Essex County Turtle Back Zoo and the Zoological Society of New Jersey are proud to support the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) through our dedicated Conservation Fund. For this issue of our Conservation Partner Spotlight we interviewed Ravi Corea, founder and president of the SLWCS. Learn more about how Ravi became a world-renowned conservationist with a mission to bridge the divide between humanity and our world’s endangered wildlife and how you can support SLWCS’s mission. To join us in support of SLWCS, please consider making a donation here: https://bit.ly/2UhlATh.
Tell us a little bit about the SLWCS: what is your mission?
RC: The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) is an organization dedicated to the protection of Sri Lanka’s endangered wildlife, natural resources, and rural communities. It is a fully incorporated 501c3 tax exempt organization that is also fully registered in Sri Lanka. The Vision of the SLWCS is to help protect and conserve the diminishing biodiversity of Sri Lanka and to make the local and international community aware of its endangered status. The Society combines field research, applied conservation, and sustainable economic development, working hand-in-hand with people at the grassroots level to build capacity, foster leadership, and empower citizens and policy-makers to support long-term conservation success.
The conservation philosophy of the SLWCS is to work “with” than “for” communities because the Society firmly believes that local communities must participate as well as benefit from conservation and research efforts to save threatened ecosystems, endangered wildlife and their habitats. Then only can we truly achieve sustainable conservation. By bridging biodiversity conservation and sustainable development concepts with local stakeholder goals, objectives and aspirations, the SLWCS has developed a new wildlife conservation paradigm that balances ecosystem protection with economic development.
What is a ‘day-in-the-life’ like for people and animals in Sri Lanka?
RC: Sri Lanka [is an] island that is recognized as one of the important biodiversity hotspots in the world. An increasing population is putting tremendous pressure on the limited land area which results in habitat loss and degradation for many species. This also leads to conflicts with wildlife. The current Covid-19 situation has led to an increase in poaching which has become widespread throughout Sri Lanka and is having a devastating impact on wildlife. Poachers use a lethal arsenal of snares, traps, trap guns, shot guns, bows, homemade guns, poison and explosive jaw bombs to kill animals indiscriminately without considering whether they are breeding, nesting, nursing, pregnant, male, female or juveniles.
As the founder of the SLWCS, what inspired you to take action?
RC: The day I helplessly watched a chain of tipper trucks destroy the marshes in my native town in Sri Lanka is still vivid in my mind after all these years. This is the marsh where I learned to watch birds, catch snakes and turtles, and trained myself to observe wild animals patiently. And here it was, being engulfed in the name of DEVELOPMENT right before my eyes. Just as the marsh was being overtaken that day, so too was I overtaken, by the realization of how powerless and incapable I was in stopping the wanton destruction that was occurring in a place I cherished. Although I was just 14 years old when these trucks erased the footsteps of my childhood in dirt and concrete, I made a vow that day that shaped the rest of my life. I vowed to be in a position one day in which I would be responsible for helping protect and nourish vulnerable ecosystems, wild animals, and communities. Establishing the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society was a culmination of the vow I made to myself when I was fourteen years old.
What are the most valuable skills that you and your colleagues rely on in your line of work? What challenges do you face?
RC: The most essential skill is patience. Studying wild animals requires a lot of patience since each species has its own cycle of activity and inactivity. The biggest challenge is the ever-present dangers from communities that live adjacent to wildlife habitat. These communities have no value of nor do they see a benefit from wildlife. This perspective is highly detrimental to wildlife and it is critical to change this attitude in rural communities by developing innovative initiatives for them to directly benefit from wildlife and their habitats. Otherwise these communities are continuously clamoring for more land which politicians are happy to distribute to get their vote. It is a dangerous spiral of destruction that will eventually lead to the tremendous loss of wildlife and their habitats.
What is one of the most memorable moments you’ve experienced in your line of work?
RC: What is memorable is when rural communities claim how they have benefitted from our initiatives and to see how their attitudes and behavior towards wild animals have changed from animosity to coexistence.
One of the pressing challenges of our generation is not having enough sustainable habitat for wildlife, how does SLWCS tackle issues surrounding human-animal conflict?
RC: This is an onerous issue and one that cannot be easily resolved especially in an island national like Sri Lanka where land is critically limited. To tackle human elephant conflicts, we have developed a holistic measure that takes into account the natural aversion of elephants for certain crops to develop a sustainable livelihood for farmers. An example is our Project Orange Elephant (POE). POE is using an indigenous variety of oranges to create a trophic deterrent for elephants while providing the farmers with a sustainable supplementary income. It is vital to develop land use practices that reduce conflicts between people and wildlife to create an environment of coexistence.
How long and why have you been partnering with Essex County Turtle Back Zoo and Zoological Society of New Jersey?
RC: We have been partnering with Essex County Turtle Back Zoo and the Zoological Society of NJ since 2019. The Society has been very supportive and is helping us to initiate a GPS Satellite tracking project to study the endangered endemic subspecies of the leopard and sloth bear found in Sri Lanka. Currently there is very little information about their ecology and conservation status. Our study will help to bridge the gap in information and develop effective science-based conservation measures for their long-term protection and conservation.
Oftentimes, people feel like they can’t help wildlife in other countries from so far away, how can we help support your mission?
RC: Unfortunately, it seems many people have that sentiment. What we need to keep in mind is that we all live on the same planet therefore it does not matter where we are located, we are still connected and interdependent. An example is climate change. It does not matter where we are, climate change will have an impact on all of us whether we contributed to it or not. It is the same with wildlife. We need to be aware that we need wildlife to enrich our lives. Just imagine how boring a zoo would be if it only exhibited local animals. Not many visitors would come if that was the case. Many of the animals that are in zoos even some of the common animals like lions, leopards, giraffes, bears and apes are threatened with extinction in the wild and it makes sense for people to support their conservation. It would be a huge support to our mission if you can show this interconnectedness we share across the earth and how interdependent we are and why it is important for people to support conservation efforts locally and internationally.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society offers programs for people who have a passion for wildlife to get involved in our wildlife research and conservation activities. One is our volunteer program where people travel to our project site in Sri Lanka and live and work for whatever duration they want to. Given the current situation where international travel is restricted, we also have an e-Volunteering online program for people to get involved and support our research and conservation initiatives from the safety and comfort of their homes. Learn more: https://www.slwcs.org/volunteer.