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Sunday, 26 July 2009





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'Development need not be synonymous with eco-degradation':

Revamping national parks in a post-war setting

A greater part of national protected areas have been inaccessible due to the decade long war on terrorism. If favourable conditions for animals are not maintained within these protected areas, the carrying capacity - the number of animals the area can support - may it be elephants, leopards or deer, is bound to go down.

Lunugamvehera information centre

Consequently the Department of Wildlife Conservation has adopted habitat enrichment practices, such as taking out invasive flora and fauna from the natural environment, maintaining water holes and controlled burning to make way for young grass as a food source for grazers like elephants. All of which were totally abandoned due to continuous terrorist attacks.

But now the tables have turned and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources together with the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Department of Irrigation have taken the initiative to improve Sri Lanka's National Parks and restore their lost prestige.

As the first step of this endeavour the Lunugamvehera National Park is now open to the general public, with all new facilities, complete with the Thalgahadigana circuit bungalow, an Information Centre - which was opened last week by Irrigation and Water Management Minister Chamal Rajapaksa and Environment and Natural Resources Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka - two Divisional Offices and an elephant rehabilitation centre.

The Lunugamvehera National Park - a haven for wildlife - extends 23498 hectares within the Moneragala and Hambantota districts. Lunugamvehera - although technically a National Park - has not been considered as a Park due to lack of facilities. It had been considered as a mere intermediate strip of ground connecting Udawalawa and Yala that wildlife use to migrate between the two parks in times of food and water shortages. However, Lunugamvehera National Park is a major catchment area of Veheragala and many other smaller reservoirs.

Minister Champika Ranawaka said development need not always be synonymous with environment degradation. Wildlife can thrive side by side with social and economic development. "This is most evident considering the feat achieved by the Veheragala and Mawu Ara Irrigation Project engineers", said the minister. For the first time in Sri Lanka local engineers have been responsible for the construction of two reservoirs and have been able to complete the projects for half the cost that would have been spent on foreign technology. The renovated Veheragala-Lunugamvehera irrigation system has eased the water problem in the Lunugamvehera elephant rehabilitation and holding ground. With the Veheragala Project some of the former glory of the Udawalawa and Lunugamvehera National Parks has been restored.

Minister Champika Ranawaka further explained that smaller reservoirs and water bodies facilitate vegetation growth that is an ideal source of food for grazers like elephants. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources hopes that the abundance of food would prevent elephants from attacking villages.

A view of the Lunugamvehera divisional office

Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Ananda Wijesooriya, said 100 million worth of building of the allocated Rs. 350 million have already been done. He claimed that the number of staff has been increased and facilities, services and infrastructure improved for the benefit of the visitors. The minister said with the end of war they can now start focusing on improving the Yala National Park as well.

The Gonagala Reservoir has been renovated and the capacity of the Butewa Wewa in Yala National Park has also been increased. The restoration process of Ratmal Wewa has already begun. Most of the parks grasslands have been restored by clearing the habitat of invasive flora such as *Lantana* and cactus, making way for young grass. Two bowsers provide water to ten water holes dug up in identified locations in the Park. K. Janaka Shantha Kumara, a wildlife ranger claimed that as a result a clear metamorphosis of a whole ecosystem can be observed. As grazers increase due to the availability of food and water, the number of predators like the leopard - one of the major tourist attractions in Yala - has also increased in number.

A corridor connecting Yala Block II and III to Kumana and Block V to Lunugamvehera is in the making. They are also hoping to connect Wilpattu to this chain. Since Udawalawa is adjacent to Lunugamvehera the whole network of National Parks will be interconnected making foraging easy during food and water shortages.

Ananda Wijesooriya said, having to close down parks due to security reasons, however necessary, resulted in a major loss of revenue to the country. Yala and Horton Plains National Parks bring in the highest income among Sri Lanka's protected areas. Between January and June 2008, 9078 locals and 7532 foreigners have visited the Yala National Park bringing an income of Rs. 16.6 million. In 2009, between the same period, the number of locals who visited Yala rose to 18,031 and foreigners to 10,439. The revenue brought soared to Rs. 27 million in a few months. The Minister appreciated the great sacrifice made by security forces in the attempt to liberate the country.

During the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Dr. Ravi Samarasinha Memorial Visitors Centre in Yala last week, Minister Champika Ranawaka revealed that although the Asian Development Bank (ADB) agreed to provide funds for the improvement of the park it could not be utilized because the park had to be repeatedly closed down due to terrorist attacks. "But with the war over, the allocated ADB funds can finally be put to use." This they hope would get the parks up and running before long. Minister Champika Ranawaka revealed that Wilpattu and Kumana will be reopened as soon as the restoration process is complete. Kumana will most probably reopen within two months.

The Director General, DWC revealed that they hope to build two visitors' centres in the Southern Province, build 130 km of roads and open more circuit bungalows. A World Bank funded project to improve infrastructure for visitors is scheduled to commence next year.

"However, no amount of rebuilding is of use if one fails to fulfill one's responsibilities", emphasized the Minister. He claimed that the full responsibility and welfare of wildlife lay with the Ministry of Environment and the DWC and that these institutions were their only hope for survival.

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