Photo courtesy of WNPS

The traditional conservation laws and policies of Sri Lanka are largely not working. If they were there would not be so much unrestrained destruction of wildlife and forests. These pieces of legislation were drafted in a previous age; a time when the human populations were smaller and the knowledge of the wilderness and things wild relied heavily on anecdotal, rather than scientific, evidence. Although science and research has now been given a greater voice and dedicated researchers have developed and tested effective methodologies based on years of learning, there is a great reluctance by the policymakers and relevant statutory agencies to use this information in making decision, possibly because they just may work and bring a halt to some of the Machiavellian justifications given for the ongoing exploitation.

In a political sphere dominated by the aged – and currently dealing with self-inflicted international debt – investment in the future and the environment is largely a lip-serving foil to complete a necessary tick box in the supposed responsibilities of governance and to placate possible international sources of financial relief. These elderly veterans have no personal advantage in tomorrow or in its generations.

A prime example

As far as the environment is concerned this lack of intent, of understanding and of care is best demonstrated by the current scandal to endanger the well-being of wildlife and the wilderness – the Deep Jungle Music and Cultural Festival 2023 that is scheduled to be held in a much frequented wild elephant ranging area, particularly so at this time of the year when the Minneriya elephant population spends much of its time in the Gal Oya Forest Reserve and Hurulu Eco Park. To be hosted over four days, the organizers promise over 100 hours of music with live bands, open MIC sessions, flash sales and a hippie market, outdoor activities, food and beverage stalls, among others. The location, albeit outside of the actual boundaries of a demarcated protected area, still borders stretches used by wildlife, especially the elephant, for wild animals do not understand human created administrative delineations of land; they just go where they have done for thousands of years in search of food and water, and safety.

Neither does sound obey boundaries but can travel many miles dependent on the prevailing weather. On a still day this can be as much as a few miles away. As per the law, the permissible sound levels in a silent zone, which includes environmentally sensitive areas, is 45 decibels. This will certainly be multiplied by the volume of sound due to be produced at this event. According to  the World Health Organization (WHO), “…noise is one of the most hazardous forms of pollution…Noise pollution makes it difficult for animals to use sound for navigation, find food, communicate, reproduce, and avoid predators, affecting many animals’ ability to survive.

“In these studies, over one hundred species were analysed and divided into seven groups: amphibians, arthropods, birds, fish, mammals, molluscs, and reptiles. The results found evidence that noise pollution impacts all seven groups of species, and the different species didn’t differ in their response to noise.”

This is especially so for nocturnal animals where eyesight is of little use when travelling in the darkness. It has been proved that excessive noise and the glare of lights and open flames at night can severely disrupt these processes. It is also well known that the majority of elephant communication takes place at a subsonic level, below the hearing threshold of humans. In the right conditions, these deep rumbles and vibrations can be heard as much as seven miles away. The effect this event will have on the herds of the area is unimaginable, probably driving them elsewhere to the detriment of the human populations who live in the path of their fleeing. The venue is just 1.4 kilometers from the main entrance to a prominent protected area. Last year broke all previous records for human-elephant conflict with 429 elephants and 145 people killed. Is 2023 to be worse still?

How will the descending hordes be contained? Will they stray into these wildlife movement ranges? How will the organizers constrain a clientele who have little understanding or empathy of the wild…for if they did, they would not be there? Who pays if something goes wrong?

Jeopardizing an existing natural treasure

Minneriya is the home of the world renowned seasonal gathering of elephants that draws thousands of tourists to it every year and fuels a thriving local economy of hotels, guest houses, food outlets, utility stores, and most of all, over 1,000 safari jeep drivers. The gathering is already under threat from poorly thought out water management plans that have reduced the pasture available for the over 400 elephants that were often to be seen feeding on the grasslands of the park. According to a statement issued by Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), “…by trying to promote tourism in Habarana in the short term, Sri Lanka may be doing serious damage to elephant viewing tourism in the long term, which is the lifeline of the tourism industry in Habarana. This is once again an example of ignorant short sighted decisions creating long term economic damage to the local wildlife tourism industry in Habarana. There are so many places in the North Central and Central Provinces that this event can be located without adverse impacts on wildlife. Instead, the organizers and the authorities want to hold this event in forested areas teaming with wildlife when everyone knows that we ask visitors in wildlife parks to keep silent so that we don’t disturb wildlife and stress them out. While the land may not be in a protected area, it is in the midst of protected areas. Don’t the organizers and authorities who permitted this to take place realize that noise travels? This event should never have been permitted to be held in this location. “

If the remaining elephants are to be dispersed as well, who will feed all those humans who the elephants now provide sustenance for? The travel bans due to Covid already gave taste to the economic devastation there can be for them. A media statement of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS) said, “An event of this nature will only add to the issues this locality already has. The location where this event has been earmarked to be held is effectively in the vicinity of a wildlife sanctuary where the habitat needs to be protected, allowing animals and plants a safe zone for breeding and comfortably surviving…”

A list of shame

Not surprisingly, several relevant government institutions have endorsed this event, statutory bodies whose prime responsibility should be to ensure the best interests of this nation, both economic and environmental. According to the organizer’s published information, this list of shame reads thus:

  1. The Presidential Secretariat
  2. Prime Minister’s Office
  3. Ministry of Defence
  4. Ministry of Public Security
  5. Ministry of Tourism
  6. Ministry of Environment
  7. Ministry of Wildlife and Forest Conservation
  8. Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA)
  9. Sri Lanka Tourism Development Bureau (SLTDB)
  10. Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC)
  11. Forest Department
  12. Sri Lanka Police.

