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Jeep Drivers A Law Unto Themselves With Political Patronage

Yala National Park Warden is helpless

by Nirmala Kannangara

Crowding a bear in Yala

Department of Wildlife Conservation’s failure to take action against errant safari jeep drives at the Yala National Park for blatantly breaking speed limits and taking food for the wild animals to attract them to their vicinity to please the clients had endangered the wildlife.

Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is accused of for the present deteriorating situation in the park which has allowed the jeep drivers to take the law unto their hands, a senior DWC officer said.

According to him, although the vehicles that enter the park is not allowed to speed more than 30 Km.p.h, this rule is ignored by majority of the drivers and also not taking any action against them for taking food to feed the animals.

“This cause danger to the wildlife and if stern action is not taken against those who violate the park rules there will not be any animals in the park in the years to come,” sources claimed.

Meanwhile, former Director General DWC, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya said that had the programme he initiated when he held the office of the Director General DWC, the issues facing especially at Yala Park would not have cropped up. “I empowered the then park warden to take stern action against those who break the rules the Department had imposed and that I will stand by him even political pressure mounted on me. With the assurance given to him, the park warden Suranga Ratnayake took strict action and suspended 70 vehicles for violating the rules,” Dr. Pilapitiya said.

Dr. Pilapitiya said that although he received pressure from the politicians not to take action against their supporters who are jeep owners and drivers, he had flatly ignored the calls and had allowed the park warden to carry out the instructions. “Those who violated the rules for the first time were suspended from entering the park for one week. If found guilty for the second time they were suspended for two weeks and for the third time they were suspended for one month and for the fourth and fifth time if they got caught for violating the rules they were barred from entering the park for three months and one year respectively,” Dr. Pilapitiya added.

According to Dr. Pilapitiya, as long as politicians interfere with the DWC work, rules cannot be imposed at Yala. “As the Director General I have set examples to my staff and although my official vehicle went into the park without obtaining a ticket, there were many instances I had visited the park in my private vehicle not for official purposes but to see the wild animals. Never did I enter the park without obtaining a ticket. If the boss sets the rules his staff will have to follow them and cannot violate the guidelines. During my tenure I never allowed the parties that booked the bungalows to exceed more than ten guests. I maintained the law equally to the rich and the poor alike,” Dr. Pilapitiya claimed.

 

Political patronage

According to the DWC sources who wished to remain anonymous, during the former regime most of the jeep drivers were supporters of a powerful politician in the area and they behaved as if the Yala Park was their own property. Rules were violated openly and in order to please their clients they took the food to the park, drove on high speed and even used mobile phones to contact each other to spread the word if sighted wildlife. Although we thought that this could be easily stopped after the new government came into power it got worsened. Certain politicians in the area come to park to see the animals and I have seen as to how they blocked their vehicles preventing other vehicles from coming to the location to capture pictures of leopards. Had they allowed other vehicles to come, they knew that the leopard will run into the wild and his convoy of vehicle blocked the area. Even if the warden of the gate staff ask the jeep drivers not to take food inside or not to speed inside the park they will scold at them claiming that they are working for politicians in the area,” sources alleged.

The sources further stated as to how there were many deaths by hit and run drivers. “Even we have noticed how the jeep drivers throw waste and empty bottle to entice the animals and enter large number of vehicles at a time. The Wildlife Department does not want to enforce restriction in number of vehicles entering the park at once. During long weekends even 400 to 500 vehicles enter the park at once. These speeding vehicles disturb the wildlife as they keep away from the open areas in fear of the noise of the speeding vehicles,” sources added.

The sources further queried as to why the DWC cannot block the telephone signals within the park once again, to stop the usage of mobile phones in the park. “Earlier hums were introduced to limit the speed as well. Now most of these hums do not exist and there is no plan to re-introduce them as well,” he added.

 

Boycott errant drivers 

Meanwhile Past President Hotels Association Srilal Miththapala told this newspaper as to why the tour operators and the hoteliers in the vicinity without waiting for the government to impose restrictions refuse the errant jeep drivers who breaks the park rules regularly from taking their clients in their jeeps. “The regular visitors know who breaks the park laws and speed inside the park, feed the animals putting the clients’ and the animals’ lives in danger and destroy the environment by discarding their garbage in thepark. If the tour operators do not allow their clients to travel with such drivers and if they are totally boycotted even for a certain period they can be rehabilitated,” Miththapala added.

He further stated as to how the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrema Perera took action against the Yala warden for taking action against the errant jeep drivers which led the then DG Dr. Pilapitiya to tender his resignation as a protest.

“This park warden imposed the restrictions on the directives of Dr. Pilapitiya which were highly commended. As this regulation hampered the drivers who were supporters of the area politicians, Minister Jayawickrema Perera reprimanded the warden and after Dr. Pilapitiya left he was transferred from Yala. We have such politicians who do not want to render a service to the country but only to look after the interests of their supporters and their colleagues,” Miththapala alleged.

According to Miththapala, since the Yala warden was reprimanded and transferred for implementing the park rules, the DWC employees have become demoralised and they do not want to impose any restrictions against the jeep drivers. “These employees are now scared to take action against these errant drivers in fear of losing their jobs. The registration number plates of these errant drivers are all in photographs and why cannot the Director General DWC take action against them even at this stage to safeguard the wildlife,” Miththapala queried.

Miththapala further said as to how foreign groups have complained about the situation in Yala and Pinnawala elephant orphanage and added that the number of foreign travelers’ visits to Yala and Pinnawala would decline slowly.

“Why cannot the DWC impose a surcharge for those who want to enter the park during the peak hours? If this method is implemented, people will opt to enter the park either before or after the peak hours and the inside congestion could be reduced systematically,” Miththapala added.

 

DG denies allegations

However refuting allegations, Director General DWC, W.S.K. Pathirathna said that Yala affairs are managed without any hindrance and there is no political pressure mounted on him.

“In regard to what you ask about the usage of mobile phones within the park, the issue cropped up during the war. Since there were army camps within the park, the army got a telephone tower installed in the middle of the park since there were no telephone signals. It is from this telephone tower the mobile phone uses get the signals. We have made a request to the Ministry to get this tower removed and once it is done no one will be able to use mobile phones within the park,” Pathirathna said.

When asked as to why he as the DG cannot take action against the jeep drivers who speed with the park and also give food for the animals endangering their lives. Pathirathna said that measures have been taken to purchase speed meters and deploy DWC employees to nab the drivers that speed their vehicles more than 30 km.p.h “We have already filed legal actions against few errant drivers. If any party claims that we do not take action against these drivers it is to discredit this department. My officers implement the park laws and will not permit visitors to break the laws,” Pathirathna further claimed.

Asked why the Wildlife Department cannot restrict the vehicles that enter the park at a time, the Director General said that permission had to be obtained from the ministry to implement such a regulation. “If we restrict the number of vehicles that enters the park at a time, it would be a revenue loss to the government. Before taking such a decision we have to get permission from the Finance Ministry as well,” the Director General added.

Although it is a open secret as to how Minister Jayawickrema Perera took action against the Yala warden for suspending the errant drivers from entering the park in order to maintain discipline within the park during Dr. Pilapitiya’s tenure, the present DG said that there are no political interference in the DWC work.

Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera is overseas and was not available for a comment.

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