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Serendib, serendipity, and conservation: A personal journey

I grew up in Sri Lanka during the 1960’s and 70’s, with no television, internet, or video games. My time was spent outdoors, playing with friends, not easily relatable to most Millennials. But it gave me an opportunity—even forced me—to relate to the environment around us.

My father and grandfather were lawyers by profession, but naturalists by passion. And that passion was an early imprint that influenced my eventual career choice. I remember camping, fishing, and exploring Sri Lanka’s forests, deserted beaches and oceans during school vacations. With time, I also became aware of the environmental destruction that was happening around me. On our trips I began to notice the large trees, felled and set on fire where forests had been cleared for agriculture. And the piles of coral along the roads, extracted from the reefs. These observations were early triggers that I wanted to do something to save these ecosystems before the wilderness areas I enjoyed became lost.

From left to right: Growing up in Sri Lanka, family fishing trips were an early influence for the love of the outdoors. Field surveys in northeastern Cambodia required travel in long-tail boats. Kayaking jungle rivers in Sri Lanka

And so, maybe even naively, I set my sights on working for the organizations that I had heard and read about, namely the World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic Society, and the Smithsonian Institute. Institutions that would give me an opportunity to explore and to conserve nature and wildlife. But as kid growing up in Sri Lanka I faced a dilemma. How could I get there? I needed a plan. And the next few years were a combination of serendipitous opportunities, luck, and some planning. I went to Slippery Rock University, a small college in Western Pennsylvania in the US to do an undergraduate degree in Biology, and—long story short—eventually got a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, at Davis. Conservation biology was still not a formal field of study back then.

I did my PhD dissertation field work in Sri Lanka, researching community structure of stream fishes[1-3]. It was then, that I met Dr John Seidensticker from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Zoo. After talking to John, he invited me to apply for a post-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institute. This was a serendipitous opportunity—both literally and figuratively (Sri Lanka was known as “Serendib”, the etymology for serendipitous)—that I grabbed with both hands. I applied to the Smithsonian for a post-doc to study Varanus lizards, also known as monitor lizards. I had done some research on the thermal ecology and energetics of Varanids in Sri Lanka[4-6]. The postdoc was an opportunity to research and learn more about these cool lizards, including the Komodo Dragon, the largest lizard in the world[7-9]. With this, I ticked the Smithsonian on my bucket list. But it was still not a career opportunity.

From left to right: Preparing bait to catch Komodo dragons for radio tracking. Measuring a water monitor lizard in Sri Lanka. Preparing water monitor lizards for radio tracking in Sri Lanka

At the Smithsonian, John introduced me to Dr. Eric Dinerstein, who had recently joined WWF US as a conservation scientist. One of Eric’s first assignments was to identify opportunities to prioritize WWF US’ funding in Asia. He asked me to assist with this project. Luck. And an opportunity grasped. The analysis was eventually published in Conservation Biology[10], and republished in other books and reviews[11]. This project helped me build a career as Senior Conservation Scientist in WWF US, and check box two in the bucket list.

Over two decades working with WWF US, we (Eric D and Eric W, as we were known) were able to make significant changes within WWF and in the field of conservation, especially with our analyses of ecoregions[12-13] and pioneering efforts at landscape-scale conservation, especially for large mammals through our tiger conservation efforts[14-18]. Working with the team at the Conservation Science Program in WWF gave me the opportunity—and the freedom—to participate in discussions and conceptualize new, innovative approaches to conservation, and implement these through the field programmes.

From left to right: Field surveys in remote corners of northeastern Bhutan. The author assessing a corridor being restored into grasslands to support dispersal of tigers and prey species in the Terai region of Nepal. Rhinoceros translocations in Nepal to establish founder populations

After more than two decades with WWF US, I wanted other challenges. When the opportunity arose, I joined WWF Hong Kong to direct the wetlands and wildlife programmes, and step beyond my comfort zone of conservation science and into programme and people management. At WWF Hong Kong, I bring my insights and experience from landscape-scale conservation for terrestrial animals and apply these to conserve flight pathways for migratory birds, or “flyways.” Conservation is about adapting and innovating to keep up with a dynamic environment and tackle new, emerging issues.

