Tourists re­place rebels as Sri Lanka park blooms

The China Post - - LIFE - BY PETER HUTCHI­SON

Lokaiya Pere­madasa shud­ders as he re­calls the havoc Tamil rebels used to wreak on his beloved wildlife park dur­ing Sri Lanka’s bru­tal 37-year-long civil war.

“They would come down and shoot the an­i­mals,” the guide told AFP, his jeep bounc­ing around on the bumpy dirt tracks of Yala Na­tional Park in the is­land’s south.

The 48-year-old tells how he even came un­der fire him­self, while wildlife spot­ting in Sri Lanka’s sec­ond largest park, famed for its leop­ards, af­ter rebels at­tacked a bun­ga­low.

“They spot­ted us and started shoot­ing at my ve­hi­cle. They fol­lowed the jeep and I drove at high speed un­til we made it to the main gate where the army and po­lice were,” he said.

“They didn’t catch us but it was ter­ri­fy­ing.”

For most of Pere­madasa’s 31 years at the park, it was a no-go zone for tourists, ex­cept for the most hard­ened of ad­ven­tur­ers who hoped to catch a glimpse of its famed leop­ards but also bears and ele­phants.

But in the six years since the Sri Lankan army crushed the sep­a­ratist Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE), end­ing their decades-long in­sur­gency, visi­tors have re­turned in droves.

“Sa­faris were can­celed regularly and the only tourists that came dur­ing the war had ex­pe­ri­ence of hos­tile sit­u­a­tions,” ex­plained Pere­madasa.

“We had very few visi­tors. There wasn’t any work for us and we had no liveli­hoods.

“I even heard that they kid­napped a guide once although I never found out what hap­pened to him in the end,” he added.

Close to 1,000 square kilo­me­ters (386 square miles) in size, Yala proudly boasts of be­ing home to the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of leop­ards any­where in the world.

Ap­prox­i­mately 100 of the big cats are be­lieved to roam its dusty ter­rain, the outer edges of which rest against a stretch of golden sands lead­ing to the In­dian Ocean.

Pere­madasa said the park is now wel­com­ing about 1,900 pay­ing cus­tomers a day, depend­ing on the sea­son, oc­cu­py­ing around 250 jeep jour­neys.

“There are many tourists vis­it­ing these days, lots of Bri­tish peo­ple but we’re see­ing more and more Chi­nese com­ing,” said the vet­eran guide.

“The tourist num­bers are very good for our liveli­hoods,” beamed Pere­madasa, who charges 6,000 Sri Lankan ru­pees (US$44) for a sa­fari last­ing around four hours, depend­ing on how many an­i­mals have been spot­ted.

Anushka Ka­handagama, an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor at the Sri Lanka Tourism De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity, told AFP via email that more than 170,000 for­eign tourists vis­ited the park last year and another 240,000 Sri Lankans.

Tourist Boom

The in­flux is a much-needed boon for the lo­cal area which suf­fered tragedy when 250 peo­ple were killed in the In­dian Ocean tsunami on Box­ing Day in 2004.

No an­i­mals died but a me­mo­rial near the beach stands as a solemn re­minder of those who per­ished.

The park, first es­tab­lished as a wildlife sanc­tu­ary in 1900, is di­vided into five blocks with tourists kept mainly to block one, where there’s thought to be be­tween 40 and 50 leop­ards.

The pro­tected eco- sys­tem is home to 44 va­ri­eties of mam­mal and 215 species of bird, with crocodiles, deer and pea­cocks also found roam­ing the wildlife oa­sis.

The end of the war has also boosted con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and of­fi­cials ex­pect that the num­ber of leop­ards roam­ing the park has been on the in­crease since the war.

“We think there are nearly 100 leop­ards in the park but the last sur­vey was con­ducted 10 years ago,” said an of­fi­cial at Sri Lanka’s Depart­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion.

“No new sur­veys are sched­uled but we be­lieve that when the next one is done we will find more of them,” he added over the phone, with­out giv­ing his name.

While Yala’s guides are ob­vi­ously de­lighted with the up­turn in their for­tunes, there has been one ma­jor draw­back how­ever.

“The many more jeeps that are out and about has ac­tu­ally made it a lot harder to spot the leop­ards,” lamented Pere­madasa.

“You used to be guar­an­teed of see­ing some af­ter just one or two hours of look­ing but now it can take much longer and some­times you don’t see any at all.”

AFP

(Left) In this pho­to­graph taken on July 24, a leop­ard sits on a branch of a tree at Yala Na­tional Park in the south­ern dis­trict of Yala, some 250 kilo­me­ters south­west of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Right) In this pho­to­graph taken on Aug. 16, a Sri Lankan ele­phant wades in a lake at Yala Na­tional Park in the south­ern dis­trict of Yala, some 250 kilo­me­ters south­west of Colombo.

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