Lyn de Alwis Growing up around a man who lived and breathed conservation It is hard to believe that a decade has gone by since Lyn de Alwis passed away, because he was such an integral part of our formative years. But with each passing year, we have grown to appreciate more and more the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka



Lyn de Alwis

Growing up around a man who lived and breathed conservation

It is hard to believe that a decade has gone by since Lyn de Alwis passed away, because he was such an integral part of our formative years. But with each passing year, we have grown to appreciate more and more the role that Lyn de Alwis (Lyn Maama to us) played in making that childhood so special. To begin with, to how many children has it been given to have free range in a large zoo, full of animals from all parts of the world? How many children have had the pleasure of going camping in the wilds of Sri Lanka with the Director of the Department of Wild Life? And how many children have had the privilege of growing up in an extended family that lived and breathed environmental conservation, now a buzz word on everyone’s lips? We took all that for granted while growing up, and it is only now that we fully appreciate the central role that Lyn Maama played in moulding us, a whole host of our cousins, and indeed, many members of the next generation of Sri Lankans, into who we are today.

Lyn Maama was Director of the National Zoological Gardens in Dehiwala for well over 25 years. He lived in the Director’s Bungalow in the zoo during that entire period (except for a few years in Singapore), and our family visited their family virtually every week. Lyn Maama’s wife Ellen, and his two children Chitran and Nirmala, all loved animals and nature as much as he did, and so the Director’s Bungalow was not only home to them, but to all kinds of other animals – we remember vividly the lion cubs and the leopard cubs, that made brief stays, and the pet African Grey Parrot that was there for rather longer. Occasionally we were accorded the privilege of accompanying Lyn Maama when he made his morning or afternoon round in the zoo. Quite apart from learning about what llamas liked to eat, or how the orangutans needed a bigger enclosure, we also witnessed at first-hand how he cared about the staff who looked after the animals. He knew all of them by name and made it a point to find out about their well-being. The main expansions that took place at the National Zoological Gardens during that time – the opening of Min Medura (the national aquarium), the walk-in Aviary and the Butterfly Park, the zoo farm, the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawela – they were all discussed in the family pow-wows.

The jewel in the crown though is the Young Zoologist Association Lyn Maama founded in the mid 70’s. Since then, tens of thousands of youths have explored the animal kingdom through the YZA, many of whom have gone on to become great servants of the environment. Four decades on and counting, the YZA is thriving and will continue to do so for many more decades to come.  This then must surely be the greatest legacy of Lyn Maama.

In the early 1970’s Lyn Maama was invited to advise the government of Singapore on setting up their national zoological gardens, and he moved there with his wife and family for several years to accomplish this challenging task. It was many years later, while helping to put together the posthumously published collection of his writings – Footfalls in the Wild – that we realized just how much he had done for our zoo; how extensively he had studied zoos in other countries; and just why the Singaporeans had invited him to advise them on the establishment of a zoo which has now become a source of great national pride to them.

For Lyn Maama, the Singapore Night Safari, the first of its kind in the world, was the project closest to his heart. When the Singapore Zoo invited him as their principal conceptual design advisor for their Night Safari, he seized that opportunity to create the ‘revolutionary’ zoo he often dreamed and spoke of. That the Singapore Night Safari is still in a league of its own is not accidental, but due to the sound and farsighted conceptualization of this great zoo man.

Lyn Maama was also Director of the Department of Wild Life Conservation during two spells – first in the late 1960’s and then again in the late 1970’s through into the 1980’s. He was as hands-on in that post, as he was in running the zoo. The love of nature that manifested itself in caring for animals in captivity was extended into getting the best possible deal for animals and all other creatures in the wild, in a country grappling with transition from a closed, stagnant, economy to an open market driven by capitalism.

Our childhood experience was simply the joy of spending school holidays in a wild life park – in a park bungalow or camped out with very rudimentary facilities – with Lyn Maama and his family, accompanied by the thrill of seeing elephants or leopards or bear up close in the wild, and learning to recognize all kinds of birds, butterflies and trees. These holidays were periods of total immersion in the wild – we were completely cut off from the rest of the world, no mobile phones, no radio stations or TV, and who would even think of going in search of newspapers when the morning round in Wilpattu beckoned? Various friends and relatives who shared Lyn Maama’s love of nature would accompany him on these trips into the wild. Photographers, architects, artists, actors – many of whom are very famous now – were part of his wide circle of acquaintances.

But once again, it was only through reading all his pieces of writing that my aunt and my cousins collated for Footfalls in the Wild that we realized just how much Lyn Maama had done for wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. For example, we vaguely knew that he had a soft corner for Uda Walawe National Park, because every time we came back to Colombo from Yala, he would insist on driving through it, even though in those early years, we never saw any large mammals there. It was on re-reading an article that he originally wrote for The Sunday Observer in 2001, that we realized the magnitude of the effort that he put into redeeming a national park that had been virtually abandoned to squatters. Today, all those who visit the park to see all the elephants and other creatures that roam free in Uda Walawe National Park, owe an immense debt of gratitude to his vision and perseverance.

