By Sarasi Wijeratne
Colombo, October 31 (Counterpoint): The magistrate in Tissamaharama has ordered an investigation into the incursion into the Yala National Park last week by a group in a convoy of luxury vehicles.
The investigation, to be conducted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) will include an assessment of the damage to the ecosystem of the area, expert analysis of digital evidence such as videos and photographs of the incident which have appeared on public platforms, and tracing the registered owners of the vehicles.
The DWC is not waiting until the next hearing date which is in the second week of November but is filing motions and presenting any substantial evidence as and when they become available.
“This is not an easy investigation’, says Ranjan Marasinghe who is the Director of Operations at the DWC. “We are following the necessary steps and the Attorney General will advice on what should be done.”
The immediate hope is for a just outcome because cracks have started to show already. It will be driven largely by how the DWC conducts the investigation. The DWC is fighting a public trust deficit and the end result of the investigation will make or break its reputation.
The incident has re-opened an old can of worms about its role as custodian of the country’s flora and fauna under political pressure from the top.
Sajeewa Chamikara, an environmental activist, is not optimistic about the investigation being conducted transparently and equitably. He justifies his point by recalling an incident in which the vehicle in which the Minister for Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation Mahinda Amaraweera was traveling hit a deer killing it. The facts of the case are disputed. Environmentalists and sources in the Udawalawe national park claim the accident happened inside the park at about 8 pm, which is past the cutoff time of 6 p.m for visitors to leave the park, and that Amaraweera’s vehicle had been speeding. But the DWC is accused of hushing up the incident because of the involvement of the minister.
According to Marasinghe and Amaraweera, the accident happened outside a protected area and a police inquiry is going on. The fact however is that it has been more than two months since the incident took place and the details are still not available. The delay confirms the public perception that the slogan “one country, one law” made popular by the deposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is being perverted by authorities into “one country with two laws.”
The allegation that Amaraweera drove his vehicle inside the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is another black mark against him that persists.
Marasinghe feels that the finger-pointing at the DWC is unfair.
“We are doing what we have to do with the resources we have. Take for instance the criticism that we took long to respond to this Yala incident. The date on which it happened was a holiday and we couldn’t do much. But as soon as we were able to, we went to court.”
There was a feeling of deja vu as video clips of a convoy of luxury vehicles entering the park and spoiling the serenity of Yala’s landscape went viral on social media and then the mainstream media. Pictures of Defenders, jeeps, and other SUVs spinning off the beaten track whipped up public outrage.
The locations in the eye of the storm were Welmalkema, Digamwala, and Suduwelimulla in Block 1. Many were quick to draw a parallel with scenes on the Colombo-Puttalam Road in March this year when the Spin Riders Club drove in a convoy of luxury vehicles and motor bicycles for what they claimed was a fundraiser. The incident took place when the rest of the country was in the grip of a fuel shortage. It sparked questions as to how the group had fuel to burn. A source said the Spin Riders, which advertises safaris in Yala, had also been a part of this group. Several jeeps had also gone into Block 2 where some sources say off-road driving is allowed and others say it is not.
Chamikara, who is also in the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform, highlights some of the breaches of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. “Getting out of jeeps, off-road driving, flying a drone, being in possession of alcohol, and speeding, are some of the most obvious transgressions. These acts disturb the ecosystem. Open areas such as these are feeding grounds for migrant birds. They are also nesting places. Lapping and resident water birds frequent these spaces and Sambur and deer come here looking for food.”
The onslaught on Yala has thrown up questions again about political power at play, in particular the involvement of Amaraweera who ironically, is also the Minister for Wildlife. He was earlier the Minister for Environment. Amaraweera who had been overseas at the time of the incident is alleged to have telephoned the Director General of the DWC, to authorize the group’s entry into the park, a charge that Marasinghe denies.
According to reliable sources on the ground, Amaraweera’s son, one or two of his nephews, and the son-in-law of MP Rohitha Abeygunewardene had been among the group. Amaraweera’s son had allegedly kept a low profile. Appearing in journalist Chamuditha Samarawickreme’s TV show, environmental activist Nayanaka Ranwella explained how the Director General of the DWC had been non-committal when he asked him the same question.
The presence of Amaraweera’s son in the group is refuted by Marasinghe, He says that he does not know about the presence of Amaraweera’s nephew. “I have to check whether the nephew was in the group. I am not willing to comment on this because it is a political matter. Legal action will be taken against whoever misbehaved in the park,” he assured.
Meanwhile, Amaraweera, clearing his throat intermittently, told the media that his son was not among the group. “I can tell you very responsibly, that he did not go to Yala, not even to Galle.”
Amaraweera’s reference to Galle is presumably a pointer at the group’s escapades on the Southern Highway in violation of its rules including traveling at high speed and standing and traveling with sunroofs down. Their exploits on the highway had delayed their arrival at Yala. According to unconfirmed reports, in the rush to clear 32 jeeps which is a number given by Marasinghe, they were bunched together in groups of five and registered on one entry sheet. The normal practice is for one entry sheet to be issued to every vehicle entering the park.
Earlier in the week, nine people who were arrested for violating park rules after coming forward voluntarily were given conditional bail by the court and seven vehicles with their keys were taken into the custody of the court.
At the time of writing, five of the suspects had been released on bail including Amaraweera’s nephew who handed himself in yesterday.
“We objected to the bail, but the offense was a bailable one,” says Marasinghe.
According to ground sources, the men who were arrested and released were allegedly not involved in the incident but had merely put themselves forward. They had allegedly been told they will be paid their salaries until their court cases are resolved and they will get their jobs back. They had also been told that nothing would be done about the break in the continuity of their employment.
“We had no option but to produce these people in court because they surrendered,” explains Marasinghe. “If it transpires that they had nothing to do with the incident, what they did will be in contempt of court and there will be legal repercussions.”
In Ranwella’s talk with Samarawickreme, he flagged a Facebook post bragging that there will be a repeat of the Yala incident – signs of a system already reeking of impunity.
In addition to the nine people, seven guides were suspended on the instructions of the Secretary to the Ministry, R.M.C.M Herath. Sources allege that these guides, who are temporary cadres in the DWC. have become scapegoats. They had also been told that their salaries will be paid until the case is resolved.
According to Chamikara, this incident did not take place in isolation. He placed the blame squarely on the DWC for laying the foundation for it with poor management and enforcement.
“Visitor guidelines are not followed, the carrying capacity is exceeded, speed and noise restrictions are not respected and when there is a sighting of a leopard, the animal gets harassed when jeeps crowd around it. Visitors to parks have this notion they are places for off-roading and merry-making and not as places where biodiversity has to be protected. In other countries, it is essential to maintain distances between vehicles, and adhere to speed limits, a guide has to be in every vehicle entering the park, off-roading is not allowed, and visitors get a briefing before they enter the park. The DWC is therefore responsible for creating the present ugly situation.”
The President and the Ministry appointed committees to look into the transgressions that took place at Yala. If the predecessors of such committees are testimonies, then these ritualistic appointments will continue to add to accusations that government only pays lip service to good management but whitewashes ugly incidents. These committees would do little to reinstate public confidence in them. Their findings are made public selectively and implementation is usually thrown to the winds.
The President issued a directive to introduce new laws to stop private vehicles from entering such parks. The ministry took a decision to ban the entry of the vehicles and people involved in the Yala incident into any national park in the island for three years.
But these are likely to be viewed as knee-jerk responses that will only add to an already burgeoning set of laws that are not enforced. These are escape clauses for the so-called servants of the public – in this case, Amaraweera and those at the top of the DWC’s organization.