Minneriya National Park: Subject to the law of the jungle? | Sunday Observer

Minneriya National Park: Subject to the law of the jungle?

Following in the footsteps of tyrants intoxicated with power - they came, they beat up wildlife officers, they freed a comrade involved in illegal activity from custody and took away the evidence. What prevailed on that Sunday night at Minneriya was not the law of the land, but the law of the jungle. The marauding mob later got publicity nationwide through staging protests.

Under staffed, underequipped, the tragedy of the National Parks in Sri Lanka was revealed last Sunday as the officers of the Minneriya National Park were beaten by a drunken mob. It also exposed the tragedy of the nation, as their action became the highlight and spread like wildfire through TV channels and social media early last week. Distortion of facts seemed to be the order of the day. The Sunday Observer brings you eyewitness reports.

Minneriya National Park, a wildlife park in the Polonnaruwa District is the highlight among elephant enthusiasts during August and September, as they could be seen in great numbers inside the park. The park income peaks during these two months with a daily average 400 jeeps entering the park. With a hunch of a story, armed with a letter from the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the Sunday Observer team was at the Minneriya National Park on that fateful Sunday.

It was a soft spoken Basnayake, a Wildlife Guard who greeted our team who arrived there after sundown. The park was closed to visitors by then and he was helping us to plan the itinerary for the next day advising us as to which parts of the park to visit, sighting different animals. Suddenly the serenity of the park was broken by shouts of many. Basnayake told us that they were villagers, who have come in protest against the arrest of a fisherman and the confiscation of some fishing nets earlier in the day. Though not an everyday happening such incidents are not uncommon, he explained and continued to speak to us while officers stepped into reason with the villagers.

As Basnayake shuttled between his colleagues speaking to the mob and us, they threatened to take action if officers did not free their comrade. Mage aiya inne janadhipathi kaaryalaye. Eka call eken munta paadamak ugannanna puluwan. (My brother works in the Presidential secretariat. With one phone call I can teach you a lesson) said a lean man in a red t-shirt. Umbala dan nidahas kare nathnam api okkoma kattiya gennanawaa. Ethakota mokada wenne kiyallaa balaaganna puluwan. (If you don’t release him now, we’ll bring more. Then you will see what happens) said another. Umbalaa ape kenaawa nidahas kare nathnam api summanayak park eka wahanawa. Ethakota mokada wenne kiyala balamu. Eka jeep ekak athulata yawanna denne naa. Ape desiiyama daala athulata yana hamotama gahanawaa. (If you don’t free him we will keep the park closed for one week. We will beat any visitor who enters the park) said a portly man in a yellow shirt.

Some of the people who seemed intoxicated threatened the officers not to talk about right or wrong but to release their comrade immediately. Some mobsters were known. Wildlife officers identified the leader as Hingurakgoda Provincial Councillor, Daladawatte.

By the time the two police surveillance bikes arrived the damage was done. Rampage of this drunken mob resulted in three wildlife officers, Assistant Ranger - Pathmasiri Banda, Wildlife Guard – Basnayake and Field Assistant – Ajith Kumara hospitalized at the Base Hospital Habarana Sunday night. Due to complications such as hearing loss and balancing problems they were subsequently transferred to Polonnaruwa District Hospital.

With a depleted staff, no security and under threat from the mob, the Warden using his discretion and mandate closed the park temporarily. Minneriya National Park closed for visitors on Monday.

Meanwhile as the perpetrators were absconding, the President and Secretary of the Rural Freshwater Fisheries Collective surrendered to Habarana Police instead. This, lead the mobsters to stage a protest at the Railway Junction on Habarana-Polonnaruwa main road late Monday morning. Their list of demands included the immediate release of the two people in police custody and allowing the fishermen access of a 100 metre extent from the water’s edge into the park.

As the news spread, wildlife officers in protest of the beating, started a work-to-rule campaign, refraining from visitor related duties.

Trade unions threatened to carry out the work-to-rule campaign throughout the North-Central Province. Unable to carryout visitor duties, the Kaudulla park closed on Tuesday morning.

The closure of both parks on Tuesday was a hard blow to the daily income of 700 strong Jeep operators in the community. Their protest late morning closed the Habarana – Polonnaruwa main road for traffic for hours and could only be resolved with the intervention of the police. However, the jeep drivers, witness to the incidents happened at the park had no animosity towards park officers. They called for the intervention of higher authorities, other than the Park Warden, to resolve the park closure. They also called for security for visitors and park officers.

No higher DWC authority, neither from Colombo nor from the Polonnaruwa region was seen at the park except for an Assistant Director (AD) who stopped by at the gate. The AD, on holiday himself and with his family was kind enough to stop, enquire what happened (and put his signature on a visitors’ book) at the gate without getting down from his vehicle. The telephone connections of the higher authorities of the DWC, the Minister and the Deputy Minister seemed on holiday as well.

