A pioneering bio diversity study conducted in the freshwater streams of Nakiyadeniya Oil Palm Estate, an oil palm estate managed by the agribusiness arm of Sri Lanka’s diversified conglomerate Sunshine Holdings PLC, has led to a remarkable discovery of a new fish species.

Scientifically named as Schistura scripta and commonly known as ‘Sri Lanka Mountain Loach’, the new fish species has been confirmed as endemic to Sri Lanka and can be distinguished from all other congener fish species from Sri Lanka and peninsular India by the combination of some distinctive characteristics. The research was conducted by Hiranya Sudasinghe from the University of Peradeniya on Nakiyadeniya and Homadola estates in the south-western lowlands of Sri Lanka, coming under Sunshine Holdings PLC

For a long time, a species called Schistura notostigma has been considered as the sole representative of the genus in Sri Lanka but in 2017, a new Schistura species called S.madhavai was found in the island. The recent fieldwork in the Gin river basin has revealed the latest Schistura species, which is immediately distinguishable from both S.notostigma and S.madhavai by the greater number of bars and lateral line pores on its body. The newly discovered species adds to the count of 50 species of fish that are endemic to Sri Lanka.

Sunshine Group has provided fullest support to complete the study on freshwater fish species in the south-western lowlands of the country, as part of their mission to become Sri Lanka’s first RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified oil palm estate.  RSPO is a global standard for sustainable oil palm and it ensures the credibility of palm oil sustainability claims; it is an assurance to the customer that the standard of palm oil production is sustainable. The agribusiness arm of Sunshine holdings PLC is currently an associate member in RSPO and the organization is in the process of obtaining the full membership by the end of 2019.

Commenting on this notable achievement, in an outset where oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka has attracted negative reputation, Chief Executive Officer of Watawala Plantations, Binesh Pananwala points out that sustainable agricultural practices at the Company’s oil palm estates have led to the remarkable discovery of an endemic fish species.

“Sunshine Group currently manages approx. 4,000 hectares of oil palm cultivation out of the total extent of 5,000 hectares and we have planted our trees in arable land that has already been under cultivation for a period of more than 100 years. However, plantation companies in other countries who are managing oil palm estates have cleared out virgin forests to plant oil palm trees. The oil palm estates managed by the Group have never cleared out virgin forests and we have more than 400 hectares of virgin forests in our estates. We believe that these pockets of rich biodiversity serve as important habitats for protected species thus conserving these forests is a crucial element in our mandate.”

“Our mindfulness about using environmentally sustainable agricultural models have resulted in finding the new Schistura species in our freshwater streams and this species can be only found in Nakiyadeniya Estate coming under Sunshine Holdings PLC. While it shows our commitment towards conserving the natural habitat around our oil palm cultivation, we are dedicated to invest more time, energy and other resources preserving flora and fauna in our oil palm estates,” he commented further.

The members of Schsitura in Sri Lanka are distributed mainly in the island’s southwest quadrant and its central hills (rainfall > 2000 mm/y) drained by the major rivers Kelani, Kalu, Gin, Nilwala, Walawe and Mahaweli. The newly-found Schsitura scripta is presently known only from its type locality, with an area of occupancy of greater than 10 km2, which suggests an IUCN Red List assessment of Critically Endangered. A definitive conservation assessment should, however, await further sampling within the Gin River basin. Since the type locality is located outside a protected area and given the anthropogenic disturbance of its habitat, conservation action to protect the type locality is clearly necessary.

The oil palm plantations of Sunshine Holdings span across three estates in Galle District—Nakiyadeniya, Homadola and Talangaha—and the mill located in Nakiyadeniya processes crude palm oil for the domestic market. The palm oil factory is the largest factory in the country, equipped with a production capacity of 45,000 kg of oil/day. Reinforcing its positioning as the largest producer amongst the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs), palm oil operations continued to complement the overall agribusiness sector performance.