To a Sri Lankan at heart



Thilo W. Hoffmann biography

S. A. I. Elapatha

Forty years ago, a young man with a Master’s Degree in Agriculture in his pocket, set out for Sri Lanka to be employed in a well established and reputable foreign Company of the same nationality as his. Born in 1922, the son of a well known paediatrician of his day, he was never in want and need never have left his homeland, but the spirit of adventure that compelled some people to leave their country and go to another urged him on.

Little did he know then that he would carve out for himself a niche in the progress of this country – namely in the field of wildlife and nature conservation. Sri Lanka would also become his second home. Of all the Europeans I have met, he is one of the very very few who has a deep and abiding love for the country he worked in.

This young man in the course of time became a Director, then Managing Director, and is now Chairman of the Company he joined as a Junior Executive. Traveling around the country as an Agricultural Adviser for his Company, he used his free time to explore the jungles and remote areas. He soon developed a deep appreciation of nature. His charming wife willingly accompanied him on many of these trips and encouraged him throughout the long period of active involvement in nature conservation.

He soon started to take an active interest by joining the Wildlife Protection Society, as it was then called. He first came in to the Committee as Treasurer in 1961, then as Secretary in 1962, and finally as President from 1968 – 1980. If ever he took on a job it was with a total sense of dedication; besides he was blessed with a keen and perceptive mind. That was the secret of his success.

So, for a span of 25 years he has devoted his energies, apart from doing his own work, to the conservation of nature and wildlife in this country. He was elected an Honorary Life Member of the Society in recognition of his services. It was he who was responsible for widening the scope of the Society by enlarging it from Wildlife Protection only into the broader sphere of Conservation of Nature as well.

He was again responsible for changing the objects of the Society and thereby banned shooting as a sport in Sri Lanka. Throughout this period he has contributed numerous articles and papers on conservation and natural history mainly to the ‘Loris’ magazine, and acted as Editor for revised editions of Phillips’ ‘Checklist of the Birds of Sri Lanka’ and the important `Manual of the Mammals’, both published by the Society.

His monograph on the Sinharaja forest in 1972 came at a most opportune moment. Sinharaja, the only remaining tropical rain forest of some size in Sri Lanka, was to be exploited by the State. He was mainly responsible for spearheading opposition through the Society, of which he was the President. It was then that he came to my home and said: “Sam, let’s go and see the Sinharaja in its pristine glory before the people ravage and exploit it. I would like your children also to see it, because it is their heritage. Maybe one of them will remember it as it was and what has happened to it, and we may still make a conservationist out of him”.

He was already thinking of the future. During his tenure as Secretary of the Society and as President, membership increased by leaps and bounds and reached a total of 5,000 members. When he started as Secretary the membership of the Society was in the region of about 500. It had no office or headquarters; the half yearly or annual meetings of the Society were usually held in some Planters’ Club Upcountry. It had no funds – just a few back copies of the ‘Loris’ magazine. It was he who found the present building and negotiated to lease it out for the Society. I remember that he spent many weekends bringing the cement bricks by hand and setting up the extension of the small origins building and the wall that now surrounds thee Society headquarters.

It was he who encourages the members of the Committee and also others in the drive for membership of the Society. Today the Society is a powerful force in the country’s march towards conservation. If there was any one person who spearheaded the Society to be a live force in this direction, it was this man.

Even though he shunned jaunts abroad and International Conferences, he nevertheless attended some if he thought them useful in any]way to this country, such as the Asian Section of the International Council for Bird Preservation Conferences in Indonesia in 1976 and Thailand in 1980; four years later he brought the Conference to Sri Lanka. In these trips he never asked for or got money for travel or subsistence. It was entirely out of his own pocket.

Even in Sri Lanka, wherever he went in the promotion of conservation or protection of wildlife, he spent his own money. His company, in appreciation of his work, helped him by providing their secretarial services. I know that he devoted at least four hours a day towards the Society and the broader matters off conservation.

