The government of Sri Lanka has designated the Vankalai Sanctuary as its 4th Wetland of International Importance. As summarized by Marian Gwilliam, Assistant Advisor for Asia/Oceania, Vankalai Sanctuary (8°56’N 079°55’E) is located North-West of Sri Lanka in the District of Mannar. This site covers an area of 4,839 ha and consists of several ecosystems which range from arid-zone thorn scrubland, arid-zone pastures and maritime grasslands, sand dunes, mangroves, salt marshes, lagoons, tidal flats, sea-grass beds and shallow marine areas. Due to the integrated nature of shallow wetland and terrestrial coastal habitats, this sanctuary is highly productive, supporting high ecosystem and species diversity.
The site provides excellent feeding and living habitats for a large number of waterbird species, including annual migrants, which also use this area on arrival and during their exit from Sri Lanka. It harbours more than 20,000 waterbirds during the migratory season, including the Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) and the Eurasian Wigeon (Anas Penelope), of which Vankalai Sanctuary supports 1% of the population of the latter two species.
The site’s coastal and marine ecosystems are important for over 60 species of fish, marine turtles, and rare species such as Dugongs (Dugong dugon). These ecosystems provide important spawning and feeding grounds for juvenile fish species such as Trevally (Caranx spp.), Snappers (Lutjanus spp.), and also host a number of threatened species, such as the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), Dugongs (Dugong dugon), and Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus).
Vankalai Sanctuary sustains diverse food chains, while also sustaining the livelihoods of fisheries-dependent communities in the area. Civil unrest has kept human activity out of this region for nearly two decades, hence there are only few permanent settlements in the area. Locals engage in small-scale livestock grazing, subsistence and commercial fishing. Part of the Vankalai Sanctuary is an archaeological site since it is partly located in the major port of ancient Sri Lanka, dated from 6th century BC to 13th century AD. The Department of Conservation is directly responsible for managing this diverse and culturally rich wetland.
Sri Lanka presently has 4 Ramsar Sites covering 13,361 hectares – the Convention’s global total is 1891 Ramsar Sites covering 185,464,092 hectares.