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Gal Oya Experience



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I have the experience of having ridden a bicycle from Jaffna to Matale when I was twelve years old way back in 1952. I rode on the macadamized -roads in the thick forests alongside of which remote human habitations were situated. The dark forests were the habitation of wild creatures. The macadamized roads that lay across their habitation or the vehicles that travelled or the humans that walked on the roads once in a blue moon did not cause panic in them. They walked on the roads, stayed or played on the roads at their leisure while on their way in search of fodder. There was no human activity or human interference to disturb them. It was the world of elephants. So, there was no threat to our lives.


It all began when the government diverted its attention to the development of the North Central, Eastern, and Southern provinces for agricultural and industrial purposes, when the population began to rise. These regions are home to the elephants of Sri Lanka and were then thickly populated by them.


The disturbance caused to the wildlife dates back to the period the British engaged in developing the hill country and in blood sport in Molamure but, not to an extent to cause an enmity between the two parties though they were displaced consequent to these operations. They were shaken in reality when the Gal Oya Development Board stepped into the Gal Oya Valley with a carte blanche to create a human habitation.


The Gal Oya Development Board (GODB) was the brainchild of Rt. Hon. Don Stephen Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon, (Sri Lanka now) the Leader of the United National Party government formed in 1948. A little history of the formation of the GODB will be useful at this moment.


On 24th August, 1949, the premier unveiled the commemoration pillar at the Inginiyagala roundabout, below the power house to inaugurate the Gal Oya Irrigation and Power Project. On 29th August, 1949, he laid the foundation to build the reservoir blocking the Gal Oya. It was eponymously named 'Senanayake Samudra'. The GODB, an Act of Parliament was passed by Parliament on 24th November, 1949. On 12th December, 1949, it was constituted to implement agricultural and industrial developments and economic and cultural activities in its area of authority of 150,000 acres. I joined the board in 1960.


You will remember K. Godage writing to the Daily News on 3 September, reminding about the omission of the name of Ambassador Shirley Amarasinghe who was our Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 1967 re the article entitled "Sri Lanka's UN journey" by a Daily News Correspondent.


It will be interesting for you to hear that that great public servant Shirley Amarasinghe, of the Ceylon Civil Service, was the first Resident Manager of the Gal Oya Development Board from 1950 to 1954. He was known as a hard task master amongst more than one hundred thousand employees who worked for the board from time to time, and was popular amongst them and respected by them for his benevolence. Mr. H. J. Luxham, a former Financial Secretary to the Colonial government of Ceylon, was the first Chairman, the Secretary was Dr Nandadewa Wijesekere, the creator of the Wijesekere Sinahala typewriter keyboard and Messrs Brohier and Amaratunga were members.


The elephants got startled for the first time when the crawlers rolled into the Gal Oya forests, making a frightening noise felling their habitation. Day by day they began to retreat deep into the jungles, but the unending threat of machines in active operation followed them. Consequently, they were left with small areas (patches) to live and a scarcity of fodder prevailed. When they came out of the patches they saw a dust bowl instead of a luxuriantly grown habitation they once had in earlier days. In addition, illegal felling of trees everywhere else too, decreased the forests into patches. Eventually, their living was in the open with the patches used for night outs. So routinely, they walked as far as they could in the open in search of food, only to find our vegetation. We began to chase them to protect our cultivations. They heeded at first, but with the passage of time, as they had no forest to live, no fodder to survive, they were compelled to encroach despite the threat to their lives, by the prohibitive steps taken to prevent their approach. As such an animosity between the two parties rose to an unprecedented height with death threats. This background provoked the humans to kill the elephants and the elephants to kill the humans on sight. This is how a conflict developed in later stages when the country was faced with deforestation in mass scale and the elephant population got stranded. Now, it is a conflict unsolved.


To resolve this problem, those seat heating people must walk into the jungle and engage the defiant and malingering cadres profitably. It is common knowledge that the officious white collar workers used to the officialese have done only very little or nothing to remedy this situation. We have heard them talking and read what they have been lengthily writing, nothing that is practically worth to put an end to this threat to our lives. We only see the wild elephants encroach the human habitation not any preferred preventive measures. We only see people engaged in a wild goose chase. The conservators respond to information of elephant threats days later, confined to offices or deserting the places of work. Depending on an electric fence is no solution to the elephants' threat to the people. The physical presence of the Chief Conservator to the ordinary watcher is a must.


The area of authority of the GODB was thickly infested with wild elephants. There was a threat to human lives and continuation of agricultural activities. Extensive damages were caused to the paddy fields, vegetations and plantations. So, to protect these crops an organization of a group of interconnected people was established. This network comprised Wildlife Officers, the Panikkar watchers from the Muslim community who were elephant trappers by descent from ancient times, a full strength of unarmed ground watchers, detailed at every 1/8th of a mile in the nights with a skeleton staff during day time. Having bonfires in between the watchers, having tree top watchers on platforms made on trees, armed watchers for every 150 acres of plantations with electric fences where necessary, patrolling between the watchers and the non-stop patrolling by the Wildlife Officer with his team of watchers in the entire area during the nights, was the responsibility of the group. By these means the gregarious elephants, wild buffaloes and stray cattle were made to feel the presence of humans thus preventing them from overstepping the boundaries. They never depended on the electric fence, they were on site regularly. All of them were on an eighteen hour duty roster. They kept to their turns of duty punctually, amply demonstrating their esprit de corps that led to the protection of people and property of the Gal Oya Valley during the 21 years of the Board's active participation in turning out a forest into a human habitation, an El Dorado today. The Board never killed an elephant it only the controlled elephants. The Board was dissolved on 22nd March, 1990. We can never forget the 'Men who made Gal Oya'. We reminisce of them and their sacrifices for ever.


Today, we don't see any conservator in the field. They have left their responsibilities to the people and the electric fence. We only see the people and these mammals in a conflict and we only hear and see their deaths practically every day and the presence of the conservators long afterwards.


L. Wijeratne


Ganemulla


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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