Gal Oya National Park
- When they sought permission to dig these mines in 2020 the DWC did not allow it because this land is inside the park
- What is difficult to fathom is wildlife officials suddenly acknowledging that this mine is outside the park
- Nilgala Forest, including the Gal Oya National Park, is an ecosystem with a unique biodiversity
A few weeks ago, at around 1.00 am, I received a phone call from a friend from the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC). “Brother, I’m sorry to bother you late at night. A friend of mine at the Nilgala office told me about a mining racket taking place inside the Gal Oya Park. Apparently, some of our top officials are also involved. What do you say? I am going to Nilgala tomorrow, are you coming,” the caller asked me.
Although this request came unexpectedly, I decided to make that trip after my friend explained about the severity of the destruction that was taking place. The next morning we got on his bicycle and made it to Nilgala.
“Brother, I heard that a quarryman from Bibile has obtained a deed to an old paddy land inside the Gal Oya Park and he was operating a mine on a large-scale. Our high-ranked officials have given permission for this. If this destruction cannot be stopped the park would be in danger,” my friend said.
Several incidents have been reported from Gal Oya and many parks in Sri Lanka, but the relevant parties possessing authority do not seem to be interested in protecting these parks or the wild animals in them. The recent incident reported was about a group-which including a nephew of the Minister of Wildlife- where its members harassed wild animals in the Yala National Park. They used private jeeps and were there with the blessings of a senior official of the DWC. If this is the attitude adopted by senior wildlife officials then it is something to worry about. The law was enforced against these rioters thanks to social media reports and other mainstream media continuously reporting and making follow-ups on the incident. Hence critics point out that what is happening inside the Gal Oya National Park is far more serious than what happened in Yala. The law should be enforced strictly against the wildlife officials who changed the boundaries of the park and allowed the accused individuals to commit crimes as well those who prepared false documents.
It was nearly ten in the morning when we arrived at the Nilgala Wildlife Office. After passing the tourist bungalow at
|Mining activities that are taking place at Gal Oya bank|
the entrance, we moved towards Makara for about 03 kilometers. My friend showed me a number of animal and plant species that are only found in Nilgala Patana and also explained their value. We later reached the camp called Poruthota in Gal Oya Park. We rested for a while at this campground and walked another two kilometres along a footpath in the middle of the forest looking for the mine site and reached the site bordering Gal Oya. “See how they are digging mines on the banks of the Gal Oya. They are doing this with the help of our officials. When they sought permission to dig these mines in 2020 the DWC did not allow it because this land is inside the park. But now they say that this land is outside the park. Besides, our officials arrested and fined several people who operated mines illegally in this place before. It makes it obvious that this place is inside the park,” my friend added.
About 200 metres from this mining site are ancient ruins. But the report issued by the Monaragala Archaeology Office permitting the mining activities shows that no archaeological monuments or ruins are found here. It is not clear how we found ancient ruins in this place and not the
“According to village elders these ruins are called Mukkuva graves. We are not too sure of that. They say that there are gem deposits associated with these graves. According to their belief, anyone who finds a pile of Mukkuva grave hits the jackpot. The Mukkuvars threw away gems like star sapphire. So the ancient people have identified this area as a place where Mukkuvars carried out excavation in search of gems,” my friend said.
The forest is occupied by many species of geckoes endemic to Sri Lanka and a number of rare species of skinks. Around 20 species of amphibians are found in Nilgala and Gal Oya forests -Sajiva Chamikara Senior Environmentalist and Conservationist
The land, where this disputed mine is located, has been often used by various people to operate illegal mines. Wildlife officers arrested and fined people, who operated illegal mines on the sly, after producing them before the Bibile Magistrate Court. On 08.08.2019, two persons were charged under case number VR 42473 and on 20.02.2020, one person was charged under case number 44057. On August 15, 2014, under case number 26264/14, two persons who entered the park without permission for gem mining were arrested by the wildlife officers and were produced in court. Pradeep Munasinghe, Park Warden of Gal Oya National Park acknowledged these happenings. Therefore it is clear that this mine is located in the park. What is difficult to fathom is wildlife officials suddenly acknowledging that this mine is
outside the park.
