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The woes of the guardians of the nation’s fauna

2 years ago

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  • Wildlife conservation officers continue to work in high-risk conditions: DWC trade unions

  • Discussions underway; vaccine will be available soon: Authorities

By Sumudu Chamara   As the Covid-19 pandemic has peaked to a point where the world has come to accept the persistent threat it will pose, vaccination has become the world’s only viable tool of effectively combating its spread on a large scale. Understandably, this has resulted in the vaccine becoming a critical resource, with nations allocating large portions of their budgets to acquire the vaccine and subsequently devising rollout plans to inoculate starting from the most vulnerable. While there is a scramble to acquire vaccines on an international level, developing nations like Sri Lanka lack the resources to easily acquire enough doses for the entire population. Therefore, a great deal of rationing has to take place to ensure that whatever doses the country gets are distributed where they are needed the most. But here is where the matter becomes more complicated – once the most vulnerable have been inoculated, who should be next in line for the limited doses left available?   Wildlife protectors’ struggle As the country had to implement priority lists, which caused controversy owing to its implementation, several groups began demanding the vaccine due to the nature of their occupations. Among them were railway station masters, teachers, and bus drivers and conductors, and the newest group that joined this struggle is Sri Lanka’s wildlife conservation officers. Several officers of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) yesterday (7) launched a one-day token strike over the authorities’ failure to provide them the Covid-19 vaccines, despite having held discussions about the matter during the past few months. The strike was limited to withdrawing from field work. According to the All Ceylon Wildlife Officers’ Association (ACWOA), even though wildlife conservation officers on field duty are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19, no programme has been implemented at the departmental level to vaccinate them against the virus. ACWOA President Shanuka Ranawaka Arachchi, who spoke with The Morning earlier this week, said that even though certain wildlife conservation officers had been vaccinated during the regional vaccination programmes, many officers who are on duty in remote areas had been unable to participate in these programmes conducted in their areas of residence. “We have to go to the villages, especially for duties like chasing away elephants. In some villages, there may be Covid-19-infected patients. When performing most of the duties, wildlife conservation officials have to associate with the community. That is why we have made several requests to provide us with the Covid-19 vaccines, but to no avail,” he said. To know more about the situation, we spoke to All Island Wildlife Junior Officers’ Association (AIWJOA) Secretary A.P.S. Widanagamage, who stressed that as far as the country’s Covid-19 situation is concerned, wildlife conservation officers are in great danger, as the nature of their duties is such that they have to engage in field work despite the pandemic. Speaking of the field work, he said: “Regardless of the pandemic, we work throughout the day, even though according to the relevant circulars, officers are required to work in the field only for eight days a month, which is around two days a week. However, due to the lack of staff members, we all worked, both in the field and in offices. Even though some work in locations which are closer to their residences, there are some Wildlife Conservation officers who work far away from their homes. Despite travel restrictions and the pandemic, they worked from the locations they were in. Even though we requested vaccines from the authorities, so far, there are no promising signs. Despite their dedication, the authorities have failed to devise a plan to give them the vaccine. “We have made requests from the DWC in this regard on six occasions, and we also said that we intend to go for trade union action if our demand is not met. However, we have not received any positive, tangible outcome. The only response we received was that we were informed that even though requests had been made to the health authorities, no positive response had been received from them. That, however, is not an answer acceptable to us. We are of the opinion that the DWC has underestimated us and our service, and we feel like our duty is not being appreciated adequately. If they genuinely valued our service, we should have received the vaccine.” Widanagamage noted that the wildlife conservation officers’ workforce, which consists of only around 2,000 officers, not receiving vaccines is questionable, given the service that they provide. “Sri Lanka is receiving vaccine stocks in six-digit figures; however, our officers only want a relatively small number of vaccines, as the size of the workforce in the field is around 1,000 and the total workforce is around 2,000. Even if the authorities decide to give both doses of the vaccine to these officers, it would be a total of around 4,000 doses,” Widanagamae said, lamenting that even though the required number of doses is around 4,000, the wildlife conservation authorities have failed to secure at least that number and that this in turn is an unfortunate situation. Adding that among the public institutions in the country the Department is one of the institutions that is discussed often, he explained: “Even