One of the best-known stories in Sri Lankan history tells of how, in the third century BC, King Devanampiya Tissa was converted to Buddhism by an Indian prince, Arahath Mahinda. Legend has it that the king was hunting when they met, and Mahinda told him that Buddhists should respect the natural world and asked him to lay down his weapons. "Oh great king," he said, "the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the people and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it." So moved was the king by these words that he not only became a Buddhist, but created the world's first wildlife sanctuary.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and scientists from the NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) in Colombo have drawn inspiration from this story to develop a unique conservation programme, the Temple Forest Project (TFP). Collaborating with Buddhist temples around the country, they aim to regenerate areas of degraded forest and encourage communities to take responsibility for their environment.
There is a strong relationship between Buddhism and what we now call conservation. "Natural surroundings are essential from the Buddhist's point of view," says the Reverend Elpitya Sugunakithi, president of the TFP. "The Lord Buddha spent much of his time meditating in forests and caves and by rivers, and he encouraged monks to purify their minds from wordly distractions by going to such places."
He explains that not only did the Buddha eventually gain enlightenment under a tree--a bodhi (Ficus religiosa)--but that all the other significant events of his life were connected with trees: he was born tinder a tree, gave his first sermon among trees and died under a tree. Consequently, at many temples a tree--often a bodhi--provides a focus for religious activity.
In addition, plants are considered sacred--they are thought to house deities--and the Buddhist disciplinary code states that any monks who intentionally harms them deserves punishment. But this isn't to say that using natural resources is prohibited. The scriptures indicate that a Buddhist is allowed to use what he needs, but that he shouldn't cut down the tree that provides him with shade. In other words, he should be grateful for the benefits of nature and not take them for granted. Conversely, it's written that those who plant groves and nurture fruitful trees will gain merit.
Despite being only half the size of England, Sri Lanka has a remarkably high level of biodiversity owing to its topographic and climatic variation. It has a proportionally high number of endemic species: 23 per cent of its 3,400 flowering plants, 16 her cent of its 84 mammals and 43 per cent of its 162 reptiles are found nowhere else in the world. Recent research revealed the island is home to more than 250 types of frog--seven per cent of the world's known species--most of which are endemic. With an average of 3.7 species per 1,000 square kilometres, it has the highest density of any country.
More than 80 per cent of Sri Lanka's endemic flora and fauna is found in its forests. But the traditional respect for the environment seems to have disappeared, and today human pressures are putting the island's biodiversity under increasing threat--by way of illustration, the total habitat of all its frogs is restricted to just 750 square kilometres of rainforest.
Although Devanampiya Tissa's successors maintained his concern for the natural world--the kingdom of Kandy had a wildlife sanctuary in almost every province--between 1796 and 1948, the British removed almost half the island's forests to make way for cash crops, mostly tea, coffee and rubber.
After independence, the rate of clearance increased as the country raced towards industrialisation and straggled to cope with art exploding population. In 1991, a survey found that Sri Lanka had only 22 …