|A motor used for mining activities|
Gal Oya National Park was declared in 1954 after the construction of the Senanayake Samudraya, which feeds 1 23000 acres of agricultural lands in the Eastern Province to ensure the water security of the Senanayake Samudraya and for the protection of wild animals including elephants who lost their habitats due to this massive
As much as 37037 hectares of forests were later added to this 25900-hectare national park including the Senanayake Samudra Sanctuary, Gal Oya Valley Southwest Sanctuary and Gal Oya Valley
The forest system attached to the Gal Oya National Park is the tributary forest of Gal Oya, the feeder river of the Senanayake Samudraya, which has a basin of 1877 square kilometres, and Ampara Digamadulla Senanayake Samudraya, which has a water capacity of 770000
Gal Oya National Park is of great ecological value. It is also one of the unique bioregions in this country. Forests surrounding the Gal Oya and Nilgala are called Patanbim or Savanna Forests. Plants like Aralu (Terminalia chebula), Bulu (Terminalia belerica), Nelli (Phyllanthus emblica), Gammalu (Pterocorpus marsupium) as well as grass varieties such as Heen Pangiri, Aththuththiri, Maha Pini Baru, Pini Baru, Athadi, and Vishnukranti are found here.
“There are many species here that are unique to Uva province. 73 species of reptiles including two species of the genus Lacertidae were reportedly found here. Out of them, 31 species are endemic to Sri Lanka. Nilgala day gecko (Cnemaspis nilgala) and Nilgala forest gecko (Cyrtodactylus vadda) are two very rare species of reptiles that are limited only to Gal Oya and Nilgala forest systems,” my friend said. Environmentalists maintain that there are important living fossil here to describe the geographical connection between Sri Lanka and India.
Sajiva Chamikara, a Senior Environmentalist and Conservationist, commenting on the value of Nilgala Patana, said “the forest is occupied by many species of geckos endemic to Sri Lanka and a number of rare species of skinks. Around 20 species of amphibians are found in Nilgala and Gal Oya forests, of which 9 species are endemic to Sri Lanka,” said Chamikara.
Recently, a group of researchers led by Mendis Wickramasinghe discovered a species of rock-frog that is only found in the Uva Pathanbima and Nilgala. The researchers named the new species as Nannophrys naeyakei in honour of the indigenous ancestors who occupied the area. Jungle Bush Quail (Perdicula asiatica ceylonensis), Painted Francolin or Painted Partridge (Francolinus pictus watsoni) and Yellow-footed Green Pigeon (Treron phoenicopterus phillipsi) can only be found in Nilgala Patana. According to the 2012 IUCN Red List these three endemic subspecies are
“Barronet (Euthalia nais), a butterfly that lives only in Nilgala forest and has a caterpillar stage feeding on beedi leaves, is another factor that tells the uniqueness of this forest. This species of butterfly is also known as Nilgala butterfly. Due to this ecological value, the presence of many villages inhabited by indigenous people, and the beautiful valley where the park is located, has attracted many tourists. As it is located in a unique biological zone, local as well as foreign researchers visit this place to carry out researches,” Raja Vidanapathirana of Monaragala Soba Padanama
When Assistant Director of the Wildlife Department, Dr. Lakshman Pieris said that this land was within the park, the Director General of Wildlife said in 2022 that the land is located one mile outside the park. If so after 2020, the Department of Wildlife Conservation should have changed and gazetted the boundaries of the Gal Oya National Park – Hemantha Withanage Senior Ecologist of the Center for Environmental Justice
|A letter issued DWC to National Gem and Jewelry Authority confirming no objection to mining activities|
It is evident that the Nilgala Forest, including the Gal Oya National Park, is an ecosystem with a unique biodiversity. The DWC granting permission for mining activities endangering such a sensitive ecological system is a huge problem.
