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Interview 1:22:32 - 1:58:48 Play 1:22:32 - More
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Sanjayan Muthulingam  

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2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; Coral reef damage  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
26 Jan 2005

    Geography
  • Sri Lanka
    Southern Province
    Locality
  • Unawatuna area
    Latitude/Longitude
  • 6.016667   80.25
    Recording TimeCode
  • :04 - 27:26
    Geography
  • Sri Lanka
    Southern Province
    Locality
  • Yala National Park
    Latitude/Longitude
  • 6.372778   81.516944
    Recording TimeCode
  • 27:26 - 1:59:12
    Channels
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Recorders
    Microphones
    Accessories
    Equipment Note
  • Decoded MS Stereo to 3:35; Spaced Omni Stereo to 15:37; Decoded MS Stereo to end

SRI LANKA DAT #4

SJ = Sanjayan Muthulingam
EA = Elizabeth Arnold

1:22:37 start of SANJAYAN intv

1:22:40 SJ "I feel better about things today in terms of spirits. We're finally in natural areas that don't have human presence I feel more comfortable there. It was pretty tough dealing with being and seeing that thinking your driving right through there to get to these natural areas basically there all these people whove lost their lives and livelihoods and all that and then doing the diving was hard. It was harder than I made it out mostly because there wasn't anyone on the team who was diving with me it was always the local person.
1:23:20 EA Is it hard I mean as just as a person to reconcile being here and seeing all the human loss and saying well actually I'm going to be focusing on whether the trees are coming back and what's happened to the coral reef.
1:23:40 SJ surprisingly no it isn't that hard for me um you know I firmly believe in what I do and what my colleagues do in terms of conservation and I honestly think that we're doing not only because of nature but also because it gives people a better quality of life in the long run. So I don't ever have a problem of reconciling you know I had this discussion particularly in developing countries a lot where people say how can you work toward saving elephants when we're trying to make a living out of the forest. If someone showed me that getting rid of these forest solved world poverty it's a bargain I'm willing to make but I truly believe if we got rid of this forest all you'd have is no forest no elephants and still a lot of poor people.
1:24:36 EA can you relate that to this situation?
1:24:45 SJ to be absolutely honest for me personally this is the only way I know how to contribute. I can give some money and my family has, you can do the sort of work with the NGO's and all that. But if you want to directly help you have to ask yourself what do you really know how to do. I can't set up a medical clinic or be a doctor, but this is the kind of work I've prepared all my life to do, so I can come here with a team from the conservancy and others and we're contributing meaningfully to this country's ability to get back on its feet.
1:25:47 SJ When I was in the park I saw a letter from the head of the dept of wildlife that's been posted on the notice board and it made some sort of statement like you know in this moment of tragedy there's also opportunity, there's also a chance to make change for the better. So the head of the dept of wildlife was basically telling his staff look I know there's pain in terms of the tragedy here but also see it was a way of doing things better in the future. Well great. If I can help them do something better in the future then that will significantly affect the lives of the people..as long term as we can.
1:27:09 EA so what are we trying to do here
1:27:14 SJ what we're trying to do is figure out the extent of the damage, the damage on the natural systems caused by the tsunami, the extent of it the severity of it and the ability of the land to regenerate so the reversibility of that impact. That's number one.
Number two is think about what kind of management options we might be able to help the park service help the NGO community implement in terms of conservation and restoration to some extent.
1:28:08 EA how to prioritize¿
1:28:24 SJ you know, this place that we're in now, you have human, plastic, bottles and window coverings, it looks pretty bad, but it really isn't hugely impactful in terms of the wildlife at least here, if you have a ps volunteer crew come through here would you ask them to pick up the trash basically should they pick up the prickly pear, to me that's just get the prickly pear, that's just so insidious and hard to get rid of it because it actually will increase in number through time, then you can come back and deal with the stuff that looks bad, so that's clearly a great way of prioritizing what the ps needs to do. Same thing with the coral reefs, in terms of recovering those reefs, in that one site the reef has had some impact from tsunami, but the impact at least to me, is fairly low to moderate anywhere in that reef, we dove four different locations, however coral bleaching have devastated that reef and all human use is extreme and un managed and I think if we can get some restoration going on that reef and some visitor management that reef has a real chance of recovering and becoming spectacular. EA better than before the tsunami? SJ
