By Ajita Kadirgamar –
Wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, environmentalists and plain right thinking Sri Lankans (they may be a minority, but they do exist) are up in arms at the news that Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya who was appointed Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) on March 30, 2016 has tendered his resignation.
After a 23 year career with the World Bank culminating as the Lead Environmental Specialist, South Asia, focusing on Environment, Water Resources and Climate (which included managing the organisation’s wildlife projects as well), Pilapitiya’s appointment as Director General, was a godsend in the minds of citizens who truly have the country’s interests at heart.
For a man who had taken an early retirement to study the social behaviour of elephants, and is passionate about these creatures and the island’s wildlife and environment in general, the position of Director General DWC is a fortuitous, yet tailor made job.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe no doubt saw in Pilapitiya a professional with internationally accepted credentials, combined with an impressive academic background and subject knowledge. And one assumes that when the PM offered him the post, he intended for Pilapitiya to do his job as a professional, using his expertise and best judgment in each and every situation he encountered.
Surely he did not think this man would be a stooge? That he would bow to pressure from incompetent, unqualified and often corrupt administrators? That he would conveniently look the other way as elephants continue to be abused, sold into captivity, tortured and mistreated in temples and processions? That he would condone the judgment of a magistrate ruling in favor of illegal elephant enslavers?
“At present, 17 elephants and tuskers are in the custody of the wildlife conservation department, while the persons who had kept them without licenses are remanded. The Colombo court has issued an injunction against a magisterial order to handover these elephants to the owners in order for their participation in pageants. Dr. Pilapitiya said at the meeting in response that he disapproved of the magisterial decision, noting that elephants are a world heritage and could not be reared as domestic pets.” (Sri Lanka Mirror June 2, 2016)
Also, how could anyone expect Pilapitiya, an environmental expert with a PhD on Solid Waste Management, to be in favour of dumping garbage on the perimeter of a wildlife sanctuary! “My position is still the same as it was then, when I told them that a garbage landfill near the buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park was a specific ‘No, no’,” says Dr. Pilapitiya, adding that “just because I am the DG of Wildlife Conservation now, does not make way for what was ‘unsuitable’ to become ‘suitable’.” (Sunday Times, April 3, 2016)
As far back as June 2006, Pilapitiya who has a PhD in Solid Waste Management (SWM), implemented a SWM pilot project in his home town of Weligama where the town’s organic waste is converted to compost and sold back to the public at an affordable price. “According to Dr. Pilapitiya, Sri Lanka has the technical know-how, the necessary environmental regulations, and the funds to carry out proper SWM projects, but projects never actually materialise because the most important ingredient is not there — political commitment.” (Sunday Times, September 30, 2007)
These press excerpts show the calibre of Pilapitiya and the stinking quagmire of politics that he has found himself catapulted into. Social media, Facebook in particular, and citizen activism in general, both gaining ground in Sri Lanka may just make Pilapitiya a hero at the end of the day. A hero the people and the animals of this island desperately need.
“In this melee, the Director of Wildlife Conservation, an elephant expert himself, unable to stomach these politically motivated actions, is threatening to resign, putting in jeopardy the whole wildlife conservation, and welfare and treatment of animals in Sri Lanka, which he has undertaken to protect. It is believed that ONLY he can stand up for the rights over objections that don’t stand up in a Court of Law or in the Court of Morality.” (Facebook, Ranjit Hulugalle)
“I admire the man’s integrity. The GoSL should appoint people of his caliber only if they are willing to let the person do their job and not bow to ridiculous pressure from various special interest groups, which in this case must be the Perahera lobby.” (Facebook, Tilak Dissanayake)
Prominent Facebook Community groups such as Reforest Sri Lanka, Say NO to Cruelty To Our Elephants of Sri Lanka, Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka and Wildreach are all lending their support for Pilapitiya.
Supun Jayaweera, environmentalist, activist and law student is spokesperson for the Protest organisers. As citizen activists the group is very clear about the need for people to voice their concern at this turn of events. “The field of wildlife conservation always lacked a charismatic, pragmatic leader. Dr. Pilapitiya filled that lacuna and managed to achieve many developments from different perspectives within a short period of time. As environmentalists and nature lovers we were more than glad to have a DG with a vision. Corrupt politics in this country has always hindered the work of honest men and as members of the general public, it is our responsibility to back and support these honest men and be their voice. Hence the need of a protest to show support to Dr. Pilapitiya, to urge the government to re-appoint him as the DG and let him do his job without any hindrance, and to warn the government that we, the general public are concerned about the recent events.”
Sumith Pilapitiya is a product of the World Bank system. The key word is ‘system’. He would approach the myriad of DWC problems and setbacks in a systematic way. He would demand that his staff work within the rules and laws of the country, he would educate the public and hopefully the boorish politicians who seem, more than other citizens, to need edification. Never in recent times has there been a man better equipped for the job at hand. For god’s sake let sanity and moral conscience prevail over avarice and corrupt agendas. Let Pilapitiya get on with the job. In peace.
How to make your voice heard:
Sign the Petition
Attend the Protest on Sun June 12th at 10 am at Pettah railway station