Volunteering Experiences at Yagirala

A volunteers’ story:

Ever more often in the modern world do we have to read doom and gloom stories about the state of the planet and conservation efforts. So, for this article it was nice to get the opportunity to not only write about something environmentally positive but to go and experience a grass roots, in situ, conservation effort that is actually working. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always more to be done and the Yagirala rainforest restoration project is no exception, but it is nice to see a project in motion and working as it should. The impetus behind this article is to increase awareness of the project, highlight the good work of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s ‘Center For Sustainability’ (CFS) and showcase what you can expect from a volunteering session at the Yagirala Field Research Center. Greeted by Mr. Kosala, the forest manager, at the door of the center, he proceeds to tell us some of the history and management strategies behind the Yagirala restoration project. It started back in 1994, with 100 acres of pine dominated forest to which huge parts had succumbed to aggressive invasive species; Simpoh ayer (Dillenia suffruticosa) and Soapbush (Clidemia hirta). Due to the huge and rapid spread of these species this presents the restoration project with 3 distinctive challenges: Clearance of the invasive ground layer, replanting a range of native species and continued clearance of invasive species around the newly planted trees for up to 5 years.

After learning just what a complex and labor-intensive challenge lay ahead to protect the fate of this once doomed patch of rainforest, it was time to experience the site and work at first hand. The early stages of the hike are through relatively pristine forest where the remnants of the past pine plantations are mixed in with thriving native trees. The Pine are on their way out so to speak, as none have achieved the impressive girth and height of trunk that makes the commercially valuable timber that was originally sought. Their natural death and decay will provide space and light to the native trees, some of which were planted several years ago and are doing well. 

As our small group makes its way deeper into the jungle the differences stand out in a much more visually significant way, a bright green impenetrable shrub layer starts to clog up the lowest 2m of the forest strata. It is clear to see that these invasives are a real problem for the small team working at the research center because the extent of their coverage and difficulty of removal combine to create a labor-intensive task. Not just labor intensive but also skilled knowledge is required to carefully cut around the native tree species that have naturally propagated and previously replanted individuals. A working knowledge of the species concerned is a must for the managers and workers on this project.

Site workers and volunteers then have to dig out pits before the replanting can start, usually the spacing is around 1m apart and each pit is roughly 60cm deep and 20cm in diameter. Today we were joined by groups of volunteers including a local girl guides club who were volunteering their time to learn about the forest and to help out with the planting, for some it was their first visit to a rainforest. Together we reached a recently cleared area where pits had been pre-dug and we began our planting training. Rajitha gave us an informative and enthusiastic demonstration on the best practices for planting our seedlings. Among our combined groups we were planting 10 native species – Artocarpus nobilis, Dillenia retusa, Gyrinops walla, Sapindus emarginatus, Harsfieldia iryashedhi, Bridelia retusa, Garcinia cambogi, Mangifera zeylanica, Pericopsis mooniana and Carallia brachiate

After the replanting session is over, we carefully remove the plastic pots, so no litter is left in the forest and then take a short hike to further explore our beautiful surroundings. Such a fantastic place and with some volunteers from the CFS on hand to share their knowledge about the area we learned yet more facts about the flora and fauna around us.

This is exactly the kind of experience I’d recommend for small or large groups from schools to company days out fulfilling some corporate social responsibilities and to tourists and locals alike. Volunteering for tree planting and rainforest restoration at Yagirala is not only a ‘feel good’ personal experience but a chance to actively improve the regeneration of natural forest, learn about why and how the forest is managed, see and hear the wildlife present and finally to do your bit for the environment by fighting climate change one tree at a time. 

One of the great things about this program is that the CFS staff  take a GPS point of every tree planted and can then  track the growth of each individual tree over the years, as the exact location is known. If you adopt a tree it can labelled with your name or company logo as well as the species name so you or your organization will be part of the forest forever. The team can send you updates on the tree’s growth and progress if you want to see how your hard work or donations are paying off. Most importantly, spread the word to others and help them get involved in the Yagirala restoration project.

Visit… http: http://sustainability.sjp.ac.lk/ for more information