Earth Day is an annual event falling on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection (1). In 1969, a well drilled by an oil company off the coast of California, blew out. More than three million gallons of oil spewed, killing more than 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals and sea lions. As a reaction to this disaster, environmental activists were mobilized to create awareness on environmental protection and to protect threatened and endangered species. Consequently, the first earth day was celebrated in 1970. Since then, it has been celebrated worldwide to create awareness on environmental protection and to maintain biodiversity.
This year the theme was “protecting endangered species” focusing on creating awareness on nationally endangered species and to locate protected habitats to conserve the threatened species (2). This decision was taken after studies revealed a staggering 60% decline in populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians since 1970.
In line with this theme the US Embassy in Colombo most appropriately announced that it was hosting a photo competition to “showcasing the most critically endangered species of wild fauna and flora” in Sri Lanka (3). The initial announcement gave the background justification as “According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, over 8,400 species of wild fauna and flora are critically endangered, while close to 30,000 more are understood to be endangered or vulnerable. Based on these estimates, it is suggested that over a million species are threatened with extinction.”
The judging process was stated as “Photos will be judged on their merit and on their connection to both the contest theme Sri Lankan Wildlife and Conservation: Invest in our Planet and Earth Day. Special consideration will go toward photos that showcase Nationally Threatened Species for Sri Lanka.”
According to IUCN Red List classification, depending on the increasing level of threat, evaluated species are classified into 5 categories as a. Least Concern b. Near Threatened c. vulnerable d. endangered e. critically endangered leaving aside the species already extinct (4). Creating awareness on the critically endangered species and protecting their habitat is very important to prevent them from extinction.
Consequently, I and several environmental activists submitted rare photos of critically endangered species in Sri Lanka to the contest (5). Unfortunately, the Judging panel of the US Embassy disregarded the initial announcement and the rare photos showcasing critically endangered species in Sri Lanka were not even shortlisted for the contest. Further in violation to the initial announcement that the nationally threatened species would be given special consideration, several migratory birds such as blue tailed bee eater and orange headed thrush were shortlisted and orange headed thrush was selected for prize too (6)
Amusingly the ubiquitous monitor lizard and Asian Openbill which are classified as “Least Concern” nationally and internationally in the IUCN list were also selected for prize by the officials of US Embassy. Out of the 13 photos selected as prize winners only three photos showcased endangered species namely the Sri Lankan Leopard, sea turtles and elephants and none of them were critically endangered. In the peak of the amusement, a photo without reference to any threatened species showing a normal jungle pathway is named as pathway to heaven and reported as the most popular entry.
Either conducting an irregular photo contest or supporting the corrupt officials to remain in power in Sri Lanka, we Sri Lankans must be united and voice strongly against such blunders of superpowers when committed on Sri Lankan soil. This article is published with the same objective and to improve the awareness on environmental protection on this day of June 5th the World Environment Day.
*Disclaimer: Author Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan is a visiting lecturer at the Universities of Jaffna and Colombo. He is also a Specialist in Community Medicine dealing with environmental protection and working as a Consultant in the Ministry of Health. He claims the technical opinion expressed in this article to improve the public awareness is his private opinion and in no way reflects the official position of the Ministry of Health in this issue.