Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka

Geographical Location

Sinharaja Forest Reserve (6°21'-6°26'N, 80°21'-80°34'E) is a World Heritage Site situated in the south-west lowland wet zone of Sri Lanka, within Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces. It is bounded on the north by the Napola Dola and Koskulana Ganga, on the south and south-west by the Maha Dola and Gin Ganga, on the west by the Kalukandawa Ela and Kudawa Ganga and on the east by an ancient footpath near Beverley Tea Estate and by the Denuwa Kanda.

Date and History of Establishment

Notified a national heritage wilderness area on 21 October 1988. Most of the area was originally declared a forest reserve on 3 May 1875 under the Waste Lands Ordinance and notified in the Ceylon Government Gazette No. 4046, dated 8 May 1875, while the rest was notified a proposed forest reserve in the early 20th century. Sinharaja Forest Reserve, comprising the existing and proposed forest reserves, was declared a biosphere reserve in April 1978, and inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1988.


caption A map of Sri Lanka (Source: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

According to Gazette No. 528/14, the total area of the national heritage wilderness area is 18,899 acres and 12 perches (7,648.2 hectares). The area of the biosphere reserve and World Heritage site as cited in the respective nominations is 8,864 hectares (ha), of which 6,092 ha is forest reserve and 2,772 ha is a proposed forest reserve.

Land Tenure



Ranges from 300 meters (m) to 1,170 m (Hinipitigala Peak).

Physical Features

This narrow strip of undulating terrain consists of a series of ridges and valleys. It is drained by an intricate network of streams, which flow into the Gin Ganga on the southern boundary and Kalu Ganga, via the Napola Dola, Koskulana Ganga and Kudawa Ganga, on the northern boundary. The reserve lies within the transition zone of two important rock types characteristic of Sri Lanka. The south-western group consists of metasediments, charnokites and scapolite-bearing calc-granulites, while the highland group comprises khondalites of metamorphosed sediments and charnokites. Most significant is the presence of the Sinharaja Basic Zone, consisting of hornblende, pyriclasts, basic charnokites, pyroxene amphibolites and scapolite-bearing calc-granulites and blended with small amounts of quartzites, garnet-biotite gneisses and intermediate charnokites. This zone coincides with an aeromagnetic anomaly, which has probably contributed to the desilication process responsible for the gem fields in the area. Soils, which largely belong to the red-yellow podzolic group, are well-drained and show very little accumulation of organic matter. This characteristic is attributed to a combination of favorable climatic conditions, a diverse soil microflora effecting rapid breakdown of organic matter into constituent nutrients, and accelerated uptake and recycling of nutrients by the trees. Clear-felling of the forest, where most of the nutrients are locked up, therefore renders the soil impoverished of essential nutrients and incapable of supporting sustained commercial forestry or agriculture.


Based on meteorological records gathered from in and around Sinharaja over the last 60 years, annual rainfall has ranged from 3614 millimeters (mm) to 5,006 mm and temperatures from 19°C to 34°C. Most precipitation emanates from the south-west monsoons during May-July and the north-east monsoons during November-January. Conditions are dry in February.


