Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
Looking beyond our noses
Q: As a naturalist, how do you view Sri Lanka’s progress – or lack thereof – in the context of the environment?
A: Sri Lanka has a reasonably good legislative framework and network of protected areas. It’s on the right trajectory but faces many macro challenges ranging from climate risk, groundwater pollution and waste management, to excessive plastic disposal.
These challenges are not easy to solve; they call for a range of government institutions to work with public and private sector experts, to devise strategic and long-term solutions.
At the national level, Sri Lanka is still in the early stages of rewilding. It needs to recognise that even urban centres can create space for wildlife. The country must also do everything possible to ensure that remaining forested areas are subject to enhanced legal protection and ‘other state forests’ aren’t released for agriculture.
Q: What lessons can Sri Lanka learn from conservation efforts in other countries?
A: Conservation only works with public buy in. For Sri Lanka, this means people must see that wildlife is a source of employment and income rather than competing for land that could be used for livelihoods.
As such, wild areas must be accessible for recreation and wildlife tourism. Permitting both can lead to conflict unless carefully managed – but there are thousands of examples from around the world demonstrating how they can be managed for different stakeholder groups.
Q: In terms of research, what trends do you foresee in the context of natural habitats?
A: The two major existential threats to humanity are climate risk and biodiversity loss.
There is plenty of scope to undertake research in Sri Lanka to address the latter and combine this with practical efforts to reduce biodiversity loss, connecting the remaining fragments of forest and rewilding.
I suggest that the country develops a new business line – biodiversity research tourism. Sri Lanka could change how it engages with biodiversity researchers and become the go-to place for people seeking field research opportunities.
This will bring in money to a chain of service providers and expertise while forming academic relationships that could open many doors for Sri Lanka’s academic community. We need to be able to look beyond our noses, overcome fears and prejudices, and embrace the big opportunities.
I’d even suggest making it easy for researchers to export animals’ DNA materials.
If whole genome sequencing of Sri Lankan animals can be conducted, leading to researchers flocking to the island, it will open doors for our academics, help with upskilling and enable Sri Lanka’s zoological wealth to play a role in understanding the phylogenetic relationships of the world’s life forms.
As a country, we have good infrastructure in place to build biodiversity research tourism as a significant business.
I suggest that the country develops a new business line – biodiversity research tourism
Q: And in big picture terms, how are Sri Lankans in the UK perceived these days?
A: Sri Lankans have in the main immigrated as skilled workers and are seen as having a positive impact on British society. Therefore, there’s a positive perception with Sri Lankans seen to have a strong work ethic.
We also integrate well with local communities because Sri Lankans relate to British values due to the country’s history as a former colony of Britain. Language also helps as Sri Lankans are either fluent in English or become fluent fairly rapidly after their arrival.
Q: How would you describe your connection with Sri Lanka?
A: I maintain a strong connection, and remain in touch with family and friends. And I continue to be interested in helping in two areas: developing wildlife tourism and natural history field skills.
With regard to the first point, one of the best ways to conserve Sri Lanka’s wild places is to align with an economic agenda through wildlife tourism. Although I’m no longer employed in this field, I continue to engage with people in tourism to share ideas on how the product can be improved.
I also believe the work done by conservation NGOs overseas can often be incorporated into Sri Lankan companies’ business models – especially hotels.
As for the second area, it’s important that not only professional guides but the wider public has portable and affordable field guidebooks that help them put names to what they see.
Q: So would you return to Sri Lanka someday?
A: I would love to – if not full time, at least to spend lots of time there each year.
But I appreciate that the lack of good governance and economic management means returning may not seem like a good choice for many.
Wife – Nirma
Daughters – Maya and Amali
St. Joseph’s College
BSc (Eng) in Civil Engineering (Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine)
Associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)
Financial risk management
COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE
CITY OF RESIDENCE
CV IN A NUTSHELL
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne has played a pivotal role in branding Sri Lanka as a wildlife tourism destination – so much so that British television wildlife presenter Bill Oddie has said that no individual has done so much to raise the profile of a country for its wildlife.
In addition, he has authored and photographed for over 25 books and 400 articles. He is the Chair of the London Natural History Society’s London Bird Club and a Trustee of the British Ornithologists’ Club.