By Risidra Mendis
They heard the sounds of gunshots and vehicle engines deep within the jungles in the night. Soon after they heard the distraught sounds of elephants. These researchers were in the Maduru Oya National Park when they saw Army personnel training and disturbing the wildlife many years ago.
A recent incident where Army officers were using the Horton Plains National Park for their physical training was reported by environmentalists who raised their concerns over the disturbance of wildlife within the park and questioned wildlife officers on why they gave permission for such training.
Horton Plains was designated as a wildlife sanctuary on 5 December 1969, and because of its biodiversity value, was elevated to a National Park on 18 March 1988. In July 2010, the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka which incorporates Horton Plains National Park, the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary and Knuckles Mountain Range was inscribed on the World Heritage List.
It is rich in biodiversity and many species found here are endemic to the region. Slow moving streams, swamps, and waterfalls are the important wetland habitats of the park. The Horton Plains are the headwaters of three major Sri Lankan rivers; the Mahaweli, Kelani, and Walawe. Stone tools dating back to Balangoda culture have also been found here. The plains’ vegetation is grasslands interspersed with montane forest and includes many endemic woody plants.
At present, the largest and the most commonly seen mammal is the sambar deer. Large herds of Sri Lankan sambar deer feature as typical mammals. Other mammal species found in the park include the Kelaart’s long-clawed shrews, toque macaques, purple-faced langurs, rusty-spotted cat, Sri Lankan leopards, wild boars, stripe-necked mongooses, Sri Lankan spotted chevrotains and grizzled giant squirrels.
Red slender loris
Fishing cats and European otters visit the wetlands of the park to prey on aquatic animals. A subspecies of the red slender loris, the Horton Plains slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides) formerly sometimes considered as Loris (lydekkerianus nycticeboides) is found only in the highlands of Sri Lanka and is considered one of the world’s most endangered primates.
In 2016, rusty-spotted cats (Prionailurus rubiginosus) were recorded in Horton Plains National Park for the first time. Horton Plains forms one of the Important Bird Areas in Sri Lanka with many species not only endemic to Sri Lanka but restricted to the Horton Plains. Together with the adjacent Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, Horton Plains contains 21 bird species which occur only in Sri Lanka. The dull-blue flycatcher, Sri Lanka white-eye, and Sri Lanka wood pigeon, occur only in the Horton Plains.
Many birds migrate here in winter including swiftlets and alpine swifts. This is a key wildlife area and all six highland endemic birds are found here, including the dull-blue flycatcher, Sri Lanka white-eye, Sri Lanka wood pigeon, and Sri Lanka bush warbler. Yellow-eared bulbul and black-throated munia are widespread throughout the highlands.
Owing to the relatively small size of the Horton Plains National Park, it was predicted that most male leopards have activity centres that were outside the park.
Convener, Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle, Supun Lahiru Prakash, told Ceylon Today the Army was given permission by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to do physical training inside the Horton Plains National Park.
Physical training inside national park
“Those training were seen running within the vicinity of the national park. When such training takes place the animals get disturbed. Many years ago there were incidents where soldiers shot wild animals when they came face to face with them. When the Army trains inside a national park they violate the rules of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO). But the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) continues to give the Army permission to train inside these national parks,” Prakash explained.
He went on to say that Army training goes on at the Uda Walawe National Park, and the Lunugamwehera National Park. “An incident was reported some time ago where some Army officers were caught poaching inside the Lunugamwehera National Park. Now there is a request to put up a Tourist Police Post at Horton Plains. What is the purpose of having a Tourist Police Post at Horton Plains?” Prakash questioned.
He said the Sri Lanka Army should find an alternate location instead of using the Horton Plains National Park for their training. “When the Army trains they run with their guns inside the national parks and suddenly come out from the jungles. In some cases they come face to face with Safari vehicles. When such an incident takes place tourists or visitors get scared. While the Army officers run when training a vehicle follows them from behind. Sometimes the vehicle runs over smaller animals in the national park. Animals and visitors get disturbed and this is in violation of the FFPO,” Prakash explained.
When Ceylon Today contacted Director General DWC Chandana Sooriyabandara regarding the Army training he said Horton Plains is the only high altitude training area in the country.“The Sports Ministry requested permission for the national athletic pool athletes to train in this area. The national athletic pool consists of people from all the forces and other people. This type of training is not regular and does not happen very often. We have instructed them to conduct their training without violating the FFPO and have signed an agreement with them,” Sooriyabandara explained.