Several of these institutions have now denied having given their approval, just their endorsement based on the commendation of the other agencies, and have now supposedly withdrawn it; mere semantics, a case of the blind leading the blind. The organizers strongly assert that the event will take place nevertheless, such is their confidence in their backers. It is also alleged that the event has powerful political support. This then could be why without of the usual checks and balances even those agencies directly responsible for wildlife and the environment have turned sightless eyes on the whole thing; setting a precedent for even more such events in environmental and archaeological sensitive sites. Is this to be the future marketing strategy of the tourist trade of Sri Lanka?

It is a shame that NGOs and members of the public have had to blow the whistle on this event and not all those listed above. If in fact as some of these organizations have claimed, their approval had not been given, then they should be considering legal action against the organizers for falsely using their names. That will endorse the truth of what they say.

A smirch on the reputation of the country

These events do not bring good publicity to Sri Lanka, anything but. They are not of appeal to the vast majority of the visitors to this island who come mainly to enjoy its natural splendors in their pristine condition. Such events are only attractive to the low spending traveler and misinformed locals with money to spend, who wish to exploit the benefits of the depreciated rupee, and to engage in activities whose experience is enhanced by whatever the stimulant is on offer, music or otherwise. The expressed opposition of the reputed tourism watchdogs, the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) and the Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), give ample evidence of this. In addition, on understanding the enormity of the situation, several commercial sponsors have also withdrawn their support; all credit to them for realizing that principle must come before profit, especially as in this case when there is much to be lost for very short term gain.

At a recent media event, the WNPS issued a set of guidelines as to what should have happened, and what needs to happen in the future. They are summarized as follows:

  1. Any future such events, mooted to be held in ecological, archaeological or cultural sensitive areas, even if to be hosted on private lands, must have the approval of all of the relevant agencies based on their independent, and transparent, impact assessments of the proposed events.
  2. Any approval/endorsement from a Ministerial or other political source must be based on these assessments.
  3. The Tourism authorities, and other related agencies, must make it clear that such events do not lend to eco/environmentally responsible tourism and should not be marketed as such.
  4. As per their mandate, the DWC is responsible for wildlife in every part of the country, not just on DWC lands, even wildlife on private property. This is their responsibility to the people of this Nation. Being the custodians of the National Parks in the area, and being conscious of the importance of the ‘Gathering’ and of the elephant movement ranges in the vicinity of the event location, particularly at this time of the year, they should have issued a strongly worded condemnation of this event rather than just the statement that their approval was not sought as it was to be held on land outside their jurisdiction (yet they are listed by the event organizers as one of the endorsers of the event). As far as their mandate is concerned, all lands are under their authority when it comes to wildlife; and it is what the Sri Lankan people expect of them.
  5. The DWC should also remember that they are the only statutory body responsible for wildlife. Every other, and there are many of them, are concerned with people. They should remember this when they address these, and other issues.
  6. The Forest Department should have a similar ethos for the forested areas of this country. If they claim that the protection of wildlife is not in their mandate, then they should consider either sharing responsibility for these wildlife sensitive areas with the DWC, or even of handing them completely over to the Wildlife Department e.g. the Hurulu Eco Park.
  7. The Guardians of Law and Order should also be educated as to the potential damage to the country from such events, and encouraged to actively assist the relevant agencies in upholding these Laws on behalf of the people of this country. The organizers will certainly go ahead with the event in the present location. What then? Leave it to the NGOs to seek judicial measure?

This situation should not be permitted to arise again not just in Habarana, but anywhere that is of environmental, archaeological or cultural value to this Nation.

The hope of the future

Sri Lanka’s future rests with the young; the leaders of tomorrow that is if this generation leaves them a tangible natural legacy to nurture. They just may make a better fist of preserving it than their fathers have. With increasing access to internet and an awareness of global issues, these young people have an understanding that the environment and wilderness are inextricably entwined with the well-being of the human race and its future existence. Every child now knows of the impending disaster if climate change is not reversed, especially for an island such as Sri Lanka. They also have the knowledge that wilderness means more than just the protected areas and that wildlife is not just the iconic species but every wild creature that this country is blessed with, even the very smallest who just may just be of the greatest importance.

“I call upon the Forest Department and Department of Wildlife Conservation to take a firm stand against this event.  Just because the event site is not within Forest or Wildlife Protected Areas, noise travels so the event will have an adverse impact on the elephants and other wildlife within the adjacent protected areas.  So these two agencies have a responsibility to stop such events from taking place adjacent to sensitive wildlife habitat. In addition, I challenge the Central Environmental Authority to enforce its noise pollution standards at this event, after all the law should be enforced on all polluting activities evenly and not selectively.” Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya