Drones driving away Mannar’s migrant birds

By Marianne David

Mannar, a migratory haven for birds, is now seeing an invasion of birdwatchers armed with drones, to the dismay of wildlife enthusiasts.

The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) is now working to urgently have the area declared as a no-fly zone and reaching out to the authorities towards this end, WNPS President Spencer Manuelpillai told The Sunday Morning yesterday (29).

In a letter to Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAA) CEO/Director General Captain Themiya Abeywickrama sent last morning (29), WNPS General Secretary Jehan Canagaretna has stated: “We appeal to you and the relevant authorities for an immediate declaration of the Mannar wetlands area as a no fly zone to prevent impending disaster. We would also request that the same prohibition be applied to other protected areas and the strict code of conduct be communicated through a campaign, to which the WNPS would extend its support for implementation.”

The letter was copied to Ministry of Tourism Secretary Siri Hettiarachchi, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara and DWC Director – Operations Ranjan Marasinghe.

“The WNPS is appalled to learn that so-called birdwatchers from the capital are visiting Mannar armed with drones, endangering the continued stay, and future migration, to this unique place of these special, rare and beautiful species of birds. Most are migrants, some flying in from thousands of miles away, to feed and breed in the hitherto haven of Mannar,” the WNPS letter further stated.

Manuelpillai said that although the area was supposedly a High Security Zone, the drones were being flown at low altitudes to avoid detection, causing even more disturbance to the feeding birds.

“It has been proven that the noise, and the resemblance to aerial predators, cause great anxiety to these species. If they leave, they will never come again, a high price to pay so that the privileged few from Colombo can get their kicks,” he asserted.

Sri Lanka Air Force Spokesman Gp. Cpt. Dushan Wijesinghe told The Sunday Morning last morning that the Air Force could intervene in this regard if a complaint were to be filed with the police.

“If a person wants to operate drones, the procedure is to reach out to the Defence Ministry, which then forwards it to the Chief of Defence Staff office and the Air Force. Since we are entrusted with monitoring the operation of drones in Colombo and suburbs and other restricted areas, Air Force personnel accompany the drone operator. However, if we have a complaint from the Civil Aviation Authority or local police, we will definitely intervene. The local police should be informed about this,” he noted.

Meanwhile, CAA Director – Air Transport and Economic Regulation Reyhan Wanniappa told The Sunday Morning that the CAA had checked with the Air Force and Police but there had been no official report in this regard so far.

“The CAA is looking into this matter,” he asserted, noting that whenever approval was granted for drone flying, there was a clause calling for operators to also obtain approval from the relevant authorities in the area.

He further stated that approval was needed from the CAA when flying drones weighing over 200 g in public places, adding that they would look into whether the drones being used in Mannar had been granted permission. “One approval has been given by the CAA in the last couple of days but that is in conjunction with the Navy,” added Wanniappa.

The WNPS lodged a complaint at the Mannar Police Station late last evening.

Mannar is best known for flocks of flamingos, but as of Friday (28) the flamingos had gone deep into the lagoon because of the disturbance, said Manuelpillai.

“Flamingos are the most noticeable, hundreds of them, straining the briny waters for the shrimp they thrive on. However, there are many more, and almost every year, new species are recorded here; a wonder not just for local ornithologists, but those from overseas too, bringing with them much-needed foreign exchange to this country,” he added.

The WNPS is also appealing to the relevant authorities and the drone fliers to immediately halt this destructive practice. 

“Let us not forget that when the salinity of the waters of the Bundala National Park were diluted by the diverted waters of the Lunugamvehera, the flocks of flamingos for which it was famous, and other species, headed north. If we harass them, and the other migrants, in this way, they will head even further north, out of this country. Is this what we want for Sri Lanka?” WNPS queried.