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12th September 1999
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Will it get wilder or better?

While moves are afoot to convert the Wildlife Department into a Wild Life Management Authority, environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts see it as a waste of money.
By Tharuka Dissanaike
The Department of Wildlife Conserva tion is to be restructured. The plan drawn up by the Ministry aims to convert the present Department into a Wild Life Management Authority.

The Authority will be directly under the Minister in charge, presently the Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Plantation Industries and will take over the functions of the Department. The Minister will appoint the Authority's chairperson and members.

According to a draft act, formulated by a team from the Ministry and The Wildlife Department, the Authority will have a Director General appointed by the Board to carry out its daily functions. A special Wildlife Conservation Fund will be established and a Board of Management to oversee its administration. 

"This is yet an initial step," said Ms. K. G.D. Wimalasiri, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Plantation Industries. "This draft will now be sent to the Legal Draftsman to work out the actual act. It's just the beginning of a long procedure."

But even at this stage, howls of protest have risen over the proposed Wildlife Authority. Many wildlife enthusiasts and NGOs have watched in horror as the Department declined steadily as a result of direct political interference over the last decade. 

Recently the Department received its fifth Wildlife Director in that many years. The appointees have always been from the public service, some with little knowledge or love for wildlife. Some wildlife enthusiasts have gone as far as to say that Yala National Park has fared much better under Military rule than the Department as a whole has under bureaucrats. 

Environmentalists question the need for an Authority. "The necessary powers to protect and conserve wildlife are all there in the Fauna and Flora Act," said Sagarika Rajakarunanayake of Satva Mithra. "The Authority is totally unwanted and a waste of public money. The Department needs motivated, honest people at the helm. That is where a change should come."

"A name or status change will not address the real issues that plague wildlife conservation today," said attorney-at-law Nalin Ladduwahetty. "The draft act does not appear to give consideration to 90 percent of problems in the present Department, including the non-availability of committed technical staff. 

It is also silent about the position of the Fauna and Flora Protection Act and its implementation by the Authority," said Ladduwahetty, who also heads Mihikatha Trust Fund, the environmental NGO. 

Many fear that the new Authority will have even less transparency and much more powers vested upon Minister-appointed staff, than the present department.

"We think that this is a first step towards privatising the national parks and other national assets vested in the Authority," said Prasantha Jayasekera of the Nature Foundation. Jayasekera quotes the draft act paragraph 15, 2a -"The Authority shall have the power -to acquire in any manner whatsoever and hold, take or give on lease or hire, mortgage, pledge or sell or otherwise dispose of, any movable and immovable property." This will lead to a dangerous situation where the new Authority can tamper with national parks and reserves just to earn money for the government he said.

"We all know that the government is hard pressed for funds. It will be easy, with the new powers for the Authority to sell or lease parks and sanctuaries to private companies for tourism purposes," Mr. Jayasekera said.

The Authority will consist of 11 members, six of whom will be appointed by the Minister. The others will represent the Secretary to the Ministry-in-charge and the Ministries of Forestry and Environment, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Agriculture and Lands and Director Wildlife Conservation. 

Here the position of the Director is not clear, since the Authority will have a Chairperson, appointed by the Minister and a Director General appointed by the Board.

The Minister reserves the right to remove members, without explanation, if he deems it necessary.

Ms.Rajakarunanayake, well known for her tireless campaigns for animal rights, said the new Authority will have the power to implement radical, unpopular methods of conservation even if there is a public outcry against them. "Lack of transparency is apparent in the present Department. An Authority will further defy questioning and public opinion on conservation matters," she said. Ms Rajakarunanayake said that already the Department is considering domesticating wild elephants as a solution to the man-elephant conflict. 

"The Department hierarchy already bows down to the wishes of the Minister. In the Authority, the Minister will have more direct power over the personnel."

Mr.Ladduwahetty said he does not see a drastic change, much less an improvement of the scenario, unless the people and methods of administration are changed. "It is like a cancer. The Wildlife Department has been sick for a long time. Merely changing the label and status will not cure it."

There are bigger conservation issues at stake, Mr. Ladduwahetty said. "What happened to the GEF funding? What happened to the Fauna and Flora Advisory Board? These are issues that are not going to be solved by simply changing the status of the Board."

Committed and motivated personnel to head the Department appears to be the need of the hour. Freedom from direct political meddling is a necessity for a Department or Authority to maintain a certain level of integrity towards their prescribed duties. From the Ahungalle Private Zoo to the Handapanagala elephant drive, political decisions have made a mess of conservation efforts.

The recent Directors of Wildlife have been public servants of high calibre, but always the sceptre of political power hung over them, making it difficult for them to take independent decisions on pressing conservation issues

Portrait of a man and his work

The Art of Richard Gabriel by Neville Weereratne. Publishers: Moosajees. 
Richard Gabriel has always been overshad-owed by the more public talents of his erstwhile peers George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala, Harry and Ivan Peries and other members of the Group of 43. Yet after perusing this beautifully written book by Neville Weereratne and coming face to face with Gabriel's evocative paintings, through its glossy pages, the reader may, perhaps, at last be inclined to give the artist his due.

Richard Gabriel, now 75, is by nature, a retiring artist, quite content to pursue his art in his home in a quiet suburb of Colombo. Neville Weeraratne, who was one of the artist's pupils during his early days as art teacher at St. Joseph's College, Colombo has struck a fine balance in painting a written portrait of the man as well as his work, from childhood to the first remembrance of the shy young master clad in a suit borrowed from Lester James Peiris and to his later life draw-ing from his own long association with the artist.

Gabriel has been painting for 60 years and has distinguished himself as a painter, print-maker and wood-carver. Weereratne traces his early influences, his strong Catholic faith and his bonds with the other members of the Group of 43. Of that original group of nine, only George Claessen, now 95 and Gabriel are still with us.

A large body of Gabriel's work is religious in theme. Writes Weeraratnes " ...his love of the Church and its institutions is fundamental to his life and therefore to his work. He would rather suffer martyrdom than be an apostate, turning to God at all times because 'God's providence has always been there to help." Also mentioned is the arist's encounter with Fr. Peter Pillai, whose intellectual passion also 'became for Gabriel a case of divine providence at work."

Weereratne also provides the reader with many illuminating insights into the Group of '43. He tells of how warmly Gabriel was received into their fold, even though he was comparatively junior to the others. Gabriel is quoted on the absence of professional jealousy amongst them.The account of their friendships and his close personal relationship with Harry Peiris is wonderfully told.

Equally absorbing for the reader is Gabriel's lifestyle, his simplicity and attachment to his wife and children. The latter were subsequently to migrate to Australia and though Gabriel and his wife visited them, they did not make their home there.

Profusely illustrated with works spanning Gabriel's long and prolific career, the book is a meticulous record of one of Sri Lanka's least honoured, yet probably most deserving artists and would be appreciated not only by art lovers but others who have a feeling for the country as Gabriel indeed has. This hardcover edition printed by Moosajees, does them credit in terms of the excellent reproduction which enables the reader to feel the vividness of Gabriel's work in all its intensity.

-The Art of Richard Gabriel is available at leading bookshops

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