The deep jungle’s cry
3 months ago | By Venessa Anthony
- Wildlife experts fight a festival that threatens to destroy a fragile ecosystem
The Deep Jungle Music and Cultural Festival 2023, scheduled to be held next week, promises to be a celebration of Sri Lanka’s rich culture and natural beauty. But behind the music, dancing, and festivities lies a dark reality – the harm it will inflict on the wildlife, local communities, and tourist industry in the region. Located in the heart of the Gal Oya Forest Reserve, the festival site in Habarana, Polonnaruwa is surrounded by pristine wilderness, home to countless species of flora and fauna. Although the festival organisers claim the event to be under the umbrella of sustainable tourism, the festival’s footprint will no doubt leave an indelible impact on this delicate ecosystem and potentially threaten the very essence of what makes Sri Lanka’s tourism industry so unique – its cultural and environmental heritage.
The legal loophole
In conversation with The Daily Morning Brunch, Biodiversity Conservation and Research Circle Convenor Supun Lahiru Prakash shared that this festival, organised by Sigiriya’s Deep Jungle Entertainment Director and Habarana Safari Jeep Association Chairman Sumudu Saman Piyaratne, was put together under the full approval of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. Additionally, the organisers have reportedly obtained approval from a number of other Government agencies. The Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Managing Director awarded the certificate for this festival.
Upon the festival’s announcement, Prakash informed us that Prime Minister’s Secretary Anura Dissanayake had expressed his support for this project to an extent by utilising a letterhead from the Prime Minister’s Office. “In the letter of the Polonnaruwa District Forest Office No. Po/Diwani/4/1/1/4 dated 2023.02.03, it is stated that the location of this activity is adjacent to a forest reserve belonging to the Department of Forestry, so conditional approval will be given. The letters are available on social media as well.” He pointed out that the Minneriya National Park Custodian had informed that this area does not belong to a wildlife reserve, so the provisions of the Wildlife and Flora Protection Ordinance are not violated, noting the slippery slope in terms of legal issues. According to him, the Divisional Secretary of Higurakgoda has also informed the Station Commander of Habarana Police Station to make the necessary arrangements to grant permission for the use of loudspeakers on the festival grounds.
Even with permission being granted by the higher-ups, Prakash pointed out that a letter does not simply suffice for matters of this kind. “There are procedures that should be followed,” Prakash said, adding that many wildlife organisations and experts such as Justice for Animals, RARE Sri Lanka, and Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) have written to the relevant authorities for a solution to no avail.
“It is simply unacceptable that government institutions like the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau would consider endorsing activities that recklessly destroy the very resources they are meant to protect. The forests and wildlife of Sri Lanka represent a vast, untapped potential for sustainable tourism, and it is abhorrent that they would be squandered in the name of short-term gain,” Prakash stated, backed by several of his peers.
Sustainable tourism or a quick cash grab?
With President Ranil Wickremasinghe pursuing a policy of “Green Growth,” this type of event organised in a wildlife locality contravenes the policy that the Government is trying to follow. As a spokesman at the WNPS noted, such events provide a direct negative impact on climate change too, and having the Prime Minister’s office along with the Ministry of Tourism and the Department of Forest Conservation endorsing the event proves that the policy driven from the top is not understood or is ignored at all levels.
“In Sri Lanka, human-driven fragmentation continues to be one of the biggest drivers of the destruction of our natural environment. Chopping down forests, encroaching into forested areas for agriculture, or using natural territories for urbanisation collectively leads to fragmentation. With the already problematic situation of the Elephant Gathering being lost for the whole area, the organisers who earn from the very animals they are trying to destroy should know better,” they observed.
According to the studies of tourism development specialist and researcher Lal Minnapala, 47% of all foreign tourists visiting Sri Lanka had visited national parks by the year 2018, the last peak before Sri Lanka’s tourism industry suffered a setback due to the 21 April terrorist attack and Covid-19. “Animals like elephants and tigers become the main attraction for these tourists and not loud music,” pointed out Prakash.
An analysis conducted on the financial gains as a result of the elephant gathering in the Minneriya National Park through the tourism industry has revealed that one elephant brings in about about Rs. 10 million on average. This includes revenue generated by the Wildlife Conservation Department, the safari jeep industry, and tourist hotels. Every year, Minneriya National Park’s annual elephant gathering, which takes place during the dry season, is recognised as one of the 10 greatest natural wonders of the world.
From the months of May and August to September, this wildlife wonder reaches its peak in the Minneriya National Park when a large number of elephants numbering as many as 400, gather on the grasslands of the Minneriya Reservoir. But at present, due to the Government’s reckless and short-sighted development activities and lack of interagency cooperation, the gathering of elephants in the Minneriya National Park is, unfortunately, becoming a thing of the past. “Against such a background, shouldn’t the Government be doing all it can to protect our main source of income rather than destroy it,” Prakash questioned.
