Pioneering Sri Lankan bird group turns 40
Sri Lanka, October 1976: seven intrepid trailblazers set their sights on making a solid impact on bird awareness and biodiversity conservation on the island. The result? The creation of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL).
Fast forward to 2016, and FOGSL are celebrating their 40th anniversary. Led by the much-loved Emeritus Prof Sarath Kotagama, the organisation transitioned from an academic group attached to the University of Colombo to becoming a full BirdLife Partner in 1994.
Since then, FOGSL’s influence within the BirdLife Partnership has only continued to grow. Kotagama was elected onto BirdLife’s Global Council in 2013, which met this year in Sri Lanka.
Inclusivity and breaking down social and language barriers is FOGSL’s modus operandi. Birdwatching was once restricted to an elite urban class in Sri Lanka, where the habit was adopted from colonial rulers. Now the organisation provides nature education for a 50,000-strong membership, in addition to working with scores of schools across the island.
FOGSL have always strived to reach out to the community. ‘Siyo Siri’ is a Sinhala (the language of the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka) expression, suggesting splendour from people coming together. Their outreach activities form an exhaustive and impressive list, from photography exhibitions to field outings; bird ringing to kid’s activities.
Additionally, they publish bird, mammal and shark field guides in both English and Sinhalese. “We broke through barriers of language and made available to all sectors the information on birds and conservation.” said Kotagama. “We can all be proud of this accomplishment.”
“FOGSL has truly lived up to its motto ‘Partnership for Nature & People” said Prof Lakshman Dissanayake, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Colombo. “It continues to excel in conservation and public awareness to improving not just our environment but also the lives of many”.
People come together at the Asia Regional Partnership Bird Fair © 2016 FOS Media
Work hasn’t all been about outreach though. As BirdLife’s Sri Lankan Partner, FOGSL has worked to identify 70 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).
Covering nearly 350,000 ha, these areas support 375 bird species, including 27 endemic to Sri Lanka, such as the Sri Lanka Whistling-thrush Myophonus blighi, Sri Lanka Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus melanurus and the Serendib Scops-owl Otus thilohoffmanni. A Red List of Birds for Sri Lanka was compiled in 2012, allowing a valuable status assessment of birds across the country.
Collaborations across the world are bearing fruit for globally-threatened Sri Lankan birds. Working with the US Forest Service and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Kashmir Flycatcher Ficedula subruba is having its territory mapped, helping us to understand better its social behaviour and preferred habitats.
Conservation research has also been carried out on the highly elusive and nationally threatened Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meniniting, accompanied by the creation of an action plan for this species.
As with many of our Partners worldwide, FOGSL’s work doesn’t just concern birds. Mammals – specifically primates – have also received attention from the group. A Zoological Society of London and Open University of Sri Lanka collaboration ran the Red Slender Loris Conservation Programme, establishing Red slender loris Loris tardigardus taxonomy, occupancy and distribution across the tear-drop shaped island.
Sri Lanka’s largest growing industry, tourism, has also been intercepted to cater better to birding tours and eco-tourism with the ‘Bird Friendly Concept’. Launched in 1997, over 30 hotels and touring companies have now signed up, each receiving a training package in sustainability.
Looking to the future, urbanisation poses an ongoing challenge for FOGSL. The proposed ‘Megapolis Project’ will severely threaten wetlands around the country’s capital city of Colombo if proper planning is not put in place. FOGSL will be pilot testing the conservation of five urban wetlands, which act as flood defence as well as a rich hub of biodiversity, allowing their expertise on birds to act for both nature and people. Using citizen science as part of the approach, this represents just part of a suite of programmes planned to commemorate their 40th anniversary.
But development isn’t the only problem they face. “The future is going to be more challenging, as nature declines and novel technologies seem to restrict the youth indoors and the advent of modern gadgets, FOGSL will have to find novel ways to keep and promote the interest in Birds and Conservation.” said Sarath Kotagama.
With the philosophy ‘Once a Member, Always a Conservationist’, FOGSL looks set to go from strength to strength despite adversity on the horizon. Demonstrating how local actions make a global impact, this former grassroots organisation shows the spirit of the ‘Power of Many’ that lies at the heart of the BirdLife Partnership.
FOGSL’s success has not gone unnoticed. “It is with great pride and humbleness that I would like to congratulate the FOGSL family for the hard work, dedication and commitment for birds and biodiversity conservation in Sri Lanka in the past 40 years.” said Patricia Zurita, CEO, BirdLife International. On behalf of the entire Partnership, we’d like to wish FOGSL a happy 40th birthday, and share our gratitude for their continuing part in our mission.