the northernmost point for the distribution of Gin Pol in Sri Lanka, with the next population found in the Bolgoda system in the Kalutara district,” he said.

Gunawardana added that it is interesting to find this healthy and extensive population confined to the Gin Oya. He emphasized that this isolated population should be given priority in conservation efforts, adding that the Bolgoda Lake has already been made a protected area under the National Environment Act.

Habitats in Gin Oya have also been destroyed by burning and land filling. Recently, there were social media reports of disruptive activities in the area.

Speaking of conservation efforts, Director of the Biodiversity Secratariat, Padma Abeykoon said, Gin Pol is one species that is offered protection under their program on conservation and sustainable utilization of mangroves. “It is protected under estuary reservation. Also, there are plans to protect the Gin Oya area under the National Environment Act,” she said.

Adding to this, Acting Director (Natural Resource Management) of the Central Environment Authority, Priyangani Gunathilaka said, the declaration of Gin Oya as a protected area will not disrupt the day to day activities of the area.

Due to their ability to thrive in oxygen deficit, waterlogged conditions, mangroves are considered survivors. However, in recent times their survival is being tested by man. Thus, there is the need for immediate action, to protect this unique plant, and preserve what is remaining, for the sake of the future generation.