This Sri Lankan man is able to bring pleasure to millions with his knack for running zoos. He also saves wild elephants.
“I’ve spent the best years of my life here,” says Lyn de Alwis, now back at the Dehiwela Zoo outside Colombo to which he devoted 30 years of his working life, 23 of them as its Director.
Those were golden years for the zoo, located in a southern suburb, and regarded as one of the finest in the region both for its collection as well as its beautifully laid gardens. But more recently, Colombo´s zoological gardens have been in acute decline and the government has recalled the former director from retirement to serve it as a consultant.
The impact of his return is already being felt, with a new enthusiasm evident among both staff and visitors who are returning to a once-favourite recreation spot in growing numbers. Decidedly, there is a new bloom around the place. Mr de Alwis says that a lot more remains to be done, but is quietly confident that the zoo can regain its past glory.
For five years between 1965-70, Mr de Alwis concurrently held the position of both Zoo Director and Director of Wildlife Conservation. He firmly believes that the best way to study animals, whether in their natural habitat or in captivity, is on foot. So he does a lot of walking every day in the gardens in much the same way an estate superintendent would in a plantation under his care, spotting the myriad things that need doing, giving instructions, following up.
The achievements at Dehiwela during Mr de Alwis´s years was what attracted Singapore authorities to invite him to set up the new zoo they were planning. That was in 1970, when he was given a 225-acre forest and a mandate to create an open air facility incorporating the features of a modern zoo. “They knew what they wanted, having toured many zoos, particularly in the US and Europe. They saw what we had at Dehiwela and decided to give us the job,” Mr de Alwis recalls.
The Singapore Zoo took three years and a lot of hard work to build. The result, however, was immediate: one million visitors a year soon after opening. The zoo that Mr de Alwis built is now. firmly on the tourist map of Singapore. It is patronised by locals and is also popular among foreign visitors.
In 1986, when Mr de Alwis retired from his position of Director of the Dehiwela Zoo, Singapore invited him to come back and use the remaining land to set up what has become its unique Night Safari. Having seen leopard and tiger ´beats´ under lights at the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, Mr de Alwis believed that it would be possible to give zoo visitors a unique experience of watching the night-time behaviour of animals in a simulated nocturnal habitat.
“Actually, it was my wife who gave me the idea,” Mr de Alwis admits. “I always felt that if we could show nocturnal animals out in the open with a certain amount of lighting, people would get a much better understanding of how animals behave at night.” The Night Safari is now the rage in Singapore, where visitors can see several species of animals mingling at night in enclosures that are much bigger than normal zoos. Mr de Alwis originally wanted truly “huge” enclosures, but had to compromise. The size was reduced so that the animals would be clearly visible to visitors.
“The darkness conceals many of the devices that advertise the animals´ captive condition in the daytime—fences, moats, walls, chain links,” writes Nirmal Ghosh, an Indian Journalist based in Singapore, in an article for Silver Kris, the Singapore Airlines inflight magazine. “The zoo experience will never be the same after you´ve visited the Night Safari, a one-of-a-kind exposure to the nocturnal habits of some of the members of the animal kingdom.”
The Singapore Zoological Gardens have now set up a consultancy group to which Mr de Alwis belongs. Its role is to help other countries with their zoos. This group has already been approached by Burma, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Mr de Alwis´s professional involvement with animals is somewhat unique because not only has he dealt with animals in captivity, but has also headed his country´s Wild Life Conservation Department, running Sri Lanka´s national parks and regulating the fauna conservation effort. As in many other developing countries, this has been an uphill battle with man and animals competing for resources that become scarcer by the day.
In retirement, new life has been breathed into Mr de Alwis´s interest in wildlife conservation with his appointment as head of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AESG) set up by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Union. The Asian elephant now survives in the wild in 13 countries and four of them (India, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka) are represented in the AESG mandated to develop conservation proposals.
Mr de Alwis, who has been travelling to Burma and Indochina as part of his new responsibilities, says some very worthwhile breakthroughs have been made. “We must look at the whole of Asia and not just a few countries. I started approaching governments and governmental agencies in many countries where the Asian elephant survives and have had some very encouraging responses,” he says.
” Burma´s Minister of Forestry has been most enthusiastic and he personally invited us to his country. He sent us under escort to elephant country in difficult areas and himself organised a workshop. We made a similar approach to Cambodia and they were very open and very keen. We have also sent a group to Vietnam and right now we are getting into Laos.”
Most elephants in Indochina live in huge contiguous forests covering the territory of three countries—Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. An estimated 300 elephants live in this region. Ideally, an elephant reserve would be created encompassing the territory of all three countries, and Mr de Alwis is optimistic. “All three countries are keen on protecting this heritage,” he says. AESG is also involved with elephant conservation in Szechuan in southern China, where there is likely to be an estimated population of 300 elephants.
“When there is the resource and funds are available, you are encouraged to think of new enterprises”, says Mr de Alwis. “Whether it is zoos, conservation or anything else, we all talk glibly about the need for political will. But it is we who must be the instrument of securing that will. And when you start something, the beautiful thing is that you get support which you least anticipated.”