The cloud of uncertainty over this week’s resignation of Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), is yet to clear, with the Minister continuing to refuse to accept the resignation and the official unavailable for comment as to his next move. Independent wildlife conservation groups along with a union of the [...]


Wildlife chief’s resignation still in the balance

Environmentalists, unions push for his return

Sumith Pilapitiya

The cloud of uncertainty over this week’s resignation of Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), is yet to clear, with the Minister continuing to refuse to accept the resignation and the official unavailable for comment as to his next move.

Independent wildlife conservation groups along with a union of the department are strongly urging the Government to stop political interference in the work of the DWC, believed to be one of the reasons for Dr. Pilapitiya stepping down.

In a connected move, Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, told the Sunday Times yesterday that he plans to meet elephant owners on Tuesday (June 14) and will tell them in no uncertain terms that they must provide elephants for peraheras unless the elephants are in musth.

“Otherwise, their permits will be cancelled and the elephants will be taken over. This is to overcome a shortage of elephants that may arise for the peraheras, which issue had been brought to the notice of both the President and myself,” he said, while re-iterating that he has refused to accept the resignation of Dr. Pilapitiya which was submitted this week.

The entry of Dr. Pilapitiya, an environmental scientist and expert on conservation, was hailed by many as the “best appointment” the present government had made since coming to power. However, two months after taking over the hot-seat, Dr. Pilapitiya who vowed that he will not bow to political pressure and ever violate environmental laws, has resigned amid howls of protest not only from environmentalists but also DWC staff.

It is learnt that the resignation had been precipitated by two major issues that have been rocking the DWC over a period of time – illegal captures of baby elephants and so-called ‘ownership’ thereafter and poaching in the National Parks.

While there had been a request to hand back to the so-called owners, the baby elephants without permits believed to have been captured from the wild illegally over which there are many court cases, the other issue had been the Yala National Park Warden, unfairly coming under criticism for doing his job of capturing a poacher and producing him in court.

The poacher had been nabbed with a dead sambhur and two wild boars within the National Park, with strong suspicions of involvement in the killing of a leopard whose headless carcass was close-by at the time of his arrest.

Dr. Pilapitiya had met Prime Minister (PM) Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday (June 9) and there would be a resolution of the issue in the coming weeks, many sources told the Sunday Times, although Dr. Pilapitiya himself was not contactable the whole week.

This was while 23 organisations banded themselves under the ‘Coalition for Environmental Good Governance’ and sent a strong petition on the same day that Dr. Pilapitiya met the PM.

Expressing “deep sadness” over the news of Dr. Pilapitiya’s resignation and “understanding” that political pressure may have been exerted on him and/or he has been forced into reversing decisions taken according to law, the coalition has urged political representatives to allow government officials to carry out their duties according to the law, without political influence and interference.

“We ask that our elected officials stay true to their election promise of good governance and uphold the rule of law,” the coalition, which includes powerful organisations such as the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, Environmental Foundation, Federation of Environmental Organisations, Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust, Galle Wildlife and Nature Protection Society and Otara Foundation, has requested.

Meanwhile, the All-Island Wildlife Guard-Officers’ Association told the Sunday Times on Friday that the association was assured by the Minister that he has not accepted the resignation of DG Pilapitiya.

“We have no 100% answer whether Dr. Pilapitiya will come back to his post or not,” the association’s President A.M.C.P. Attanayake told the Sunday Times, but are hoping he would in the light of the good work done within the DWC during his short tenure.

“Dr. Pilapitiya, within the two short months he has headed the department, revolutionised its workings and gave us dignity in the work we do,” he said, adding that earlier the DWC had no vision. Before Dr. Pilapitiya became DG, the DWC did not know where it would be in 10 years.

“We had no proper goal or objective,” says Mr. Attanayake, citing the case of 1,300 elephants being killed in the last five years in the human-elephant conflict (HEC). “Did we even try to bring down the elephant deaths as the department looking after wild animals, while making efforts to mitigate the HEC,” he asked.

“Earlier we were just talking about how much money we had spent and what buildings we had put up, but as soon as Dr. Pilapitiya, who has a scientific background and has been studying wildlife particularly elephants, took over he gave us a vision and a direction and also pride and dignity in the important work that we do,” added Mr. Attanayake.

Reiterating that wildlife management is a well developed science based on biology, ecology, animal behaviour, genetics and conservation science, many environmentalists were of the view that unfortunately, the wildlife sector in Sri Lanka is viewed as completely non-technical and every wildlife ‘enthusiast’ fancies him/herself a wildlife ‘expert’.

“As a result, especially wildlife enthusiasts with political power believe they know best on what to do and how to do it, which in many cases may be technically incorrect. However, they exert much pressure on the DWC to do what they mistakenly believe is correct,” an expert pointed out.

Another cited the classic case of so-called elephant management where politicians often dictate where to put up electric fences, where to drive elephants to, when to translocate elephants etc., which has led to Sri Lanka holding the unenviable position of having the highest level of HEC in the world.

A contributory factor could also be that the DWC itself, to a large extent, lacks technical capacity and knowledge. The flaw could be in the personnel-recruitment process, it is understood, with the situation being aggravated by lack of encouragement and motivation of officers to become technically-competent and a succession of heads of department who have not given proper leadership to take the DWC forward.

“It is in this light that Dr. Pilapitiya’s appointment as the DWC DG brought hope of changing some of the ills of wildlife management and conservation in the country and making the DWC a highly motivated, professional and competent body,” said another field expert.

The expert added that unfortunately that dream only lasted the blink of an eye. Before he could even begin putting the house in order, he has tendered his resignation presumably because it became impossible for him to do the work he set out to do, due to political interference.

“We hope the issues are resolved promptly and Dr. Pilapitiya is back in his seat as soon as possible,” he added, a view echoed by many that the Sunday Times spoke to.

Resignations and non-acceptance

In recent years, there have been many instances where top officials have chosen to resign, often in view of political interference, followed by the relevant minister rushing to the media saying he or she refuses to accept the resignation.

However, there has been a gap in reporting in these issues on whether a resignation is legally valid if it is not accepted.

The Sunday Times learns that in the public service, the accepted norms in a person leaving the service is the act of an ‘offer and acceptance’ (two letters). That means a letter of resignation is followed by a letter of acceptance from the appointing authority.

Some retired public sector officials argue that the absence of a letter of acceptance does not deprive a person from carrying out his or her wish to resign. “If you wish to resign, I believe you have the right whether the letter of resignation is accepted or not unless, of course, there are other issues like loans borrowed from the office which need to be settled, etc,” one former official said.

There is also a case sometimes cited as case law on resignations of public officials and that was the instance when the late Richard Pathirana, a former minister, sent his letter of resignation from his post as a government teacher to contest an election. He then proceeded to contest the election and won. However, he was ousted by the Supreme Court in an election petition as the court took the view that at the time of his nomination, his letter of resignation had not been accepted by the appointing authority through a letter of acceptance.

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