Elephants sent on the rampage | Sunday Observer

Elephants sent on the rampage

Chandana Sooriyabandara-Jagath Gunawardana
Chandana Sooriyabandara-Jagath Gunawardana

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was forced to launch an investigation into the misconduct of a pilot attached to a private helicopter operator whose action frightened a 100-strong elephant herd in the Kaudulla National Park while also endangering the lives of other visitors to the area.

As the pilot was brought in, this week to explain himself, a spokesperson for the CAA says on initial questioning the investigators have concluded that the answers given by the pilot were in fact unsatisfactory. ¨Therefore we have now asked the operator to submit a full written report into the incident,¨ the spokesman said, adding that once it is submitted the official investigation will commence. ¨If found to be guilty, action will be taken against them,¨ the CAA official assured.

According to sources from the National Park, the helicopter carrying several tourists on October 13 had lowered itself close to a herd of elephants at the Kaudulla National Park. The incident had not only spooked the elephants but many had run amok inside the park due to fear while attempting to attack other tourists who were visiting the park at the time.

While officials of the park had to scramble to safeguard the visitors the Department of Wildlife (DWC) also reported the incident to the Hingurakgoda Magistrates Court through a B Report.

The incident

Though the pilot later surrendered to the courts through a lawyer what has troubled environmentalists and nature lovers is that previous reports of helicopters entering the Kaudulla National Park have now emerged.

According to these reports a similar helicopter had been seen on several occasions, flying low in the Kaudulla area while disturbing wildlife and other visitors. How and why these actions were allowed to continue is a question that is yet to be answered.

Nevertheless lawyer and leading environmentalist Jagath Gunawardana says that the occurrence of similar incidents was predicted by eco activists over a decade ago.

Eye opener

According to Gunawardana while the pilot has violated Section 6 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance which prevents disturbing of wildlife inside national parks however the consequences of his actions are more far reaching. ¨The hazard is not only for the animals but for the passengers of aircrafts as well,¨ he said pointing out that if spooked birds such as flamingoes might fly in and get sucked into the engines causing a catastrophic accident. It is important to note that the phenomena of ‘unfriendly skies’ was first brought to the notice of the DWC by environmentalists such as Gunawardana in 1993.

¨We informed the DWC that there would be unfriendly skies in years to come,¨ he said explaining that it refers to humans encroaching into animal habitats by air such as using helicopters or lightweight aircrafts.

Gunawardana says their request was that regulations be implemented preventing such an occurrence. ¨We wanted a minimum height imposed on such aircrafts flying over protested areas¨ he says, adding that however as the authorities paid no heed in 2010 when a private aircraft flew low over the Minneriya National Park. While environmentalists had again made a similar proposal at the time Gunawardana says no steps have been taken towards imposing such regulations which is worrisome. ¨This incident is an eye opener¨ Gunawardana pointed out adding that with newer technology such as drones coming in perhaps at least now regulations could be imposed which will enable authorities to take more stringent action against such wrong doers.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer Director General of the DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara said the CAA was informed immediately and it was on their request that an investigation has commenced now.

Further action

And as for imposing new regulations Sooriyabandara says he believes that better awareness and education is the need of the hour. ¨We are hoping to educate private operators of their limitations through a series of awareness programs,¨ he says while explaining that it will be conducted with the support of the CAA. Sooriyabandara says the existing laws are sufficient to protect wildlife areas but adhering to them is what is needed.

¨It is better to adhere to regulations in place and enforce them rather than formulate new laws whenever an incident occurs¨ he opined adding that DWC will also ensure better monitoring in the future.