By Suryamithra Vishwa/Harmony Page-DailyFT
Why exactly is the conservation of wildlife important to modern man? Preoccupied as he is with living in the modern world where economic/material concerns seemingly override the concerns of the natural world, we do not often enough ask this question.
To inculcate and encourage such holistic questioning from a young age there is no platform within our current day education system. It is a fact that quite often we do not recognise that the natural environs around us which throb with life wrapping us up in the fabric of the ecosystem is directly linked to our wellbeing and the very survival of the human species.
Sri Lanka has an actively working Wildlife Department (which could be even more effective if the average citizen was better informed of the department’s role and functions as well as the possibility for ordinary Sri Lankans to work with officials who work towards conserving the natural habitat). However, it is very rarely that Wildlife Department officials get to share their side of the story of the arduous path they are on – the path of conservation.
This gap was filled in a lecture delivered by Ranjan Marasinghe, Director Operations, Department of Wildlife Conservation last Thursday, 17 September at the BMICH. The event was part of the lecture series organised by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) and supported by the private sector. As a representative from the WNPS pointed out, the purpose of the talks in general are to educate the public on the many facets of nature protection.
Pertaining to the decision to invite a senior Wildlife Department official to address the public was pointed out as being to support and appreciate the work done by the Wildlife Department, as well as provide the, constructive criticism or suggestions as needed.
It was pointed out that the Wildlife Department officials often take the brunt of criticism for everything that goes wrong in environment/wildlife protection. A very positive basis that was laid at the outset at the event organised by the WNPS was that the questions that would be allowed at the discussion time would be those which are worded in a polite and respectful manner.
Interestingly, it was pointed out that Marasinghe was the first Wildlife Department official in 20 years to address the public.
The general themes Ranjan Marasinghe focused on in his lecture centred on the history, mandate, role, issues and strategies of the Wildlife Department in seeking out the way forward.
In the current Lankan context the difficult position the Wildlife Department officials often find themselves in, harshly judged by the general public and seen by many as ‘enemies of development,’ was narrated by the Director Operations, Department of Wildlife Conservation. One key point of his discourse was the need to increase public engagement to solve the current main issues of wildlife conservation. Therefore the law enforcement and scientific management pertaining wildlife protection, the sustainable use of park services for generation of revenue and people’s participation in conservation were shown as the main interlocking areas that need to be strengthened
Committed to conservation
The Director Operations of the Wildlife Department began his talk by trying to make the audience understand the kind of job that the wildlife officials are entrusted with as part of their day job and the stark difference it entails compared to most day jobs of other people.
“Some people make conservation their day job. Conservation is what we have committed ourselves to and this is what we do so that others in this country could enjoy a healthy and harmonious life with the natural resources of the country protected for common good,” he said.
In his opening remarks he also pointed out that the past few months have seen an ‘explosion of environment destruction’.
Dualism and balance
The best figurative and philosophical explanation given to show the dilemma of today’s mutual survival of man and habit was described aptly by Marasinghe through the ancient Chinese yin and yang; the concept of dualism and balance.
Yin was used as a depiction of human needs revolving around natural resources required for the generation of the economy while yang was described as representative of the conservation of the natural environment so as to maintain a harmonious balance in the world to influence the health, happiness, leisure, aesthetics and wellbeing of humans as well as other creatures that share this space of life in the planet.
The packed audience was given a detailed account of the evolution of mandates and priorities of the Wildlife department from the 1890s to today. Therefore its progress from being game protection centric to getting a fauna and flora focus in the 1930s and shifting to biodiversity conservation in the 1990s, was highlighted.
The enhancing of the biodiversity protection aspects in the year 2000, widening the horizons of incorporating wildlife protection, research and education was explained.
A key prevailing issue raised was the human-elephant conflict that plagues Sri Lanka, with the numbers of elephants killed rising from around 227 in 2010 to around 407 in 2020 – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
Wildlife conservation history
The wildlife conservation comparative history based paradigm of the United States and England was analysed. The Yellowstone Act of 1872, the legislation by the US that created the first modern ‘national park’ was mentioned with the fact highlighted in his detailed PowerPoint presentation that the Native Americans had lived for hundreds of years before the Anglo explorers arrived. Also highlighted was the fact that Native Americans lived a life that was intrinsically webbed into and part of nature.
The US conservation goals and priorities that commenced around 1940s pointed out as stemming from the economic challenges of the 1930s economic crash known as the Great Depression. Thus as detailed out the conservation was based on a resource based utility preoccupation rather than concern for the natural habitat.
“The Great Depression that began in America and spread to the rest of the world, posed primarily for the US the challenge of creating jobs for the youth and putting its economy back on track. Hence the conservation initiation triggered as a result of the 1930s financial crisis in America was a political effort to cater to the material needs of the masses and not a nature centric goal,” explained Marasinghe.
With regard to Britain, the poetry such as those of William Wordsworth, waxing eloquent on the beauty of nature alongside the rapid destruction and exploitation of the natural resources of other countries it had invaded and held as colonies was pointed out as an intriguing base upon which the Britain model of conservation was rooted in. The origination of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) prompted by the wealthy and upper class leisure seeing citizenry was traced.
