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22nd August 1999

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The wild is going wild: save it

By Nihal Fernando

A tusker lay dead at Mahaseelawa wewa in the Yala National Park last week. The 4 1/2 foot long tusks that it carried were intact. Since no scavenging animals such as pigs, jackals or crocodiles were seen eating its flesh even after four or five days, it was assumed that this elephant had been poisoned.

This tragedy is an example of two serious aspects of wildlife conservation in this country.

One is that the elephant had been poisoned when it strayed out into the buffer zone where chena cultivators eke out a living. They saw this elephant as a danger to their crops and possibly poisoned it. If protection for those elephants that stray out to the park is to be a reality, the income of these poor chena cultivators has to be increased and their standard of living raised. This can be done through the judicious use of international aid, the maximum utilisation of the water available, supply of good planting material, introduction of markets for their produce and gainful employment in the park. Employment in the park also ensures a sense of ownership, which brings about the correct attitude to conservation.

The other aspect is the delay in putting up the electric fence to prevent elephants and other animals from straying out of the park. The reason for the delay by the Department of wildlife Conservation was to stymie the Army Sapper who was Competent Authority of Yala and who did a tremendous job there in a short time. These achievements caused them embarrassment and incurred the displeasure of the Wildlife Department's Colombo staff.

Since there has been much criticism of the Department, I am venturing to make proposals for its improvement. To start with why doesn't a politician, with altruistic motives, take charge of the Department with the intention of putting it right. Putting it right is an easy task as has been shown by the Competent Authority stationed at Yala in recent times.

First and foremost the low morale prevalent amongst the staff must be raised. This could be easily done by: listening to their grievances both collectively and individually as was done with success by a former director; treating everybody equally without favour; increasing their salaries and improving living conditions; encouraging them to take a pride in their job; giving rewards for detection of poachers; and insuring their lives adequately,

Three major components of park management have to be addressed. These apply to all parks in Sri Lanka.

(1). Increase the food and water supplies that are necessary for the animals especially during the drought season when the large animals move out of the parks in search of these resources.

(2). Raise the morale of the staff of the Department. This has been dealt with in detail earlier.

(3). Improve the incomes and standard of living of people in the buffer zones of the parks. This too has been dealt with in detail earlier in the article.

Other matters that need attention are:

(4). Opening other sections for visitors can ease the pressure on the areas of the parks open now to visitors. There must also be a systematic control of visitors to the parks.

(5). Campsites must be more carefully selected.

(6). Use the tremendous goodwill that is prevalent in the country and available to the Department. Special tasks, most of those that cannot be carried out effectively by the Department should be given to individuals or the private sector.

(7). The methods by which the Competent Authority was able to achieve so much in a short time should be looked at and emulated. His achievements are that: he rebuilt bungalows utilising the office staff, repaired all culverts and drains, built three tanks Pattiyalwala, Dharshana Wewa, Yala Wela and restored the staff quarters and provided furniture.

(8). Appoint an Advisory Committee consisting of competent people and not political stooges. They should meet regularly and advise the Director on matters of policy and implementation. It must be remembered that wildlife is an apolitical subject.

(9). Employ a Consultant to advise the Department on a planned programme of work in keeping with the annual budget. Each year around 20% of the budget allocated by the Treasury is returned unspent.

(10). Erect and more importantly, maintain the planned electric fences for elephant control.

Yala: Since more people wish to visit the park open more campsites on the river and in the interior of the park. Train special campsite guides and cooks. Warahena by the river is an old poaching site and would make an excellent campsite - left of the bridge. This was the original site selected for the Ondaatje bungalow. The new Yala bungalow should be built more towards the river so that both sides of the river could be seen.

The quarters for the staff should also be constructed in attractive sites.

Wasgamuwa: Poaching and the illicit felling of trees are rampant in this park and take place even during the day. Some of the staff are indisciplined and do not have any control over the visitors to whom they quickly become obliged after a gift of a little liquor. There is no strict control over the behaviour of the visitors by the park staff.

The electric fences are broken in many places and are not maintained. As a result there are many reports of serious human-elephant conflicts from the surrounding villages.

The park bungalows are badly designed . There is little that can be done to correct this now but the Department could request a private sector architect to see whether anything can be done to improve these bungalows.

The roads are narrow in most places. These must be broadened to allow two vehicles to pass each other.

Uda Walawe: Lantana has become a big problem in this park. The attempts of the Department hitherto have been feeble and ineffective. Vernon Tissera, a planter has offered to demonstrate an effective method of eradicating this pest.

If this is not done soon, the park will be choked with lantana and there will be little vegetation for the animals to feed on. Action has to be taken immediately to make use of the monsoon rains that are due soon.

The elephants have started eating the bark of the Palu and Satin trees. These trees will die in time. Something must be done to stop this or else soon there will be no shade for the elephants.

Shift Thimbirigasmankada to the spit on the tank - an exquisite site overlooking the Balangoda hills and down on a gorge. Do not spend anymore money trying to stop the water from coming in since this cannot be achieved.

Capture and auction all the feral buffaloes.

Inquire into the illegal Co-op mafia that has been formed at the gate, which allocates priority for jeeps entering the park. This should be in the hands of the park staff.

Horton Plains: Almost the entire period of this government has been spent in repairing the Anderson Bungalow. The roof was removed and left to the elements, not realising that the walls were of mud. The rains washed off the mud walls. The entire bungalow had to be rebuilt and it has taken three and a half years to do this.

The historic Farr Inn, which is associated with Thomas Farr, who discovered the Horton Plains, has been closed down and is now deteriorating and decaying. There is no control of the visitors to the Hortons. Crowds walk all over the place unchecked.

They collect plants freely and scatter their garbage especially polythene bags all over the plains. The Horton Plains really goes wild during the week-ends with the invasion of indisciplined visitors.

It can be done

If all the recent criticisms of the Department of Wildlife Conservation are studied and the UNDP/GEF reports read and implemented by an honest, competent state official with common sense, it will be possible to put things right.

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