It was a puzzled Park Warden, Bhathiya Madugalle, the Sunday Observer met last Tuesday. He was perplexed by the lawless behaviour of a community who till then had had relatively cordial relations with park officers. “There were occasions in which fishermen had been arrested for transporting meat and other prohibited acts,” he explained sighting a recent arrest of a fisherman with a load of meat. However, during the past eight months wildlife officers had conducted awareness sessions with leaders of Fisheries Associations of the Minneriya Tank and had managed to stop many illegal practices. Unilateral decisions of the Associations on night fishing, assaulting, taking into custody and taking exorbitant fines up to Rs.30,000 from fishermen from other communities who happen to fish at the Minneriya Tank are some of these illegal practices.

The demands of the community are out of his purview, said Madugalle. Giving them access of 100 metres into the park is non-negotiable. “If we allow that, it’ll be the end of everything. That is the very area elephants graze.” The very existence of the tank and the dependent human and animal life relies on the park lad being protected. “These Parks are the catchment area for the two tanks – Minneriya and Kaudulla. The parks protect the tanks, and tanks provide for wildlife and humans. It is interconnected,” he pointed out.

Minneriya is still the main water source of the paddy land in the Polonnaruwa district. The agricultural community is dependent for water not only to irrigate their fields, but also to fullfil their need for potable water. Then there are the animals whose need for water and food are intrinsically bound with the tank and park. The other communities who depend on the tank and park for livelihood are the fishermen, hoteliers and safari jeep drivers. “So, all these needs must be balanced,” reasons Madugalle.

However, the fishermen seem to act like a mafia, applying ruthless force to gain only their interests. “Actually, at present even their fishing in the tank is illegal. With awareness creation, we have been making arrangements to register them,” explained Madugalle. The fishermen are not registered with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) as mandated by the 2005 Fauna and Flora (Fishery) Order, stipulated in the Gazette Extraordinary No. 1433/4, of February 20, 2006 making even their practice of the trade inside the park extent illegal.

Meanwhile, jeep drivers related their experience of the incident to the Sunday Observer. “We saw them walking in the park. When the foreign tourists pointed it out, we lied to them saying that they are wildlife officers on foot patrol, and then we reported it to the office” said one. Wildlife officers acting on these reports had managed to confiscate five fishing nets, left by the fishermen who flew the scene.

Jeep driver, Upali Gunarathne has had an interesting experience. On his usual route touring the park Sunday afternoon he had seen a man on foot coming towards the jeep with a pole of about four feet in hand. “We were at Rambawila. He caught my attention as he was wearing the same kind of t-shirt I was wearing at the time. I was also concerned as he was walking in an area where a herd of about 40 elephants were noted,” said Gunarathne. When asked for the reason he had been walking among elephants, the man had shouted at him demanding whether any wildlife officials were in his jeep. Gunarathne’s reply in the negative had prompted the man to cross a creek to the elephant grazing area in search of wildlife officers in the jeeps. Gunarathne had immediately alerted the DWC staff on another jeep. “Suddenly he emerged in (the area called) Palupitiya, saw another DWC officer in a jeep and ran towards the jeep with the pole in hand,” said Gunarathne. The two DWC officers had got down and had managed to hold him down for sometime till another appeared with a pole in hand. Taking advantage of the distraction the man had escaped and the officers had managed to catch the one who arrived later, and walked him between them to a jeep to take him to the Park Office.

Presidents of the two main Safari Jeep Associations strongly condemned the act by the mob. “All of us depend on the tank and the park. All of us should obey the law of the land. We cannot condone the fishermen taking the law into their hands. Their action brings the park and the country to disrepute,” said President, Mahasen Safari Jeep Association, Sumedha Geeth Bandara. The 700 jeeps operating in the area bring an income of over Rs. 25 lakhs for the community, shared among jeep owners, drivers, guides and so on, said President, United Safari Jeep Association, Thilak Kodithuwakku. “This is the tourist season and today we are stranded and losing the income. This is only from our side. How much would the parks lose from their income?” he questioned.

Last year Minneriya National Park’s revenue was approximately Rs. 280 Million with over 35,500 vehicles entering into the park.


A thankless job at the National Park?

The Minneriya National Park is in extent over 8,800 hectares and contains the Minneriya Tank (reservoir) built by King Mahasena who reigned in Anuradhapura (276-302 AD). The reservoir is known as the tank which never goes dry. Renowned for providing water for paddy cultivation with the legendary capacity being 80,000 amunas (approximately 80,000 hectares). The other popular factor about the Tank is the herds of elephants who feed on the grass of the drying tank bed, during the dry season. While a blessing, when related to food and water needs of the animals, it is also a concern as many communities have access to the Tank and therefore pose danger to the wildlife therein.

The park employs 22 permanent cadre including clerical workers at the main office, and seven at the two beat offices. Eight voluntary guides assist the staff. Wildlife officers at the park have the main responsibilities of visitor duties, protecting wildlife and responding the calls of surrounding villagers facing threats from elephants.

Dearth of field staff compel the same officers to attend to all, said a staffer who did not want to reveal his name. Their workday may drag on to 24 instead of eight hours. Though they place their lives at stake day in and day out, “we never get any appreciation for the work we do,” he said. Disappointment and devaluation seem to be their regular lot. Of the 250 batch recruited to the service 2 years ago, only about 75 are left with the department, said another. “It is a thankless job, unless one really loves wildlife you can’t survive.” Of over 1500 employees at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, those who are at the frontline guarding and protecting the country’s wealth of biodiversity stands less than half (700).