The first assessment of the damage to wildlife caused by the Asian tsunami found nature has been surprisingly resilient to the effects of the giant waves.
More than 200,000 people are believed to have been killed and entire coastal settlements wiped out in the aftermath of the Boxing Day
earthquake that sent a tsunami across the Indian Ocean.
Scientists who have completed an extensive investigation into the impact on the wildlife of Sri Lanka – one of the worst-affected countries – have, however, found little lasting damage to the natural landscape.
Sanjayan Muttulingam, a Sri Lankan-born scientist with the Nature Conservancy in the United States, said the two-and-a-half-week field trip with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society entailed a survey of the country’s largest coral reefs and terrestrial wildlife parks.
“We carried out four different surveys of the marine environment and found low to minimum damage to the coral reef, although the water is still very murky,” Dr Muttulingam said.
Divers who visited the reef saw much evidence of the mayhem caused on land – debris ranging from shoes to large metal poles and abandoned fishing nets, although much of the coral was still healthy and intact.
“The conditions were rough and there were items strewn over the reef, including pipes, blocks of cement and boat fragments. The coral showed only minimal signs of recent breakage, most notably at Hikkaduwa [a marine park]. In all, the live coral seemed to have fared well,” Dr Muttulingam said.
In terms of Sri Lanka’s coral reefs, which are an important attraction for the tourist industry, the main threat now is from the debris that still continues to scrape away and destroy the delicate coral life forms, he said.
“The good news is that damage to the reefs we studied from the tsunami was low but the bad news is that unless we clean up the debris left behind there will be further damage,” he said.
The survey team also investigated the impact on Yala national park, which comprises 250,000 acres of protected dry scrub forest and estuaries. Yala has 50 miles of mostly undisturbed coastline.
Land along the coast had been devastated and the human settlements reduced to fields of rubble but the destruction was very localised. “There is major structural damage to the vegetation and the grass is almost uniformly brown in areas inundated by the water.
However, there are already extensive signs of regrowth and regeneration,” Dr Muttulingam said. “As we went deeper into the jungle, the signs of obvious destruction receded,” he said.
In one place, the tsunami swept through the forest for up to two miles and the land looks like a moonscape. But most other areas appeared untouched. The scientists estimated that between 5 and 8 per cent of Yala Park had been affected but in many areas the grass and trees were already beginning to regenerate, he said.
“The resilience of nature is very strong. I saw lots of sounds and signs of wild animals. I’d be surprised if in two years we’re able to distinguish many of the areas that have been damaged from those left unscathed.”
Although no study of the Maldives is known, it is likely the reefs there displayed similar resistance to damage.