Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya a leading environmental specialist in the South Asia Environment, Water Resources and Climate Change Unit at the World Bank office who was appointed as the Director General of the Wild Life Conservation Department (WLCD) in April made a promise: “ As an environmental professional, during my tenure as director general I will not violate the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance or do anything detrimental to wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka. I would rather resign than be instrumental in causing a negative impact on wildlife conservation.”
Many environmentalists extended their gratitude for appointing such an ecologist who had the academic knowledge as well as extensive experience in the World Bank managing its wildlife projects.
Dr. Pilapitiya bade goodbye to his job as the lead environmental specialist for the South Asia Environment, Water Resources and Climate Change Unit at the World Bank office, and undertook this post to work on his passion of wild life specially elephants and to protect this country’s wildlife and fauna and flora.
However, on Monday in a controversial manner he tendered his resignation to Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera. The Daily Mirror in an attempt to findout the real reason for his sudden resignation came across some serious issues which needed more clarifications by the relevant and responsible authorities.
According to a WLCD official, a doctor who wished to remain anonymous told the Daily Mirror that there were serious incidents which prompted Dr. Pilapitiya to resign his post.
Dr.Pilapitiya was branded as a ‘stubborn’ officer: Wlcd official
After Dr. Pilapitiya started his work, he has been branded as a ‘stubborn’ officer since he had not complied with any illegal directions of politicians or other higher authorities.
The official said so much pressure was placed on Dr. Pilapitiya over various issues and they had allegedly disrupted his work.
There were issues; one had been regarding the release of some illegally detained elephants and more recently about a raid where a dead tiger and 46 kilos of animal meat found in the Yala National Park. Both these incidents made Dr. Pilapitiya to rethink about his job.
“In a previous instance, a person, representing all private elephant owners who was also holding a religiously and culturally important position of the country, had contacted Dr. Pilapitiya and asked him to release elephants to their private owners claiming they needed to be used for processions in temples. Subsequently, Dr. Piliapitiya had sought the advice of the Attorney General who had intimated that the elephants could not be released. The AG had also said that if the DG sends a request in writing [which can be interpreted as being against the law] , it can be done. Dr. Pilapitiya had refused to do so and had informed the AG that as long as he serves as DG of the Wild Life Department, he would not allow such things to happen,” the WLCD official said.
However, this incident had been reported to the President who had directed Dr. Pilapitiya to issue permits to capture the required number of elephants from forests which are under the administration of the Wildlife Conservation Department.
Dr. Piliapitiya has not agreed to initiate that directive either.
Real Reason for resignation
However, this had not been the main reason for the resignation of the WLCD chief. According to the departmental official, an incident when Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera had exerted pressure on Suranga Ratnayake, Warden of the Yala National Park to apologise to Minister Sajith Premadasa was the main reason that Dr. Pilapitiya found disagreeable. It had been one of the main reasons for his resignation.
Wild Life Conservation Department’s employees on Tuesday protested outside the Department Office in Battaramulla against the resignation of WLCD’s Director General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya and ‘political interference’ within the department.
Speaking to the , Suranga Ratnayake confirmed that the particular WLCD official’s claims and said since the day he was appointed as the warden of the Yala Wildlife Park, Minister Sajith Premadasa had allegedly pressurised the then DWC Chief Chandrasiri Bandara and the recently resigned DWC Chief Dr.Sumith Pilapitiya to remove Sunranga from his post.
Suranga Ratnayake had been appointed as the warden of the Yala Park in February 2016.
Before that he had been the park warden of Kumana where he worked freely without any political pressure.
“Political pressure was exerted not only on Dr. Pilapitiya but also on all former DG’s of the department. During the previous regime, MP Namal Rajapaksa had also meddled with issues in Yala. It had been a Jeep Owners’ Association comprising some of his supporters that handled the administration of the Yala, not the Wild Life Department.
On June 05, I as the warden of Yala Park, sent a group for a raid that was launched on information we had received. During the raid we arrested a man who had 46 kgs of animal meats, an illegal weapon and a dead tiger whose jaws had been removed in his possession. As WLCD officials, we have the power to arrest poachers and produce them before courts. So we produced the arrested poacher before court and he was remanded. On that day, Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera called me and admonished me for producing the suspect in court without producing him before the police. But, we have the powers to produce suspects directly before a magistrate. Poachers have been killing animals as a practice in Yala for a long time.”
