de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Conservation Post-Tsunami. Adoh. March. Pages 48-51.
Conservation – Post Tsunami
– Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
Over forty thousand people lost their lives in the Boxing Day Tsunami. This tragedy may only be matched by our failure as a nation to learn from it and to rebuild a new, more focused and intelligent nation.
Although most of the post Tsunami debate focuses on re-building of physical infrastructure, there are implications for conservation and the utilization of our wilderness areas as economic assets. In this article I would like to explore three topics which have conservation implications. These three are the conservation of existing wilderness areas, creating a conducive environment for research and thirdly harnessing the international media to generate valuable foreign exchange from our wilderness areas.
The Tsunami demonstrated with ferocity the awesome forces of nature. There may not be a second Tsunami of the same magnitude in our lifetimes, but we should not discount other natural disasters. Earthslips and floods are two likely candidates to strike us over the coming years. As global weather patterns become erratic, drought is also a possibility.
The surest safeguard to protect us from earthslips and drought is to protect the remaining forest cover. This is especially crucial in terms of conserving the remaining high altitude forests. Our cloud forests are like a sponge, absorbing rainwater and gradually releasing them into a matrix of rivulets and streams which merge into rivers. They mitigate the impact of prolonged periods of dryness. In times of heavy rain, they also reduce the risk of earthslips and floods. The marshes and wetlands around the country also act as important centers for detention of flood water. The wetlands at the foot of rivers are doubly important to act as sponges or reservoirs to absorb the excess rainwater.
For the same reason, mangroves are important. They act as a buffer during storm surges. In a previous article, I played down their importance as a physical barrier against a Tsunami, arguing that coral reefs and sand dunes offer a more valid physical defense. But the role of mangroves as a physical safety net from excess periods of rainfall are undisputed. The importance of our remaining forests, wetlands and other natural habitats were never in doubt, for scientific reasons (especially the conservation of bio-diversity) and for moral and recreational reasons. The Boxing Day Tsunami has introduced another important dimension, physical safety.
The second topic we need to focus on is to create a research oriented culture. On the 31st of January 2005, I was at Yala and I met various people from the conservation community who had come for a meeting with the senior most staff in the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC). Amongst other things, they proposed setting up a series of grids to monitor how the eco-systems would bounce back. This is excellent thinking. However, the lack of a permanent research base at an important national park like Yala only underlines the absence of a research oriented culture. Research in Sri Lanka’s protected areas come under the jurisdiction of the DWLC or the Forest Department (FD). But many people I have spoken to say that the greatest opposition to research comes from the DWLC. Is this true?
Let me illustrate how it works with the DWLC with a true example. In November 2002, Professor Sarath Kotagama from the University of Colombo in collaboration with the National Museums Department proposed a research project to study dragonflies. I was also one of the research applicants, being tasked with the photography of dragonflies and also with logistical support to be provided by Jetwing. Dragonflies and Damselflies are not in Schedule IV A of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Therefore, outside a protected area, one can collect these animals for a research study without permission from the DWLC or the FD. In fact, someone with a malicious bent of mind could wantonly kill these animals outside of a protected area.
In the interest of fostering good relations, we informed the DWLC of our plans to collect specimens to start a working taxonomic collection at the University of Colombo and to start a reference collection at the National Museum in Colombo. Although it was clearly not in Section IV A, one of the DWLC staff in their Colombo office informed me that we still had to apply for a permit under Section 49 (Part V). But this clearly says that a permit is only required when animal parts are transported for commercial purposes. Transporting Dragonfly specimens to the National Museum to re-build the collection which was damaged earlier by floods was hardly a commercial purpose. The DWLC staff member intimated they could bring legal action against us. Rather than engage in a war of words, we filled out a research application and submitted it.
This was turned down on the grounds that it had not been signed by the research supervisor. I then explained that their research application does not require the supervisor’s signature, but only that of those who will conduct the field work. If they had examined the original submission, they would have also found a signed letter from Professor Kotagama, the research supervisor.
I was also vexed that the correspondence relating to research applications was not filed in a folder for each project, but in a date order. This means that the Research Committee only sees the very last piece of correspondence. I aired my view to the official in charge of the committee that the Research Committee could be administered better.
