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The birth of a National Park: Redeeming Uda Walawe

(by LYN DE ALWIS/ Sunday Observer)



Green bee-eater bathed in the golden sunlight.

It is one thing to make a paper declaration of a National Park. It is quite another to ensure its integrity and its purpose. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the recent history of Uda Walawe.

Mr. Noel de Costa, writing as Editor of Loris in Vol. XV No. 4, describes the situation graphically.

"The creation of the (Uda Walawe) Park was first mooted as far back as 1968 and was eventually declared a Park by Gazette in 1971... But as a National Park it was stillborn... It was a National Park only in name... There were inside an estimated 15,000 squatters who had devastated it beyond recall. Besides there were two purana villages inside it.

During the six years that followed, the Park did not receive any attention at all and was nobody's baby. It became a poacher's paradise. There was practically not a tree left. Unrestricted logging and chena had seen to that. There was no control whatever of human activity."

My first inspection of the Park in early 1978 in the company of a senior Ranger Ainsley Fernando and some wildlife guards, was a nightmare. There were people everywhere and the place looked like a new colonisation scheme. Fires burned in the distance. The grasslands were populated with vast herds of domestic cattle. Of a wild animal there was not a trace.

We managed to reach the village of Seenukkgala (where today a park bungalow has been erected) well inside the park. Ainsley summoned Mahatun, self-appointed leader.

He greeted us. He was happy too, for certain ministers had apparently promised them permanent cultivation and homes and deeds to go along with them! We ignored him and resumed our perilous journey through the mud and slush of logging tracks, to Veheramankade, our campsite on the left bank of the Walawe Ganga.

Around our camp fire that night we had only one thing on our minds - can we "redeem" this park, which was meant to protect the catchment area of the Uda Walawe reservoir whose irrigation waters were the life-blood of the farmers of the deep south. It was the responsibility of the Department to ensure that erosion did not cause excessive siltage and reduce the reservoir's capacity. We also had to protect hundreds of elephants in the Walawe basin where elephant kraals of yesteryear had focused attention on these vast herds. As if to confirm the latter, we heard trumpeting in the middle distance and volleys of gunshots.

We awoke next morning to the liquid notes of excited racquet-tailed drongoes. Our intrusion into their domain was the cause, for we soon discovered we had pitched camp almost directly underneath their nest. A pair of red-faced malkoha were similarly distressed for their nest was only yards away from the watcher's hut. It was, we thought, a wonderful start to the day, but as we stepped out into the open, the presence of over a hundred dusky, well-built men, carrying mammoties and axes changed all that. They were neither rude nor aggressive, only defiant. One of them asked as a simple question "have you come to drive us away?"

 


A panoramic view of the park with the Uva hills in the background.

Back in Colombo I went straight to then Deputy Minister of State, the late Mr. Chandra Karunaratne, crusader for wildlife and a catalyst in such matters. He appreciated the urgent need for action. Within two days I was seated in the Prime Minister's office in the old Parliament, facing not only the Prime Minister, but also the Minister for Lands and Mahaweli Development and the Members of Parliament for Kolonne, Wellawaya, Hakmana and Mulkirigala.

They were all courteous and sympathetic. But the four MPs demanded in one voice "what do you expect us to do with 12,000 angry people" I hadn't gone there unprepared.

I said softly, "can we ask for land from Sevanagala, just across the road and settle them there."

By the end of 1978 the Department had been decentralised and Uda Walawe was placed under Childers Jayewardene, Assistant Director of the Southern Range, headquartered in Yala. On one of my visits, I was taken to witness a rare sight for the recuperating Park. A herd of 16 spotted deer and at the end of the plain a lone elephant.

One member of our staff suggested that this animal was the reincarnation of one of the feudal lords who looked after the walawe elephants. They had already named it "Dissawa".

Recruitment of fauna was taking place. One evening a herd of 20 elephants crossed the Walawe ganga at our campsite at Pansadara, missing our kitchen by only a few feet.

What a tremendous sight! Sambhur were belling at regular intervals and the next evening we spotted our first leopard on the Tholigala rock. We had ample cause for celebration.

The state was now set to open Uda Walawe to the people of Sri Lanka. We selected dates, we solicited the help of the Irrigation Department to make our roads motorable.

We invited the GAs and AGAs for previews. The Magistrate, the Police, the RVDB staff... and finally Mahatun who had realized that discretion was the better part of valour - "crossed over" and said that he and his people would leave the park if we gave them land in Hambegamuwa.

And so we created history.

What we did then is not impossible even today with honesty of purpose, team spirit, fearlessness and yes, a little bit of political diplomacy.

Noel writing on the inauguration:To everybody's delight we saw 23 elephants, including several calves, drinking peacefully, with the Koslanda hills in the background... we watched them for about half an hour and wended our way back, when we saw another herd of about 50 elephants out in the open. I could hardly believe my eyes. I wondered whether the director had surreptitiously translocated 70 elephants from Lahugala for the delectation of the Deputy Minister and his party.

Yes, incredible it was. We had seen 70 elephants in an area which not long ago was alive with the screech of saw mills and the roar of bull dozers and lorries, not to mention the presence of 15,000 interlopers."

"A new miracle had been achieved."


@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka