He is in one of the hottest seats in Sri Lanka and not because of the current heat wave scorching the country. It is a seat which has been rocked by the strong winds of political pressure and turbulence of accusations against its occupiers over sacrificing duty at the altar of alleged vested interests and [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A man of the wilds takes over the reins

After 23 years as the Lead Environmental Specialist for the World Bank office, Sumith Pilapitiya is the new Director-General (DG) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Here he talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi of his vision.

Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya: Major plans for wildlife conservation. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

He is in one of the hottest seats in Sri Lanka and not because of the current heat wave scorching the country. It is a seat which has been rocked by the strong winds of political pressure and turbulence of accusations against its occupiers over sacrificing duty at the altar of alleged vested interests and personal gain.

The just-appointed Director-General (DG) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, 57, needs no introduction.

As Dr. Pilapitiya reiterates that he “will ensure the protection and conservation of wildlife resources, so that Sri Lanka’s natural heritage will be a lasting legacy for future generations”, conservationists and environmentalists hailed his appointment as “the right man for the right job”.

His premise is simple: “As an environmental professional, during my tenure as DG, I will not violate the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance or do anything detrimental to wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. I would rather resign than be instrumental in causing a negative impact on wildlife conservation.”

Having taken up the onerous duties of running the DWC on Wednesday, March 30, he laughingly points out that many did not think it right for him to do so on April 1 as it is April Fools’ Day.

Jokes apart, as he sits down with the Sunday Times for an exclusive interview to outline his vision for the DWC on Thursday, oft are the interruptions, for there has been a robbery the night before at the Yala National Park office. Troubleshooting and instructing his officials with amazing dexterity, while fending the questions posed by us, we get a glimpse of who Dr. Pilapitiya is.

Steely of will he seems to be, set on doing right by the job which has literally been thrust upon him. Under his jurisdiction comes more than a thousand staff and 13% of this country’s land, making up the Protected Areas (PAs) which include the National Parks (NPs), the Strict Nature Reserves (SNRs), the Sanctuaries and the Jungle Corridors.

Equally at home in the wilds of Yala or Wilpattu; the humble mud-and-thatch huts of villagers affected by the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Wayamba; the plush offices of the international financial institution that is the World Bank in Colombo which was his workplace for 23 years; and the overseas meetings in other global capitals to discuss climate change, we meet him clad in his signature khakis in his mother’s home in Colombo for he and his wife, Jameeleh live in Weligama.

It is in this southern town that he imparted his technical knowledge and gave of his time to the local authority to manage its solid waste, a model which has been replicated by several other local authorities.

Wide and varied are his interests, having a basic degree in engineering and a doctorate in environmental science with his thesis being on the urban environment, while his work at the World Bank has pointed him in the direction of the conservation of charismatic flagship species such as the elephant, the tiger, the snow leopard and the one-horned rhinoceros as well as how to deal with carbon emissions, the greenhouse effect and global warming. Armed with all this knowledge about wildlife conservation, he is also well-versed in how the natural environment is threatened by the urban environment.

Just last year, Dr. Pilapitiya bid goodbye to his job as the Lead Environmental Specialist for the South Asia Environment, Water Resources and Climate Change Unit at the World Bank office, five years ahead of retirement, to indulge in his passion for wild elephants by spending long hours covered in dust at Yala to study their social behaviour.

For Dr. Pilapitiya there is no ambiguity about what needs to be done at the DWC – he needs to act as a professional and take a principled stand to ensure that wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka is elevated to a higher status. Taking the ‘agenda’ of wildlife conservation forward, while standing up to political pressure, will be his guiding light.

Currently, he has no doubts that he will be able to do his job as he thinks fit in the best interests of wildlife conservation, as President Maithripala Sirisena himself has given due importance and commitment to this issue and taken the environment portfolio under him, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is very keen to improve the PA network and also boost wildlife tourism and Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera is committed to wildlife conservation. “Therefore, I’m certain that the political leaders would never ask me and my team at the DWC to do anything which is improper.”

