A journey of 125 years dedicated to protect our environs
The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society is a household name in all spheres in Sri Lanka. Recently, they celebrated their 125th year with a fantastic lecture, covering all elements of land, water, and sky with experts in each area in a panel discussion.
The celebration itself was limited to a simple cake, shared with all those who were in attendance. With 125 years of experience behind them, at a time their task at hand is not getting any simpler, they continue to fight the good fight, bringing to light all the issues we face today that are contributing to a worse tomorrow.
Each month, they conduct a lecture, free and open to the public so that all those concerned have an opportunity to stand with them. We now have the privilege of bringing forth to you all these talks every month. But before we do, let’s take a look at how it all began and where they are today.
How it all began!
The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka was first formed in 1894 under the name “Ceylon Game Protection Society”. This came about in 1888 when the Government appointed a committee to report on the current laws relating to the protection of “game”.
Wildlife, at that time and for a long time after, was known as game as the emphasis was on hunting and not protection. The Government in 1891 based on the recommendations of this committee introduced an “ordinance to prevent wanton destruction of elephants, buffaloes, and other game”.
Incidentally, this was the first time that elephants were given some form of protection. It was following this that a license was required to shoot or capture an elephant. The ordinance also prohibited night shooting.
It is interesting to note that this committee was headed by R.W. Levers, who later became the first President of the Society. Further, in 1894, “ordinance to prevent wanton destruction of birds, beasts, and fishes not indigenous to this colony” was introduced in the Legislative Council.
This was in fact introduced to protect imported bird species, such as pheasants, which were released in the jungles and quickly hunted by the locals and exterminated. This is totally prohibited now.
This should be considered the beginning of wildlife conservation in the island. It was at this point that E. Gordon Reeves of Ratnatenne Estate, Madulkelle decided to promote a meeting which laid the foundation of the Ceylon Game Protection Society in 1894. At this meeting, it was resolved that the Society be called Game Protection Society of Ceylon.
However, during the course of the next few decades, membership and (also perhaps the general population who were interested in the island’s natural environment) protection was needed not only for game, but for other species that inhabited the island’s wild places. At the annual general meeting of 1930, the Society was renamed Ceylon Game and Fauna Protection Society.
Then in 1955, the Society went through a significant change. On the 29 January 1955, at the annual general meeting, Aloy Perera proposed a change in the name of the Society which would take away the emphasis on protection of game for hunting and focus on becoming a fulltime wildlife protection society; it was seconded by Dr. R.L. Spittel. Though some members opposed it, the resolution was passed 28 for and 10 against. Thus, the Society became the Wildlife Protection Society of Ceylon.
In 1970, then President Thilo W. Hoffmann suggested a further change in the name, pointing out that wildlife cannot be protected without conserving nature. This proposal was brought up at the annual general meeting on 14 December 1970 and the Society became Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Ceylon – later Sri Lanka, as remains to this day.
Highlights of the years gone by
In 1984, when the Society was established, the original emblem was the side view of the face of the European red deer. In 1929, then General Secretary W.W.A. Phillips got the approval of the General Committee to change the emblem to a head of a sambar. The mounted head was in his possession until 1956 when he donated it to the museum.
Incorporation by an Act of Parliament
In 1967, then President E.B. Wickramanayake moved that the Society should be incorporated in Act No. 29 of 1968. Albeit a process that usually takes a long time, with the assistance of MP Vernon Jonklaas QC and MP Paris Perera who moved the Bill in the House of Representatives and J.P. Obeysekera and Dr. Stanley Kalpage in the Senate, this was achieved in a very short time.
Thus, the Society became the first NGO in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to be incorporated by an Act of Parliament.
In 1967, the Society became a corporate member and became the first NGO in Sri Lanka to be a full-fledged member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Ruhuna National Park – Yala
On 23 March 1900, the Government proclaimed the Yala and Wilpattu reserves under the Forest Ordinance. At that time, the reserve did not bear the name Yala; it was the Resident Sportsmen Reserve. The Game Protection Society was instrumental in establishing the reserve. On 1 March 1938, Yala became a national park when the Flora and Fauna Ordinance was passed as law by then Minister of Agriculture D.S. Senanayake. Wilapttu National Park was declared on the same day, once again proposed by the Society.
Udawalawe National Park
Established as a national park on 3 June 1972, the park was then declared for the primary purpose of preserving the catchment area of the Udawalawe Tank – another initiative pushed and made successful by the society.
Where they are at now
The current President of the Society, Sriyan De Silva Wijeratne had these thoughts to share about where they are today after completing 125 years dedicated to protect wildlife and nature. “Celebrating 125 years is a milestone which few entities survive to enjoy.
That tribute must first go to the visionaries who created a movement which is as relevant today, if not more, as it was when first conceptualised. I am deeply humbled and honoured to join a long list of presidents of the Society who, aided by their respective committees and concerned membership, have committed themselves towards protecting our depleting wilderness.
“These are indeed troubled times, where the boundaries of right and wrong have been blurred, where technology is creating transformational positive and negative impacts, and where environmental destruction, due to man’s greed and lack of consciousness, is wreaking havoc on our planet and natural ecosystems.
Here in Sri Lanka too, commercialisation and urbanisation are relentlessly depleting our natural resources and causing extinction at an alarming rate. Changes in rainfall and temperature cause economic consequences which, in turn, push people to clear more forests, and these vicious cycles continue.
Unfortunately, the biggest negative impacts are being caused by the absence of planned development. A lack of political will, corruption and greed on all sides, and the failure of the rule of law also become major contributors.
“But all is not lost, and we have many reasons to approach the future with optimism. Sri Lanka still has much intact which needs protecting. The broader area, in and around the North and East, plus Mannar and the North West, are regions rich in biodiversity which, due to the 30-year internecine conflict, were spared the inevitable damage caused by commercialisation, increased population settlement, and urbanisation. Sri Lankans thus have a unique opportunity to plan development in these areas and find a better balance between nature, wildlife, and our human needs.
“Unfortunately, greed, politically driven agendas, and short-term benefits, seem to dominate all actions. Demarcated reservations, parks and protected areas, and even the coast and beaches are being illegally occupied and annexed at an aggressive rate. Even precious places such as Sinharaja and Wilpattu are under siege.
Civic conscious Sri Lankans seem to be the last bastion and need to unite to protect this bountiful land. We are convinced of the tremendous nature-based economic potential of our natural resources, which can bring much prosperity to the region, when approached with a long-term vision and a sustainable balance.
The young taking the lead
The Society now also has a “Youth Wing” with young wildlife enthusiasts who want to dedicate their time towards preserving our environment. This is a new annex altogether, but they are contributing a lot to the efforts of the Society.
This would ensure new ideas keep flowing into the Society. They have already begun embracing more technology through e-newsletters, Twitter feeds, crowdfunding, active Instagram and Facebook pages, etc.
Very recently, they also opened up their bungalow to the public; previously, it was members only. The Youth Wing especially takes the lead on working with schoolchildren and spreading awareness among them.
With our problems related to nature only taking a worse turn, efforts put in by the organisation is a light to all those who are hopeful. It is an organisation that we can safely rally around and support the efforts of. Moving forward, we will bring to you highlights from their monthly lectures with experts of the relevant fields.
We encourage everyone to follow their work closely and to extend your support.