By Christopher Rezel –
Sri Lanka’s wildlife parks have recently been in the news for the wrong reasons.
In mid-October a helicopter of a private airline flew at low altitude over the Kaudulla National Park spooking elephants and visitors.
It seems the pilot was doing so for the amusement of fee-paying passengers.
It is claimed the helicopter has been visiting the park regularly, probably flying low and stampeding elephants on every occasion.
The boycott meant a refusal to take tourists on excursions into the park, the most visited and second largest wildlife park in Sri Lanka.
Following the boycott and a recent round of talks, the Wildlife Department agreed to permit an additional 150 jeeps a day.
This means 400 through the main Palatupana entrance and 50 from the Kataragama-Katagamuwa entrance.
That has angered wildlife enthusiasts who say ballooning jeep numbers are causing damage to the park.
Nor has the increase satisfied jeep drivers.
According to Yala Safari Jeep owners’ association president, Ajith Priyantha, previously over 1000 vehicles were permitted each day to enter the park.
He rightly claims the entire area depends on tourism, implying that restricting jeep drivers will impoverish people.
In other words he is pushing for a return to 1000 vehicle visits per day.
The difference is 550 daily visits between his demand and the 450 visits now authorised by the Wildlife Department.
How this tussle will be resolved is anybody’s guess.
But the impacts will be felt by Yala village and surrounding towns that have expanded mostly because of the park.
Flash hotels and humble lodges have sprung up, as also shops, home gardens and other downstream support facilities that provide employment and incomes to many.
Undoubtedly the park has made some rich.
Jeep owners have invested in yet more jeeps and recruited drivers and support staff.
All of them will need to survive, one way or another.
Adding to the burgeoning developments are politicians who promote their protégés, even to the extent of breaking laws.
In July this year I was a visitor to Yala for three days with a group of friends who, together with me, have been visiting the park for over 50 years.
For many visitors, the main attraction are elephants and leopards.
But such animals do not show up on demand.
So people may come away claiming disappointment.
In such instances, it seems the sighting of buffalo, deer, monkey, reptile or birds are of no consequence.
If I too was to insist on seeing elephant and leopard, then not all my recent hours spent in Yala were successful.
Their scarcity made me suppose they had learned to avoid the tracks because of vehicles and man.
But overall I did see the pachyderms, sometimes in small herds.
I learned some come dangerously close to vehicles, having been habituated by visitors and drivers who feed them.
I even had the luck to glimpse the fiery pelt of a leopard that mostly stayed concealed in scrub.
Throughout my three days I was witness to another spectacle: hundreds of jeeps with foreign tourists rushing about on Yala tracks.
They raised clouds of dust and frequently created something like rush-hour traffic.
In their eagerness to please clients, some drivers tend to flout rules, speeding, straying off the track, damaging verges.
Getting close to animals and giving clients a greater thrill ensures better tips.
Whenever elephants were present, or if there had been the hint of a leopard, the jeeps would assemble like great herds, revving engines and jostling each other for position.
Drivers keep in touch by phone.
So they rev up and speed off to meet colleagues who have signalled a special viewing opportunity.
Speeding jeeps in Yala are alleged to have caused the deaths of two leopards – near Patanangala in 2011 and inside the park in 2015.
In the good old days, encountering another jeep or a foreign tourist in Yala was a rare occasion.
Then you usually stayed within Yala in a park bungalows for the special thrill of listening to jungle sounds and seeing animals from your veranda.
I count myself lucky there was no helicopter to stampede me and hundreds of elephants that showed up the day I visited Kaudulla National Park.
But unfortunately another unacceptable event would take place.
In early evening elephants began emerging from the surrounding jungle in groups of 10 or 30 or more – adults, juveniles, babies.
They were spread out on the extensive tank bed that had dried up and turned into an uneven grassy plane.
Along with the elephants came the jeeps.
There could have been nearly fifty.
The elephants were in no hurry to get to water at the centre of the plane, leisurely eating grass all along the way.
Giving onlookers a further thrill was a proud tusker who challenged and chased off another bull.
Elephants in small herds are usually docile, their concerns focussed on care for babies and juveniles.
But they will aggressively confront any perceived threat.
That is exactly what happened.
Jeeps jostling for position annoyed a large matriarch.
She trumpeted and charged.
A panicked driver hurriedly backed his jeep into the front of another vehicle.
Then followed a shouting display.
Threats and counter threats were hurled and claims made that the matter would be settled later, outside the park.
Such unruliness is bound to increase with the expansion of jeeps and tourists, and the seeming lack of protocols and supervision.
As it is in Kaudulla, no park guards or guides come along with the jeeps. It appears drivers merely buy a permit to enter.
In Yala a park ranger as guide must accompany visitors.
Initially that meant a ranger in every jeep.
Manpower shortages now mean a single guide is assigned to groups of visitors in three or four jeeps.
The ranger travels in the lead jeep with little supervision over visitors in the other vehicles.
Everyone must observe simple park rules. But not all do.
All along the road to the Kaudulla National Park, modest homes advertise rooms for tourists or jeeps for hire.
That happens in Yala too.
The front verandas of some homes have become cafes.
The Habarana railway and bus stations were busy with backpackers.
So obviously word is getting around.
And with time visitor numbers to Kaudulla National Park will grow as exponentially as it has at Yala.
And if that means elephants and other wildlife are going to be stressed, it can all end up badly.
The recent Wildlife Ministry decision to curtail daily jeep numbers within the Yala National Park is a belated attempt to re-establish the decree that the parks exist solely for wildlife conservation.
All else is secondary.
Uncontrolled growth of jeeps and visitors in any area of tourist interest will undoubtedly impact on fauna and flora.
Left-behind garbage disposal is only the beginning of problems.
At its nastiest, the constant churning of dust and human activity can turn such areas into wastelands, minus grasses, trees and animals.
Damage due to overcrowding may already be happening to the delicate eco systems on Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak and similar places.
Other locations to be watchful over are whitewater rafting at Kitulgala and whale watching at Mirissa.
In past decades the Wildlife Ministry has been negligent by allowing tourists and vehicles to balloon uncontrollably, bringing about disarray.
But as the Yala Safari Jeep owners’ association president implies, entire economic systems have sprung up around tourism venues and are vulnerable to regression and collapse should the main attraction be curtailed.
Yet such restrictions are a must if future generations too are to enjoy the joys of Sri Lanka’s unique eco systems.
And in that context it becomes obligatory on the Wildlife Ministry, together with other state authorities, to find ways to ensure that people and towns dependant on tourism attractions are not suddenly left destitute.
*My park visits were facilitated by Mr & Mrs Prasad and Devinka Dissanayake.