Sixty per cent of appointments in the Yala Park were Allegedly made by Minister Sajith Premadasa: Suranga rathnayake
Suranga spoke how Minister Sajith Premadasa who was not related to the ministry got involved in the issue.
“Sixty per cent of appointments in the Yala Park were made by Minister Sajith Premadasa. I was not allowed to do my duties by the minister. He kept visiting the park as he wished, without following Wild Life Department’s regulations. One day, I spoke directly to the minister [about it]. In response Minister Premadasa said that he had a habit of visiting the park and that just because I had been appointed as the new park warden, such habits could not be changed.
Minister Jayawickrama asked me to apologise to Minister Premadasa over this incident. But, I didn’t do so, because I had done no wrong. However, after that incident, much pressure was placed on the then DWC Chief Chandrasiri Bandara and the recently resigned WLCD Chief Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya to remove me from this post. But, Minister Premadasa had never spoken to me directly regarding these issues. However by coordinating work with Dr. Pilapitiya I was able to solve a lot of issues in the Yala Park. After this recent raid we carried out, Minister Jayawickrama asked me to come to Parliament on Tuesday (June 7). In front of many government officials he verbally abused me for carrying out the raid and producing the suspect before court and not before the police. He also asked me to apologise to Minister Sajith Premadasa, but he (Minister Premadasa) was not present in Parliament at that time. I phoned DG Pilapitiya and told him what happened. He told me that as the WLCD Director General, if he could not defend his officers he was not suitable to hold the post any longer and that he would resign from the post. The DG told me that it was a time I should have been commended for catching the poachers. I later submitted my request for a transfer to the ministry, “Suranga said.
“These allegations are absolute rubbish: Minister Sajith Premadasa
Responding to the claims, Minister Sajith Premadasa said that he refuted all these haphazard allegations, because he was an animal lover from childhood and that he frequently was to Yala sanctuary for the purpose of wild life photography.
“These allegations are absolute rubbish. As an animal lover and I stand against anti-animal activities. I was the one who advised on controlling poaching activities in the Yala National Park. I only want to encourage Wild Life officials in order to protect wild life in our country,” Minister Premadasa said.
He went on to say that he had never violated or intervened in any established rules and regulations of the Wild Life Department of Sri Lanka.
Speaking about the apologising incident, he said he was not even aware of such a thing.
There was no pressure exerted by me or any minister; Wildlife Minister
While refuting all the claims levelled by the Yala Park warden and the WLCD official who spoke to the Daily Mirror, the Minister had a different story to tell.
“There was no pressure exerted by me or any minister on the Wild Life officials. Dr. Pilapitiya was an honest and straight forward officer capable of working as the head of the WLCD. I refused to accept his resignation also. I informed the Prime Minister about this. He assured me that he would have a word with Dr. Pilapitiya,”
When asked about the ‘main reason’ for the resignation of Dr. Pilapitiya, the minister said he only
asked the Yala Park warden to meet him on Tuesday at the Parliament Complex to advise him over not producing the suspect in the June 5 raid to the police before presenting him to court.
“Allegations are baseless. I should categorically say that an involvement of Minister Sajith Premadasa as alleged did not happen. As a Cabinet Minister and Hambantota being his electorate he has a right to visit the Yala Park. One reason for that is because he is a wild life lover. I don’t think it is fair to point fingers at him based on that. That is not wrong,”
Poaching Mafia operational in wildlife parks
Commenting on the racket of animal poaching, the Minister Jayawickrama also said such a mafia is in operation in forests belonging to the WLCD and that he was concerned about the issue. He also said he spoke to the Acting IGP S. M. Wickremesinghe and requested him to carry out an investigation into the June 05 incident through the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to apprehend those behind the racket.
Secretary, Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife R.M.D.B. Meegasmulla said the ministry is to discuss with Dr. Pilapitiya and a decision to re-appoint him to the post is yet in abyance.
A protest urging the authorities to re-appoint Dr. Pilapitiya to the post was launched yesterday by the WLCD staff in Battaramulla. A meeting with the Prime Minister and Dr. Pilapitiya also took place yesterday at the Prime Minister’s residence. Attempts to hear the outcome of the meeting Dr. Pilapitiya’s views failed because he had switched off his mobile phone and was not willing to speak to the media regarding the issue.