The demise of former Civil Servant, S.D. Saparamadu has taken from us an exceptional man – administrator, scholar, historian, publisher, hotelier and nature conservationist – wrapped in the personality of an insouciant friend and guru.
His insouciance was beguiling much like the Lankan centurions at the third Test vs. the Australians at the SSC, Dhananjaya and Chandimal who by nature are happy stroke-makers but when needed displayed a disciplined approach to the task at hand.
Sappi, as he was popularly known, was a tough cookie to combat when confronted with what he perceived as unreasonableness, but was otherwise warm, friendly, carefree and jovial.
I had the good fortune to associate with him in the early 1970s when I was seconded from the Government Information Department to the Department of Wildlife Conservation as Assistant Director and Editor of the Sri Lanka Wildlife bulletin. Saparamadu was Director of the Wildlife Department and concurrently Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Shipping and Tourism.
As we got to know each other better, we developed a rapport beyond the 9 to 5 office hours which grew in mutual respect for each other’s work ethics and the love of nature. The times we visited the National Parks on inspection tours were numerous. It was on these tours that I gleaned Sappi’s commitment to nature conservation and to the welfare of the staff whose duty it was to maintain the Parks and ensure the health of their denizens.
Sappi’s closeness to the Ministry enabled him to secure the funds to undertake, until then much neglected, the infrastructure in the Parks. Under his tenure, entrance gates at Wilpattu and Yala were erected, new office buildings were constructed and a wildlife museum to educate visitors, particularly schoolchildren, was inaugurated in Yala. Better and permanent living quarters for resident staff were built and the staff wage structures were revised upward. The field staff was, for the first time, offered opportunities for promotion to the head office and Park Warden, Percy De Alwis, was promoted as Assistant Director. Within the Parks several grassy meadows were planted and waterholes for the benefit of the animals were constructed some of them being named after dedicated field staff, such as Percy Bendi Wewa.
Sappi was also keen to ensure that the message of nature conservation was propagated among the rural folk of the country as he believed that they were the true inheritors of the traditions of ahimsa, embedded in their concepts of the unity of all life and the humanitarian ideals of Buddhism and, therefore, the true guardians of nature. To achieve this, he believed the common people should be given opportunities to visit the Parks and stay overnight. Towards this end he built Vishramasalas to accommodate large numbers of people and expanded the number of Park bungalows in Yala and Wilpattu.
This brought him in direct conflict with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society who opposed the idea of opening the Parks to “sarongedyakkos”. Sappi viewed the WNPS, then headed by influential fertilizer merchant Thilo Hoffman as a gang of wealthy urban cowboys whose desire to preserve privilege drove them to want to corral the Department to inaction. Sappi stood firm and won the day. Through these turns of vicissitude, I was privileged to fight the good PR battles alongside Sappi and our friendship grew.
One day, Sappy came with the thought that the Department of Wildlife was too small and limiting a place for me and suggested that I should move on to the Ceylon Tourist Board, where he foresaw my going places further than Yala and Wilpattu. A few days later having got my consent, he spoke to the Minister Kalugalle and the Acting Chairman of the CTB as Chairman, Dharmasiri Senanayake had resigned to contest the bye-election at Dedigama. I was immediately transferred to a parallel post of Assistant Director, North America, Japan and Australia, at the Tourist Board. That was my entry to the world of tourism and it was Sappi who opened the doors for me. It can now be said that I went to the concrete jungle of New York from the jungles of Sri Lanka.
Six months ago, I invited Sappi to the launch of my book “Flickering Fortunes” by Minister Amunugama who was Director of Information at the time of my secondment to the Department of Wildlife. I had on a previous visit to Sri Lanka shown an early manuscript of the book to Sappi and he volunteered to publish it immediately, free of charge. I demurred as the book needed editing.
Sappi declined the invitation to the book launch saying “I am old and feeble now” and I resolved to see him on my next visit. Sadly, that is not to be. Thanks for the memories, Sappi; May you attain the bliss of Nibbana.
In closing this tribute to a man of my highest esteem, I quote a passage from the Karaneeya Meththa Sutta which Sappi quoted often:
” As a mother protects her only child
By sacrificing her own life,
In this same manner, express
Unlimited kindness to all living beings”
Formerly Assistant Director
Department of Wildlife Conservation