The Road Through Wilpattu: The Other Side Of The Coin
Text and Photo by Kiyaz Deen
Much has been written during recent times over a supposedly controversial road or roads within the Wilpattu National Park but the circumstances for such roads to come into being have not been talked about.
The original road through Wilpattu has been a cart track since time immemorial and was later classified as a jeep track and termed the Old Mannar Road and was given the road prefix of B379 during the days gone by. This road was used especially by double bullock carts that brought in many a product from Mannar to Puttlam for barter and vice versa even during the earlier ’80s and for driving herds of cattle from Mannar District to the Eluwankulam/Puttlam cattle market.
The road B379 was mostly a sand track and was passable only during the dry seasons when the Kala Oya, Modaragam and Aruvi Ara were not in spate. Having traversed this road and park area several times over entering via entry points from the south to the east prior to the terrorist problem, during the height of the problem, during the peace talks and after the problem and I am in a position to comment on the chain of events that have led to this road coming into being, the concern of all lovers of the wild and the factual reality.
During the period 1986/87 the Sri Lanka Army Engineering Corp set up camp at Eluwankulam which is the southern entry point to the Wilpattu sanctuary and commenced construction of a road across the park. Prior to the army setting up this camp many famous names in the timber trade had a free for all in felling and transporting of rare and valuable timber from within the park. I have, during that period, witnessed several tractors loaded with timber being transported from deep within the park via the southern exit point at Eluwankulam.
The army to a great extent stalled this pillage and also put an end to the flourishing trade in the flesh of almost all species of animals that lived within the park. The original plan by the army engineers was to link the southern end of the park to the northern end at Modaragam Ara with a new road which was much of a straight line than the existing B379 which was narrow, very winding and sandy. With the escalation of the war during the early ’90s and several ambushes by the LTTE, the army abandoned this road and most bridges and culverts that existed were subsequently blasted by the LTTE and made unusable.
The Sri Lanka Navy replaced the army in the latter part of 2008 and commenced work to re-establish this, from their point of view, vital communication link between the Puttalam and the Mannar coast. The presence of the Sri Lanka Army in this region during the entire period of the war prevented the LTTE from freely extracting timber and animal resources from within the park as was done in many sanctuaries and forest areas in the North and East during that time.
Towards the latter part of 2008 and the end of the war the Navy established several minor detachments within the park area and two major camps at Mullikulam and Silavathurai which are outside the park area. A surveillance radar point was established at Kudiramalai point during this period, which was a great asset to the Navy in tracking the movement of Sea Tigers in this area.
The road through the park was and is today the lifeline to these vital installations which are no doubt of national importance from the naval point of view. There are the many positive aspects of the navy presence in this area within the park which has not been referred to in the many articles that were published. These are the almost total absence of the illicit timber trade, illicit slaughter of wild animals within and even outside the park area, the protection of many archeological sites from the abundant powerful treasure hunters in this country, the prevention of smuggling, especially by powerful drug lords along the coast, the prevention of illicit immigration from India and even the prevention of the plunder of many species of indigenous plant life within the park. Another significant but not even mentioned fact is the protection by the Navy of the unique Bar reef, the reef at Silavathurai and the Arrippu reef from ornamental fish collectors, coral harvesters and the use of dynamite by fishermen which is a technique widely used in many other parts of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lanka Navy has been and is also in the process of removing many mines specially the Johnny type planted by the LTTE within the park. There are still many areas within the park which are deemed to be too dangerous for public access.
The Navy has taken great pains to signboard every point of importance and posted sentries at every exit point from this road into the park areas from 7.00 A.M. and 3.00 P.M. This is in contrast to the poor or no signboards being maintained by the Department of Wild Life in the rest of Wilpattu and the other wild life parks in Sri Lanka. Whilst this road has served a vital purpose during the latter part of the war the Navy should be commended for the many positive steps taken in the best interest of the park at large during this period and at present.
There is no doubt that any wildlife lover, including myself, would wish and hope that this road and the new proposed road along the coast up to Pookulam be abandoned and the Navy totally withdrawn. This also would then open the door for all the illicit operations within the park as in the past within its vast and isolated areas which would be of greater harm to the park on the contrary. Taking into consideration what has been stated by me above, it could be very prudent for the Sri Lankan Government, the Sri Lanka Navy, Department of Wild Life and all other genuine associations and lovers of wild life to get together and find the best solution to the existing situation, taking into consideration the long term interests of the park. The presence of the navy in that region is critically important for national interests and could also serve in the better interests of the park, especially due to the fact that the Department of Wild Life with their poor resources and past record could in no way police the park to the extent the navy is capable of.
The wish of all wildlife lovers should be the abandoning of the road project with the presence of a token force of the navy for policing the area. However, if the government insists on going ahead with the road project, the best option I see would be the coast road with a fence between the road and the park and travel be allowed only for light vehicles with strict speed limits and entry between the hours of 10.00 AM and exit by 3.00 PM from either end during which time the movement of wild animals is minimal in the proposed coastal road area.
The existing road could be used as a feeder road by the navy and an alternate track by the Department of Wild Life. The establishment of the coastal road will shorten the distance from Colombo to Mannar by almost 100 kms but the price to be paid should be weighed in the long term interest of this unique wildlife park itself by everyone concerned.
The concerns of the Muslims of Mannar and the villages on this route should also be given its due consideration as the article published in The Sunday Leader recently by Cassandra Mascarenhas has emphasized. These people have borne the brunt of war during the last 30 year period and now need a break and solution to their livelihood and future. If the road, by any chance, is to be closed, they should be given the age old right of way from Mannar to Puttalam for their tractors and light vehicles at the least. If the road is totally closed, as suggested, the Muslims and all other communities of Mannar could have their rights restored legally with not much of an issue since as mentioned by me earlier, there exists a Gazetted public road prefixed as the B 379.