In centuries past, during the time of the Sinhala Kings, forests and animal life were an important part of the social fabric. They were accorded a special status and protected under the law of the land. Commenting on this aspect of social life, John D’ Oyly (1835) states that ”Within Mahanuwara itself there was no doubt that the forest was strictly interdicted as a royal preserve – the ditch marking the limits of the city went round the king’s great thicket, Udawattekale, and people were not allowed even to gather firewood and withes in it.”
Like the Udawattekalle, other forests were also owned directly by the king, and considered Crown property or Rajasan taka. Any sort of activity within these. Tahansi Kalle”, or ”Forbidden Forests”, was strictly prohibited. Almost every province of the Kandyan Kingdom had several such ”protected areas”, where any kind of cultivation, felling of trees, hunting or fishing were strictly prohibited, and punishable by a heavy fine. The king ensured that these laws were enforced by a regular Forest Department, comprising the ”Kalle Korales” appointed by him. It was the duty of these officers to ensure that the Crown forests were not damaged in any way.
Historical chronicles record that animals, too, were given special protection. The ”Niti Nighanduva”, which is the repository of ancient Sinhala law, records that all elephants were regarded as the property of the Crown, and killing an elephant was perceived as one of the most atrocious of all crimes. In keeping with the prevalent social fabric, hunting and killing of animals appears to have been generally looked down upon, for the ”Niti Nighanduva” statesthat animal slaughter was outlawed during the last 50 years of the Kandyan Kingdom, on the grounds that it was contrary to Buddhist principles.
Respect for forests and all forms of animal life was thus not only deeply enshrined in the moral and legal codes of the ancient Sinhalese, it was also a part of their way of life. When the British began clearing the forests in the mid 19th century, it destroyed an ancient society and a way of life which had existed since the coming of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.