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Sunday, October 9, 2011

14. Coming back Home

In June 2003, with thoughts typical of someone returning home after an absence of eighteen long years, I walked in again through the gates of the Park Headquarters at Okanda.

I had very little hopes about the future of Yala East as a wildlife reserve when I first wrote and published the Sinhala version of this book in the year 2000. But things changed unexpectedly as they usually do. The department managed to re-establish the park headquarters at Okanda in the year 2002, taking advantage of the temporary calm and quiet that dawned with the peace accord signed that year. By then, except for one collapsing three roomed staff quarters all the buildings of Okanda office complex were completely demolished by vandals. Only the dilapidated walls of Okanda and Tummulla wildlife bungalows that in the halcyon days of the old gave moments of peace, tranquillity and appreciation of nature to many were remaining. Hardly any road in the park was negotiable.

As mentioned in the last chapter the scars of the destruction caused by human activities were visible all over Yala East. Wildlife populations were depleted to bare-bone levels and the remaining animals would take to their feet at the slightest hint of a human being.

Fortunately, other than some changes in Kumana Villu there was no significant impact on the natural vegetation in the park. The tall thick strands of mangroves in the villu had disappeared and only short and scattered trees remained. But this remaining mangrove vegetation supported the nesting birds as well as in the past. The villu had been gradually expanding into adjacent low lying areas southwards. The tall grove of aging coconut trees and the crumbling school building brought back memories of the old resilient Kumana village. There were hardly any signs of the houses left apart from a few scattered foundations.

It was the efforts of Mr. K. A. Amaratunga, the then Assistant Director of the Eastern Region, Dr. Ranjen Fernando, Honorary Director, Eastern Region and Mr. Lalith Seneviratne, Honorary Director, Southern Region that enabled the reawakening of Yala East possible. Necessary funds for construction were donated by the Philadelphia Zoo, USA at the instigation of Mr. Seneviratne. By February 2003, the staff quarters building at Okanda was renovated to accommodate the handful of officers first posted and two new buildings were constructed to house the office facilities. On 9th March 2003, Hon. Rukman Senanayake, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources declared open the redeemed Yala East National Park.

I was posted to Ampara Regional Office in June 2003, three months after the reopening of the park. Within a couple of months of my assuming duties at Ampara, Mr. Amaratunga retired from his three decades of service as a wildlife officer. In the years that followed the opportunity I had to shoulder overall management responsibility and witness the recovery of Yala East from a state of complete exhaustion was a gift of joy and satisfaction beyond words.

Staff strength at Okanda was gradually expanded and young keen and energetic wildlife officers such as Mohamed and Siyasinghe volunteered to be posted at Okanda and experience the ultimate challenge a wildlife officer can undergo. Mohamed became the first Warden of the redeemed park followed on by Siyasinghe. Trespassers who were destroying the resources of the park were stopped within a couple of months and maximum security was ensured by continuous patrolling in the park. The road network was rehabilitated and the Bagura wooden bridge which was collapsing without necessary maintenance was renovated to its original status.
Towards the end of 2004, the influx of visitors to the park was increasing gradually. Many a wildlife enthusiast, researcher and photographer began visiting the park. A whole new generation which before had only knowledge of the area through what they read got the chance to experience it in real life. Articles and books got published and photography exhibitions began to be held in the city. The veterans could once again camp in such pristine places along the Kumbukkan Oya like Gal-amuna and Madametota and introduce the novices to them. Faithful began the long journey to the ancient shrine at Kabilitte. Many committed people from all walks of life contributed in kind and with finances to restore the numerous water-holes, tanks and the roads. Among them comes to mind Mr. Shirley Perera, the Assistant Director at the time of my joining the Department, Engineer late Dr. Amith Munindradasa and conservationist Mr. Anura Weerakkody. Tuskers began to emerge as if out of the wood-work. Vast herds of deer numbering hundreds began to roam without fear.

Before 26th December 2004 the word Tsunami was known in the East only as a name of a small tourist motel in the surfing resort of Arugambay on the way to Panama from Pottuvil. While the tidal wave struck the heavily populated coastal areas in the east devastating life and property, the damage to the forested coastal belt south of Panama protected by sand dunes was minimal. Water entered inland only through the estuaries of rivers and lagoons. Staff at Okanda managed to escape the water that rushed along the lagoon. Apart from a layer of debris and sediments left behind by the tide inside the buildings which were submerged a couple of feet momentarily, there was no major physical damage. Interestingly, no casualties were visible among the wildlife populations too. Ranger Siyasinghe who was at the beach narrowly escaped by climbing a tree. He led his staff through the forest to emerge at Lahugala a few days later. He had managed to negotiate the completely washed away road from Okanda to Pottuvil. The old steel bridge across Arugambay lagoon was mangled and they had to detour round the lagoon, through a jungle tract in the twenty year old park Land Rover. Nothing of Warden Mohamed’s home far south in the town of Hambantota remained. He was at home on vacation but the whole family was luckily visiting one of his relations inland at that fatal moment.