caption The Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Two main types of forest can be recognized. Remnants of Dipterocarpus forest occur in valleys and on their lower slopes, with hora D. zeylanicusand bu hora D. hispidus present in almost pure stands. Secondary forest and scrub occur where the original forest cover has been removed by shifting cultivation and in other places the forest has been replaced by rubber and tea plantations. Mesua-Doona (Shorea) forest, the climax vegetation over most of the reserve, covers the middle and upper slopes above 500 m or above 335 m as suggested by Gunatilleke and Gunatilleke. Garcinia hermonii followed by Xylopia championii invariably dominate the understory tree stratum, a range of species dominate the subcanopy and na Mesua nagassarium usually predominates in the canopy layer. Details about the structure and composition of the vegetation are summarized by Zoysa and Raheem. Of Sri Lanka's 830 endemic species, 217 trees and woody climbers are found in the lowland wet zone. Of these, 139 (64%) have been recorded in Sinharaja, 16 of which are considered to be rare. Other rare endemics are the palm Loxococcus rupicola (R) and Atalantia rotundifolia, the latter being restricted to Sinhagala at 742 m. Of 211 recorded species of trees and woody climbers, 40% have low population densities (less than or 10 or fewer individuals per 25 ha) and 43% have restricted distributions, rendering them vulnerable to further encroachments into the reserve. A variety of plants of known benefit to man are present, of which palm kitulCaryota urens (for jaggery, a sugar substitute), wewal Calamus sp. (for cane), cardamom Elattaria ensal (as spice), Shorea sp. (for flour), dun Shorea sp. (for varnish and incense) and weniwal Coscinium fenestratum (for medicinal purposes) are used intensively by villagers. A list of 202 plants, together with their endemicity and uses is given in the draft conservation plan.


An early account of the fauna is given by Baker. Preliminary lists of the fauna (viz. mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and butterflies) have been compiled and are included in the draft conservation plan. Endemism is high, particularly for birds with 19 (95%) of 20 species endemic to Sri Lanka present. Endemism among mammals and butterflies is also greater than 50%. Threatened mammals are leopard Panthera pardus and Indian elephant Elephas maximus (E). The endemic purple-faced langur Presbytis senex is present. Birds considered to be endangered or rare are Sri Lanka wood pigeon Columba torringtoni, green-billed coucal Centropus chlororhynchus, Sri Lanka white-headed starling Sturnus senex, Sri Lanka blue magpie Cissa ornata, and ashy-headed babbler Garrulax cinereifrons, all of which are endemic, and red-faced malkoha Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus. Of interest is the presence of Sri Lanka broad-billed roller Eurystomus orientalis irisi (I), sightings of which have decreased markedly in the last five years. Of the reptiles and amphibia, python Python molurus is vulnerable and a number of endemic species are likely to be threatened. Noteworthy species include Calotes liolepis, the rarest of all Agamids on the island, the rare rough-nose horned lizard Ceratophora aspera, restricted to part of Sri Lanka's wet zone, and Ramella palmata, a rare endemic microhylid. Threatened freshwater fish are combtail Belontia signata(R), smooth-breasted snakehead Channa orientalis (R), black ruby barb Barbusnigrofasciatus (V), cherry barb Barbus titeya (V) and red-tail goby Sicydium halei (V), the conservation status of which is considered in Evans. Of the 21 species of endemic butterfly, Sri Lanka rose Atrophaneura jophon is vulnerable. Sri Lankan five-bar sword Graphium antiphates ceylonicus, which is considered to be very rare, is not uncommon in Sinharaja at certain times of the year. Zoysa and Raheem comprehensively summarize what is known about the fauna.

Cultural Heritage

The Sinharaja region has long featured in the legends and lore of the people of Sri Lanka. Its name, literally meaning lion (sinha) king (raja), perhaps refers to the original 'king-sized or royal forest of the Sinhalese', a people of the legendary 'lion-race' of Sri Lanka, or to the home of a legendary lion of Sri Lanka.

Local Human Population

There are two villages within the southwest of the reserve, namely Warukandeniya and Kolonthotuwa, and about 52 families live in the northwestern sector. At least 20 other settlements occur on the periphery, an unknown number of which have been illegally established on state land without approval from the relevant authorities. The total population is in excess of 5,000 people. Some land adjacent to the reserve is under private ownership, including small tea and rubber plantations. The extent to which local people are economically dependent on rain forest resources is variable but about 8% of households might be completely dependent.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

Visitors are low in number and mostly naturalists. Entry is by permit, obtainable from the Forest Department in Colombo. There are nature trails to the peaks of Moulawella and Sinhagala. Guidebooks to the Moulawella Trail and to the secondary vegetation have recently been prepared. Some accommodation is available with the Forest Department near the reserve entrance at Kudawa. Further facilities are planned.