After the declaration of Gal Oya National Park in 1954, people back then abandoned the three paddy lands namely Pohonthota, Ulwela and Mahawela located inside this park as the DWC did not allow cultivation within the park. A businessman operating a quarry in Bibila has obtained a deed to a 5-acre paddy land in Ulwela. No cultivation has taken place and there are many issues that need to be further probed; regarding ownership of that deed.
In 2020, using the aforementioned deed, the businessman requested permission from the DWC to operate a mine in this area in the Ulwela old paddy land on the right bank of the Kayan Kadura main canal, a tributary of the Gal Oya. Dr. Lakshman Pieris, the Assistant Director of the Natural Resources Management Unit of the DWC, after calling for reports from the relevant officials in this regard, had rejected his request after discovering that the requested land was inside the National Park.
On 23.01.2020, this businessman sent a letter regarding this to the then Minister of Wildlife, Land Development, S. M Chandrasena. (Attachment 03) indicating that the DWC does not allow him to operate a mine in his free hold land because it is in the induction zone within one-mile span outside the park. Indicating that there was injustice involved he requested permission to conduct mine activities using machinery. The minister, who has considered this request, had given approval to this landowner to engage in mining using machines.
“This person made another request from the DWC when there was sufficient information to confirm that this already controversial land is within the park.
He requests to reinvestigate this matter claiming that the land is outside the park. Accordingly Director General of Wildlife M.G.C. Suriyabandara issued recommendations (Annexure 05) with a set of conditions to obtain the relevant permits for gem mining. After obtaining permits from the relevant institutions, this businessman proceeded to violate the conditions specified by the Director General by constructing temporary electric fences, remaining in the park, using the access roads to dig large-scale mines and causing huge environmental damage.” Dilena Pathragoda, the Managing Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice alleged.
The land which is said to belong to this businessman is located in Ulwela paddy land in the Gal Oya National Park in Bulupitiya Grama Niladhari Division, Bibile Divisional Secretariat, Monaragala District. Its entrance road falls across the park. To enter this mining site one has to enter from the park entrance. M. Kenujanan, a forest ranger in the Nilgala site, has written to his superiors that the frequent vehicular movements of miners carrying machinery have caused hindrance to the wildlife as well as the tourists who come to visit the park. It was also revealed that the businessman is taking water from the Gal Oya National Park to wash the sediments obtained from the mines.
2022 survey report
When this businessman requested to engage in mining in this land, Assistant Director of the DWC, Dr. Lakshman
|Surveyor Department document states that the mine is outside the national park|
Pieris did not grant permission because it was revealed that this land was within the park according to the boundaries mentioned in the gazette. The 2022 survey report indicated that the location of the land-one kilometre away from the park- is questionable. K. M. N. Jayawardhana, Monaragala Senior Superintendent of Survey, said that the surveyors carried out the relevant survey keeping with the boundaries indicated by the
“As far as I remember, this request came in 2020. At that time, I was not the superintendent. We received a request through Bibile Divisional Secretary to indicate whether a paddy land belonging to a person in Bibile area is inside or outside the Gal Oya National Park. Accordingly, we went in a group, carried out the survey and the park warden of Gal Oya National Park pointed out that the boundaries belong to the park. We then sent a copy of the survey to the Bibile Divisional Secretariat. The Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation recently made an inquiry regarding this matter,” he added.
When declaring a park its boundaries are clearly indicated. There are also GPS readings related to those boundaries. The Survey Department should find out whether the land is inside or outside the park and not according to the boundaries
indicated by the wildlife officers.
Hemantha Withanage, Senior Ecologist of the Center for Environmental Justice, said that the DWC indicating that the land in question was within the park in 2020 and but later maintaining it is not in 2022 is a ridiculous claim.