clearly better.
1:30:08 EA what is your assessment of reefs.
1:30:08 SJ you know we all came with some expectation of what we were going to see and hear even though your trying to be as neutral and objective as you can you can't help that. I expected there to be a lot more subsurface marine damage, so I expected to see more damage under the ocean, on the reefs on the coral. We stopped at 5 locations now and done dives or snorkeled all of them and talked to the local dive masters, I was surprised at how little damage there was..there are some locations where we say every piece of coral having a chip but I didn't see extensive devastation of reefs that I had sort of been hearing about. () I was surprised at how turbid the water was, that is at murky..
() Now there are a couple of things that we did see that need to be dealt with fast and here's where marine versus terrestrial, in marine picking up trash actually does make sense big fishing nets, stretched out on the reefs, with dead fish in them, so those are going to continue to catch fish..() and then there are big big pieces of metal pipes down there and metal objects from ships or pieces of ships, roofing, large chunks of roofing, concrete, that is going to get moved the surge action is moving them, every time a big storm comes those objects are going to get raked over the reef that's what's going to break that reef, they'll chip that reef down, so for the marine stuff I'd get someone in there to clear out that debris.
1:33:38 EA too early for lessons from marine environment?
1:33:40 SJ we haven't done a comprehensive survey of all the reefs of sri lanka () I think the first think we would, early lesson, the tsunami, that kind of wave action did not have an immediately noticeable impact on the reef directly, the impact that your going to see is what the human debris is going to do to those reefs so (it's a great question because it makes me think about answers) the place that we visited, the last sites we visited that were furthest away from big tourist centers, had less human debris on the bottom of the ocean, metal objects concrete slabs¿I also think I'm surprised at the lack of marine protection with so much obvious direct impact all those hotels are gaining from the proximity to those reefs.
In Hikkaduwa, you've got this great reef, tons of fish, sea turtles, I saw them, beautiful beach, nine dive shops and there is almost no management of visitors..that's where the marine conservation has to focus on those reefs..with a little bit of restoration..
1:36:06 (talks about restoration) If a restored piece of coral had survived the wave than the natural coral probably would have survived the wave as well.
1:36:57 truly we expected to see the biggest damage on the marine ocean and what we really found out was the biggest damage to the near shore coral and reef environments in the southern coast is not tsunami but is human caused. ()
1:37:22 EA are you going to say that to those guys on Saturday?
1:37:26 SJ I think we would have to point out that they have an opp here to get it right in terms of marine coral conservation, those hotels are starting to rebuild, they're 80 glass bottom boats running up and down that reef crashing into it, now there are three that are operational. Every dive shop was wiped out, we saw those they're going to get rebuilt. There is ultimately going to be aid money coming in for the help of those peopele's livelihoods I would hope in that entire package they also start thinking about long term viability of these people's livelihood,
1:38:05 You know 30 40 years from now maybe ten, those guys would get wiped out not because of the tsunami but because there's no more reef to go see, there's no more fish to see. You know the tsunami in some ways gave the chance for a do over at least for some segment of society, and if we can get that conservation ethic built in to those reefs I can't believe it's going to hurt anyone,¿ if we're going to set these people up a gain, don't we want to make sure that chance will continue in perpetuity? The only way I can see it continuing in perpetuity rather than a ten year shot in the arm of cash, is that reef is also protected that they're making their money from. ************************
1:39:00 EA question
1:39:24 SJ you know the first guy we dove with was a diver there and has been there 12 years, he was cautioning me that we couldn't remove the big debris that we saw like the nets, we have to get permission from the powers that be to do our own restoration¿
1:40:28 EA so lets move inland, what are we seeing now??
1:40:41 SJ My preliminary read on the terrestrial stuff is patchy and local but I'd add one more word to it, severe where it occurs, and that's been surprising, so I thought after doing the marine work, as we started into beach shoreline wed see low to moderate damage throughout the coast, and it would make my life easy¿.and then extrapolate..
we can't do that. We can't do that, because in lots of places you can almost not tell there's any damage.,..from our eyes a local would say this dune shifted, but where there's dunes¿some parts have been spared. But in other areas it's severe.
