Thilo Hoffmann:The Saviour of Sinharaja

Thilo Hoffmann:The Saviour of Sinharaja



Informed environmental activism in Sri Lanka owes its beginnings largely to Thilo Hoffmannm, a Swiss national, who made our country his home 69 years ago.

His leadership of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society and the Ceylon Bird Club proved invaluable in launching a crusade that not only saved Sinharaja but also substantially expanded the island’s protected-areas network, opening a new era of civil-society engagement in the management of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity heritage.

Invited by his literary agent to recount his life, P. G. Wodehouse was at a loss. “I wrote a book”, he said at length. “Then another… And then another. Just writing one book after another, that’s my life.”

Asked to relate his own life story, Thilo Walter Hoffmann (1922-2014) might have responded just as glibly: “I saved a forest. Then another. And then another. And so on.”

But it wasn’t as easy as that. Ever since making Ceylon his home almost 70 years ago,Thilo Hoffmann entertained for this island sentiments far warmer and deeper than those of ordinary affection, working tirelessly to preserve its natural riches and pass these intact to generations yet to come.

Apart from being a pioneer of the nation’s nature-conservation establishment, Hoffmann demonstrated for the first time how persistent, focused, civil-society activism could make even the most obstinate of governments change its mind.And by so doing he saved large tracts of the island’s natural landscape from irreparable damage and plunder.

Switzerland to Ceylon

Having obtained his Master’s degree in Agricultural Science from ETH Zürich (coincidentally also the university from which Albert Einstein graduated), Hoffmann came to Sri Lanka in 1946 to work for A. Baur & Co.

His fiancée Mae joined him shortly afterwards, marrying him the following year. The couple were not slow to make Sri Lanka their home. They travelled the length and breadth of the island in their MG TC sports car, marking off their routes on a map so as to be sure they saw everything.

Hoffmann was indefatigable, climbing all the island’s principal peaks: Adam’s Peak four times, last when he was 78! And they did it the hard way, much of it on foot, camping, with Hoffmann contracting hepatitis once and malaria three times, not to mention enduring as many courses of anti-rabies injections as a result of dog bites.

As Ranasinghe’s beautifully-scripted biography makes clear, Hoffmann didn’t set out to be a conservationist. The thing grew on him. Less than a year into his stay in Ceylon he had his epiphany when accompanying some friends on a hunting expedition to Okanda.

“Our party shot a leopard and other animals, with permits, including hare and jungle fowl for the pot”, he wrote. “One day, armed with rifles three of us were sitting on the bund…

Three wild boars came trotting towards us. We decided that each of us take one. We counted one, two, three and three shots went off more or less together. Only one boar was hit.

It fell and was screaming. The other two ran off instinctively. Then they came back to their fallen companion and tried to raise the wounded animal on its legs. But its spine was broken above the shoulder.

The return despite the danger was like a very human reaction. Because of it the two also met with their deaths. It made an impression on me and from then on I never shot another animal.”

Having joined the Wildlife Protection Society in the early 1950s he served on its committee from 1961-79, lastly as President for a record 11 years.

He left it with a membership of 5,000 and as “a force to be reckoned with”, not least through the dozens of nature clubs the Society had established in schools.

It was Hoffmann too, who recognised the need to deliver the conservation message in the vernacular, launching the Sinhala journal ‘Warana’, now in its 38th year, for much of that time edited by Douglas Ranasinghe, now his biographer.


Hoffmann was an outspoken advocate for national reserves, pointing to their recreational, scientific, cultural and economic value.

He successfully lobbied for the expansion of Sri Lanka’s protected areas network, adding several key parks to the inventory and expanding others, most notably Wilpattu.

His signature achievement, however, was mobilising public opinion against the 1970-77 Bandaranaike Government’s plan to harvest the Sinharaja forest to feed a plywood factory at Kosgama, constructed using Canadian aid.

The project was finally abandoned in 1978, but only after a considerable area of the forest had been decimated.

Among his few failures was an attempt to make the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary a national park, a dream fulfilled in part by the Central Highlands World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 2010.