Besides he was responsible fix many permanent changes in the status of conservation areas, e.g. the incorporation of Intermediate Zones in National Parks, extensions of Parks, notably the Wilpattu West Sanctuary, and the creation of new conservation areas. Years, even decades, earlier he advocated many ideas now in current use (greatest possible contiguous extents of conservation areas for genetic diversity, capture for domestication of surplus elephants, management of parks, the creation of Buffer Zones, etc).

He was the first to propose Marine Sanctuaries and Coastal Reserves in Sri Lanka. He made a determined fight for more than a decade against the destruction of coral reefs (for lime burning). He pioneered the conservation of wetlands_ He was made a member of the Coast Conservation Advisory Council in recognition of his work. He was the first recipient of the Conservation Award instituted by the late Mr. Selwyn Samaraweera. In recent years he has also devoted much of his time and energy to the protection of birds both nationally and internationally; he is the Chairman/Secretary and Editor of the Ceylon Bird Club.

All these activities always entailed voluminous correspondence in Sri Lanka and abroad.Since the beginning of 1986 he also functions as Project Manager for the Mahaweli Enivronment Project, in an entirely honorary capacity. This project which is funded chiefly by USAID includes the establishment of four new national parks totaling nearly 600 sq. miles in the Lower Mahaweli region,

i.e. Maduru Oya, Wasgomuwa, Flood Plains and Somawathiya, as well as the two adjoining nature reserves of Minneriya-Giritale and Tirikonamadu. A new park at Randenigala is also planned.It was felt that an outsider with the necessary qualifications, especially a deep understanding of out wildlife and its conservation, could assist the Department of Wildlife Conservation more effectively in the implementation of this major project, which for various reasons had fallen well behind schedule.

In the field of tourism he served on the Policy Advisory Committee and also on the Tourist Development Plan for the Coastal Belt. He was President of the Association of Group Tour Agencies. He was particularly interested in and keenly aware of the need for a balanced development of tourism and the prevention of negative effects.

Most people know him as a member of the Wildlife Society, and as such he has at times been pilloried and attacked by some. He has come out of it unscathed and with perfect elan. He was always a forthright man and was never one to withdraw if he was in the right Arrogant, he was not, though some thought so; intolerant he was of those who pretended to know.

In recognition of his concepts and ideas on conservation, H. E. the President appointed him a member of the Task Force for the Preparation of a National Conservation Strategy. The Minister of State honoured him by naming a Park Bungalow in Wilpattu after him. He is also a member of the Committee for the Formulation of a National Policy on Wildlife Conservation. For over 20 years he has been a member of the Advisory Committee established under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, and is its longest serving member.

He is no salon wildlife enthusiast. He has walked the length and breadth of Wilpattu, Sinharaja, Horton Plains, Uda Walawe, the less known parts of Yala and many other remote areas of the country. He possesses a very keen sense of jungle craft. I think that there is scarcely any place of interest in Sri Lanka that he has not been to.

Wildlife is not his only interest. He is very knowledgeable in the flora of this country, especially the Dry Zone. It is indeed quite a treat to go with him in the Wilpattu National Park. When you do not see any animals or birds, he will keep you interested by describing the trees, their flowers, fruits and the seasons they come into bearing.

He was in frequent contact with the late T. B. Worthington, the undisputed authority on Sri Lanka trees. He served on the Committee of the Royal Asiatic Society (Sri Lanka Branch) for a number of years. He is interested in the social customs and manners and religion of this country. He has a keen and receptive mind to Eastern thought. This he has kept rather to himself.

Finally, if I have not enumerated all that he has done, it is because he has done so much; if I have not mentioned his weaknesses (a cross we all carry), it is because he has done so much to counteract his shortcomings. If I did not give the man his due in this jubilee year of the ‘Loris’ magazine which is the symbol of the Society to which he has given so much of his life, I and my fellow members would be sadly lacking in gratitude. I salute you and say ‘Thank you, Thilo Hoffmann’.


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