The beginnings of the Hanthana Conservation Society lie in the raging forest fires of the Upper Hanthana mountain range. Orange flames tower fifteen, twenty feet high sometimes, licking pine trees and leaving them black for the next day, to match the carcasses of dead boar, hares and sometimes even small deer.
One August night in 1996, three students from the University of Peradeniya sat talking late into the night in room no.44 at the Marcus Fernando hostel. They had just returned from assisting villagers in dousing a monstrous fire. They felt strongly for the need to organize themselves in preparation for another such event, and took steps that night itself to form a society dedicated to protecting the Hanthana forest range from destruction by these fires.
Now fifteen years later, the Hanthana Conservation Society (HCS aka ‘Consa’) of the University of Peradeniya is involved in a wide range of pro-environment consciousness initiatives that reach across the country through nearly 150 members. Students from all faculties come together each week at the university Summer Hut to discuss environment issues they have personally experienced, to think of innovative but most importantly effective solutions and plan out the week’s proceedings.
The society functions on a basic annual calendar which includes a major activity for each month. January-February – The first major event of the year is the pilgrimage to the Sri Pada. “It’s undeniably a lot of fun” smiles Geethanjali, a member of the HCS “but we try to make it more than just a trip,” she adds, explaining that the hike is about becoming personally aware of the environmental issues which surround the sacred site. The HCS is actively involved in programmes to reduce pollution in this area during January-February which is the usual Adam’s Peak ‘season’.
April – The next highlight of the annual Consa calendar is the exploration of the Hanthana range. A full-day hike of the whole range allows each and every member to become familiar with the sites and sounds of the range as well as the environment and wild-life concerns of the famed site. This is considered the main event of the year, since it orientates the new members, giving them an idea of what they have pledged to protect during their stay at the university.
In May – HCS organises their annual dinner and award ceremony Hanthana Eve, to celebrate their successes and felicitate members for outstanding service to the environment during this month. New members are acknowledged with a certificate of membership at this ceremony. June – The LiFZA (Litter-Free Zone Anuradhapura) campaign is organized to coincide with the Poson pilgrimages. The HCS in coordination with the Central Environment Authority, the Police force, the Anuradhapura municipal council, the International Red- Cross Organization as well school children from the area engage in public awareness campaigns are well as pollution reduction campaigns in the area during this time.
July – The Esala Perahera takes to the streets of Kandy and the HCS , again with the help of the local authorities as well as school children engages in public awareness programmes. The aim of the project is not merely to keep the city clean during this period, but to instill in the pilgrims, an appreciation of the environment, and an understanding of the need to protect it, which they will take to their homes after the Perahera is over.
The society is involved in many other activities throughout the year, including awareness programmes conducted at schools, waste management programmes, tours of environmentally and ecologically significant sites across the country. “We want to be more than just another society on campus,” explains J.D. Prashan, the 2010 president of the society. Their focus, he says, is to give to the environment timely and relevant solutions.
To ensure that students do not join the society for the sake of it the society has an unusual yet effective membership programme. The certificate acknowledging membership is handed over to students during the Hanthana Eve ceremony only after they have fulfilled certain requirements. Among these are mandatory participation at least once in the Sri Pada hike, the LiFZA programme, the Perahera campaign and the Hanthana seven-peak hike as well as regular attendance at weekly meetings.