Army platoons to protect wildlife
He said in the past a STF soldier had shot a wild elephant while undergoing training at a national park, but there were no recent incidents of FFPO violations. “In Maduru Oya and Uda Walawe on the request of the Ministry of Wildlife platoons were put there to protect wildlife. So Army officers are there during the night,” Sooriyabandara said.
During former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s time a proposal was brought forward to stop the Army from training in national parks. But nothing happened and the training continues,” Wildlife officials explained.
Forest dieback is one of the major threats to the park and some studies suggest that it is caused by a natural phenomenon. Tourism-related issues such as plant removal, littering, fires and noise pollution are major conservation issues. Gem mining, timber logging, the collection of plants for ornamental and medicinal purposes, encroachment, poaching and vehicle traffic are the other threats.
The spread of invasive alien species such as gorse (Ulexeuropaeus), Mist Flower (Ageratinariparia), Crofton Weed (Ageratinaadenophora), (Austroeupatorium), Blue Stars (Aristeaecklonii), brackens, and Pennisetum spp. threaten the native flora. The introduced rainbow trout may have affected the endemic species of fish, amphibians and crustaceans.
The Maduru Oya National Park is home to the elephant, sloth bear, leopard, water buffalo, toque monkey, common langur, jackal, fishing cat, wild boar, spotted deer, sambar, porcupine, black-naped hare, Indian pangolin, squirrels, rats, mice and the grey slender loris among others.
Reports of the Sri Lanka Army blatantly violating the park rules and scaring the wild animals was brought to the notice of Ceylon Today after a group of visitors to the national park were eye witnesses to the Army training programme taking place that day.
“On 7 September 2016 a group of Army personnel had entered the Maduru Oya National Park and stayed overnight to undergo training the following day. The Army officers were walking inside the national park that night and were starting up their vehicles and flashing the vehicle head lights. The elephants inside the park were clearly disturbed but the Army officers ignored the animals and continued to violate the park rules. On 8 September 2016 between 6.30 a.m. and 8.30 a.m. the Army officers were seen walking on the roads inside the Maduru Oya National Park and firing their guns,” the researchers explained.
They said the Maduru Oya National Park is surrounded by villages and if these elephants get scared they could break the fences surrounding the national parks and go into the villages. “This could result in a human-elephant conflict. The loud sounds of firing live and blank bullets can burst the ear drums of these elephants. Even though we had come to the Maduru Oya National Park to see animals we were unable to see any animals because they were disturbed due to the Army training programme,” the visitors explained.
They said they heard the disturbed sounds of elephants close by. If visitors cannot see animals they will stop coming to this national park and the park will lose its revenue.
“According to Section 3, 6 and 6A of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) the wildlife in a national park cannot be disturbed or destroyed. The Army has to be mindful when entering areas that belong to wildlife. Military training can be done in these areas because such places are appropriate for this type of training. The military should be allowed to train in these areas. However officers in charge should be there to make sure that the rules of the national park are not violated. If such things happen it is the military that will get a bad name,” Environment Lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana said.
Army training school
According to Reliable Sources, on 1 August 2016 the DWC gave the Army training school a permit to conduct training programmes inside the Maduru Oya National Park. The DWC had clearly stated in their letter to the Sri Lanka Army that while training inside the Maduru Oya National Park the rules and regulations of the national park couldn’t be violated.
The letter stated that during the training programmes the Sri Lanka Army couldn’t use live bullets, blank bullets and crackers inside the national park, couldn’t take their vehicles into the national park from 6.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. and couldn’t drive at more than 20 kmph inside the park.
The letter further stated that the animals and their habitat couldn’t be disturbed during the training programmes and that Army training couldn’t take place close to the DWC staff quarters and office. The conditions in the letter also said that foreign and local visitors should not be disturbed by the Army training and that the training officers should not walk on the national park roads or engage in illegal activities such as poaching, ganja and the illegal felling of trees inside the national park. The DWC had not given the Sri Lanka Army permission to stay overnight inside the national park.
Director General W.S.K. Pathiratne at the time confirmed to Ceylon Today that Army training was taking place inside the Maduru Oya National Park and that this was the first time that Army officers had violated the terms and conditions given by the DWC in the form of a letter.
“I checked with the relevant officers and it was confirmed that the Army officers had violated some of the park rules while in the process of training inside the national park. This shouldn’t be happening inside a national park,” Pathiratne said.
The Military Media Spokesperson at the time said the Army is in discussion with the DWC to get an alternate location to conduct their training programmes instead of inside the national park.
(Pix by Rajitha Jagoda)