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Sunday, October 9, 2011

12. As a Wildlife Officer

One’s love for nature sometimes lays dormant inside without his or her knowledge. When such a person enters an undisturbed natural environment and experiences its soothing power, suddenly, he or she will be aroused and the never ending journey of love with nature begins. When I got exposed to an outdoor life as a wildlife officer I started to love it more and more, having awakened the fondness hidden inside me. Such affection must have been implanted within me in my early years by reading Lord Baden Powell’s book ‘Scouting for Boys’ and taking part in scouting camps when I was a school boy.

As the first year of our career was in training we were not entrusted with any significant responsibilities. So, we had the opportunity of spending most of our time learning and observing wildlife and nature around us while on duty in the station and while going on expeditions in the jungle. The expeditions we made with Arul and Hudanchi were much enlightening while equally being joyous.

Mr. Chandra Jayawardana
On the directive of the Park Warden, Mr. Chandra Jayawardene, we had to learn wildlife law, court procedure and office work in addition to labour supervision and jungle craft.
Being the new recruits we were quite nervous about court work. We were to learn the preparation of documents, giving evidence and prosecution of court cases, in relation to action filed by the department under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance and the Fire Arms Ordinance. Though we prepared ourselves thoroughly before attending courts, at the beginning we forgot everything when in open court through the sheer excitement. Once at the Lahugala mobile court no answer came around to my mind to a question the judge asked me. After a long struggle I managed to say ‘I don’t know your honour’with a childish smile. The judge looked at me quite sympathetically and postponed the case. If by any chance the judge was impatient he could have detained me until the court proceedings were over.

After a few months of initial training, Shantha and Jayantha were posted to other stations while Okanda became my permanent station. Though Okanda was considered one of the more gruelling stations it was quite an attractive place for me. Friendliness of the colleagues, solitude when needed, charming environment and the encouragement received from the higher officers made Okanda a cosy place for me.

The Regional Assistant Director, Mr. Shirley Perera and the Park Warden, Mr. Chandra Jayawardene were experts on birds. They greatly influenced us to develop a good knowledge on wildlife, especially birds.

Within a few months of our joining the department as Range Assistants, applications were called to recruit Game Rangers, a higher rank, for which we too applied. With an intensive training schedule Mr. Jayawardene got us three Range Assistants prepared for the test. Armed with the knowledge we received under his supervision and constant encouragement, I and one other got through the test successfully and we were re-appointed as Game Rangers.

Mr. Shirley Winston Perera
One who thoroughly inspected our duties was the Regional Assistant Director, Mr. Shirley Winston Perera. He was one of the best examples of a conscientious state officer I have ever met – one who performed all his duties meticulously. He planned everything he did perfectly and nothing escaped from his sharp eye. We had to perform all our duties knowing that everything would be subjected to his thorough scrutiny. Most of the time we had to be quick enough to judge his feelings from his body language and the expression on his face. One evening, on his return from a visit to the park he called me up to the vehicle saying ‘I brought a present for you’. As his face had become reddish and the eyes were a bit enlarged I felt that something was seriously amiss. He pulled out a bagful of garbage containing empty cigarette packets, biscuit wrappers, empty cans etc, all picked up inside the park. He just dumped the lot in front of the office and left in haste without a single word. This was a lesson I would never forget.

Just as I was completing my training period and was being entrusted with more and more responsibility, the Park Warden, Mr. Jayawardene left the island for a long overseas training. Senior Ranger, Mr. Wijesekara was also transferred to another station.  
One of the most experienced hands in the department by then, Mr. Alfred Perera, who was nearing his retirement succeeded Mr. Jayawardene. Such was his nature that he gave complete freedom to us placing utmost trust to carry out our duties diligently. It was a wonderful opportunity and a challenge for me to work at my will and gain invaluable experience in park management.
 The routine duties we had to perform included the issuing the park entry permits for visitors and assigning them park guides, office administration and organizing patrols for the protection of the park. As there was not much influx of tourists except in the weekends and during school vacations, office work did not demand much of our time. To our great delight we could spend most of our time on park development work such as construction and maintenance of tanks and water holes and development of the road network. I loved roaming around the park executing the work and directing the labourers, all with great camaraderie.

There is ample evidence to show that Yala East was an integral part of the ancient Ruhunu kingdom of the south. It was a flourishing advanced hydraulic civilisation that practiced successful agriculture. We could see the remains, sometimes still in good order, of the tanks, irrigation channels and Buddhist shrines, strewn all over the now engulfed jungle as we trekked. It was an invigorating experience to see the tanks spill with rain fed water once their breached bunds were repaired by us. The peak of the monsoon was rather a busy period for us as the heavy rains at times severely damaged tank bunds and roads.

The destruction caused by the villagers to the wildlife in the park was generally minimal as human settlements were quite far from the fringes of the park. Though illicit gemming was taking place in far corners like Kebilitta the staff unfortunately could only be deployed in the dry season. The turbulently overflowing streams running across the road to Kabilitta along the left bank of the Kumbukkan Oya river made it impossible to reach such places during the monsoon.

This was the alluring setting during the first three years I spent at Okanda. Each morning opened a completely new day in every sense of the word - exciting and challenging and, opening up new vistas in our lives. The isolation of Okanda and the demands it placed on us never even remotely troubled us.

“I would sing you a song of my boyhood
Where the highlights and shadows lay clear;
Of my walks through the fields and the greenwood,
With so many friends who were dear.
But with half of a century past
There are memories too that are sad-
I would sing of these also. But last
I shall sing you some songs that are glad,
Mostly happy adventures, and deeds
Done at midday, and night, and at dawn-
These are things that a boy seldom heeds
Till he finds his companions are gone.
Any trail that you wend,
To the end from the start,
Joy will always attend
If you’ve friends near your heart.”
                             - Conrad Felsinger


  1. Nice account Gaminie,

    I wish i could have been there during the golden age of the wildlife dept.

    Sadly this is not the case anymore




    1. Of course it was a 'golden age' Rajiv. Things have changed a lot.