though the tourism industry is currently rather inactive, a large part of the industry depends on the activities done through our Department, and due to the contribution the Department provides, it has been graded as a Grade One institution that generates a considerable income. In this context, we believe that wildlife conservation officers have a justifiable right to obtain the vaccine and the authorities have a duty to provide it. The department heads do not seem to be paying enough attention to this matter, and they are of the opinion that it is not under their control. They claim that even though they had made requests with regard to the need to obtain the vaccine, their requests were not entertained. One of our concerns is whether a department head can say such things and ignore what needs to be done. Taking into account that the wildlife conservation officers worked without leave, for the safety of the wildlife conservation officers, he is expected to take some move, such as informing the higher authorities that he has to reduce the number of wildlife conservation officers required to report to field work and that he has to limit the officers required to perform office work. Perhaps, had he taken such a step, the wildlife conservation officers would have been able to get the vaccine, at least as a step by the authorities in order to prevent a collapse of the service.”   Risk Speaking of the magnitude of the risk that wildlife conservation officers are facing when performing their duties, Widanagamage said that a considerable number of officers use public transport services at times, and that when visiting various areas to perform their duties, they have to travel in groups. “Small groups of officers, sometimes, are not adequate to do certain duties, and it is therefore not possible to prevent them from engaging in collective activities. In addition, practical circumstances under which they operate are such that it is sometimes difficult to adhere to safety guidelines all the time, especially in duties that involve dealing closely with animals and humans. “There were several occasions when the wildlife conservation officers had to work in areas that were affected by Covid-19. They were not affected by it; however, there was a considerable chance that they too could have been affected by the disease. However, despite the risks associated with the prevailing pandemic, the wildlife conservation officers have to continue their work, which most of the time is done in collaboration with or in the presence of other officials of various public institutions and the villagers of the respective areas, and therefore there is no assurance that the officers do not face a huge risk of contracting the disease,” he stressed. He further opined: “Since the Department is a foremost public institution supervised by two ministries, the fact that we were not given the vaccine shows the nature of the treatment we receive. Various institutions that face a lesser risk have been given the vaccine.”   The authorities’ response Speaking of the health authorities’ response, Widanagamage said: “As far as I know, on several occasions during the past few months, the DWC authorities had sent request letters to the health authorities such as the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) and the heads of the Covid-19 management units, explaining the nature of the services provided and the working conditions of the wildlife conservation officers, which makes them more exposed to the disease. However, these actions have been limited to letters, and the authorities tasked with managing the Covid-19 situation had neglected the necessity of vaccinating the wildlife conservation officers.” He alleged that several wildlife conservation officers in the Hambantota District, however, had received a small number of vaccines based on their contacts, adding that the majority of officers have not received the vaccine yet. He noted that it was not a step taken by the health and wildlife conservation authorities in their official capacity. In addition, in the Western Province, a certain number of wildlife conservation officers had obtained the vaccine under the general vaccination drive which is available to the public. Even though The Morning attempted to contact DWC Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara and Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation C.B. Ratnayake, they were not reachable. However, speaking to The Morning earlier this week, Secretary to the State Ministry of Wildlife Protection, the Adoption of Safety Measures including the Construction of Electrical Fences and Trenches, and Reforestation and Forest Resource Development Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Palitha Fernando said the Ministry of Health has been informed in this regard, and that the vaccination of wildlife conservation officers would begin in the near future. After the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, certain occupations were identified as essential services, and the wildlife conservation officers’ duties, though not officially gazetted as essential, nonetheless, take a special place, as their service continues day in day out in all parts of the country and under various forms of harsh conditions in the protection of the country’s fauna. While protecting the environment has become a topic prevalent in today’s societal discourse, the country must also look at protecting those engaged in carrying out this task. In today’s context, this will mean ensuring they too are given access to the vaccine, so that they can continue to function without being placed under unfair risk.

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