Uproar at the reserve

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In 1991 Bundala became the first wetland to be declared as a Ramsar site in Sri Lanka for it is an internationally important wintering ground for migratory water birds. While Bundala provides vacation home for 197 species of birds, the highlight is the Greater Flamingo, which migrates in the thousands during the migratory season from the Rann of Kutch in India.

Just like it is all the same in any forest reserve in Sri Lanka, Bundala sees a fair share of illegal activities going inside the national park, one of such is illegal fishing by the locals which can have detrimental effects on bird migration. Recently, one such illegal fishing incident was reported in Bundala but sadly, the incident was followed by an assault on wildlife officers involved in apprehending the culprits. The incident has caused concern among environmentalists, who say the Police are yet to arrest those responsible for these illegal activities.

Wildlife Conservation Officers from the Wilmanna Conservation Office were attacked during a special raid at the Bundala National Park on 28 May 2022.

Illegal fishing in national park

Relating to the incident that took place on that day Assistant Director, Southern Wildlife Region, Channa Suraweera, told Ceylon Today that the raid was conducted following a tip-off they had received about an illegal fishing activity inside Bundala National Park.

“The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has allowed villagers to fish in the Malala Lagoon, the Embilikala Lagoon and the Bundala Lagoon. However, according to the information we received these people were fishing in an area that was not permitted by the DWC. The villagers were catching a fish known as Chanos chanos,” Suraweera said.     

He said these fish come from the sea to the lagoon to breed and the villagers were catching three-feet-long fish. “They were catching the breeding pairs. We cannot allow the catching of breeding pairs because that will stop the Chanos chanos from reproducing. In the early hours of the morning of 28 May 2022 we took into custody two persons with the fish they had caught and the nets. There were five people engaged in illegal fishing, but three of them ran away. The villagers and the three persons who escaped came back the same morning, assaulted our officers and forcibly took away the two people we had caught along with the nets and fish,” Suraweera explained.

He added that six wildlife officers were assaulted by the villagers and three were hospitalised. “The Hambantota Police has arrested five persons up to now and produced them before courts. We also got some news that the villagers were planning a protest over this incident but the protest didn’t take place,” Suraweera said.           

Meanwhile, The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) has expressed its displeasure at the snail pace of the Police investigation, despite multiple official conplaints and overwhelming evidence. 

Wildlife officers assaulted

President of WNPS, Jehan Canagaretna explained that on 28 May 2022, DWC officers in Wilmanna DWC Beat Office had investigated the area close to the No 1 tank of the Bundala National Park and observed five fishermen who were illegally fishing inside the park.

“When the DWC Officers tried to arrest these people, three people out of the five had escaped. Two were caught with 150 kg of fish, fishing nets and a tube and were taken to the Bundala Park Office around 7.30 a.m.,” WNPS officials explained.

They said that while obtaining statements from the suspects around 9.30 a.m., hundreds of people from the Pallemala-Boralessa fishing village had arrived, assaulted the DWC officers, and had taken away the arrested suspects and exhibits.

“From the attack Wilmanna Beat Office area DWC Officers P.M. Widhanapathirana, Field Assistant K.M.D. Chamara, Multi-Purpose Development Assistant W.G. Karunapala, Assistant Range Officer Y.G. Naveen Rangana, Wildlife Ranger J.A. Prageeth Sandamal and Field Assistant W.A. Upul were injured and are now recovering,” WNPS officials said.

“On the day of the incident, Wildlife Conservation Officers reported the incident to the Hambantota Police. Three complaints were lodged by the Wildlife Conservation Officers,” Canagaretna explained.

He added that detailed information, photos and CCTV footage of 24 key suspects involved in the incident and the affidavits have been handed over to the Police. “Due to this dormant policy of the Police, wildlife criminals can destroy wildlife and their natural habitat as well, as natural resources are in their grasp and that will discourage the honest Wildlife Conservation Officers on duty from doing their job in the future as well,” Canagaretna said.

Around 100 water bird species

The Bundala National Park needs to be protected as the wetland habitats harbour about 100 species of water birds, half of them being migrant birds. According to research conducted in the area of the 197 avifaunal species 58 are migratory species. The Lesser Whistling Duck, the Garganey, the Little Cormorant, the Indian Cormorant, the Grey Heron, the Black-headed Ibis, the Eurasian Spoonbill, the Asian Open Bill, the Painted Stork, medium-sized Waders and Small Waders are the other avifaunal species which are present in large flocks in this area.

Research data also reveals that the Black-necked Stork, the Lesser Adjutant and the Eurasian Coot are some of the rare birds that inhabit the national park. Dry thorny shrubs and herbs are the most abundant plant life in the area with a total of 383 plant species belonging to 90 families been recorded from the park. The Phytoplankton in all the lagoons is dominated by beautiful blue-green algae including species such as Macrocystis, Nostoc and Oscillatoria.

The national park is also home to 324 species of vertebrates, which include 32 species of fish, 15 species of amphibians, 48 species of reptiles and 32 species of mammals while 52 species of butterflies are among the invertebrates.

A few Asian Elephants still inhabit the forests of Bundala while other mammals seen in the park are the Toque Macaque, the Common Langur, the jackal, leopard, Fishing Cat, Rusty-spotted Cat, mongoose, wild boar, mouse deer, the Indian Muntjac, Spotted Deer, sambar, the Black-naped Hare, the Indian Pangolin and the porcupine.

Bundala also harbours various forms of fishes including salt water dispersants, marine forms, brackish water forms, Chanos chanos and freshwater forms such as Channa striata. The national park’s herpetofauna includes two endemic species, a toad and a snake, Bufo atukoralei and Xenochrophis asperrimus. Among the reptiles are the Mugger Crocodile, the Estuarine Crocodile, the Common Monitor, Star Tortoise, Python, Rat Snake, the Endemic Flying Snake, Cat Snakes and Whip Snakes. The adjacent seashore of Bundala is a breeding ground for all five species of globally endangered sea turtles that migrate to Sri Lanka.

By Risidra Mendis