No action on AG’s 2018 report on Wildlife Department | Sunday Observer

No action on AG’s 2018 report on Wildlife Department

17 February, 2019
A salient point made in the AG’s report is the need to limit the number of vehicles entering the Yala National Park.
A salient point made in the AG’s report is the need to limit the number of vehicles entering the Yala National Park.

It has been almost a year since the Auditor General presentad a damning report highlighting the unsatisfactory performance of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), but little has been done by the authorities to follow up on its recommendations.

In a special audit report in March last year, Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe made several startling observations on the performance of the DWC, stressing that the authorities need to pull their socks up in the efforts to conserve the wildlife, especially the elephants.

The report highlighted 27 ‘observations’ and 14 ‘recommendations’ after thorough investigations which included examination of registers, books and reports, conduct of interviews, and physical inspections, but the DWC has been slow in making real progress and has been indifferent to some findings.

The report was prepared in the wake of the aggravated human-elephant conflict and the increased number of killings of tuskers.

The report stated that only one of the 17 elephant corridors identified was gazetted. “Only the elephant pass at Kawdulla – Minneriya was published in the Gazette (in 2004). Elephant passes at ‘Koholankala, Unathuwewa, Wetahirakanda, Dahayyagala, Puwakpele, Ulhitiya, Hungamalaoya, Mahawewa, Rathnella, Digampothana, 5th Post, Nachchaduwa-Mahakandarawa, Nachchaduwa-Wilpattu, Sooriyapura, Madupara and Puluyankulama’ have not been gazetted. The failure in the legal opening of 16 identified elephant passes approved by Cabinet had resulted in the increase in the number of deaths of elephants and humans,” the report stated.

A senior official of the DWC, who wished not to be named, told the Sunday Observer that 16 elephant corridors are located in the lands belonging to the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) and therefore, it was not fair to point a finger at the DWC only. However, the AG in his report has clearly stated that the DWC has legal provisions under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance for “The protection of wildlife resources found outside wildlife reservations”.

Work together

The DWC official said that several public institutions and Local Government bodies need to work together to clear the lands in elephant corridors.

“There are human encroachments in most of these lands. Clearing them is not easy as there are political, economic and social dimensions to it.

This is not a task the DWC can do single-handedly. There are villages, cultivations and settlements on those lands and many of those occupants are poverty-stricken. A nationally coordinated effort is needed to resettle them and find them alternative income avenues,” he said.

This point has also been emphasised in the AG’s report which states that “The proper achievement of conservation of wild animals had been obstructed due to the unavailability of a proper co-ordination with institutions such as the DWC, DFC and Mahaweli Development Authority”. The DWC official, however, explained that land use patterns in elephant corridors were now being identified with the use of ‘Google Maps’ and this study has been assigned to the University of Peradeniya.

“Land use maps on four elephant corridors were completed last year,” he noted.

The audit report was also critical of the fact that the DWC was paying little attention to overcome obstructions on elephant passes while spending millions of rupees on driving away elephants and the purchase of elephant crackers.

The special audit report revealed that garbage is disposed in 54 places in wildlife zones and more than 300 wild elephants hang around them. “A large number of wild elephants face various diseases and die due to garbage intake. Veterinary Surgeons said that non-degradable polythene, shopping bags, and plastic bottles were found in the stomachs of elephants in post mortems carried out. Although this can be avoided by constructing electric–fences, the DWC had failed to carry out a proper procedure with the relevant Local Authorities,” the report stated.

Responding to this audit observation, the DWC official said those places, except two or three, again do not belong to the lands under the Department’s purview. “True, those places are in close proximity to wildlife areas, but the relevant Local Government (LG) Authorities should take responsibility for them.

There are two or three places where garbage is disposed of in wildlife reserves, but none in National Parks. There is a Cabinet decision that the DWC should erect the electric fences when there is a request from the LG body.

The maintenance is the responsibility of that LG body. Now there is a joint program for that and so far we have constructed five electric fences on the request of the LG bodies in areas where garbage is disposed,” he commented.

According to the data of the DWC, 38 tuskers had died from 2012 to 2017. “Proper action had not been taken for the security of the tusker Dala Poottuwa who was blind due to gunshots. The moving pattern of that animal had not been identified. These were an indirect support to the killing of the tusker.

Dearth of staff

“Even though it is the responsibility of the DWC to prepare a methodology in protecting tuskers at present, it was observed that such a methodology was not available,” the report stated.

The wildlife official responded that the DWC while struggling with a shortage of staff is not in a position to assign one officer each to provide security to every tusker. “Such a system is found in some African countries, but given the habitat size and the human resources we have, it is difficult to do it in Sri Lanka. We can only adopt conservation methods that apply to all tuskers collectively,” he said.

The shortage of staff is another point highlighted in the AG’s report. It observed that 536 vacancies existed in the DWC as at the end of 2017. “The duties of 33 officers were done by five officers,” the report said.

The wildlife official said the Department is now recruiting new wildlife rangers based on the results of a competitive examination held last year.

Another salient point in the AG’s report is the need to limit the number of vehicles entering the Yala National Park daily.

“Wildlife habitats become polluted due to stirring up of dust as a result of the entrance of a large number of vehicles at once to the Yala National Park and their fast running.

The average number of motor vehicles that arrived was about 250 per day and exceeded 700 during school vacations. As the Park is overcrowded from 6 am to 12 pm and from 2 pm to 6 pm, the traffic condition of the Yala National Park is no better than what we experience in Colombo (Especially at the Palatupana Access),” the report stated.

The DWC officer, who spoke to the Sunday Observer, wished not to elaborate. “Had there been no political meddling this could have been controlled,” he said.

Referring to statistics from 2015 up to November 2017, the report stated that no action had been taken against 341 cases out of 384 elephant killings reported due to human activities.

The wildlife official said that there are practical limitations for the Department to file cases on elephant killings. “We inform the court on every elephant death by submitting a ‘B’ report. If we are to file a case, we must have a witness but in many cases finding a witness or a suspect is difficult. We can find some evidence if the elephant died on the spot after suffering serious gunshot injuries.

There are instances where the elephant roams in the forest for months with injuries and finally resorts to death. Our officers only find its carcass in the forest. Then we can hardly find a suspect or a witness. We encounter such practical problems when proceeding to legal action,” he said.

“It is not that we have overlooked the issues in the report. We responded to the audit inquiries in writing and we have done our best to mitigate those issues,” he said.

The AG in his report stated that only four percent of the Wildlife Conservation Fund was spent on the improvement of enrichment of animals in parks. “Even though Rs.1.85 billion had been earned from 26 National Parks in 2016, the expenditure incurred for habitat enrichment of the wild animals is Rs.71 million. It is a low percentage of four percent,” the report stated.

The senior wildlife official, however, noted that the money in the Fund had been spent in line with the Fund’s guidelines, and in addition government allocations too had been utilised for the welfare of wild animals and habitat protection.

The audit had revealed that the racketeers of catching calf elephants illegally from forests had become active again due to the failure in expediting the implementation of law. It added that the officers of the DWC had also been involved in this racket.

The AG in his report stated, “It is concluded that the elephant resource will become extinct in Sri Lanka in the ensuing years, if a proper arrangement will not be made without delay to control the human elephant conflict.”