A group of conservationists that included former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Dr. Sumith Piliapitiya on Wednesday denounced a Government decision to overrule an expert committee recommended decision by the DWC to keep Block 1 of the Yala National Park closed for two months.
The decision to open the park nine days prior to the scheduled opening date of 1 November, which the collective claimed was a politically motivated one made at the behest of a Government Minister, undermined the authority of the DWC in the administration of the park, bringing the environmental and conservation policy of the country into disrepute.
At a media briefing held in Colombo, the conservationist collective, comprising the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), the Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL), the Federation of Environmental Organisations (FEO) and the Wildlife Conservation Society Galle, said it strongly protests the decision, adding that it is detrimental to the future authority of the DWC, compromises its conservation function, and is injurious to the future well-being of the country and its people.
“This is not good governance,” it declared.
Speaking to the media, Dr. Pilapitiya, who chaired the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office that recommended the two-month closure of the park, said all stakeholders including conservation organisations, hotel owners, tour operators, tour guides et al were represented in the committee and their views were taken into account when formulating its action plan.
“We studied the issues that led to the status quo and also examined the obstacles to solving those issues,” he said, the status quo being the poor quality of the wildlife experience in Block 1.
The issues identified in the report
nIndiscipline of safari jeep drivers and passengers at sightings
nHigh speed and reckless driving when trying to reach sightings
nVehicular congestion and disturbance to wildlife at sightings
nOver visitation in Yala Block 1
nPoor nature interpretation services offered by the DWC
nLack of adequate staff and facilities such as patrol vehicles to regulate tourism
nContinued political interference resulting in a lack of independence for the DWC to regulate tourism within the Yala National Park
Dr. Pilapitiya also highlighted the constraints that got in the way of dealing with
nInsufficient wildlife guides to assign one guide per vehicle as was the practice 15 years ago
nAn increase in tourist arrivals by 1,000% from 2008 to 2016 recruit a corresponding number of drivers
nThe DWC’s inability to obtain Government approval to hire more guides
nWeak enforcement of park rules and regulations
“Last year, when I was DG, there were 500 approved cadre positions, but the Finance Ministry didn’t allocate funds to fill those vacancies. In that context, there is no point blaming the DWC for not carrying out its mandate. They work under difficult circumstances,” said Dr. Pilapitiya.
“The biggest constraint to dealing with issues is the lack of independence for the DWC to take disciplinary action against violators of park rules,” he added.
There can be no debate that there are too many tourists and vehicles in Yala, he said, claiming that even jeep driver associations were in agreement. The Government’s policy was to turn as big a profit as possible, which meant the DWC had to prioritise tourism over conservation.
The DWC’s primary objective, said Dr. Pilapitiya, is to conserve wildlife, not promote tourism, which he said was a by-product.
However, tourism too is facing a problem, as websites such as TripAdvisor warn other tourists against visiting Yala, citing poor wildlife experience.
During his tenure as DG, Dr. Pilapitiya said he was able to show jeep owner associations that solving the problem would ensure job security for them in the long run. “A problem that arose gradually over eight, nine years cannot be resolved overnight. We need a step by step, systematic approach,” he said.
When over 70 jeeps were banned from the Yala National Park in early 2016, he went on to say, there was not one protest, as the park warden at the time had made sure that the law applied equally to both the powerful and the powerless. That program came to a halt due to political pressure, and the warden was subsequently transferred, he added.
The decision made by the DWC following the recommendation of the committee chaired by Dr. Pilapitiya, the collective said, sought to extend the traditional closing of the park during the drought period from one month to two months, for two reasons:
1. “Due to the extremely high visitation over the year to Block 1 with, on average, over 300 vehicles entering the park on a day, to give the animals and the park an extended respite to recover from this daily invasion of vehicles and humanity” and
2. “To encourage visitation to Blocks 3, 4 and 5, all of which have the same rich biodiversity as Block 1, and with the animals becoming accustomed to visitors, could provide as rich, or even better, experience than Block 1.”
Dr. Pilapitiya also noted that while ensuring conservation, one must also be mindful of the fact that the communities living around the park have taken to safari jeeps as a means of livelihood. Taking that away from them would inevitably result in a social issue. “Creating one issue to solve another is not a true solution,” he said.
More than the number of vehicles, a lack of discipline was the real problem. The law must apply equally to everyone, Dr. Pilapitiya further said, adding that there can be no exceptions for friends or associates.
The Committee’s action plan that proposed the closure of the park for three months a year to encourage visits to other blocks, which later became two months was overruled citing livelihood issues of jeep drivers, alleged Dr. Pilapitiya was a political intervention. He added that as far as he knew, jeep associations were boycotting Block 1, showing that it was more a political decision rather than one taken at the request of jeep drivers.
The former DWC DG urged the Government to let the experts to carry out their mandate without political interference. If they don’t carry out their responsibilities, they can be held accountable, he said, adding that if politicians tell them what to do, nobody will be held accountable.
“Now that the PM’s Office endorsed this plan and submitted to the DWC and Ministry saying implement it, I was most surprised as the Chairman of this Committee when I heard that the decision of opening the park was made in consultation with the PM’s office. Me as Chairman and my committee members did this work on a voluntary basis. If you ask experts to come up with a plan and you go and override the plan as the PM or Ministers or whoever is responsible, then why did you waste our time getting us to work on the plan?” he asked.
“If the political leadership knows better, then they should make those decisions without involving professionals,” he added.