Scientific Reseach and Facilities

Among the earliest studies are those of Baker. Rosayro, Andrews and Merritt and Ranatunga assessed the area's potential for selective logging, based on aerial and ground surveys. Gunatilleke and Gunatilleke examined the floristic composition and phytosociology of woody vegetation and assessed its conservation value. Research on the endemic fauna has been undertaken by World Wildlife Foundation/International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and March for Conservation. Conflicts over the local use of forest resources have been examined by McDermott and Silva. An annotated vegetation/land-use map (1:40,000) of the reserve has been produced by the Forest Department. The Natural Resources Energy and Science Authority of Sri Lanka has provided a field research station in the reserve. The Forest Department building at Kudawa, outside the reserve, is used by scientists and visitors.

Conservation Value

Sinharaja is the last extensive primary lowland tropical rain forest in Sri Lanka. It holds a large number of endemic species of plants and animals, and a variety of plants of known benefit to man.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the last viable remnant of Sri Lanka's tropical lowland rain forest; over 60% of the trees are endemic and many of these are rare; and there are 21 endemic bird species, and a number of rare insects, reptiles and amphibians.

Conservation Management

Sinharaja is administered by the Forest Department under the Ministry of Lands and Land Development. Recognizing the need for maximum possible protection, it has recently been declared as a national heritage wilderness area under the National Heritage Wilderness Areas Act. Any excision to such an area is permissible only with the concurrence of parliament and the President of the country. The site is also partially protected under the provisions of the Forest Ordinance.

Sinharaja was first recognized in 1936 as being "the only considerable patch of virgin tropical rain-forest in the island". Owing to its inaccessibility and steep, hilly terrain, the reserve remained untouched until 1968 when a government directive was issued to extract timber for the plywood sawmill and chipwood complex established at Kosgama. From 1971 until 1977, when logging was banned, largely due to public pressure with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society playing a leading role, about 1,400 ha of forest in the western sector were selectively logged. Presently, the reserve has 6,500-7,000 ha of unlogged forest. Since 1977, the Forest Department has given high priority to protecting the reserve and in 1978 began planting Pinus caribaea along the periphery to establish a live boundary. More recently, betelnut palm Areca catechuhas been used for this purpose.

A conservation plan has been officially approved, implementation of which is being carried out under a cooperative agreement between IUCN and the Sri Lankan government, with additional funding from the Norwegian government. In order to ensure the strict protection of the reserve for scientific and aesthetic reasons, a scheme of zonation and management is proposed for areas outside the reserve. The creation and propagation of essential forest products, for sustained utilization, in areas outside the reserve is intended to meet local needs and thereby eliminate former dependence on resources within the reserve. Alternative strategies are either to establish a 3.2 km-wide buffer zone round the reserve or to enlarge the area protected to about 47,380 ha, with the reserve forming a strictly protected core area and surrounding areas set aside as buffers for various uses. The only resource which may still be legally collected, under permit, is kitul. The preferred strategy has been to freeze resource use within the reserve at 1985 levels (when the conservation plan was prepared) and gradually eliminate future resource dependency on the reserve by relocating villages to areas outside the reserve.

Management Constraints

Of the many constraints to the protection of Sinharaja, socioeconomic ones relating to the people and organizations in the immediate vicinity of the reserve are perhaps among the most important. Encroaching cultivations are probably the biggest problem, particularly along the southern boundary. Contractors open up routes to facilitate logging operations and, although no felling is permitted within 1.6 km of the reserve boundary, this may render the reserve more accessible to illicit timber operations. Planting of Honduran mahogany Swietenia macrophylla along abandoned logging trails as an enrichment species may lead to displacement of natural species, especially as it is a prolific seed producer. Alleged malpractices by the State Timber Corporation are a source of concern for the Forest Department. Private land owners along the periphery perhaps make illegitimate use of timber resources within the reserve: having felled all merchantable timber on their own land, they continue to request permits for timber. The most important forest produce is firewood, significant quantities of which are used in the production of jaggery. The traditional use of minor forest products, most important of which are kitul for jaggery and wewal or cane for weaving baskets, is now restricted to forest surrounding the reserve. Illicit gem mining was considered to be a serious problem in eastern parts of the reserve. It is organized mostly by wealthy merchants from outside the Sinharaja region and needs to be stopped. The lack of a uniform land-use policy and the multiplicity of governmental and semi-governmental agencies involved in land-use planning in Sri Lanka are the major administrative constraints in evolving a suitable protection plan for Sinharaja. For the moment, transactions related to lands surrounding the reserve are suspended under presidential order until such time as the conservation plan for the reserve is ready for implementation.


