By Sarasi Paranamanna
The ‘development projects’ and tourism promotion activities have threatened Sri Lanka’s natural resources, especially the wildlife. The officials continuous give eloquent speeches about sustainable tourism and one might wonder whether their speeches are just limited to words. As environmentalist Rukshan Jayawardene quite rightly pointed out it is not acceptable and sustainable to destroy wildlife as it is the very resource which helps to earn foreign exchange from tourists who are interested in wildlife.
With such danger looming, it is being reported that there are campsites inside national parks which have been leased out to private companies. How did these private companies get the campsites for lease and how did these activities go unnoticed by the officials that are appointed to safeguard the country’s natural resources? How did they not notice that these parties are blatantly violating the environmental laws? These questions can only be answered by the wildlife officials.
Campsites on lease
The Environmental Organizations Collective revealed that the Department of Wildlife has given the campsites in major national parks, to private parties who rent these campsites back to the tourists at a higher price. According to the environmentalists the campsites are given under long-term leases for an amount between Rs 50,000- Rs 100,000. However the private companies which provide tourists with wildlife observational visits and hospitality services at these campsites charge 300 US dollars per day from one individual.
The campsites in Yala, Wilpattu and Udawalwe national parks have been leased out to private parties and it was also revealed that an area from the Horton Plains Reserve would also be allocated for a campsite which would be leased out to a private party.
An environmental activist, Nayanaka Ranwella pointed out that campsites are usually utilized by the tourists who come on scientific research and observational purposes. Even so they operate with the basic facilities not posing any threat to the flora and fauna in the area. Any citizen, who contacts the Department Of Wildlife can pay a certain amount of money and reserve the campsite for their observational purposes. These private companies have built structures that look like boutique hotels which have tables laid with dining facilities, hot water showers, separate toilet facilities and even nighttime observational tours blatantly violating almost every park regulation.
Environmental bylaws blatantly violated
Presenting the legal picture, environmental lawyer Jagath Gunwardena said according to the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO) section 2 only the Department of Wildlife has the authority to maintain campsites and that the Wildlife Department does not have any right to bestow the providing of facilities to tourists, or to any third party.
Under section 3(a) of the FFPO no building can be erected in a one-mile buffer zone outside the park boundaries as it would affect the wildlife.
“When no building can be constructed beyond the boundaries in a one-mile zone, how can one possibly build something inside the park reserves? It is an obvious violation of the FFPO” said Gunwardena.
He pointed out that under the FFPO national parks can be visited only for observational, recreational and scientific purposes. However the so-called safari companies’ purposes do not fit in any of the above mentioned reasons.
The environmentalists showed several photographs which have been uploaded in the websites of the safari companies and they revealed that campfires are lit after nightfall which is a clear breach of park regulations.
Further violating park regulations these campsite facility providers have gone to the extent of serving alcohol and other entertainments as advertised in their websites.
Environmentalist Nadeeka Hapuarachchi from the Galle Wildlife Conservation Society said that when he posed as a tourist who was interested in getting a campsite, one particular company had said that they would allow a group of fourteen people when the park regulations clearly state that only twelve people with a driver were permitted in a campsite.
Impact on wildlife and environment
These campsites have kerosene lamps and Gunwardena said that the insects in the vicinity could be affected and they could even get killed by the open flame.
“It is also illegal under FFPO as it states that no lights can be lit either to attract or to repel insects,” he added.
Environmentalist Pubudu Weerarathne pointed out that when the layers of leaf-litter is cleared by these campsite managers the insects, reptiles and other species will be wiped out from the vicinity. He said that the use of chemicals and insecticides used to repel geckoes, lizards and other animals from the campsite will have and impact on them directly.
He also said that monkeys who are in the area are chased away by the campsite managers and firecrackers that are lit to repel the elephants can affect the behaviour patterns of these species.
Referring to the hot water facilities provided by the campsite managers, Weerarathne said the methods will badly affect the trees in the national parks.
“These campsites have showers and hot water baths. They hang a huge cauldron of water on a giant tree like Kumbuk or Palu and light fires underneath the cauldron. This is very unhealthy for the growth of the tree and the huge smoke and flames will kill many insects in the barks of these trees” he claimed.
These so-called campsite “facility providers” have also advertised that they provide fishing as a sport along with “other modes of entertainment” and their recreational activity is done at the cost of the fish in the nearby rivers. Furthermore they provide dining facilities where the dining tables are arranged in the shallow parts of the rivers.
Weerarathne also stated there is possibility of animal gene duplication as one of the companies even keeps a personal collection of live reptiles. He said it is illegal as well as harmful to the behaviour of the animals when the observation parties get too close to the animals; which according to him is a blatant violation of park regulations.
“One of the companies has a foreign national as their naturalist. And there are pictures of her going near the animals and in their website it says that they provide nighttime tours. I don’t know how she is a naturalist when she is violating the basic park regulations” he said.
Mr. Gunwardena also expressed his concern over the way they manage waste in the campsites as it is illegal to dispose anything in the national parks. He said that if human waste is directed to rivers the animals as well as humans would face danger.
Law enforcement in limbo
Why the environmental officials are not taking any action against these illegal and barefaced violations of laws is a puzzle to everyone.
“Reasonable doubts are being raised as to the silence of the wildlife officials about these activities. The officials have taken steps even to provide alternative site for their camps when the existing sites are underwater when the rivers overflow” said activist Ranwella.
He further stated that a company had forwarded a request to demarcate five acres from a national park but however it was stopped when the environmentalists objected to it.
Mr. Gunwardena stated that even among the environmentalists there is confusion as to whom they should complain about these malpractices as there is no minister or a director general.
“The secretary to the ministry is filling in for the director general of the department. But he issued letters as the director general of the department under the ministry secretary’s letter head. When there are many qualified personnel, it is puzzling as to why nobody is appointed to the post” he said.
Mr. Gunwardena stated that the only authority which can litigate against the companies is the Department Of Wildlife. However since they are turning a blind eye to the grave matters, the environmentalists have informed the President and requested him to take prompt action.
He also said that the environmentalists are currently discussing about taking legal action against the secretary to the ministry who is also the acting director general. He said that there is capacity to file a fundamental rights petition against him as it is a violation of people's right to be treated equally under the law of the country.
Human- Animal Conflict increases
Activist Ranwella said that one of the leopard’s pictures on the website clearly shows that the animals are roaming around these established campsites.
He observed that the animals tend to come in such a manner only when they are used to the presence of the humans and added that it might be due to the fact that the occupants in these camps might be feeding the animals.
Showing the picture of a leopard he said that when the leopard has come up to the extent of a boundary of a camp as seen in the photograph it only leads to the increase of the human animal conflict. He noted that when the leopards are fed in this manner they get used to feeding and do not hunt anymore.
Speaking further he said a woman was killed by a leopard when she was in the ‘pada yathra’ travelling across the Yala national park and it is suspected that the reason of the killing was that they are used to eating what is found in the vicinity.