- The Department of Wildlife Conservation
By Naveed Rozais
Sri Lanka’s greatest strength is its rich diversity. From its people to its food to its scenery, Sri Lanka is known for its variety and beauty. This is equally apparent in our country’s nature and wildlife.
The custodian of much of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). Established in 1949, the DWC is the statutory guardian of the wildlife and wilderness areas of Sri Lanka including all the country’s major water catchments. The DWC draws its foundation and mandates Sri Lanka’s Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, legislature introduced in 1937 that protects Sri Lanka’s wildlife and nature to this day.
This month, the Wildlife and Nature Preservation Society (WNPS) held their first physical monthly public lecture since the Covid-19 lockdown in March, calling on the DWC to explain what they do, how they do it, and what support they need in their quest to conserve Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna.
The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with DWC Director – Operations Ranjan Marasinghe for a look at how the DWC adapted to Covid-19 and the challenges they face in the new normal.
Understanding the DWC and their role as protectors of Sri Lankan wildlife
As the statutory guardian of Sri Lanka’s wildlife and wilderness, the DWC is responsible for a vast expanse of land, forest, grassland, mangroves, and wetland covering approximately 14% of Sri Lanka’s landmass. Currently under its jurisdiction are 61 sanctuaries including three strict natural reserves, one elephant corridor, seven nature reserves, and 26 national parks.
Additionally, the DWC is not only responsible for wild animals within the protected areas, but for any wild animal found anywhere on the island. Managing this wide variety of habitats is no easy task, especially when animals wander in and out of protected areas and come into conflict with humans.
Marasinghe explained that the DWC was first formed for managing game reserves for hunting before realising that commercial hunting activity, as well as other issues, placed animals at risk of extinction. The latter part of the 20th Century saw legal framework being developed to combat this, and the concept of conservation taking hold.
“Now, the DWC looks at conserving Sri Lanka’s biodiversity including all flora and fauna. Flora comprises plants, plant habitats, and ecosystems, and fauna comprises animals and where these animals reside,” Marasinghe shared, adding: “That said, there are things we leave to other agencies to focus on, like pollution and industrial impact, unless these directly impact areas under our protection.”
The DWC takes two main approaches to conservation: One is where they look at and manage things spatially within their protected area network, and the other is protecting fauna outside their protected area with the aid of special lists and provisions set out in the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance.
Dealing with human-animal conflict
Commenting on criticism the DWC received when it comes to efficiency and animal welfare, Marasinghe explained that looking at the numbers alone, the DWC’s efforts over the years have paid off. “In the early 1990s, people were very concerned about wild elephant populations being less than 1,000. Today, Sri Lanka has more than 5,400 elephants in the wild, and these are official figures of the elephants we’ve been able to track; the actual number is likely to be more,” Marasinghe said, adding that wildlife conservation has been successful to the point that hunting has been reduced drastically.
“We have been educating the general public on conservation of species and habitats, starting at the school level. Hunting, particularly illegal hunting, is no longer a common thing. It happens a lot less now because of both awareness and social pressure.”
On the flip side, Marasinghe shared that with some species, like porcupines and peacocks, growing populations have led to them becoming pests in certain situations and areas.
The DWC spends a lot of time and resources managing human-animal conflict, something which is not a direct mandate of the DWC and an issue over which they have little control. The DWC’s main priority is looking at nature and wildlife that are endangered and creating environments in which these endangered species can flourish.
Human-animal conflict has grown in recent years, an issue that is exacerbated greatly by the reclamation of land for agriculture and other urban development purposes. “While managing human-animal conflict is not specifically our mandate, it is still our duty, and at the end of the day, this conflict needs to be settled,” Marasinghe said, adding: “Even though we need to do something about it, it isn’t something we can do without the support of other state ministries and agencies as well as the private sector.”
Adapting to Covid-19 as a field-driven institution
With the majority of the DWC’s operations taking place in the field, the Covid-19 pandemic and Sri Lanka’s resulting three-month lockdown brought with it the opportunity to revise systems and focus on more effective and mindful ways of working.