Three forest rangers, four beat forest officers. One assistant conservator of forests, three forest rangers, six beat forest officers and 12 forest watchers are proposed in the conservation plan.


The Forest Department has allocated higher than normal amounts of money for the protection of Sinharaja. This reached a record Rs 4 million (US$ 130,000) in 1987. US$ 35,000 was made available by WWF/IUCN for a conservation awareness program and for the purchase of equipment in 1986.

IUCN Management Category

  • II (National Park)
  • Biosphere Reserve
  • Natural World Heritage Site - Criteria ii, iv

Further Reading

  • Andrews, J.R.T. (1961). Forest inventory of Ceylon (A Canadian-Ceylon Colombo-Plan Project). Ceylon Government Press, Colombo.
  • Baker, J.R. (1937). The Sinharaja rain forest, Ceylon. Geographical Journal 89: 539-551.
  • Baker, J.R. (1938). Rain forest in Ceylon. Kew Bulletin 1: 9-16.
  • Collins, N.M.C. and Morris, M.G. (1985). Threatened swallowtail butterflies of the world. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Pp. 258-260. ISBN: 2880326036
  • Cooray, P.G. (1978). Geology of Sri Lanka. In: Nutalya, P. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third Regional Conference on Geology and Mineral Resources of Southeast Asia, Bangkok. Pp. 701-710.
  • Evans, D. (1981). Threatened freshwater fish of Sri Lanka. IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK. Unpublished report. 58 pp.
  • Forest Department (n.d.). Sinharaja: our heritage. Forest Extension Service, Forest Department, Colombo.
  • Forest Department (1985). A conservation plan for the Sinharaja Forest. Draft. Ministry of Lands and Land Development/Forest Department, Colombo and WWF/IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 109 pp.
  • Forest Department (1986). Conservation plan for the Sinharaja Forest. Forest Department, Colombo. 87 pp.
  • Gunatilleke, C.V.S. (1978). Sinharaja today. Sri Lanka Forester 13: 57-61.
  • Gunatilleke, C.V.S. and Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N. (1980). The floristic composition of Sinharaja - a rain forest in Sri Lanka with special reference to endemics. Sri Lanka Forester 14: 171-179.
  • Gunatilleke, C.V.S. and Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N. (1981). The floristic composition of Sinharaja - a rain forest in Sri Lanka with special reference to endemics. Malaysian Forester 44: 386-396.
  • Gunatilleke, C.V.S. and Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N. (1985). Phytosociology of Sinharaja - a contribution to rain forest conservation in Sri Lanka. Biological Conservation 31: 21-40.
  • Gunatilleke, C.V.S., Dodanwela, S.K. and Welagedara, D. (1987a). Guide to the secondary vegetation of Sinharaja. Workshop on Ecology and Conservation of Tropical Humid Forests of the Indomalayan Realm, 1-5 May 1987. 63 pp.
  • Gunatilleke, C.V.S., Silva W.T.P.S.K. de and Senarath, R.M.U. (1987b). Guide to the Moulawella Trail in Sinharaja Forest. Workshop on Ecology and Conservation of Tropical Humid Forests of the Indomalayan Realm, 1-5 May 1987. 58 pp.
  • Hails, C. (1989). Conservation of the 'lion king' forest. WWF Reports April/May 1989: 9-11.
  • Hapuarachchi, D.J.A.C., Herath, J.W. and Ranasinghe, V.V.C. (1964). The geological and geophysical investigations of the Sinharaja Forest area. Proceedings of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science 20 (1D).
