26th August 2001
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Playing with fire

Uda Walawe and other national parks will be under threat when the ADB-funded Protected Area Management and Wildlife Conservation Project gets underway in September writes Rohan Wijesinha

Uda Walawe, a haven for elephants, is now a blackened, ashen waste, devoid of greenery. Fires started by poachers, fishermen, villagers and nature, an annual feature of the park, have this year caused near total devastation.

Elephants are attracted to this national park because of the ever-present water in the reservoir, and its vast plains of Guinea B ("Mana") grass. Even at times of severe drought, there is always food and water for the elephants at Uda Walawe. This attracts elephants from outside the park too, contributing to those wondrous congregations by the reservoir at this time of the year.

This year though, the only food available is the grass on the bed of the drying reservoir and the bark of surviving trees and shrubs. Of the latter, there are precious few at the best of times in Uda Walawe. Normally as a supplement to their diet of grass, the resident herds of elephants, even young calves, strip this bark, thereby inadvertently causing even more destruction.

The seasonal migrants have not entered the Park as yet, may be put off by the fires. However, if they do come, with the monsoons still a couple of months away, they will face extreme hardship, unless nature is kind and sends the Park a few unseasonal showers of rain.

What then of the other small animals, reptiles and birds for whom these grassy plains were a nesting ground and safe haven? It will take many years for them to recover from this disaster.

From September 1, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank and the Government of the Netherlands, take control of Uda Walawe, and six other protected areas, as part of their Protected Area Management and Wildlife Conservation Project. In the ADB's indicative threat analysis for Uda Walawe, "Grazing, poaching, timber extraction, gem mining, land and resource disputes, elephant conflict and alien weed invasion" are given as the main problems of the Park.

But there is no mention of the fires, even though fires have always been a feature, a necessary feature, of this open plains park! Fire is needed to stimulate new growth!

In previous years, the fires were stalled by the planted stands of teak that border the reservoir. The fallen trees and their accumulated foliage and detritus retained some moisture even in the driest of months in the shade of the trees. This stopped the fires from spreading, and some grass was preserved as feed for the elephants. 

This year, the Forest Department which originally planted this teak, has been extracting the fallen trees and branches, under the premise that as they planted it, they have a right to it. 

Whether this is legally possible under existing legislation is a moot point. It used to be that nothing could be removed from a National Park - nothing.

This blind eye to the law has cost Uda Walawe dearly. This time, without the fallen trees to stop them, the fires have swept through the teak, and those trees left standing have succumbed to the flames. 

Conservationists have voiced alarm over the ADB proposals that envisage handing over the protection of wildlife over to the Forest Department, an institution that has a poor record of conservation. Under ADB instruction, the Forest Department has already deregularised one hundred and twenty seven (127) species of trees, including several indigenous species, leaving them open for export and exploitation. This list includes "Goraka" (Garcinia quaesita), the poor man's preservative.

This is in stark contrast to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) which has successfully preserved 85 per cent of the forest cover of this island for all of these years.

Sustainable development and eco-tourism are the catchwords that occur throughout the ADB's proposals. For instance, the historic and sacred mountain of Ritigala, a Strict Natural Reserve, has been demarcated for "sustainable development", though such a concept would make nonsense of a Strict Natural Reserve. In fact, seven other protected areas such as the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, Horton Plains National Park, Ritigala Strict Natural Reserve, Bundala National Park, Wasgamuwa National Park, Minneriya National Park and Uda Walawe National Park fall under the ADB project.

For 64 years, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) has stood as the legal bastion that has made it possible for almost 20 per cent of the forest cover of this island to remain intact. 

When implemented in full, it has proved an effective legal measure for conservation. As in the case of an ancient warrior, it may need a repair or two, but the basic tenets of conservation are firmly enshrined in its legislation. 

Contd. from page 1

Yet, the ADB project would get rid of it. Under present legislation nothing can be legally removed from a National Park and a Strict Natural Reserve. Under the ADB proposals, however, National Parks will be made into Biodiversity Reserves and under the Biodiversity Convention, anything can be removed from a Biodiversity Reserve.

In their Special Review Mission (May 2001) the ADB states: 

"The policy and institutional reforms were developed under the supervision of a Task Force appointed in December 1999 by the then Minister in charge of the wildlife sector. The Task Force consisted of 15 members. Apart from supervising the consultants engaged in redesigning the project, the Task Force also took the lead in reformulating the National Wildlife Policy, having successfully demonstrated that the project should be preceded by and be consistent with such a policy".

This statement not only narrows the number of those allegedly involved in the planning of this project, but also implies that the National Wildlife Policy was prepared to facilitate this project, rather than maintaining the best interests of wildlife conservation of Sri Lanka at heart. 

Late last year, the President took Wildlife under her own wing, and appointed a Presidential Task Force to advise her on these proposals, despite the fact that the agreement had already been signed with the ADB in Manila. The Conservation Sub-Committee of this Task Force, ironically chaired by the ADB's newly appointed Project Director, submitted a comprehensive report to the President challenging several of the ADB project proposals as being detrimental to conservation in Sri Lanka, and recommending that the project be re-negotiated. 

The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society(WNPS) also submitted a comprehensive ten-point report to its patron, the President, outlining concerns its General Committee had about several aspects of these proposals, and also recommending re-negotiation.

But the points raised by the Presidential Task Force, the WNPS, concerned conservationists, and the public, have been disregarded and nothing has been done to improve on the proposals as suggested by these select groups. 

The concerned groups feel the ADB proposals concentrate on the economic exploitation of the wildlife and wild creatures of Sri Lanka with scant regard being paid to conservation. None of the many Memoranda of Understanding produced on this project (there have been several) even mention, apart from a footnote , the human-elephant conflict. Conservationists are of the view that these proposals are based on Western concepts of conservation and planning with little or no adaptation to the realities of life in South Asia, and particularly of Sri Lanka.

At present, what is of paramount importance is the protection of the parks, and the strict implementation of the FFPO to strengthen the tenets of conservation that have assisted the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) in preserving 85 per cent of the forest cover of Sri Lanka. The fears voiced are that these proposals will set about dismantling this valuable piece of legislation, and promoting the dissolution of the DWLC with all responsibility for wildlife and National Parks passing to a Biodiversity Secretariat under the control of the Ministry of Forestry and Environment and of foreign NGOs. 

This would lead the way to the exploitation of the natural resources of even the Strict Natural Reserves, sacred under present legislation.

Conservationists are now looking at the possibility of legal recourse to stop the ADB project from going ahead. They are also hoping the government will heed public opinion on this issue and insist on a re-negotiation of the ADB proposals that would ensure the fundamental principle of conservation_ that Protected Areas are refuges for wild animals and wild plants and not for economic exploitation. 


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