The is­land’s tourist boom is en­dan­ger­ing wildlife, but Gal Oya Park aims to pro­tect the ele­phants who roam there, says

Friday - - Contents - Abi­gail Butcher

Tips and must-visit places, in­clud­ing stay­ca­tion of­fers.

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.

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