The lockdown was unexpected from a DWC perspective, Marasinghe shared, and the first priority of the DWC was to make sure communication of issues could take place easily. The DWC hotline 1992, which is used to report any wildlife or flora-related issues, was quickly adapted to be able to work in the sort of setting that came with the lockdown. Over the course of two days, the DWC developed a web-based software system that, coupled with the advanced telephone system the DWC used, was able to remotely transfer calls to duty officers in their homes. The system also allowed for each complaint to be logged in a format where regional officers could review each complaint and its status to see what had been handled and what was pending.
DWC officers were given special approval to move around during lockdown to be able to handle issues, particularly human-animal conflict issues. Operating a field-driven office came with its own administrative challenges, and in response to this, the DWC developed a system that allowed field officers to paperlessly process requests for resources, funds, and personnel, with digital approvals being considered as valid as any other formal document.
From a management perspective, management met every night via conference call to stay on top of all things managerial and administrative. For those employees who didn’t work in the field, an SMS-based sign-in service was implemented where employees signed in and out of work through an SMS gateway.
Looking back post-lockdown, Marasinghe shared that on the whole, the lockdown was a less troublesome period for the DWC, particularly in the field. Part of this was a result of the shift to digital processes, particularly when it came to issuing permits and similar processes. It was also a time when the DWC could focus 100% on conservation and patrolling, without the distraction of meetings and other nonessential demands on their time.
Now that lockdown is over, however, the DWC will be going back to the old systems, because, while they can and have made the shift to paperless processes, many of the other agencies and entities they work with still require traditional paper-based documentation for their processes to be effective.
Addressing rumours of heightened wildlife offences, Marasinghe shared that while more wildlife offences were recorded during the lockdown, this was misinterpreted, as heightened patrolling meant that the offences reported increased.
Marasinghe commented: “While there was a higher number of offences reported, overall, there was less human-animal conflict. There were two reasons for this, one being that humans were not moving about and as such, there were automatically fewer instances of humans and animals interacting negatively; another reason for the human-animal conflict being less during lockdown was that the DWC was able to quickly respond and intervene on any reports made.”
Speaking on the leopard deaths that gained much attention during and immediately after the lockdown, Marasinghe explained that leopard trapping and associated deaths have been steadily declining since 2015. The privatisation of tea plantations in central Sri Lanka have brought leopards and humans closer to each other than before, with more and more land being cleared and leopards being pushed out of their habitats. The lack of prey also draws leopards closer to human settlements, which often leads to conflict and leopard trapping.
“The support of the general public is also needed with regard to leopards,” Marasinghe shared, adding: “Most of the lands that leopards inhabit belong to plantations. The plantation sector is 100% supportive of the DWC’s efforts, with individual and volunteer groups working with plantation officers and the DWC on comprehensive leopard conservation programmes that educate people and organise patrols and campaigns to relocate leopards. What we need is for the public to inform us when they see leopards so we can handle things constructively. The programmes are fairly successful, but we can’t cut situations down to zero.”
The challenges faced by the DWC
One of the biggest challenges the DWC faces is in terms of manpower. “The DWC consists of less than 2,000 staff members, and this includes all our staff members, from admin to field officers. Out in the field, the DWC has less than 1,000 employees,” Marasinghe commented. “This lack of manpower is our biggest challenge. Field officers are not always able to work in the field; they have to attend various meetings, play roles in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) when required, and face other nonessential demands on their time that pull them away from the field. We’re actively recruiting to fill vacancies and associated gaps in our operations, but this will not be an automatic fix, as once the manpower problem is fixed, other problems that will need to be resolved will show themselves.”
On working with other agencies, state-related, NGO (nongovernmental organisations), or otherwise, Marasinghe shared that as a conservation-focused agency, the DWC is happy to collaborate with other agencies and organisations.
However, it can become challenging because other groups can sometimes take extreme views on issues and expect action from the DWC in a non-managerial context that simply cannot be taken, Marasinghe explained, adding: “The DWC looks at wildlife issues and management issues. Some external organisations, while very passionate, are not ecologists and take extreme views that can lead to gaps in understanding.”
Looking to the future, Marasinghe stressed that holistic collaboration was essential to effectively drive long-term positive change. “It often happens when multiple agencies and entities work together that very promising plans and agreements are reached, but then when it comes to execution, each entity often opts to follow their own individual goals, which can end with the greater good and long-term vision being neglected.”