Having decided a few years ago to make my permanent home in the remote village of Samagipura in the Anuradhapura District, I have been reawakened too much. The intention to seek village life and roots of my ancestors has been rewarded in many ways. Shedding trivia of city social life has led to among other things great contentment with all around and life itself.
Mundane things like growing a garden, breeding our indigenous 3000-year-old ‘batuharak’ and trying to collect and establish the Sinhala hound breed, which goes back 4500 years to skeletal remains found with the Balangoda man, have proved to be very fulfilling experiences.
Interaction though limited with fellow villagers has been an enlightening factor and rewarding. These second or third generation progeny of hardy pioneer migrants from other parts of the country have carved out a place for themselves which though in very harsh conditions has rewarded their children with homes, education and healthcare. Though still needing improvement, it is a very far cry from the primitive conditions existing when my parents lived in Anuradhapura in the 1940s, before the new town was in existence.
Our greatest problems are lack of water and wild elephants. Resilient as they are, the fear that the wildlife and nature the older generation knew is not only going but will be lost completely comes out in discussion. The impact on the very fabric of our country is the greatest fear of them all.
Their concern has brought me out of the sense of well-being induced by a lack of news, fake or otherwise and small talk absent in my village life. It is evident that the whole equation with wildlife and nature, which we have taken for granted, not only is changing but will be lost forever. In my sense of alarm, I remembered my brother Jayantha having told me that on a trip to Laos some years ago, there were no garden birds to be seen in villages or in cities unlike here. Only the deep forests had species remaining, the others having been killed and eaten over a period of time.
Though Sri Lanka is also a Buddhist country, this has not happened. On the flipside, we do not indulge in killing or eating garden birds, even those that are pests, specially to cultivators. We do in fact feed and nurture birds both in villages and suburbs. There is, therefore, still some base to build on, if done correctly and intelligently to conserve and enhance what remains.
As such, it is not our cruelty but rather our lack of awareness, which will inevitably bring about the catastrophe of drastically reducing and then rapidly eliminating many of our species. This is too both in village and urban areas. The historical fact that probably the first wildlife sanctuary in the world was our own Anuradhapura when the king thousands of years ago banned the killing of animals in and around the city, will not hold us in good stead in modern times. We must address today’s and tomorrow’s problems.
No one and everyone is to blame, if we wish to play the very futile blame game. While the kings were strict about conservation of both flora and fauna in general, the British colonials too established wildlife parks and were concerned about forest conservation. A huge damage was also done by them. My great grandfather Edmund Dassanayeke, in the century before the last, worked in the Forest Department and had the title of Assistant Conservator of forests in British times. His title speaks volumes. Conservation was the key and done on an islandwide basis and well organised.
In post-independence Ceylon or Sri Lanka, we need to acknowledge that much has been done by both governments and private organisations like the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society as well as many independent organisations and persons. But the need of the hour might be something both different and radical by all parties concerned. Not enough has been done in a planned manner within the framework that exists.
For example, as a school boy, I was privileged to attend a meeting of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society at which Lord Soulbury, the first Governor General, was present. A truly august body of dedicated conservationists, many of whom were resident expatriates. I accompanied my father E.D.W., a wildlife enthusiast himself and his friend Bunny Jonklaas, who hunted tigers in India regularly. Many were hunters and had a deep knowledge of the jungles and animals as a result. This was well over 50 years ago and much has changed. We cannot go back but can plan for the future, holistically.
The forests my great grandfather conserved are decimated. The wildlife the society protected at the time drastically reduced, both being further daily destroyed while we wring our hands and lament without constructive overall action.
What changed? Population explosion and a demand for land by humans. There is little doubt that humans must be given precedence and a good life but wildlife too can be preserved and nurtured within this framework of development or rather must. The theory that wildlife must be given priority is nonsense sprouted by a small class of unrealistic people, whatever they call themselves, English speaking or conservationists. They have tended to be more and more remote from not only the reality of their fellow beings but also from wildlife and nature. They have become more academic and less hands on. Also may be less passionate about nature but rather the thought of it. How much do we all really care? What are we willing to do and sacrifice?
What seems to be the answer? First and foremost, awareness all round in all quarters of the massive damaged going on in real terms, not just the topical aspect of the rape of one park, Willpattu. Statistics and figures scientifically, not ad hoc, of only high-profile species, which are visible but of all mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and fish, as well as flora. Not an easy task but not impossible in a country which has for a very long time had institutes for commercial crops in the form of tea, rubber, coconut, paddy and agriculture research institutes and also farms run by the government and a veterinary institution. There are also a number of universities which can be all involved in research.
These do scientific work now as before and can be emulated for wildlife. But no one likes criticism, least of all powerful governments appointed by the choice of the people. Then why do private societies and persons not see this and find ways to work with and through governments which finally must fulfil the wishes of the people? Or is it more glamorous and less tedious to have conflict with relevant departments than work toward common goals and results? For if there is no research as is now and no attempt to create relevant and realistic biodiversity generators as practical in the present context, which even the minuscule city state of Singapore does, our wildlife is doomed and many species could be on their journey to extinction.
Most to blame will be the ones who are educated the most, while the poor villager and urbanite alike will watch helplessly. An integral part of our culture and beauty spanning millennia would be lost and done purely due to inaction. While we are all to blame, conservationists’ pseudo and otherwise, the relevant officials, journalists and of course the political class, which aspires to lead us, will be most to blame. For they have abrogated their responsibility to a nation for convenience and due to inefficiency and ego. May God help us!
(Prasanna W. Jayewardene, from Mukalana Walauwa, Samagipura, Anuradhapura, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)