Referring to the DWC staff, he says that though fingers have been pointed at them over the years for problems linked to National Parks and the HEC, they have been performing a silent and difficult service. “The DWC is the guardian of the key watersheds of Sri Lanka which ensure that our streams and rivers flow and we can carry out our agricultural activities while also supplying hydropower. The DWC and the Forest Department own most of the forest lands which act as a carbon sink helping the country to counter climate change. The DWC, along with the Forest Department, also protects the country’s biodiversity.”

Boosting the morale of his team, Dr. Pilapitiya has told the DWC staff how unique their position is, for they are not doing just any job. “We are the custodians and protectors of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage which needs to be handed down intact to posterity.”

Mitigation of HEC closest to his heart

Moving onto the main priority areas that need urgent attention, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya points out that he will ensure that there is heavy focus on wildlife conservation. This is in the light of more emphasis in the past being placed on wildlife tourism.

“We need to understand that the revenue we earn from wildlife tourism would peter out if we do not invest in conservation, resulting in such tourism not being sustainable,” he explains.

The second priority is a subject very close to his heart, the mitigation of the human-elephant conflict (HEC) to create a win-win situation for both humans and elephants. For, he had been enthralled by the majestic wild elephants from the first time he set eyes on them at the Yala National Park as a little boy of about four.

Yes, it is the HEC which pulls at his heart strings, whenever the village-folk are affected or a wild elephant dies and he is determined to implement measures to mitigate the HEC on concrete, science-based information collected in coordination with the DWC.

While fire-fighting the HEC in all parts of the country, he along with his team at the DWC will make concerted efforts at mitigation through a comprehensive plan in the north-western and then the southern regions which are wracked by the HEC.

A firm believer in electric fences to make a critical difference by halting the wild elephants coming into villages, Dr. Pilapitiya points out, however, that elephants are no respecters of the ‘administrative boundaries’ of the DWC. As the DWC shares Protected Areas (PAs) with the Forest Department, “we cannot tell the wild elephants to stop at such ‘administrative boundaries’,” he says, adding that in the future the DWC will work closely with the Forest Department on ‘ecological boundaries’ which will act as deterrents to keep humans and elephants apart, rather than as boundary markers.

Under some pilot projects in the Ehatuwewa divisional area in Galgamuwa, Wayamba, where permanent electric fences have been put up around village communities, the HEC has eased to a large extent. Temporary electric fences, meanwhile, around agricultural lands such as paddy-fields prior to cultivation and fence-removal after harvesting seem to work as a co-existence model, it is understood.

The farmers get the yield of their hard work and once the fences are removed the elephants get whatever food is left in the fields, says Dr. Pilapitiya.

His third priority is addressing the troubling situations in the National Parks. Even though it looks unmanageable, he does not think it is out of control. Serious problems are being reported from Yala, Minneriya and Horton Plains where heavy over-visiting is providing a low-quality wildlife experience to tourists.

Suggestions to curb the issues are many including the restriction of the number of vehicles entering the National Parks. “Yala is a particularly complex problem,” he concedes, adding that the understanding is that nearly 800 commercial safari vehicles from Kirinde, Tissamaharama and Kataragama visit the park on peak days.

If there is sudden restriction of these vehicles, many of the safari jeep drivers who are owner-operators will lose their livelihood, creating a bigger problem. Working on global PA management principles which are clear that the sustainability of a PA depends not only on conservation but community benefits garnered through the PA, he along with his team are hoping to implement a phased approach to overcome the challenges.

The approach includes the initial registration of all such commercial safari jeeps with a training for drivers in expected behaviour and etiquette in a PA, after which would be introduced an annual licensing scheme for both driver and vehicle.

Each year they would have to undergo reinforcement training, while strict disciplinary action would be taken against errant drivers who misbehave in the park. “No political pressure will be tolerated,” underscores Dr. Pilapitiya, laying down the penalties as: a week’s suspension from Yala of both driver and jeep for the first violation; two weeks’ suspension for the second violation; a month’s suspension for the third violation, three months’ suspension for the fourth violation and debarment from the park for a year after being blacklisted for the fifth violation.

Meeting with the Jeep Drivers’ Association recently, he has urged them to “help me to help you”, and cooperate to put Yala in order.

Some other matters of urgency he will look into are staff shortages and also ensuring that no unnecessary constructions are erected within PAs.

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