The illegal expansion of Pallekandal Church within Wilpattu National Park

Thursday, 2 July 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


2005 Pallenkandal after the war

2016 June

Aerial view

An old picture of the shrine from an IUCN publication  

The Wilpattu National Park (WNP) was declared as a National Park in 1938 and it is the oldest and the largest National Park in Sri Lanka. WNP consists of a unique and sensitive ecosystem forming one of the ‘Villu’ ecosystems present in the North Western region. A total of 284 faunal species belonging to 101 families have been recorded within the WNP, with 21 endemic and 30 nationally threatened species among them. 

With the onset of the terrorist campaign of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the WNP was subjected to a series of attacks and incursions by terrorists. As a result, in 1987 the Park was closed to visitors for security reasons. The park was re-opened around in 2010 and has been subjected to numerous illegal human activities ever since.


Pallekandal Church within WNP

After the re-opening of the National Park, there have been illegal expansions of structures and buildings transforming a small jungle shrine situated within the WNP into a well-constructed Church with increased human activities and festivities.

This small jungle shrine in the Pallekandal/Pomparippu area which was established over a few centuries ago was acquired by the Government as a state land along with its tiny block of land in 1969 under the Land Acquisition (amendment) Act No. 28 of 1964 (Gazette bearing No. 14,886 dated 1969.12.26). Thereafter Block V of the Wilpattu National Park was declared in 1973 by way of a gazette over the same area and the entire Pallekandal Village including the small jungle shrine effectively became a part of the WNP. During the war torn period, this small jungle shrine went into disuse and the building fell into disrepair, with the roof caving in. 

After the re-opening of the WNP, a set of new permanent structures have been illegally added to the jungle shrine (i.e. water tank used for drinking water, accommodation facilities and a church bell). Motorable access roads in and out of the Church premises within the National Park to facilitate human intrusion have been also made. In order to facilitate these illegal expansions and the festivities/human activities of the Church, the scrub-lands and some of the areas surrounding the Church have also been cleared. 

These illegal expansions of the Church and increased festivities have resulted in more human intrusion into the WNP without any regulation and/or any control in a blatant contravention of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance No.02 of 1937 as amended (FFPO). 


Applicable legal framework 

In terms of the Section 2 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, once the Minister in charge of the subject by Order published in the Gazette declares an area of land to be a National Park, the management, regulation and governance of such National Park is vested with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). 

According to Section 6 (1) of the Ordinance it is prohibited inter alia to do any of the following activities within a National Park. 

  • Do any act which disturbs , interferes any wild animal or breeding place of any such animal,
  • Fell, girdle, lop, tap, burn or in any way damage , destroy , remove and take  any plant,
  • Clear or break up any land for cultivation, mining or for any other purpose,
  • Make any fresh clearing,
  • Erect any building, whether permanent or temporary, or occupy any building so erected without obtaining a permit issued by the DWC,
  • Construct or use any road or path so constructed by such persons,
  • 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. 

Therefore, it is evident that the expansion of activities of the Church relating to festivities, construction of structures, road development and clearing of forest lands within the WNP amount to a clear violation of the Section 6 (1) of the FFPO. 

Furthermore, according to Section 5 of the FFPO, it’s an offence to enter or remain within any National Park except under the authority and in accordance with the conditions of a permit issued by the DWC on payment of the prescribed fee. And in terms of the Section 5B, the DWC is entitled to remove any person who is a potential threat or a nuisance or is found to be causing a nuisance or disturbance within a National Park. Therefore, the illegal intrusion of humans inside the National Park for the aforesaid festivities of the Pallekandal Church amounts to a clear violation of Sections 5, 5 (A), 5 (B) of the FFPO.


Traditional practices/uses and customs within a National Park

The FFPO recognises certain activities/practices which have continued over a period of time prior to the declaration of a National Park, as “traditional practices/uses/customs” of such land in terms of the Section 3 (3) (a) , (b) and Section 3 (4) of the  FFPO. Under the FFPO it’s the subject Minister who has the authority to declare certain activities/practices as “traditional practices/uses/ customs”. 

Once a declaration is made, such ‘traditional practices/uses/customs’ shall only be exercised within a National Park subject to the provisions of the FFPO under the control and the supervision of the DWC in a manner that does not cause harm to the environment. There has no such declaration issued up to this date regarding the Pallekandal Church thus the festivities , construction, maintenance and expansion of the Church constitute a blatant violation of the laws of the country. 


Environmental impacts 

The illegal expansions of the Church, increased festivities and human intrusion into the national park threaten the environment, biodiversity, wildlife and the future sustenance of the WNP.

The clearing of forest lands to facilitate the expansion of the Church premises, camp sites and food stalls discontinues the preferred environment of a species, causing population fragmentation and ecosystem decay. The air pollution within the park is prompted from the inundation of vehicles and the vehicle movements within the park increases the number of road kills. 

Collecting of firewood from the forest for cooking purposes, the noise pollution caused by loudspeakers and firecrackers and the unregulated disposal of litter such as polythene and plastic have devastating impacts on the welfare of fauna and flora within the park. 

The habit of feeding wild animals by pilgrims severely disturbs wildlife foraging, nesting and breeding patterns while also causing a risk to all attendees. Moreover, the intrusion of thousands of devotees within the park makes room for illegal activities such as sand-minding, poaching and bio-piracy. 


The way forward

The underlying basis for the declaration of a protected area in terms of the FFPO is to protect and conserve the biodiversity, fauna, flora and their habitat and to prevent the commercial and other misuse of such habitats. The declaration of an area as a National Park is one of the highest protection status that can be granted to an ecosystem in Sri Lanka. 

Despite the enhanced legal protection granted to the Wilpattu ecosystem by the declaration of the area as a National Park, the sensitive environment of the WNP continues to be destroyed due to illegal activities of the Pallekandal Church thus rendering the underlying purpose of such declaration nugatory. 

The DWC, which is the custodian of WNP is holding such powers in public trust and is accountable not only to the present citizenry of the Republic but to the unborn future generations for its protection and preservation. Therefore, it is high time that the DWC and relevant Government agencies ensure that they fulfil the duties, obligations and responsibilities vested in them in a manner that protects and conserves the WNP for future generations.