By the beginning of 2006, observations of wildlife populations in Yala East proved that they had returned to their maximum carrying capacity thanks to the devoted staff at Okanda. Number of leopards counted resembled the numbers observed before the park was abandoned in 1985. Being the top-most predator in the Sri Lankan jungles and occupying the apex of the food pyramid, the leopard is one of the best indicators of the health of a forest.

Thus, it was a great experience for us to see the complete recovery of the eco system in Yala East from the hopeless state it had fallen into prior to the reopening in 2003. It invariably is a classic example that shows how a natural habitat can recover completely from prolonged destructive human impact within a short period. It was the sheer dedication of Okanda staff that made the recovery possible.   

At the same time we embarked on an effort to strengthen the network of wildlife reserves within the Eastern Region by indentifying the weak points and taking action. Expansion and connecting together of existing isolated wildlife reserves will ensure the protection of adequate good habitat for the long term survival of wild animal populations. This is true especially in the case of elephants which need the space and the use of resources of large tracts of jungle. New boundaries for Yala East were identified and declared to expand it westward, doubling its extent. Yala East was renamed as ‘Kumana National Park’ in the year 2006 as a lasting tribute to the lost resilient ancient villagers of Kumana. The extent of Lahugala National Park was expanded by three fold. The untouched jungle tract between Panama and Kudumbigala was declared a new sanctuary named Kudumbigala – Panama Sanctuary. Tiergarten Schoenbrunn (Vienna Zoo) willingly came forward to provide the financial assistance to build the Range Office in Panama, again at the instigation of Mr. Lalith Seneviratne. The staff and well-wishers contributed the labour and the office was opened in February 2006 with Harry and Gaby Schwammer in person representing the Vienna Zoo. Lnt. General Parami Kulatunge also participated in the event.
With the collapse of the peace accord all but in name the security situation in the east has been again swinging like a pendulum since the fall of 2006. It is obvious that the wildlife staff at Okanda can discharge their duties effectively only under a situation where their lives are not endangered by terrorism. The Range Office in Panama provided a timely sanctuary at the edge of the park to operate from where the staff was able to provide some degree of protection without risking their precious lives.

As this book gets ready to be published we hear the good news that terrorism has been completely eradicated from our country. Our fervent wish is that the same political will that ensured victory over the terrorists will ensure that a system of governance that enables the aspirations of all to be fulfilled is put in place. By nature of its isolated location the prevalent security situation will always decide the fate of the fauna and flora of Kumana National Park.  What is certain though is that this is a unique habitat to be protected for the benefit of the generations to come.

“This is my aim:
To leave some lasting tribute to this land I love
Changes of mood and scene,
Remembered scent of wood-smoke rising on an evening breeze;
Bird-song and wind-song mingle midst forest trees;
Strange ways and byways, which once were hard and sore,
New ways and old ways that man had walked before.
These I have known and cared for in my island long ago
But the old ways are now shattered
I know not where to go
Tsunami's claw at our coast line,
The Teeth of Tigers show.
But deep hidden - Dear God, where?-
Still lies Sri Lanka's essence.
Indestructible, most rare."
                             – Christine Spittel Wilson



  1. I am one of your FB friend. I was amazed with your FB photos. Several times i visited your page and looked marvelous photos of Wild life. But until now, i missed your blog page. Then http://matahithenahatty.wordpress.com/ henrytheblogwalker directed me here. i will read your nice blog in calm soon. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful world of Wild life.

  2. Gaminie, that was beautiful. Reminds me of the wildlife managers of the past. An understanding of the beauty, a feeling for fellow officers, the need to work towards a common goal and most of all a genuine love for nature. Also, encourages me when wildlife situations that I face are getting harder to resolve... like you said we need to do our best and keep moving forward! Thanks!!

  3. Weni, Ajay.. Thank you so much for the encouraging comments.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this and will go through all your posts here. When in Sri Lanka I wish to get your book too. I must thank Maraya again for introducing you and your blog.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lanka. Book is available with Dayawansa Jayakody, Maradana.

  5. I still wonder why you uploaded the whole thing at once! :)
    You already know what I think about your writing.
    henryblogwalker the Dude

  6. I just wanted to make it available for the readers machang. Anyway hope to add some new stories once I get relieved from the workload I'm buried in now. These days I'm putting final touches to a Hand Book we prepared for the Officers of the Dept.

    Thanks for the concern, macho, as always!

  7. A great read Gaminie, and one that softens a heart on a very similar journey. Good luck and thank you for sharing your reflections on a very important corner of the globe.

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