Is the pristine Wilpattu National Park, a Protected Area, being destroyed in the name of a beloved Roman Catholic saint whose images, ironically appear with a tender sheaf of flowers? This is what not only environmentalists but also staunch Roman Catholics are asking in the light of strong and clear messages being sent out by [...]


Shameful saga at Pallekandal shrine

Is Wilpattu National Park being desecrated in the name of a beloved saint?

A tiny temporary shrine to St. Anthony at Pallekandal had by 2013 turned into a small permanent structure within the Wilpattu National Park, a Protected Area, due to political pressure allegedly fuelled by influence from the Roman Catholic Church. Pix by Kithsiri Gunawardena

Is the pristine Wilpattu National Park, a Protected Area, being destroyed in the name of a beloved Roman Catholic saint whose images, ironically appear with a tender sheaf of flowers?

This is what not only environmentalists but also staunch Roman Catholics are asking in the light of strong and clear messages being sent out by Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, on the need to respect and safeguard ‘God’s creation’ which includes nature in all its aspects.

The latest episode in the destruction of an enchanting area of the Wilpattu National Park – Pallekandal at which there has been a simple shrine to St. Anthony – has taken place with five tippers chock-a-block with gravel rumbling in, along with another heavy vehicle accompanied by about 100 people on Thursday.

The five-km intrusion into the Wilpattu National Park, from Eluvankulam was without the specific permission of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), as is required when bringing in vehicles to a Protected Area, alleged many sources.

This is while Wanathawilluwa Parish Priest, Fr. Prabath Sanjaya, under whose mandate is the St. Anthony’s Shrine at Pallekandal within the Wilpattu National Park, and the Wanathawilluwa Divisional Secretary H.M.S. Herath when contacted by the Sunday Times assured that they had sought DWC permission. Wanathawilluwa falls under the Chilaw Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.  

The road to the Pallekandal shrine has been washed away by the rains and floods and they took the five tippers and the other heavy vehicle on Thursday to repair it, said Fr. Sanjaya, explaining that the feast of St. Anthony is due to be celebrated from July 6 for several days at Pallekandal and they are expecting 500-600 vehicles bringing in about 300,000 people during this time.

When asked whether the Roman Catholic Church had sought permission to bring in such vehicles and repair roads within a Protected Area clearly in violation of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), Fr. Sanjaya said that they had sent a fax to the DWC and had been verbally informed over the phone that permission was granted. However, he was unable to give the name of the person who had granted such ‘verbal’ permission. (Incidentally, this is the same controversy-ridden road which is now before the Supreme Court, with the Environmental Foundation petitioning court about its illegality within the National Park.) The Bishop of Chilaw and the Vicar General were not contactable although the Sunday Times made several attempts to do so.

“The DWC would never grant verbal permission for such intrusion with vehicles into the National Park. That would never happen,” was the categorical view of a DWC source who declined to be identified, while another source pointed out that what they have been allowed is “manpower” (no vehicles) to slightly clear the roadway to make the shrine accessible.

When the Sunday Times contacted the so-called ‘Acting Head’ of the DWC (as the DWC Director-General has resigned over alleged political interference and the department is in a state of flux), he said he was “busy with a workshop” and could not comment on the situation at the Wilpattu National Park.

The Sunday Times understands that this alleged illegal intrusion into the Wilpattu National Park had led to DWC personnel working at ground level arriving on the scene and objecting to such activity, after which the DWC personnel had lodged a complaint with the Wanathawilluwa Police about this issue. The ground-level personnel could not be contacted by the Sunday Times.

By 2015 many more permanent buildings and structures cause devastation of the Wilpattu National Park

It is a senior environmentalist who fills in the gaps to the Sunday Times on the “shameful” saga of the Pallekandal shrine which has led to the denudation of more than 10 acres (four hectares) of wilderness where not only wild elephants roam but also leopard and bear.

The area dubbed Pallekandal, named after a beautiful ‘pitiya’ in the vicinity is not only famous for its grasslands which attract a large number of wild elephants from within the National Park itself but is also replete with archaeological sites, as many as 68, including an ancient burial site.

When Block 5 of the Wilpattu National Park was gazetted as a Protected Area, all villages and other structures were removed except the two small fishing villages of Palugahaturai and Pukkulam. These fishermen were allowed to engage in their livelihood without harming the environment. There was also a tiny, humble and temporary shrine of St. Anthony at Pallekandal where devotees would gather in July, put up temporary tents, worship and depart without much harm to the environment.

With the end of the war, things changed drastically for the worse, with much political pressure which the DWC which is the guardian and protector of the Wilpattu National Park did not resist, another source said.

The temporary shrine was then blatantly converted to a permanent structure of about 40ftX20ft. By 2013, the devastation of Pallekandal was sky-rocketing, with a permanent structure of six blocks containing five toilets each being constructed along with water tanks, a bell tower and three statues, all within a National Park, lamented a Roman Catholic  

“People come in hordes, there are stalls where all sorts of things including meat are sold, there are drunken revelries, chaos and confusion in July. It’s like a carnival. When they go, they leave behind a mountain of garbage,” another alleged in despair, adding that now there seems to be even requests seeking permission for people to bathe in the Kala Oya, all within the National Park.

When asked, Fr. Sanjaya denied these allegations, adding that they, including the Bishop, keep telling the people to act with decorum and clean up the rubbish before they leave.

Do you think the environment is not getting destroyed, asked a disgusted nature-lover, while DWC sources said that when they wanted to encroach on another 12 acres to put up more buildings, the DWC went to court. The case at the Puttalam Magistrate’s Court is ongoing.

Conceding that just once a year if a small ceremony is held it would be alright, a source added that if, however, permanent structures are put up, every week people would be coming in their numbers to the National Park, without observing the strict rules that visitors to a Protected Area have to abide by. This is not acceptable.

This is in the light of Sri Lanka over the years, about 100, having lost its forest cover from 73% down to around 22% and is also being assailed by severe floods, drought and landslides and other effects of climate change.

The Wilpattu shrine issue also brings into focus the need to take a good look at shrines within all Protected Areas, said an environmentalist, a view echoed by many others.

Adding insult to injury, a huge notice by the Roman Catholic Church, which obviously does not heed the Pope’s pleas to protect the environment, seeks support for the Pallekandal Shrine Building Fund, blatantly ignoring the fact that it is illegal to put up structures within the Wilpattu National Park, which is a Protected Area. What is requested is 1,000 bags of cement!

Explicit provisions in Protection Ordinance

The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) is “an ordinance to provide for the protection and conservation of the Fauna and Flora of Sri Lanka and their habitats; for the prevention of commercial and other misuse of such Fauna and Flora and their habitats, for the conservation of the biodiversity of Sri Lanka; and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

Section 6 of the FFPO under ‘Acts prohibited in Strict Natural Reserves, National Parks, Nature Reserves and Jungle Corridors’ states that: No person shall, in a National Reserve (Strict Natural Reserve, National Park, Nature Reserve, Jungle Corridor or Marine National Park)

· Clear or break up any land for cultivation, mining or for any other purpose;

· Make any fresh clearing

· Except under the authority of a permit issued in that behalf by the prescribed officer, erect any building, whether permanent or temporary, or occupy any building so erected

· Construct or use any road or path so constructed by him

· Introduce any poison, waste material, garbage or any other material which is likely to pollute the water on any land, or in stream, river or water course flowing through any National Reserve

· Carry on any activity which may pollute waters or cause an adverse impact on the existence of the fauna and flora therein or the ecosystem thereof.



Pope’s encylical ignored?

The alleged rape of the Wilpattu National Park by the Chilaw Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church comes without heeding the encyclical of Pope Francis who has fervently urged his flock to ‘take good care of creation’, lamented many a Catholic.

“Just do a Google search for the Pope’s views on the destruction of the environment,” suggested one devotee who dealt at length with the Holy Father’s encyclical, which is a letter sent directly by him in Rome to all the Catholic churches worldwide.

This was while another was quick to point out that ‘care for creation’ is very close to the heart of the Pope, for he chose to be called Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, who is a saint well-known for his love of nature. The Pope is also of the strong belief that the “significant” ecological problems of this era need to be addressed.

While pointing out that the Pope has mentioned ‘integral ecology’ which includes both ‘human ecology’ and ‘natural ecology’, another Catholic says that Pope Francis has referred to many themes including pollution and climate change, the issue of water, loss of biodiversity (the extinction of plants, animals, etc.), decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.

“Don’t we have enough shrines to St. Anthony across the country? Should we in his name destroy what little of nature we have left in our Protected Areas, questioned another furious Catholic.



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