In conversation with Otara Gunewardene
The human-wildlife conflict in Sri Lanka has been stuck at an uncomfortable crescendo for quite some time now, without any real solution being drawn up. In the name of progress, habitats have been encroached on and the numerous wild animals have been displaced. Yet, wildlife are the ones, when they attempt to survive these foreign invasions, framed as the villains.
Some time back, there was an uproar about a rare black leopard that was injured after being trapped in a snare in Nallathanniya, Hatton and eventually died. More recently, there’s been reports of one leopard that died and another that was injured after getting trapped in a snare in the Heloboda Estate in Pusselawa. These are an unsettling reflection of the nature of the way the conflict has been handled for the past many years.
Even though Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara stated that the injured animal will be retrieved to assess the injuries sustained and for treatment, and that legal action will be taken against those who disregard the laws pertaining to wildlife conservation, we cannot help but wonder if there is a larger issue here to be addressed.
According to Asian Development Bank (ADB), tourism is the third largest contributor to the economy. Sri Lanka’s potential as a tourist destination has increased dramatically in the recent past, reaching 1.8 million in 2015. Earnings from tourism surged from $ 349 million in 2009 to $ 2.981 billion in 2015. While some of the greater contributors to this growth are resultant of the end of a civil war and internal development, a large part of the ultimate purpose of tourists arriving is owed to the island’s geographical resources, wildlife, culture, and natural beauty.
However, regardless of our island and its people relying so heavily on tourism, we have not been able to formulate a system in which nature comes first.
To pinpoint just exactly what it is that we as a people are missing in terms of the lack of improvement in wildlife conservation on the side of the people, we reached out to a prominent voice in the movement for the humane treatment of animals. It is none other than Otara Gunewardene, the Founder of Embark and Otara Foundation and one of the most recognised entrepreneurs and philanthropists in Sri Lanka.
Why are we unable to protect our wildlife as we should?
We posed a few questions to Otara: Why is it that, despite the clear understanding that Sri Lanka absolutely needs the longevity of its wildlife, we are still unable to protect it as we should? Her answer in short was that it has been a matter of prioritising. There is more focus on personal, human-related progress without realising that such progress does not exist in isolation – they are all connected.
She said society must understand that the cruelty exhibited is not a good reflection of the people as a whole. With reference to the more recent incidents post lockdown, Otara shared that one would have assumed the time in quarantine would be a cause for reflection and understanding that nature is able to shut down our so-called “progress” and we could have come out of it more aware. Yet, we see disappointing stories of cruel acts so immediately after a period where we were shown by nature how it can drastically affect the way we live. There is a deep lack of awareness, understanding, and empathy, she pointed out.
Speaking on the correlation between wildlife conservation and tourism, Otara shared an experience where in her travels she was invited to name a baby gorilla in Rwanda and how Rwandans have adopted their wildlife and nature reserves to be economically profitable while also adopting ways to sustain these natural resources. She said that from what she saw, it was evident that there is a deep understanding of the importance of sustainability and conservation, and the dedication to maintain their wildlife and nature.
She shared that Rwandans take great pride in the improvements they’ve made in the growth of their gorilla population; they take care not to stress out the animal in order to provide them with an perfect environment to reproduce by limiting the number of tourists entering their reserves, imposing strict time limits on how many visitors remain near an animal at any given time, and other attempts that may not sound not economically sound in the short term for a quick influx of income but is an investment in the long run. By conserving the health and welfare of these animals, it guarantees their continued existence and therefore a continued tourist attraction in the country.
However, in Sri Lanka, we have not yet formulated a solid system where our wildlife is protected, at least in the name of sustainable progress if not for humane reasons.
Otara also shared with us an experience she had in Yala several years ago, which is essentially the experience you or I would have had when we last visited Yala for a safari. Whenever a leopard is spotted, all the safari jeeps race over to the animal, surround it completely, and make a whole lot of noise while competing against one another to be the closest and loudest. Otara shared that she simply could not bear to witness the way such incidents were being handled now. Years ago, going to Yala was a beautiful experience, but now it is pure madness, she stressed.
She also spoke of her experience in Hurulu Eco Park in Habarana where there is a large number of elephants. But even in these areas you have people driving straight up to mothers and baby elephants without any concern or care for the animals.
Leadership that prioritised wildlife conservation
On a final note, we asked Otara what her thoughts are on the question why, despite knowing the importance of wildlife conservation and with the DWC stating that they do in fact speak to the public in creating awareness to a certain extent, we have been unable to enforce the right mindset upon our people to behave conscientiously in a way that protects our environment.
She shared that to her understanding, it is because there has never been a leadership which has prioritised the conservation of wildlife. It is forever at the bottom of everyone’s priority list, along with the reasons to protect, and there are so many agendas that come into play when it comes to finally implementing any kind of reform. She further said there are some examples even in cases of pedigree breeding where you see such deplorable actions. These dogs raised in appalling conditions and you wonder how it is that this has been allowed to go on.
Despite having recognised the need for wildlife protection, it is a shame that we as a people are unable to muster the courage to fight for the rights of these animals at least for the sake of our economy. Nevertheless, we can only be hopeful that in future opportunities to implement real change, we will make the correct decisions.