  • Hathurusinghe, D. (1985). Constraints to the protection of the Sinharaja Forest. Paper presented at the workshop for the preparation of a management plan for the conservation and protection of the Sinharaja Forest. Forest Department, Colombo. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Hoffmann, T.W. (1972). The Sinharaja Forest. Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Ceylon, Colombo. 21 pp.
  • Hoffmann, T.W. (1977). Epitaph for a forest. Sinharaja - 1976. Loris 14: 31-32.
  • Hoffmann, T.W. (1979). The forest of the lion king. Animal Kingdom 82(5): 24-30.
  • Hoffmann, T.W. (1984). National red data list of endangered and rare birds of Sri Lanka. Ceyon Bird Club and Wild Life and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka, Colombo. 12 pp.
  • Ishwaran, N. and Erdelen, W. (1990). Conserving Sinharaja - an experiment in sustainable development in Sri Lanka. Ambio 19: 237-244.
  • Karunaratne, P.B., Pieris, T. and Raheem, R. (1981). A research project in the Sinharaja Forest. Loris 15: 326-327.
  • Katz, M.B. (1972). On the origin of the Ratnapura gem deposits of Ceylon. Economic Geology 67: 113-115.
  • Kotagama, S.W. and Karunaratne, P.B. (1983). Checklist of the mammals Mammalia of the Sinharaja MAB Reserve, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Forester 16(1-2): 29-36.
  • March for Conservation (1985). Fauna of Sinharaja. Paper presented at the workshop for the preparation of a management plan for the conservation and protection of the Sinharaja Forest. Forest Department, Colombo. Unpublished manuscript.
  • McDermott, M. (1985). Socio-economics of the protection of the Sinharaja Forest: the village factor. Paper presented at the workshop for the preparation of a management plan for the conservation and protection of the Sinharaja Forest. Unpublished manuscript. Forest Department, Colombo.
  • Merritt, V.G. and Ranatunga, M.S. (1959). Aerial photographic survey of Sinharaja Forest. Ceylon Forester 4: 103-156.
  • Munasinghe, T. and Dissanayake, C.B. (1980). The origins of gemstones of Sri Lanka.Economic Geology 70: 1216-1225.
  • Peeris, C.V.S. (1975). The ecology of endemic tree species in Sri Lanka in relation to their conservation. Ph.D. thesis, University of Aberdeen, U.K.
  • Rosayro, R.A. de (1942). The soils and ecology of the wet evergreen forests of Ceylon.Tropical Agriculture (Ceylon) 98: 70-80, 153-175.
  • Rosayro, R.A. de (1954). A reconnaissance of Sinharaja rain forest. Ceylon ForesterN.S. 1(3): 68-74.
  • Rosayro, R.A. de (1959). The application of aerial photography to stock-mapping and inventories on an ecological basis in rain forests in Ceylon. Empire Forestry Review 38: 141-174.
  • Silva, W.P.T. de (1985). Socio-economics of the protection of the Sinharaja Forest: the village factor. Paper presented at the workshop for the preparation of a management plan for the conservation and protection of the Sinharaja Forest. Forest Department, Colombo. Unpublished manuscript.
  • WWF/IUCN Project 1733. Effects of deforestation on endemic species, Sinharaja Forest, Sri Lanka.
  • WWF/IUCN Project 3307. Consolidation of the protection of the Sinharaja Forest of Sri Lanka.
  • Zoysa, N. de, and Raheem, R. (1987). Sinharaja - a rainforest in Sri Lanka. March for Conservation, Colombo. 92 pp. (Comprehensively reviews much of what is known about Sinharaja.)

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka. Retrieved from


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