The Sri Lankan colonial context when the disastrous effects of commercial exploitation of the British in Ceylon was finally stemmed when legislation was adopted to forbid the destroying of wild animals was pointed out, referring to the initiative of A. F. Braun to introduce two Ordinances to prevent the wanton destruction of ‘elephants, buffalo and other game’ and the Ordinance to adjust the customs duties on firearms and to impose an export duty on animal hides and horns.
The birth of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) in 1970 and the previously existed Wildlife Protection Society of 1955 and the Ceylon Game and Fauna Protection Society of 1930 and the Ceylon Game Protection Society of 1894 was thereby traced.
Gradual Rise Of Green Lliberalism
The gradual rise of green liberalism was focused upon. It is this writer’s opinion that it would definitely be interesting if Sri Lanka could have a national discourse on the overarching concept of green liberalisation alongside Sri Lanka’s multifarious ancient indigenous the pre colonisation/globalisation policies of nature protection and Buddhistic and Pre-Buddhistic values/knowledge/traditions of co-existing with the natural world.
In the current Lankan context the difficult position the Wildlife Department officials often find themselves in, harshly judged by the general public and seen by many as ‘enemies of development,’ was narrated by the Director Operations, Department of Wildlife Conservation.
A key point of his discourse was the need to increase public engagement to solve the current main issues of wildlife conservation. Therefore the law enforcement and scientific management pertaining wildlife protection, the sustainable use of park services for generation of revenue and people’s participation in conservation were shown as the main interlocking areas that need to be strengthened.
A key prevailing issue raised was the human-elephant conflict that plagues Sri Lanka, with the numbers of elephants killed rising from around 227 in 2010 to around 407 in 2020 and the percentage of elephants killed outside the protected areas of the national parks at 54%.
One of the main ways in which elephants die were mentioned as the use of hakka pattas (local made bombs that destroy the jaws of the elephants) as well as the killing of elephants by shooting. How the material with which to make these handmade weapons of destructions get to villages and the local industry behind it apparently remains a mystery.
The underlying cause of the human-elephant conflict was explained as resulting of the ever-increasing needs of the people clashing with the large spatial needs of the elephants and taking place within the ever-increasing destruction of the natural habitat.
Forest and Wildlife Departments
Meanwhile, one of the most significant questions raised during the discussion time by one of the members of the audience was why the Forest Department and the Wildlife Department cannot work together in unison as both are in a common interwoven domain, with forests being the basis for the surviving of wildlife.
The answer given by Marasinghe was that a merger as such between the two departments may be at a practical administrative level somewhat challenging but added that for certain common goals that the Wildlife Department and the Forest Department already do collaborate.
Sustainable Development Goals
Also, in the discourse, analysing the realistic difficulties of the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ Marasinghe explained that there were the obvious clashing when goals such as poverty alleviation which went hand in hand with the appropriation of natural resources. This would result in making genuine sustainability where the wellbeing of the natural world is safeguarded somewhat difficulty, he noted.
Here this writer would like to interject and emphasise that the model of ‘sustainability’ existed within the psyche of Sri Lankans for thousands of years until we were lured by a different set of values, philosophies and education which separated us from a nature centric way of being and propelled us to a monetary dominated ‘want bases (as opposed to a need based) economy and lifestyle. In discussing what modernity has highlighted as material poverty, it may also be vital for us as Sri Lankans to examine spiritual and values based poverty which is why callous and coldblooded environment destruction occur.
Need for innovation
Meanwhile, among the concluding points of Ranjan Marasinghe’s lecture was the need for innovation for wildlife protection and the support for innovation (such as technology based for documentation/research/tabulation, etc.,) pointing out that innovation cannot happen when a conducive atmosphere is not provided for technological experiments and a reasonable tolerance of trials and errors. The Harmony Page will feature a detailed interview with Ranjan Marasinghe in the following editions alongside focusing separate detailed analysis on the human-elephant and the human-reptile co-existence problems of today, examined from the lens of Sri Lanka’s intangible cultural heritage and traditional and indigenous knowledge.
(Suryamithra Vishwa cultivates trees using Sri Lanka’s ancient nature based cultivation methods and is a promoter of all forms of local indigenous knowledge including Sri Lanka’s Deshiya Chikitsa medical practice that pre dates Ayurveda. She is the founder of the thought movement ‘Earth Life Water Knowledge Trails Lanka’, and has a keen interest in comparative spirituality and pre-colonial Lankan knowledge systems. Her academic training has been in sociology, and she is a curriculum writer and visiting lecturer in Mass Communication at a national university in Sri Lanka under her inherited family name and is currently in the process of striving to introduce Sri Lanka’s Indigenous Knowledge into the discipline of Mass Communication. Her library of 20,000 books, which includes books on world and local Indigenous Knowledge, comparative spirituality and local and world Traditional medicine, has been opened up for the public free of charge. Those interested in borrowing any book could contact 0812494285.)