From left to right: The author holding a horseshoe crab in Shui Hao and two pictures of the author exploring the outdoors in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong we modelled the impacts of climate change on the Mai Po Ramsar site and its wetlands. Mai Po was designated as a Ramsar site in 1995, a site of international importance due to its high biodiversity. The outputs suggest that most of the wetlands and mudflats, critically important habitats for migratory waterbirds would be lost to sea level rise[19]. Therefore, if Hong Kong is committed to manage this globally important wetland along the Flyway, we have to think about an adaptation strategy now, rather than later. Conservationist must anticipate the changes that can happen years into the future. We live in a dynamic world, and the changes are being accelerated by anthropogenic drivers.

We also have to be bold in our conservation advocacy. Given the nature of geopolitical and ecological dynamics and how they interact, we have to push for—and have been pushing—ambitious targets to save biodiversity, humanity, and this planet we call home[20-21].

As conservation scientists working in conservation organizations, we have a responsibility to bring these issues to the general public, policymakers and the corporate sector. We all, as an Earth society, are dependent on the ecosystems and the resources they provide so we can survive. Conservationists have an obligation to especially reach out to the younger generations who will have to live through the crisis, and have a bigger, louder voice. WWF Hong Kong has education and awareness programmes that do this. For example, the One-Planet Schools Programme works with primary and secondary school students and teachers[22], and a community engagement and education programme raises awareness among other community stakeholders[23-25].

But the real change must happen through individual actions and decisions that collectively build synergy and energy.

From left to right: The author with Hishani and his two daughters, Enakshi and Shanelle. The author diving with his daughters in Sri Lanka. The author and his family on his daughter's wedding day.

To learn more about Dr. Wikramanayake's job and his research visit:

List of publications in Google Schoolar

WWF Websites:

About the author: Eric Wikramanayake is Director, Wildlife and Wetlands at WWF Hong Kong. Previously he spent over 20 years at WWF US, as a Senior Conservation Scientist, providing WWF’s field programmes with technical assistance, which gave him an opportunity to travel to, and experience many of Asia’s wild places, from the alpine grasslands of the Himalayas to the backwaters of the Mekong River. Eric’s interests include hiking, kayaking, diving. He also enjoys reading and building radio-controlled model aircraft; a childhood passion he has re-discovered! He is especially happy that he has been able to influence his two daughters to join him on his outdoor activities, and getting his wife to join is a challenge that he is still working on!

References for studies mentioned in the post.

[1] Wikramanayake, E.D. and Moyle, P.B., 1989. Ecological structure of tropical fish assemblages in wet‐zone streams of Sri Lanka. Journal of Zoology, 218(3), pp.503-526.

[2] Wikramanayake, E.D., 1990. Conservation of endemic rain forest fishes of Sri Lanka: results of a translocation experiment. Conservation Biology, 4(1), pp.32-37.

[3] Wikramanayake, E.D., 1990. Ecomorphology and biogeography of a tropical stream fish assemblage: evolution of assemblage structure. Ecology, 71(5), pp.1756-1764.

[4] Wikramanayake, E.D. and Green, B., 1989. Thermoregulatory influences on the ecology of two sympatric varanids in Sri Lanka. Biotropica, pp.74-79.

[5] Dryden, G.L., Green, B., Wikramanayake, E.D. and Dryden, K.G., 1992. Energy and water turnover in two tropical varanid lizards, Varanus bengalensis and V. salvator. Copeia, pp.102-107.

[6] Wikramanayake, E. D. and G.L. Dryden. 1993. The thermal ecology of habitat and microhabitat use by sympatric Varanus bengalensis and V. salvator in Sri Lanka. Copeia. 1993(3):709-714.

[8] Wikramanayake, E.D., Ridwan, W. and Marcellini, D., 1999. The thermal ecology of free-ranging komodo dragons, Varanus komodoensis, on Komodo Island, Indonesia. Advances in Monitor Research II, pp.157-166.

[9] Walsh, T., Chiszar, D., Wikramanayake, E., Smith, H.M. and Murphy, J.B., 1999. The thermal biology of captive and free ranging wild Komodo dragons, Varanus komodoensis (Reptilia, Sauria, Varanidae). Mertensiella, 11.