1:41:58 SJ Like in this area we're in right now as far back as we could walk comfortably in half a day which is what we've done, you're going to see some form of damage. So there is several hundred acres of forest here that are effected with very mature trees that are dead. And understory that's completely destroyed turn up ripped up as though a bulldozer or housing construction was coming through here and that's surprising to me.
1:43:17 EA tap dance while we wait for guys with radios to walk by
1:43:47 SJ it's ripped up, like a flash flood came through and ripped everything up, except this isn't a place where a flash flood would come through.
1:44:10 EA question nature is a cycle..these things happen etc.
1:44:19 SJ I've gone out and looked at forest fire and flooding and I definitely to not use words like ripped up or damage, but I think the subtle difference why I'm comfortable using a word so anthropocentric, is because this forest isn't pre adapted to this disturbance it's clearly a rare and severe event, so rare that I don't think that most of the plants and animals here are going to be able to adapt to this disturbance. The regeneration pattern were going to see is something unique it's going to be in the st Helens blowing up sort of category.
1:45:58 it's very possible that something this size never came through here ever before and if it did maybe a thousand years ago these trees they're not long lived so I think this event is unique in the history of this forest.
1:46:25 EA what can we do with that knowledge?
1:47:40 SJ sometimes the things you learn happen in these weird coincidental ways you study one thing or you learn about something else¿I suspect that the kinds of monitoring that we're going to put out on this coastline is just going to teach us so much about this coastline that that information is going to be hugely valuable to the park in looking how they manage the forest in general or the reef and things like that..
1:47:57 SJ info can be useful in other places, patch dynamics.
1:48:27 SJ let's say 20 years from now someone buys a piece of land adjacent to this park, piece of land that has humans on it and says we want to add to the park and restore this forest back, how do I go about..guess what we would have that data, by seeing what happens here¿and whether it would come back?
1:49:18 people have studied restoration for a long time¿.this is unique because of the extent, it really is going back to ground zero.
1:50:21 right here everything is dead so you know you're going to get that kind of rare major disturbance.
1:50:39 SJ I've been surprised at how much and how quickly we've been able to learn.
We've been here for what four days? You're bringing a team from a big US NGO nature conservancy, you got a local dinky little conservation organization 14 people, 30,000 US dollars, park service and logistics to deal with, your going in water diving in water that no one has been in since the tsunami going into areas that no one has walked in, I didn't expect to learn something so fast. () I've been surprised at that. (aha moments..)..
So the big thing that's surprised me most is how much we've managed to learn the next thing that surprised me on a completely personal side is getting all these people to work well together¿¿¿
1:52:54 SJ I've wanted to come back and do conservation work in Sri Lanka this is the country of my birth and we left here under not so great circumstances but to come back here and try to do something I've always wanted to do that.
1:53:13 SJ My hope is that this project gets¿you know ten years from now what would I wish for. I'd wish that this country had a thriving conservation movement, Non-governmental organizations that folks in conservation solely advocacy based that try to achieve conservation on the ground at scale with measurable results. I'd love to see them step up..that would be great..
1:55:35 SJ you know driving up here you might have seen these ropes that were put around these plantations with bottles hanging on them, that's to clang the elephant alarm call, there are people living right next door to elephants here. That's a big animal and people die every year in this country killed by elephants or crocodiles so nature definitely impacts lives here positive and negative yet they manage to find a way to share this pretty small island with each other and with nature that's why I feel there's hope here, there's hope to pull something off.

1:57:24 SJ Under certain measures they've done a better job protecting what they have in nature under extraordinary difficult circumstances, people really do get killed by this stuff, people really do live in poverty, there really is pressure for access to resources and land. They've done a remarkable job of holding on to what they have, but I have a feeling that things are changing and modernization very quickly and that ethic that allows nature to still exist in the pockets of sri lanka I think may disappear, that's why I feel like this is a crucial time. This is a time for the conservation movement to really help.

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