In 1986 Hoffmann ‘supped with the enemy’ by accepting a position as Honorary Project Manager of the controversial Mahaweli Environment Project, through which he oversaw the declaration of several new national parks, including Maduru Oya, Wasgomuwa, Flood Plains and Somawathiya, increasing the national protected-areas estate by some 150,000 hectares, an extent 1½ times that of Yala.

At least part of his success as a conservation advocate stemmed from being moderate, if persistent. As Ranasinghe observes: “Hoffmann never took up extremist positions, always keeping a balanced mind and advocating reasonable and realistic solutions.

He could readily see and understand contrary viewpoints as well as external constraints… In this he is notably different from present day ‘super-activists’ and ‘greens’.”

Hoffmann was prescient in foreseeing the tension between overpopulation and nature conservation, the consequences of which we see so clearly today.

“One of the most pertinent questions has been neither posed nor answered”, he wrote in 1972. “What will happen to our national parks and reserves in the years to come when the population will double again in less than a quarter of a century, when within one generation there will not be twelve but twenty-five million people in this island?”

Birdwatching with tigers

Ornithology remained close to Hoffmann’s heart all his life, during which he remained a pillar of the Ceylon Bird Club. At great risk to himself he persisted with bird censuses in the north well into the LTTE era. Ranasinghe recounts a trip Hoffmann made to Jaffna in May 1990.

“When night began to fall [Hoffman and his driver, Silva] had just crossed Elephant Pass into the peninsula. They noticed a brand-new Mitsubishi Pajero jeep following them at high speed. Near Pallai they were overtaken and ordered to stop. Fortunately, Silva spoke Tamil.

After some questions and answers, with the boss of the jeep never seen, the go-between ordered all three of them to get down. They were dumped on the roadside, with their baggage.

Then both vehicles drove off.” Hoffmann and Silva were given shelter by an elderly Tamil couple. Next day they made their way to the Tigers’ headquarters at Kondavil, where they met Anton Balasingham.

They were detained there for two nights, after which his car was returned to him and they were allowed to leave.

Ranasinghe paints a beautiful, moving and deftly-crafted portrait of Hoffmann. Personally I find it astonishing that Sirimavo Bandaranaike didn’t deport him when he was fomenting public opinion against her during the Sinharaja controversy of 1972-77, an era in which several foreigners were booted out for far less.

It speaks volumes for Hoffmann’s diplomacy that he endured even the most intolerant and xenophobic of governments despite often coming into conflict with them and, as the years wore on, accumulating a formidable body of envious rivals who would gladly have seen the back of him.


Through painstaking research enriched by decades-long familiarity with his subject, Douglas Ranasinghe has written an enduring and well-researched tribute to his friend and mentor.

For a book of its formidable size the text is not only lucid but also remarkably free of the typos and careless errors that usually bedevil such works. The 135 pages of appendices are especially valuable, being mostly excerpts from Hoffmann’s writings that are not generally accessible online.

What is more, Ranasinghe’s unpretentious prose makes for easy and enjoyable reading. I picked the book up hoping to gloss through a chapter but soon found I couldn’t put it down. Six straight hours later I found I had arrived at a paragraph that read: “END”.

The text is sprinkled with arcane and fascinating trivia that are a delight to discover. For example, that the Ceylinco building in Colombo’s Fort was accidentally built back-to-front (it is equally ugly from the rear: I checked). Or that James Ramsbotham, the 2nd Viscount Soulbury, lived continuously in Jaffna as a Hindu yogi, under the name Santhaswami, from the 1950s until his death in 2004.

As I neared the end of Ranasinghe’s account of Hoffmann’s love affair with his adopted country it became increasingly clear to me that his book is not just a biography of his hero but a history of the Sri Lankan conservation movement in the second half of the 20th century.

The two things are synonymous. Hoffman may well have seen this country through a foreigner’s eyes; but despite living here on an annually-renewed residence visa for more than six decades, he was a truer son of Sri Lanka’s soil than most of us natives.

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