There are two capital cities which come to my mind for being excellently positioned as gateways for wetland wildlife. London in Britain and Colombo in Sri Lanka. I am torn between the two in deciding which is better. This is not just because I have a strong affiliation with both and have a conflict of loyalties. It is because they are two so very different experiences. In terms of the facilities and infrastructure for visitors, I have no doubt that the London Wetland Centre in the west of London, a WWT reserve is the best. Arguably for its visitor infrastructure, it is one of the best if not the best urban nature reserve in the world. London’s offering as a wetland gateway has become stronger with the opening in October 2017 of the Wathamstow Wetlands managed by the London Wildlife Trust. It is now the largest urban wetland reserve in Europe. Also within a half hour train travel radius of London and within the 20 mile radius of St Pauls Cathedral which is the recording area of the London Natural History Society, is the Lee Valley Country Park. A train ride from Liverpool Street Station to Cheshunt leaves you within a few minutes’ walk of an extensive area of wetland; breathtaking in its size and richness of wildlife. Then within minutes from tall apartment blocks in a busy part of London is the 11 acre Woodberry Wetlands, which opened to the public in 2016 and is open daily.
How can any city compete with London as the capital city which is a gateway to wetlands? Colombo offers stiff competition with an increasingly rich cluster. To the west of the capital, on its suburbs lies Talangama Wetland. The sophisticated Colombo set discovered Talangama in the 1980s and bought land on the cheap and built second homes. One of its attractions is that it is not a reserve controlled by tickets and entrance times. People live and work here. Farmers plant paddy, herders put out their buffalos to graze on the wetland, the irrigation department keeps the canals and ditches between the waterways working and city executives commute to their offices. Birding groups share the road with tuk tuks and other road users. North of the capital, close to the airport and the beach city of Negombo lies the Muthurajawela Wetland. A still extensive area of wetland where jackals and crocodiles can yet be found. A visitor centre arranges guided boat trips. But access on foot to the wetland is largely absent and the site is not frequented as a result by serious birders.Two recent developments, propel Colombo into serious contention as one of the best capitals for wetlands. Around 2017, two sites opened up, both of which are a stone’s throw from the parliament.
Beddegana Wetland is a site I knew of as the Kotte Marshes when I bird watched there regularly in the 2000s. It was developed by the Urban Development Authority as an urban wetland using consultants from WWT Consulting from the UK and opened to the public in 2016. The Diyasaru Park was developed on a similar theme by the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation. It comprises around 60 acres and was opened to the public in January 2017. Both of these wetland parks have access controlled by the issuance of tickets and are open early enough to be a viable site for birders and wildlife photographers. Both of them are also within sight of the parliament, a few hundred meters away as the crow flies. Before the 1980s, these areas would have been treated as in the suburbs of Colombo. With the rapid expansion of Colombo from the 1980s, the sites could arguably be treated as part of the city of Colombo as residents understand it.
Both Beddegana and Diyasaru are within a half an hour drive in the morning before the school traffic begins from Colombo’s good tourist hotels which are on the western seaboard. In fact from some of the tourist accommodation in the Colombo 7 area, it is possible, to reach them within less than half an hour early in the morning. Residents of Central Colombo in areas such as Colombo 7 and Colombo 8 can reach them within 15 minutes going against the flow of traffic, early in the morning. When I lived in Colombo 8, I have sometimes gone birding at what is now Diyasaru Park, before going to work. It would be a different story if you were caught in the rush hour outflow in the evening which can take very much longer.
On Saturday the 7th of July 2018, I was at the London Wetland Centre, co-leading a London Bird Club walk with Dr. Richard Bullock from the centre. A week later I was at both Diyasaru Park and the Beddegana Wetland in Colombo. Another week later I was at the Lee Valley Country Park on another London Bird Club walk led by Roy Woodward. This allowed me to reflect on and compare the different experiences.
There is something intoxicating about being in a tropical wetland. The sheer variety of wildlife is overwhelming. However, to a trained eye, a carefully managed reserve such as the London Wetland Centre is equally rewarding for a wide variety of species. The reserves in Colombo may have a slight psychological edge because one knows that Colombo is one of the best places in the world for the Fishing Cat. There is also the slight rush of adrenalin on looking where you step as venomous snakes are a possibility and you feel you are really in the wild. But really as a naturalist, there is not much to choose between the two cities as both are truly blessed as cities for wetlands. However, Colombo seems to be on a trajectory to consolidate its position as one of the best capital cities in the world for wetlands. A large scale infrastructure development plan known as the ‘Megapolis’ is under way and more urban wetlands are to be developed. Greater Colombo will be studded with fantastic wetland reserves.