“When Assistant Director of the Wildlife Department, Dr. Lakshman Pieris said that this land was within the park, the Director General of Wildlife said in 2022 that the land is located one mile outside the park. If so after 2020, the Department of Wildlife Conservation should have changed and gazetted the boundaries of the Gal Oya National Park. According to the boundaries gazetted in 1954, this land is within the park. Even if you check the 1:50000 map, this land is found inside the park,” he added.
No man’s land
We inquired from Monaragala District Forest Officer Bharata Dissanayake regarding this boundary issue. “I sent a group including the Bibile Site Officer to the site to find out who owns the land. According to the 1:50000 map and the GPS readings on our borders, the disputed land is within the Gal Oya National Park. And our border is proportional to the wildlife border. But according to this new boundary, a land that does not belong either to the wildlife department or the forest department is shown. There is a problem that needs to be looked into,” he said.
According to the Monaragala District Forest Officer, going by these new boundaries of the Gal Oya National Park- indicated by the Wildlife Conservation Department- about 3000 hectares of forest land neither belong to the Wildlife Department nor the Forest Conservation Department. The Monaragala Soba Padanama environmental organization pointed out that this leads to another crisis.
Both the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the person who owns the mine admitted that the disputed site where the mine is situated is outside the park, but it is within the induction zone.
This writer did some research to see if mining is allowed by law in a wildlife induction zone. According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, no person or organization can carry out any development work in a private or government land within the induction zone without the full written permission of the Director General of Wildlife. If the land in dispute is not in the park it should be in the wildlife induction zone. If so, this businessman must obtain written permission from the Director General of Wildlife for what he is doing. He has already done so and the Director General of Wildlife M. G. C. Suriyabandara has granted permission subject to several conditions.
We inquired from Jagath Gunawardena, an Environmental Lawyer, whether this businessman can engage in his
The Director of Wildlife has made a serious mistake by giving permission to this businessman subject to some conditions. The Act does not allow him to give permission in that manner. Accordingly, he has misused his position – Jagath Gunawardena Environmental Lawyer
“Subsection (2) (1) of the Act clearly states that when a person requests the Director General’s permission to carry out any development activity or business activity in an induction zone, the Director General must carry out an EIA or an initial environmental assessment related to this activity. But the Director of Wildlife has made a serious mistake by giving permission to this businessman subject to some conditions. The Act does not allow him to give permission in that manner. Accordingly, he has misused his position,” he added.
The wildlife officers have changed the gazetted boundaries of the Gal Oya National Park several times and suspiciously removed a large area of wildlife land from the park, according to Dr. Prasanna Withanarachichi, a researcher and a consultant of Mahaweli. Accordingly, it is suspicious whether this land used for mining, which was said to be inside the park in 2020.
“It seems that the boundaries of Gal Oya National Park have changed on several occasions. According to the 1:50000 map (see Map 01), this mining site is clearly within the park at an aerial distance of 04 km from the park boundary. I realised that the park boundaries of the Gal Oya National Park have been changed. (See Map No. 02). This mining site is 194 metres into the park from the park boundary. But according to the present survey plan, the mining land has been taken away from the park boundary. (See No. 03 on the map) According to the data on Google Earth, the boundaries of the Gal Oya National Park have been drawn close to the Full Supply Level (FSL) of the Gal Oya Reservoir. (See No. 04 on the map) In that regard, the boundaries of this national park, which was declared in 1954, have been reduced from time to time without any gazette announcement,” said Prasanna Withanage.
At the same time, the question arises as to why handheld GPS was used for surveying.
Based on this information it seems that the Wildlife Department itself has redrawn the boundaries applied in the declaration of the Gal Oya National Park recently on several occasions. The relevant parties should probe the incident and find out for whose interests it happened. If wildlife officials did this deliberately to allow any smuggling activity, it is the responsibility of the concerned authorities to punish them.