The island’s tourist boom is endangering wildlife, but Gal Oya Park aims to protect the elephants who roam there, says
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I’m padding through the jungle, big vines tumbling from branches overhead and leaves creating a soft path beneath my bare feet. I shouldn’t really be walking without shoes; it breaks every rule in the health and safety book, but it feels natural and earthy. ‘Come – over here,’ says Damien, my guide, in a loud whisper as we scramble up another huge boulder. Gal Oya means ‘rocky river’ and it’s like Jurassic Park; I feel so small and insignificant. Damien hands me a pair of binoculars and gestures to look over the grassy bank in front on to the shores of the vast Gal Oya Lake – the largest in the country – stretching endlessly in front of us.
‘What do you see?’ he asks softly, his grin widening with delight at what he has found for me – a herd of 30, perhaps 40 elephants and calves of various sizes ambling along, carelessly and gloriously wild.
This is what I have come to see and my heart beats hard in my chest as I watch them meandering on the shore, spraying themselves with water and snatching tufts of grasses with delightfully inquisitive trunks. I watch for what seems like hours until a quick glance at the time shows that, at 4.30pm, it is not long until dark.
The Gal Oya park comprises 259sqkm of lake and forest in the east of Sri Lanka – a peaceful, secluded wildlife paradise that remains almost entirely untouched thanks to its remote location. It took seven hours to drive here from Colombo but the journey was worth it. Gal Oya Lodge, where I am staying and where Damien is head naturalist, specialises in responsible tourism.
For the past three days I’ve been exploring the local area and 20 acres of private forest that surround the lodge. One morning we head out just after sunrise, watching tiny bush quails and barred button quails go about their business, walking past pumpkin fields scattered with peacocks, trees decorated with baya weaver bird nests.
Damien cares passionately about his surroundings, studying dragon flies and running a snake awareness programme in an attempt to halt the unnecessary killing of harmless serpents by villagers – conservation work encouraged by his employers, Tim Edwards and Sangjay Choegyal.
Tim and Sangjay grew up in Nepal and opened the now nine-room Gal Oya Lodge in August 2014, constructing each of the rooms from locally sourced, natural materials and often incorporating trees into the open-air living areas to minimise impact on the environment. There is no air conditioning and water is heated with solar power.
‘We’re aware of our responsibility,’ says Tim, ‘and we make a lot of effort in engaging with the community and teaching them the importance of conservation. One of the first things we did was hire local poachers, not only to give them an alternative income but also to make a direct impact on that section of the community. They have unparalleled knowledge of the surrounding jungles and have been an invaluable source of expertise.’
Sri Lanka has one of the highest proportions of endemic species in the world, but urbanisation, tourism and farming are taking their toll. The influx of tourists that began in 2009 after the civil war ended surged to a new high in 2016 – reaching more than two million. Many are flocking to national parks to see Sri Lanka’s wildlife, and Yala National Park – the closest park to Colombo, with the highest concentration of leopards per square mile in the world – has seen a similar surge in visitor numbers.
After years of war and the effects of the 2004 tsunami, locals are keen to capitalise on this soaring revenue stream and are offering safaris to tourists. This popularity has come at a price. Yala is split into five areas or ‘blocks’, with most heading to block one, which can take an hour to get into at peak viewing time (sunrise). You’ll hear stories of elephants attacking Jeeps and leopards being run over.
Dee Jayantha is a Sri Lankan vet and head of the Sri Lankan branch of Elemotion Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded to improve the lives of Asian elephants. Elemotion is fighting to protect Sri Lanka’s rapidly changing ecosystem and improve the often conflicting relationship between humans and elephants – as well as other wildlife. The organisation is running driver awareness programmes with Jeep owners, as well as working with park wardens to put in place regulations for tourists.
‘Our first objective is to protect elephants, but we are educating local people around the park about the importance of wildlife conservation,’ says Dee who, like others I meet in Sri Lanka, describes the situation in Yala as ‘chaos’.
‘If you get in a Jeep and it goes too fast, insist the driver slows down,’ she urges.