The recorded history of Sri Lanka goes back to the advent of Indo-Aryans from India in 543 BC. Until the sixteenth century AD, the country had an independent, monarchical system of governance. From 1505, the maritime areas were dominated successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. In 1815, the British assumed control of the entire island after they annexed the central kingdom. Sri Lanka regained political independence in 1948 and became a Republic in 1972.
During the time of monarchial rule, the concepts that we now recognize as biodiversity conservation were ingrained in the cultural and religious beliefs of the people of Sri Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Sri Lankan history, the protection of forests and animals was esteemed highly by both rulers and subjects. This respect for all forms of life is fostered by Buddhism which spurns animal slaughter. As far back as the third century BC, wildlife ‘sanctuaries’ for the protection of fauna and flora existed in this country, while the concept of ‘urban nature reserves’ was promulgated in the twelfth century AD.
With the onset of the colonial era, there was a dramatic change in the cultural and socio-political climate in the country. During this period of foreign rule there was large scale destruction of the forests, particularly for the establishment of plantations. These activities marked the beginning of environmental problems and large scale biodiversity erosion in the country. After gaining independence, clearing land for development schemes in the dry zone commenced and continued to gain momentum, causing a further loss of indigenous biodiversity. Despite these adverse trends, the concepts which underlie conservation of biodiversity continue to influence the lives of rural people, particularly those of the older generation. Even today, certain species of trees are protected by religious beliefs. Ficus religiosa is considered sacred by Buddhists as the tree or ‘bhodhi’ under which the Buddha attained enlightenment; Mesua spp., bamboo groves and Ficus benghalensis are some species that are held in high esteem by Buddhists; and the neem tree(Azadiracta indica) is revered by Hindus. Most rural people consider it irreverent to fell large trees, due to their belief that such trees are the abodes of lesser gods. Among the fauna, the elephant (Elephas maximus) plays a dominant role in the cultural and religious pageants of the country, especially in the age old annual Esala Perahara (procession) in which about a hundred domesticated elephants participate.
Recent decades have seen a sharp increase in human population, and the overriding need to produce more food has exerted great pressure on the forests which were seen as a source of land for agriculture. There was also a growing tendency towards secularism. These factors, as expected, led to an undermining of the values which are an integral part of the cultural and religious heritage of Sri Lanka.