It was a Wilpattu trip after almost a year’s absence in the park and a quite uncharacteristically late entrance into the park after a 3.30am arrival to Aanawila the night before. With the late entry and an experienced and super jeep driver (Nishantha: 0724125078) we were assigned a less experienced tracker, Saman who clambered in clutching some paperwork.
It was a bit of a surprise to find out that he was a member of the Civil Defense Force, what is thought to be one of the poorest trained and least popular sections of the armed forces in Sri Lanka. Someone had put it fairly accurately to me some time ago, that (rightly or wrongly) the general impression is that the CDF is a bunch of village thugs with guns.
Saman however was completely different from what I expected, very nice and eager. The documents he was clutching as he got into the vehicle turned out to be a bird guide book. As I identified a blue-faced malkoha and a racquet-tailed drongo, he sheepishly admitted that he wasn’t the best at bird ID’s and if he had known I was into birds he would have gotten a better guide from the office. Yet it was refreshing to be with Saman, not only did he look up a bird in the bird every time we saw one but he’s enthusiasm was infectious. I usually just click a photo for ID’ng later and go along my merry way especially with the waders since they are usually quite obscure, small and relatively dull. This time however it was an interesting trip because Saman was quite into trying to ID every bird we came across.
A character like Saman does raise an interesting issue. Every park that I have visited, from Yala to Wasgamuwa to Gal Oya, is understaffed with the majority of staff being temporary. In a park like Gal Oya, rarely visited and relatively obscure it is somewhat excusable. But in a park like Yala, where turnover has on some days exceeded Rs. 1 million a day and is a frequent stop on the tourist trail, there is simply no excuse.
Yet at the same time while the parks, which generate such vital income, cry out for manpower, the Civil Defense Force is 35,000 strong without any discernible purpose that the army or the police could not fulfill. They are paid salaries and have pension schemes (http://www.lankajournal.com/2012/01/pension-scheme-for-civil-defense-force/) funded by the taxpayer. There has been some talk about the CDF ‘helping’ the DWC with the elephant-man conflict but why not simply reallocate resources?
Saman cannot be the only one of his kind in the CDF. There must be more individuals in entities such as the CDF who have a latent interest in nature, wildlife and who would benefit from being brought into the fold of the DWC, being trained and acquiring skills and pride in protecting a natural heritage. These same people are otherwise pulling a salary, holding a gun and sitting around doing nothing much the whole day. That money could be much better spent on someone who is creating value for the country like Saman is. Our problem is not only limited resources but the poor way in which we use our resources, driven by political expediency and short term gain. We can get around limited resources by thinking smart and acting with principle. Of course the key here is letting go of our apathy and complacency but currently the majority seems intent on not doing that as long as possible. It’s the age old story of Sri Lanka, potential but no will to make good on that potential.