Mounting political pressure to resume Wilpattu road construction

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The eco system of the oldest and largest national Park in Sri Lanka has once again come under threat as plans are afoot to develop a causeway from Puttalam to Mannar across Wilpattu National Park to be developed into a public road on the whims and fancies of a leading politician in the area.

According to sources, a team from the Road Development Authority (RDA) had visited Wilpattu National Park last week, after seeking permission from the Director General of Department Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Accordingly, permission has been granted to a team of officials from the RDA, DWLC and the Wanathavilluwa Divisional Secretary to undertake a field visit ‘only’ to observe the status quo of the prevailing road.

However, the politician in question with his team had also arrived to take part in the field visit. Officials of the DWC and the Divisional Secretariat have expressed their displeasure as permission was only granted for government officials to visit the park and the politician had arrived without prior notice. Upon being subjected to opposition by officials he had left with only RDA officials undertaking the field visit.

The Environment Foundation Limited (EFL) and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) petitioned the Supreme Court in 2010 seeking assurance that no construction within the Wilpattu National Park would be conducted till the final determination of their application.

In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a stay order to maintain status quo with no further development activity of the road including tarring of road be carried out other than normal repairs of the road.

Environmentalists pointed out that any development to the existing road will stand in callous disregard of the SC rule and would amount to contempt of Court.

Meanwhile, due to the pressure exerted by the said politician, another meeting had been called by Puttalam District Secretary at the District Secretariat on Thursday (21), where officials of the RDA, Irrigation Department and DWC were present.  Wildlife officers have pointed out that doing anything against a Supreme Court order will be problematic and above all such road development activity within a National Park will disturb the wildlife and cause a major threat especially to the elephant and leopard population. 

A battle against the road

With escalating war between government forces and the LTTE, the Wilpattu National Park ceased to function as larger part of it came under heavy presence of the LTTE terrorists and had been a battleground of the two parties.

Gravel roads that were used by the military for logistic purposes were later opened for public with the end of war especially, with government’s programme to relocate Internally Displaced Persons.

With these roads leading to massive environmental destructions, the EFL in 2010 together with three other NGOs noted that two roads within the Wilpattu National Park were being open to the public. One of the roads follows the coastline leading up to Kudiramalai Point while the other bisects the park.

This was despite the Survey Department maps of 1984 not showing any main roads or minor roads within the national park. The only road marking found within the park were gravel roads and jeep tracks.

EFL and WNPS that petitioned the Supreme Court pointed out that with the park reverting to its protected status under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), the Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation becomes the administering authority and is required to administer the Park in conformity with the provisions of the FFPO as amended.

Wildlife in danger

Wildlife Researcher Kithsiri Gunawardena who has been carrying out research in Wilpattu for past many years lamented the recent attempts by authorities to develop the road and open it to public as it would in the long run lead to escalating human-elephant and human-leopard conflicts.

Let alone developing an existence road become an issue, but in my opinion and even according to provisions in Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance and other Environment laws a road should never have built across the national park in the first place, he opined.

“Any expansion, development and opening the road to public means heavy vehicular presence and we don’t have to point out how private buses ply on the roads of these areas. This is across the national park where a massive elephant and leopard is presence. Wilpattu and Yala are the only places where endemic sub species of leopards are witnessed in great numbers. Our camera trapped studies have revealed over the years that leopards come out in the middle of the night and the presence of vehicles and public will cause greater disturbance to their presence,” he pointed out.

He also pointed out at a time the country is struggling to earn more foreign currency, such move will only deem short-sighted and imprudent.

“Irrespective whether it is a local tourist or a foreigner who would want to commit their time and money if they do not get the real experience of wildlife? You spend money to come here and get the best wildlife experience and here you are with a developed road with easy access but no animal to witness,” he further pointed out while noting the attempt to open a public road will also mean the opening of various kinds of shops along the road in the guise of providing ‘facilities’ to people or tenants.

Reminders sent

According to sources of the DWC, a request has been made by a controversial politician in the area to the incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe during his tenure as the Prime Minister. Based on this request, the Prime Minister’s Office had called a report on the road from the Wildlife Department. Following this, the DG of DWC has directed the Park Warden of Wilpattu to submit a comprehensive report on the matter.

However, while these communications were taking place officers of the Puttalam RDA had requested permission from the DWC to carry out inspection tour to which permission has been granted on the grounds of carrying out a field visit which included Wanathawilluwa Divisional Secretary and its officers, officers from DWLC including the Park Warden.

Before undertaking the field visit the politician and his team had arrived expressing the need to join visit which was promptly objected by the DWLC officials. The Wanathavilluwa DS also expressed her reservation in continuing the field visit with anyone who is not a public officer and thus, the politician had returned.

However, he apparently not given up on exerting pressure on officials as the RDA officials who take keen interest on the development project through Puttalam District Secretary had called another meeting on Thursday (25).

Even though the majority of public officers who were present had voiced their opinion in favour of the road development project in the name of public interest, the DWLC officers have pointed out the gravity of the matter and the impact it would cause to the National Park. District Secretary, the additional District Secretary and majority of other officials after listening to the DWC officers had agreed that the matter should be solved at Ministry Secretaries’ level as it goes beyond their mandate.

Meanwhile, the petitioners EFL and the WNPS in a joint letter dated 17 August 2022 addressed to the Director General of DWC with copies to all stakeholders including Park Warden, RDA, Irrigation Department and relevant District and Divisional Secretaries recalled that there is a court order issued in 2013 that no one is allowed to carry out any development activity other than maintaining the status quo of the road and if any attempt will be drawn attention to the courts by the petitioners.

This was after understanding that there are attempts to develop the road lying within Wilpattu National Park from Puttalam to Mannar by RDA.

By Gagani Weerakoon