- What are we doing to protect our world’s protectors?
Wildlife conservation-related occupations are considered one of the most dangerous occupations in the world since conservationists have to deal with terrifying wildlife in difficult jungle areas, as well as encountering criminals who come to capture wildlife resources. The situation is similar in Sri Lanka, a country rich in biodiversity.
The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has a major role to play in protecting the island’s wildlife and natural resources. Eighty-one Sri Lankan wildlife conservationists have lost their lives so far in a vital role in conserving Sri Lanka’s natural heritage, according to a recent scientific research paper.
This research has analysed the data obtained from the documents and reports of the DWC; the date, place, and cause of death after further confirmation of the accuracy through discussions with field wildlife officials. The results of the analysis were published in the latest issue of the journal PARKS, a world-renowned scientific journal published twice a year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICN) on 30 November. The study was initiated by young conservationist and wildlife researcher Supun Lahiru Prarakash under the guidance of DWC Senior Officer (Retd.) (37 years of service) Gamini Vijith Samarakoon, leading taxonomic and ecology researcher in Sri Lanka Sameera Suranjan Karunaratne, Humboldt State University, USA Lecturer Dr. Buddhika Madurapperuma, and State University, Burwater Assistant Professor Thilina Surasinghe.
According to researchers, since the inception of the DWC in October 1949, 80 wildlife officers have sacrificed their lives for the conservation of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage during their duties. Another wildlife officer has been added to the missing list. Accordingly, an average of one wildlife officer a year has given his life for the conservation of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage. Of these, 59 incidents occurred in wildlife reserves and the rest occurred outside wildlife reserves. Fifty-eight of the deaths in the wildlife reserves were in national parks, including in Wilpattu, Ruhuna (Yala), Kumana, Udawalawe, Maduru Oya, Wasgamuwa, Gal Oya, and Angammedilla National Parks.
Speaking to conservationist and freelance journalist in Sri Lanka Supun Lahiru Prakash, who also helped write the report on PARKS, he shared that the dead wildlife officers belong to 10 ranks and the highest number of deaths is reported among the wildlife rangers, adding that 11 site assistants and 10 site guards were also killed. The highest ranking official of the DWC was also killed while on duty.
Prakash added: “In the midst of that, there was a terrorist shooting during an attempt to establish the administration of each national park.
“In January 1990, three other wildlife officers were killed in a tragic incident in the Kudumbigala area. Also, two bungalow keepers, an assistant bungalow keeper, six drivers, three wildlife field assistants, two volunteer guides, and eleven workers have been killed so far.”
Wildlife officials in Sri Lanka are facing the second biggest threat to their lives due to wild elephant attacks. To date, Prakash told us that 20 officers have succumbed to untimely elephant attacks. “Most of these occur in areas outside wildlife reserves. The human-elephant conflict has become a crucial environmental and social issue in the country. As a result, Sri Lanka has become the world’s largest elephant and the second largest country in the world,” according to researchers including Supun Lahiru Prakash, who conducted the study in 2020.
The DWC is primarily responsible for minimising human-elephant conflicts in the country. However, the authorities have so far failed to address the issue and as a result, the DWC has lost a large number of its own staff. Chasing elephants, replacing elephants, and treating injured elephants are among the most common duties of wildlife officials, where they are frequently attacked by wild elephants. In addition to wild elephants, wildlife officials have also been killed in attacks by bears, wild boars, and crocodiles. A Sri Lankan wildlife officer was killed for the first time on duty in July 1957 when he was attacked by a bear in the Wilpattu National Park, Prakash stated.
The highest number of wildlife conservation professionals around the world have been killed in clashes with wildlife poachers, but in Sri Lanka that situation isn’t as grave. “Fifteen wildlife officers have been killed in an attempt to free our country from the clutches of natural resources smugglers – among them were 10 fatalities, three stab wounds, and two stab wounds; 13 of the killings were carried out by poachers, and sand smugglers have been blamed for one death. The culprits in one murder have not been reported,” he stated.
He concluded that while terrorism no longer threatens Sri Lankan field officers, Asian elephant attacks and wildlife criminals are emerging as major causes of death. The existing approved cadre of the DWC is limited to 1,200 while only ~750 officers are currently employed in field duties. “The maximum efficiency of the field staff can only be achieved by creating a secure working environment, increasing the total cadre, and filling the existing vacancies to enhance their collective capacity,” he stated, thus recommending a comprehensive, islandwide assessment to quantify additional labour inputs as the present cadre is evidently insufficient to manage intricate issues of wildlife conservation and management. “Science-based formal education should also be imparted to officer training. For example, resolving HEC might require officers trained in megafauna conservation, wildlife behaviour, and human dimensions,” he stated.
Given the risk exposure, presently available remunerations for field officers should be revised to include better medical insurance and financial support in case of long-term injury on duty, it was noted.