Disrupting Earth’s natural rhythm
In a world where humans have taken control of the night, the delicate balance of nature is being disrupted. For billions of years, all life has relied on the predictable rhythm of day and night to govern critical behaviours like reproduction, nourishment, sleep, and protection from predators. But with the introduction of artificial light, this delicate cycle has been shattered. Prakash highlighted: “The effects of light pollution are far-reaching and deadly, affecting not just nocturnal animals but also migratory birds, insects, and even plants. Birds that navigate by moonlight and starlight are being led astray, with millions dying each year from collisions with illuminated buildings.” Meanwhile, migratory birds are thrown off course, missing ideal conditions for nesting, foraging, and other behaviours.
Prakash further explained: “Many insects are naturally drawn to light, but this attraction can have devastating consequences. As insect populations decline, so too do the species that rely on them for food or pollination. Meanwhile, predators are exploiting this attraction to their advantage, upending food webs in unexpected ways. The result is a world where the delicate balance of nature is being thrown off kilter, with potentially catastrophic effects for the creatures that call it home.”
“With the artificial light that will be streaming for the festival area, the result would be a world where the natural order of things is disrupted, with devastating consequences for the creatures that call it home,” he added.
Sharing their thoughts, a spokesperson for the WNPS stated that wildlife sanctuaries are designated areas where animals and plants are well-protected from external disturbances. The goal of having wildlife sanctuaries and forest reserves is to provide a comfortable environment for the animals inhabiting the area. Even in Sri Lanka, several animal species are on the verge of extinction, as their primary natural habits are being rapidly decimated. “An event of this nature will only add to the issues this locality already has. The location where this event has been earmarked to be held is effectively in the vicinity of a wildlife sanctuary where the habitat needs to be protected, allowing animals and plants a safe zone for breeding and comfortably surviving,” they added, noting that the landscapes in wildlife sanctuaries should be well-protected from urbanisation, pollution levels –both noise and other – and destruction.
Unprecedented levels of noise pollution
While noise pollution may be an invisible danger, it is very much present in our everyday lives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that noise is one of the most hazardous forms of pollution. Studies have shown that loud noise can cause caterpillars’ hearts to beat faster and bluebirds to have fewer chicks. Noise pollution makes it difficult for animals to use sound for navigation, find food, communicate, reproduce, and avoid predators, affecting many animals’ ability to survive.
In these studies, over one hundred species were analysed and divided into seven groups: amphibians, arthropods, birds, fish, mammals, molluscs, and reptiles. The results found evidence that noise pollution impacts all seven groups of species, and the different groups didn’t differ in their response to noise.
“It goes without saying that the high noise and light waves used in such large music festivals threaten the existence of wildlife living in this area in many ways,” Prakash stated.
A spokesman for the WNPS also noted that the society is perturbed that such an event has been provided approval or endorsements by Government statutory bodies as the noise pollution that will be emitted by the festival will cause tremendous disruption to the wild animals in the locality.
The final verdict
In the face of overwhelming opposition, the organisers of the Deep Jungle Music and Cultural Festival 2023 made a desperate attempt to justify their actions by blaming the decline of elephants in the area on factors beyond their control. However, as noted by Prakash, a leading wildlife expert, this decline is the result of human failure and cannot be used as a valid excuse to proceed with the festival. Despite the pushback from concerned citizens and conservationists, the organisers seem intent on pushing ahead with their plans.
The statement also noted that the area used for the festival is located about 1.4 km from the entrance of the familiar Environment Park. “In this area just outside the security zone, people have been residing and cultivating their farmlands for the past 25-30 years on several acres. The festival is not held in a biodiversity park, or an area in which the biodiversity will be affected, and it is not in a buffer zone or a monarchy zone, and the wildlife and forest officials who came here were granted permission. It should be mentioned here that the land is located on private property where people currently reside and cultivate under licence.”
The statement also addressed the noise pollution that was causing concern. “For this festival, we are using the newest Amay Sounds technology which is in accordance with the guidelines provided. So far we’ve worked according to all the recommendations and we’ll be organising this year’s festival within a legal frame. If anyone has any problem regarding this, we request you to come to the fair and resolve the doubts. We can also address concerns regarding noise pollution and ensure that the number of decibels is within the recommended ranges. As an institution we are here to act responsibly and also hope to support the rural lives that have been impacted over the past few years after following the law in the country. Accordingly, the festival is not a project aimed at gaining business or private profit but a project that will run for several years for the wellbeing of the people dependent on the land and the tourism industry.”
In response to the statement, Prakash and other experts stated: “The deep jungle and its inhabitants deserve better than this. They deserve to be protected, not exploited. The truth is that tourists come to these areas to bask in the peace and quiet of nature and not to enjoy festivals like the Deep Jungle Music and Cultural Festival 2023. It’s time for the authorities to step up and do the right thing. Let’s work together to manage our environmental and archaeological attractions in a sustainable manner, so that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty and wonder of these places. It’s time to choose conservation over destruction. Let’s make it happen.”