Na­tional Parks: Killing the wild side of tourism

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - SPECIAL REPORT -

As large num­bers of tourists visit the Yala wildlife park, po­lit­i­cal med­dling has placed grave con­se­quences on the an­i­mal habi­tat as ac­tivists and ex­perts warn of how this could re­sult in slowly killing the wild side of tourism.

A quick look at what hap­pens in­side Yala – a leop­ard or sim­i­lar an­i­mal of sig­nif­i­cance is spot­ted by one jeep driver who then sends mes­sages to all oth­ers in­form­ing them of a sight­ing. This then re­sults in a large number of jeeps speed­ing up from all over to wit­ness this sight caus­ing com­mo­tion and traf­fic in­side a park that is meant to pro­tect the wild an­i­mals.

To­day most of these an­i­mals have be­come ha­bit­u­ated with the sound of jeeps es­pe­cially those found in Block 1 of the Yala Na­tional Park. How­ever, this has caused ac­ci­dents re­sult­ing in the deaths of a number of known and lesser known species.

More­over, with the up­com­ing win­ter sea­son the in­dus­try is ex­pect­ing large num­bers of trav­ellers who have al­ready booked trips to the Yala Na­tional Park as a re­sult of which the gov­ern­ment has taken mea­sures to al­low for an in­crease in the number of jeeps to be sent in­side the park, Wildlife De­part­ment sources said.

This de­ci­sion had been taken fol­low­ing a meet­ing be­tween Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe and the de­part­ment of­fi­cials and as a re­sult the park would from Novem­ber 28 – De­cem­ber 31 in­crease the number of jeeps en­ter­ing the park to 500 per day and there­after re­duce it to 300 per day again.

It must be noted that the number of jeeps en­ter­ing the park on a given day is not what mat­ters but the con­se­quences aris­ing out of it as most driv­ers were un­ruly with no re­spect to the wildlife.

With about 800 jeeps roam­ing the wild a bet­ter re-dis­tri­bu­tion of these are re­quired in the other blocks number 3, 4 and 5, Wildlife De­part­ment’s former Di­rec­tor Gen­eral Dr. Sumith Pi­lapi­tiya told the Busi­ness Times on Wed­nes­day. An­i­mals in the blocks other than block one would then grad­u­ally get ha­bit­u­ated to the jeeps but this would take some time, it was noted.

He ex­plained that with a na­tional park for an­i­mal con­ser­va­tion it should also help meet the liveli­hoods of the sur­round­ing vil­lagers. In this re­spect, the so­cial and hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis aris­ing from the re­duc­tion of the jeeps would im­pact them strongly.

As a re­sult, the in­dus­try has to­gether with the Wildlife De­part­ment drawn up a plan for the man­age­ment of the park that also gained ap­proval from the Prime Min­is­ter’s of­fice.

De­spite the ap­proval to im­ple­ment the plan, two in­flu­en­tial min­is­ters were said to have again asked for an in­crease in the number of jeeps en­ter­ing Yala.

Dr. Pi­lapi­tiya noted that the min­is­ter of wildlife should not give po­lit­i­cal cover to pres­sure from other politi­cians and the min­is­ter in charge should give cover to the de­part­ment, be­cause the min­is­ter should look after the of­fi­cials of his de­part­ment.

“The politi­cian should not in­ter­fere with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan but on the con­trary hold the de­part­ment ac­count­able for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan,” he as­serted.

Early in the year when the Wildlife De­part­ment had recommended that the na­tional park be closed for three months, sub­ject Min­is­ter Jayaw­ick­rama Per­era had re­quested that it be closed for two months based on a re­quest of Hous­ing Min­is­ter Sa­jith Pre­madasa rep­re­sent­ing the area.

Then once the park was opened early the lim­ited number of vehi- cles en­ter­ing it was grad­u­ally in­creased and then brought down from around 500 to 300 fol­low­ing the in­ter­ven­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe.

Dr. Pi­lapi­tiya noted that ac­cord­ing to the plan drawn out they were hop­ing to en­sure dis­ci­pline among driv­ers by pro­vid­ing them train­ing and an ac­cred­i­ta­tion and reg­is­tra­tion of the jeeps to en­sure they would have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of their job. Once this is car­ried out then even tourists could pick the ones they pre­fer to ride with when they visit the park based on their per­for­mance.

Ac­cord­ing to the plan the driv­ers would be sus­pended and fi­nan­cial penal­ties im­posed if any were caught vi­o­lat­ing the rules.

Some of the key as­pects of the plan cur­rently un­der im­ple­men­ta­tion like en­sur­ing a strict speed limit of 25 kmph and plac­ing speed bumps are ex­pected to ease the rash driv­ing that have re­port­edly re­sulted in tourists also be­ing in­jured.

How­ever, other new plans would be to en­sure that trav­ellers are not in­con­ve­nienced by trav­el­ling to the park only to be told that they would not be able to tour in­side but have to come back to­mor­row. In this re­spect, the au­thor­i­ties have planned to es­tab­lish an e-ticket so that tourists could find out ahead when they can visit the park.

Com­ment­ing on the in­ad­e­quate staff he pointed out that even dur­ing his ten­ure as the DG at the de­part­ment there were over 500 ap­proved cadre po­si­tions va­cant due to in­suf­fi­cient funds to pay salaries.

He also said that the de­part­ment has been as­signed to carry out a sci­en­tific study on the car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity at Yala that would de­ter­mine the number of vis­i­tors and ve­hi­cles that could en­ter the park at a given pe­riod. The as­sess­ment sched­uled to be com­pleted within six months is ex­pected to come into ef­fect by Jan­uary 2020.

The former DG also ex­plained that hav­ing been a visi­tor to the park for a number of years since his child­hood he had ob­served that there was a vis­i­ble re­duc­tion in the number of an­i­mals.

He also pointed to a number of en­tries in so­cial me­dia sites like TripAd­vi­sor made by for­eign vis­i­tors to the Yala park that in­di­cated the neg­a­tive as­pect of the qual­ity of tourism and be­lieved it would be a mat­ter of time be­fore tourists were likely to stop vis­it­ing the location.

The plan drawn up it­self has in­di­cated a con­stant rise in the number of tourists vis­it­ing the park and had noted that most had come to sim­ply view the an­i­mals and not ob­serve them.

Other prob­lems at the park were the is­sue of a lack of guides since that number was small com­pared to the number of ve­hi­cles en­ter­ing the park, Dr. Pi­lapi­tiya noted.

“Upto 2005 every ve­hi­cle went with a guide – but now the number of guides is small com­pared to ve­hi­cles so the jeeps are al­lowed to go with­out guides,” he said.

Rights ac­tivists com­plain that the park is in­creas­ingly used to serve the pur­pose of tourism and an at­trac­tion for the trav­ellers as op­posed to be­ing a site for the pro­tec­tion of the wild an­i­mals to roam freely with­out hin­drance or ac­ci­dents. The real rea­son for the park was the con­ser­va­tion of the wild side of Sri Lanka.

File pic­ture of jeeps typ­i­cally crowd­ing round a hap­less ele­phant

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