Sanctuary turned butchery?

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When news got out that a safari park was to be built and opened at Ridiyagama, Hambantota and the excess animals at the National Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela were to be sent there, animal welfare activists and environmentalists couldn’t have been happier. The leading zoo of the country was becoming heavily overcrowded and while the ideal outcome would have been letting the poor caged animals go free, letting them enjoy at least some sort of freedom in a controlled environment such as in a safari park was also considered a ‘win’ by the activists.  

The foundation stone for Sri Lanka’s first safari park was laid on 20 December 2008 and construction work commenced in August 2009 under the supervision of the National Zoological Gardens, Dehiwala.

After years of planning and millions of rupees spent Sri Lanka’s first and only safari park was opened on 28 March 2016 in Ridiyagama in the presence of then Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and Acting Director General National Zoological Gardens Dammika Malsinghe.

The total extent of the Safari Park is 500 acres and cost Rs 1.6 billion to build. This concept of animals roaming free in large enclosures and visitors going in vehicles to see the animals is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka.

The concept of the safari park is no different to that of a national park with the only difference that the animals are in an enclosed large area. The main objectives of the project is to provide suitable housing facilities for certain excess animals of the Dehiwala Zoo, to conduct breeding programmes on threatened animal species, to provide new research opportunities on captive breeding and reintroduction and to conduct educational programmes on animal conservation.

The Ridiyagama Safari Park that gained popularity over the years has today become a hell hole for some of the animals after it was revealed that traps are laid and animals are killed to meet the demand of bush meat in the area.  

Convener of Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle Supun Lahiru Prakash in a letter dated 14 July 2022 to the Director General National Zoological Gardens Dehiwela says, “Our organisation has received information that the animals kept for the observation of the visitors at the Ridiyagama Safari Park, Hambantota and the wild animals coming from the adjoining forest area, are being slaughtered for bush meat by an organised smuggling racket of zoo workers in various ways.

“It is learned that the animals that are being slaughtered in this way are being sent for the consumption of various hotels and powerful people in the area and some of the zoo employees from the Ridiyagama Safari Park are earning money through this operation. But the unfortunate fact is that till now the authorities of the Department of National Zoological Gardens and Ridiagama Safari Park has failed to take any action in this regard,” Prakash says.

He further reveals that anyone who visits the Safari park is likely to see Sambar deer at the World Herbivore Zone with a noose round its antler these days. “For some reason, the noose got stuck with the antler of the animal, and the said animal was not harmed. If by some chance the noose got stuck on the neck of the animal, it is very likely that this animal would also have become a victim of the meat smuggling carried out by the zoo workers at the Ridiyagama Safari Park. This is proof that such an operation is taking place here.” Little does the animal or the visitors know but the rope around its antlers stand evidence to the bush meat trade going on within the safari park on the sly. 

He further says, it is his organisation’s understanding that there must be a direct or indirect relationship with the zoo staff at the Ridiyagama Safari Park as there is very limited scope for outsiders to come and lay nooses in an enclosed area such as a zoo or a safari park.

Prakash goes on to say that if by any chance the noose around the antlers of the Sambar is a result of an outsider, the park officials should have taken action to make sure incidents of that calibre hadn’t occurred. “On the other hand, the park authorities should not allow it, if it is done by outsiders. If the animals go outside of the park are being subjected to such incidents, it is also unacceptable and a serious problem.

Our organisation strongly requests that you give your priority attention to this matter and conduct an immediate investigation and take necessary measures to prevent these acts of inhumane and illegal animal cruelty and take necessary action and severely punish the culprits responsible for this illegal operation, regardless of their status. We would also like to remind you that our organisation is paying close attention to the measures you take in this regard,” Prakash explains. Director General National Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela Dr. Thilak Premakantha, when inquired about a possible illegal bush meat trade in Ridiyagala Safari Park, told Ceylon Today that he has called for an investigation into the killing of animals and has requested the organisation that informed him about this issue to come and meet him.    

By Risidra Mendis