Scenic Elephant Rock with an abundance of biodiversity
(Image courtesy -Jayasiri Gunarathne)
The Yala National Park has been at the receiving end of human disturbances from time to time. Be it a traffic jam to spot a leopard or a visit by high profile persons to spot an elephant, the challenges have been numerous.
It is in such a backdrop that the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation has given approval to three officials from the Department of Archaeology to conduct a survey around the iconic Akasa Chaitya (Elephant Rock) in Block 1 of Yala National Park. The letter mentions about certain renovation purposes. Even though the letter includes several conditions, environmentalists fear whether this is a deliberate attempt to construct a chaitya inside the National Park and loot the remaining treasure.
Site visit conducted
Letter issued by DWC allowing officials from Archaeology Dept. to survey the area near Akasa Chaithya
The Daily Mirror learned that the Archaeology Department officials have conducted a site visit on July 10. A source at the Yala National Park who spoke on conditions of anonymity said that there are two ancient dagabas at Aligala. “One is at the top of the rock and one is at the bottom. So far nobody has made attempts to conduct surveys of this nature and this is the first time it happened.”
The source further said that the area has an abundance of greeneries and biodiversity that has been there for centuries. “Archaeological remains are found in all blocks of Yala spanning up to Kumana. This area is frequented by elephants, leopards, bear and other animals. A construction of any sort would disrupt the habitats of these flora and fauna and would distort one of the most breathtaking areas of the Yala National Park.
Is it only a survey?
In a statement, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) expressed concern regarding the matter. “While the WNPS is yet to learn of the real purpose and scope of the survey, it is deeply concerned that, as per reliable sources, unauthorized personnel have entered the Park without formal permission, accompanied by members of the armed forces, and paid visit to the survey site. It has been a recurring situation over the last 10-12 years.
"Approval was only given for inspection and cleaning purposes. Even the news about cleaning the forest area is false - Namal Rajapaksa"
WNPS is aware of interested parties that have an ambition to lay claim to the ancient Akasa Chaitya site, as a place of pilgrimage, and to build a road to it from Situlpahuwa. Should such a road be built, apart from it being in breach of the Laws of Sri Lanka, the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), it would lead to the catastrophic division of one of the Premier National Parks of Sri Lanka, famous throughout the World for its sightings of leopards. In addition, the large-scale habitat degradation from such a road would cause, the inevitable displacement of wildlife, and the introduction to it of swarms of unsupervised visitors, would hardly lend to foreign visitors wishing to travel to it. The corresponding economic loss to the area would seriously impact the local and National economies, both already reeling as a result of the pandemic,” the letter read.
As such, the WNPS fervently hopes that this is nothing more than an archaeological survey of an ancient site, and not a feint for more sinister purpose; the construction of an illegal road that would not only result in Court proceedings, but also the condemnation of wildlife lovers of Sri Lanka, and of the world. Can Sri Lanka really afford the true ‘cost’ of such a road?
"So far 78 acres of land have been gazetted to the Sithulpawwa Temple. But with this attempt nearly another 6000 acres of land will be gazetted to the Temple - Nayanaka Ranwella"
Encroachment attempt since 2009
“So far what has been revealed is a request to renovate the chaitya,” said environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella. “But this has to be decided by the Director General of the Archaeology Department. The officials have come from the Hambantota Archaeology Office and it is not clear what they mean by renovate. Therefore granting approval in this nature is wrong. Speculation is also rife whether the Sithulpawwa Temple Priest is eyeing to construct a road from the temple to Akasa Chaitya. Aligala consists of two huge rocks and how can someone construct a chaitya on top of such a huge rock?”
“There have been attempts to encroach this area since 2009. Already one of the dagabas has been looted. So far 78 acres of land have been gazetted to the Sithulpawwa Temple. But with this attempt nearly another 6000 acres of land will be gazetted to the Temple. Many leopards, elephants and bear frequent this area. There’s a pond at the top of the rock and I have even seen a crocodile there. This area is frequented by prominent elephants and it is an area that shouldn’t be disturbed by a human presence. A construction of a chaitya in the middle of a national park will also pave the way to construct a road and this will disrupt biodiversity within the national park,” he added.
Any construction inside a National Park is illegal
“There can’t be any constructions within a national park and the DG DWC is the competent authority empowered to grant permission only for temporary structures,” opined Centre for Environmental Justice Chairman and attorney-at-law Ravindranath Dabare. “If they are constructing something inside a national park that area has to be de-gazetted first. Constructing a chaitya, sanghawasa etc doesn’t protect flora and fauna and it is illegal. Clearing land inside a national park is also illegal.”
Speaking further, Dabare said that Section 5 (2) of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO) lists out the purposes for which a permit can be granted in a National Park and it is only to study flora and fauna in a national park. “Section 6 lists out activities prohibited inside a national park. Section 5 (2) has to be read with provisions of Section 6.”
Approval given only for survey
However when contacted, Director General of the Wildlife Conservation Department M.G.C. Sooriyabandara said that approval was granted only for the Archaeology Department officials to conduct a survey. “They need approval to identify archaeology sites, remains and other artefacts. There have been no request made to renovate the Akasa Chaitya and we haven’t given approval for any such requests either.”
Several attempts to contact Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya and Director General of Department of Archaeology Prof. Anura Manathunga proved futile.
No approval to construct a chaitya
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa said that no approval has been given to construct a chaitya or temple. “Approval was only given for inspection and cleaning purposes. Even the news about cleaning the forest area is false.”
Yala: An archaeological treasure
The history of Akasa Chaitya dates back to the times of King Dutugemunu and Kavan Tissa. It is said that several ancient temples would have been built during this period. Ancient paddy lands, stone pillars with ancient Brahmi inscriptions, drip-ledge caves inhabited by arhats relate a glorious tale of a bygone era. The British used Yala and other forested areas for game hunting. Yala was declared a National Reserve in March 1900 and game hunting came to a halt. Over the years, Yala has evolved in to a biodiversity hotspot frequented by locals and foreigners for spotting leopards, bear and the elephant.