The Mihintale Wildlife Sanctuary, which is believed to be the first sanctuary in the world, is today in a rather neglected state. There are no proper borders demarcating the sanctuary and no measures have been taken to protect its biodiversity. However, the Government has now taken steps to restore this sanctuary to its former state, in connection with the 2550th Buddha Jayanthi celebrations.
Buddhism has a strong link with trees and the environment, with the Buddha being born, attaining Enlightenment and Parinibbana(passing away), all under the shade of trees. By paying His gratitude to the bo tree, which helped Him attain Enlightenment, through the Animisa Lochana pooja, the Buddha displayed the importance of trees, to the whole world.
The first lesson on protecting animals and trees was given to the world by the Buddha. Through the first pansil 'Panathipatha Veramani Sikkhapadan Samadiyami', He showed the importance of protecting all living beings. In the Vana Ropa Sutra, the Buddha has explained the importance of planting trees and forests, and the benefits thus accruing.
In His sermons, the Buddha has said that the forests don't seek anything from us for their survival, while generously donating their produce for our benefit. Forests protect all living beings; they give shade to even those who cut them down.
Therefore, the Buddha can even be described as the world's first environmentalist. So it's opportune that we concentrate on the conservation of trees and animals in this 2550th Buddha Jayanthi year.
The link between Buddhism and the environment in our country grew even stronger with the arrival of Arahat Mahinda Thera in the third century BC. On this day, Sri Lanka's king, Devanampiya Tissa was deer-hunting in the jungles of Mihintale, Anuradhapura. The sight of the king pursuing a deer greeted Mahinda Thera on his arrival in Sri Lanka.
The Thera, who stopped the king in his tracks, preached to him that all mammals, birds and other creatures enjoy an equal right to live in this land, wherever they may want.
The land belongs to all the people and animals. The king is only the ruler and not the owner of this land, the Thera said. With that, Mahinda Thera advised King Devanampiya Tissa to designate Mihintale and the surrounding jungle areas as a sanctuary for wildlife.
Thus, the area became the first sanctuary, on a Poson Poya day in the third century BC. This fact has been accepted by all environmentalists and archaeologists, based on facts in the Mahavamsa and other available documentation.
According to the Director of the Biodiversity Unit of the Environment Ministry Dr. Gamini Gamage, a sellipi (stone inscription) found at Mihintale stablishes the fact that the king did command the people of the area not to kill animals or destroy trees in this area.
Going by all these facts which proves that this area was declared a sanctuary as far back as more than 2,200 years, and that to date there are no known records of other wildlife sanctuaries in the world, it would not be wrong to state that the Mihintale Sanctuary is not merely the oldest, but perhaps the first such sanctuary in the world.
May be it's time to look into this matter seriously and take necessary steps to declare it as the world's first wildlife sanctuary, if there are no other claims from other parts of the world.
However, legal protection for this sanctuary was granted only on May 27, 1938. It's on this day that the Anuradhapura Wildlife Sanctuary and Mihintale Sanctuary were gazetted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The Anuradhapura sanctuary comprises 3,500.7 hectares or 8,750 acres. The Mahamevna Uyana, the sacred city, Atamasthana and Western part of Isurumuniya all came within this compound.
However, today, this area has been urbanised and many buildings have come up within the premises. Even the Mahamevna Uyana, where a few trees are still left, is also facing many threats.
Viharadhipathi, Ruwanveliseya, Pallegama Hemarathana Thera said: "The old trees in this compound are dying, and not enough new trees are being planted. Although some organisations carry out tree-planting ceremonies, they don't assign personnel to look after them. During the Poson season, some people even light hearths on the roots of trees , which also result in the dying of trees."
Atamasthanadhipathi, Pallegama Sirinivasa Thera said: "This area belongs to the world's first sanctuary. There may not be another place as archaeologically important as this. We must get together with government and private sector organisations to design a programme to protect this area."
The environmental pollution caused to this area, especially during the Poson season, is enormous. The Mahamevna Uyana, which consists of many trees such as palu, weera, mara and esathu bo, is today the kingdom of cattle and monkeys. Its conservation cannot be carried out only by the Wildlife Conservation Department or the Forest Department. A special task force with government backing is necessary in this regard.
The Mihintale Sanctuary is also a part of the area demarcated as the first sanctuary during the third century BC. It comprises 999.6 hectares or 2,500 acres.All the mountains and hills of Mihintale, the Kaludiya Pokuna, Mihindu Guhava, Ambasthala area and the Amba Vanaya, which belong to the Forest Department, come within this sanctuary.
The biodiversity of this area is high, according to a study conducted by the Deputy Director, Wildlife Conservation Department, H.D. Gunawardane.
It comprises trees such as palu, weera, burutha(teak), ebony and milla and mammals such as elephants, deer, sambhur and bears. Although the area is legally protected, due to various reasons, such protective measures are not properly enforced. There aren't even boards designating these two areas as the first sanctuary.
The protection granted today to the Anuradhapura and Mihintale sanctuaries is very low. Within these areas, unauthorised constructions and illegal land grabbing are very high. Hunting of deer and sambhur is especially high in the Mihintale sanctuary, say residents.
Mihintale Viharadhikari, Valahahenguna Weve Dhammarathana Thera said: "The protection granted to these areas today is not enough. There isn't even a single boundary for this area. Nobody has paid any attention to this for years. Killing of animals and burning of the forest go on unabated. The Wildlife Conservation Department cannot stop this. Everybody should get together to stop this destruction."
W.A. Sarath, the Wildlife Conservation Department official in charge of the Anuradhapura area, said that although their personnel are working tirelessly to protect these sanctuaries, a lot of legal problems have arisen due to the unclear boundaries of the area.
As a solution to all these problems, a programme has been designed by the Environment Ministry and Biodiversity Unit to conserve these sanctuaries in connection with the 2550th Buddha Jayanthi. Today (June 11) the area will be declared as a highly protected zone, and a monument too will be erected by the Ministry officials.
As a first step, the issue of their boundaries will be resolved. The Biodiversity Unit is also taking steps to name the area as the first sanctuary and to set up a special environmental monument there. Steps will then be taken to conserve and further enhance the biodiversity and environmental diversity of the area.
This project has given us an opportunity to display the glory of our culture and environment to the whole world. The Environment Ministry should be thanked for putting this plan, which would benefit both environmentalists and archaeologists, into action.
Nihal P. Abeysinghe
February 13, 2007