Despite it being their fault, I was asked to write and explain to the research committee. Once again it was turned down as the Research Committee were puzzled by a single page letter and the absence of a research proposal. They also wanted to know why a qualified entomologist was not involved, a fact made very clear in the proposal. Our detailed proposal of several pages was languishing, filed again by date order, in a file not shown to the Research Committee.
At this point I gave up, understanding why so many researchers, even from the academic institutions, do not bother to apply for research permits from the DWLC. The administration of the research committee in my mind raises serious doubts about the suitability of the DWLC to create a culture that encourages and facilitates research. Perhaps it is time that the Research Committee of the DWLC was disbanded and decisions on research within protected areas given to a national committee, which will include eminent scientists with a track record of having published field research oriented papers.
The third topic we need to focus on is to realize the importance of media coverage of our wilderness areas. Around 20 per cent of our land area is set aside as protected areas. This is very high by the standards of any nation. When we consider that we are one of the most densely populated nations, it is even more astonishing. All over the world, people are beginning to realize that wildlife has to pay its way. Much as it is accepted that wildernesses have to be conserved for a host of reasons, we also know that no nation can have an idle asset. The bio-diversity richness of Sri Lanka gives it the potential for wildlife tourism to be a key component of tourism. Tourism is already the fourth largest contributor to the nations’ GDP.
The DWLC and the FD are state agencies that see their role primarily as a protector. They fail to see themselves as the custodians of a vast economic asset. In fact, in the first week of January, a group of foreign birdwatchers was cautioned by a Forest Department employee in Kithulgala for entering the forest without a permit. He did not realize that the entire nation had been pleading for tourists to come. Furthermore, the tourists were on a public trail which led to several villages. At a national level, our culture permits a number of such contradictions to arise. There is a lack of a unified sense of purpose and a failure to realize that conservation must pay its way.
If our wilderness areas are seen as an economic asset, then it needs a series of Marketing Managers for each of the key national parks or reserves. If that is too much, there should atleast be a single Manager Marketing or Director Marketing in each of the state agencies such as the FD and the DWLC. The role of this person would be to seek to maximize the coverage received by our national parks and reserves. This person would then have to think in the same way as a hotelier who would seek to attract media and clients to their property. A hotelier would normally go out of their way to encourage media personnel to visit their property, offering complementary accommodation and at times even transport. In contrast, the DWLC and FD put up a lot of hurdles for local and foreign media.
The process of seeking permission may take anything from a few days to a few weeks. As a result, the DWLC and the FD failed to derive at least some positive benefit from the tragedy of the Boxing Day Tsunami. Admittedly, no self respecting Sri Lankan’s thoughts would have turned to leveraging the media, in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami. But if film crews were allowed without undue formalities to enter our national parks and reserves, a few of the hundred plus television crews would have considered visiting our parks and reserves. The world-wide audience of the Tsunami coverage eclipsed everything else, even the Olympics. We had a chance for film crews to air footage on our national parks and reserves. But we failed as the film crews could not arrive at a national park or reserve, pay an entry fee and go in and film subject to the same privileges as a normal paying visitor. At the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, we had film crews from CNN, Sky, NBC, BBC and CBS. The biggest television networks were present. Half an hour away were rainforests administered by the FD. But to take a film crew, it would have required a lengthy procedure to gain entry. Yala National Park is a four hour drive from Galle. Again, one could not take a film crew without a cumbersome prior procedure.
Similar restrictions would have been in place if a film crew had attempted to film in Sigiriya, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. The staff at these sites would have demanded to see film permits issued by the Department of Archaeology and or the Central Cultural Fund. None of the hundred plus film crews had any hindrances to filming mass graves or 1,600 bodies being pulled out of the largest train disaster. I was shown footage, thankfully not aired, which showed maggots eating decomposed bodies.
Some of the film crews who had the time and inclination, could have given Sri Lanka good publicity after the first few days of coverage of disaster and carnage. But we are a nation of fools, who have created an environment which seeks to block and suffocate good publicity with red tape whilst having no control of the negative footage.
It is so easy for someone to come to Sri Lanka and make a film about Sri Lanka being a haven for pedophiles. But for someone to make a documentary about Sri Lanka being a tourism paradise, the red tape is enough to discourage anyone.
One disaster is over. The next will begin, if we continue in our ways as a foolish nation.