But Lyn Maama was not just a man who was seriously committed to his job as a government servant and conservationist. He was a person with a superb sense of humour, who could keep us enthralled with his stories. He was a loving husband – my aunt was absolutely devastated when he passed away – and a devoted father, who nurtured the best in his children. He and his wife were a very generous, hospitable couple – quite apart from our weekly family visits, the annual Christmas dinner was always at the zoo for all the extended family. He was a great pianist – the one who sat at the piano to get us going with the carols on Christmas night. He had a wonderful way with words – as anyone who reads Footfalls in the Wild will agree. But above all, he was a man of integrity. Whether it was a matter of adhering to park rules that he expected all other visitors to follow, or a matter of financial probity, he was a man who distinguished clearly between right and wrong, and had the strength of character to stand up for what he saw as right.

It is not often that we are blessed to grow up with a person of the stature of Lyn de Alwis in one’s life. We count ourselves as privileged to have known and loved him, but much more than that, we realize that our country was extremely fortunate to have had a man of his dedication and ability to champion the cause of wildlife conservation. May he rest in peace, in the certainty that his legacy lives on.

-Nilanthi de Silva, Chanaka and Suresh Ellawala

Lakshman de Mel

He belonged to the elite band of top public officials who knew their job

News reaching you of the death of a close friend when you are several thousand miles away is indeed painful. How strange – just less than an hour before I had an e-mail from a friend that Lakshman de Mel had passed away, I was chatting with another friend about him and he told me he had been in hospital for some time.

I had known Lakshman for exactly six decades. It was early years in his public service when we first met. He had been selected to the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) when the cream of university graduates was chosen to be top administrators. You had to have either a first class or an upper second class degree to apply.

It was 1956. I had sat for my final exam in Peradeniya and joined Dinamina as a reporter. The Bandaranaike era had just begun. SWRD had swept the polls and become Prime Minister. Just as much as he had promised to make Sinhala the official language he had assured that the recommendations in the report of the Committee of Inquiry appointed by the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress would be implemented. Among the recommendations was the appointment of a Buddha Sasana Commission. Buddhist affairs came under the newly created Department of Cultural Affairs under N.Q. Dias, a senior civil servant and one of the few – if not the only – top administrators who wore the national dress.

It was Buddha Jayanthi Year as well. Among my news rounds was the Cultural Department. When the government appointed the Buddha Sasana Commission in March 1957, Lakshman was appointed secretary. I knew the Commission activities would be ‘good copy’ for the Dinamina.I met Lakshman and we got to know each other. Soon we learnt we were both old Anandians and our relationship became closer.

Years passed. I moved out of Lake House. Lakshman had a steady career in the public service and having held several top posts became Secretary to the Ministry of Trade and Shipping when Lalith Athulathmudali became Minister.

A keen tennis player he was a ‘regular’ at the Government Servants Tennis Club at Frazer Road. Not many public servants played tennis then and those from the private sector could also become members. I too joined and we met often. When the numbers gradually increased, a committee was appointed with Lakshman as the President. Each time Lakshman wanted to move out, the members firmly said “no way”. Ultimately he continued for at least three decades until he stopped playing. Then we appointed him Patron which position he held until the end. He was always present at Club get-togethers even at the latter stages when his movements were rather curtailed.

During the chats I had with him at the Club he spoke with pride about the progress of his grandsons. He would have been so happy to see them doing well in public life today.

As a trustee of the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) his contribution was immense because of his knowledge of the Dhamma as well as his experience as an administrator. He was close to Venerable Professor Dhammavihari, (he was Professor Jotiya Dheerasekera during Lakshman’s days in the university) at the Narada Centre.

Lakshman belonged to the elite band of top public officials who knew their job and did it well. They were above politics. They discharged their duties and responsibilities without fear or favour. It is a pity that such principled bureaucrats are so rare today.

A vociferous reader he had a fine library. Whenever he read a review of a new book in the newspaper he would call and ask me where he could get a copy.

His was a simple life. After retirement he and his wife who was a teacher at Visakha spent a quiet life at their Kollupitiya home. I used to drop in for a chat occasionally with a Club mate after he stopped his tennis. We admired the way he would still drop in at the Club even when he was not in the best of health at the end of the year to give a ‘santhosam’ to the Club boy.

The quiet funeral in itself was a symbol of the life he led.

May his journey in ‘Samsara’ be smooth and fruitful until he reaches the ultimate goal – Nirvana!

D.C. Ranatunga



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