[10] Dinerstein, E. and Wikramanayake, E.D., 1993. Beyond “hotspots”: how to prioritize investments to conserve biodiversity in the Indo‐Pacific region. Conservation Biology, 7(1), pp.53-65.

[11] Dinerstein, E., E. D. Wikramanayake, and M. Forney. 1995. From reservoirs to remnants: Conserving the tropical moist forests of the Indo-Pacific region. In: Ecology, conservation and management of southeast Asian rainforests. Ed: R.B.Primack and T.E. Lovejoy. Yale University Press. New Haven and London.

[12] Olson, D.M., Dinerstein, E., Wikramanayake, E.D., Burgess, N.D., Powell, G.V., Underwood, E.C., D'amico, J.A., Itoua, I., Strand, H.E., Morrison, J.C. and Loucks, C.J., 2001. Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: A New Map of Life on EarthA new global map of terrestrial ecoregions provides an innovative tool for conserving biodiversity. BioScience, 51(11), pp.933-938.

[13] Wikramanayake, E.D., E. Dinerstein, C. Loucks, D. Olson, J. Morrison, J. Lamoreux, M. McKnight, and P. Hedao. 2001. Terrestrial ecoregions of the Indo-Pacific: a conservation assessment. Island Press: Washington, D.C

[14] Wikramanayake, E., McKnight, M.., Dinerstein, E., Joshi, A., Gurung, B. and Smith, D., 2004. Designing a conservation landscape for tigers in human‐dominated environments. Conservation Biology, 18(3), pp.839-844.

[15] Wikramanayake, E.D., E. Dinerstein, J. G. Robinson, U. Karanth, A. Rabinowitz, D. Olson, T. Matthew, P. Hedao, M. Conner, G. Hemley, and D. Bolze. 1999. Where can tigers live in the future? A framework for identifying high priority areas for conservation of tigers in the wild. Eds. J. Seidensticker, S Christie, and P. Jackson. Riding the tiger. Conservation in a human dominated landscape. Cambridge University Press.

[16] Wikramanayake, E, E. Dinerstein, J. Seidensticker, S. Lumpkin, B. Pandav, et al. 2011., A landscape-based conservation strategy to double the wild tiger population. Conservation Letters, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00162.x

[17] Wikramanayake, E., A. Manandhar, S. Bajimaya, S. Nepal, G. Thapa, K. Thapa. 2010. The Terai Arc Landscape: A tiger conservation success story in a human-dominated landscape. In R. Tilson and P. Nyhus, eds. Tigers of the World (2nd edition): The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris. Elsevier/Academic Press. Pages 161-172

[18] Thapa, K., Wikramanayake, E., Malla, S., Acharya, K.P., Lamichhane, B.R., Subedi, N., Pokharel, C.P., Thapa, G.J., Dhakal, M., Bista, A. and Borah, J., 2017. Tigers in the Terai: Strong evidence for meta-population dynamics contributing to tiger recovery and conservation in the Terai Arc Landscape. PloS one, 12(6), p.e0177548.

[19] Wikramanayake, E., Or, C., Costa, F., Wen, X., Cheung, F. and Shapiro, A., 2020. A climate adaptation strategy for Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar site: Steppingstone to climate proofing the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Plos one, 15(10), p.e0239945.

[20] Dinerstein, E., Olson, D., Joshi, A., Vynne, C., Burgess, N.D., Wikramanayake, E., Hahn, N., Palminteri, S., Hedao, P., Noss, R. and Hansen, M., 2017. An ecoregion-based approach to protecting half the terrestrial realm. BioScience, 67(6), pp.534-545.

[21] Dinerstein, E., Vynne, C., Sala, E., Joshi, A.R., Fernando, S., Lovejoy, T.E., Mayorga, J., Olson, D., Asner, G.P., Baillie, J.E.M. and Burgess, N.D. Burkart K., Noss, R.F, Zhang, Y.P., Baccini, A., Birch T., Hahn, N., Joppa, L.N. Wikramanayake, E., 2019. A global deal for nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets. Science Advances, 5(4), p.eaaw2869.

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