For an unforgettable Wildlife Experience | Daily News

For an unforgettable Wildlife Experience

Leopards in Yala
Leopards in Yala

On February 21, the prestigious Forbes magazine proclaimed Sri Lanka as having the ‘Top Wildlife Safaris Outside of Africa’ for the year 2023.

Sri Lanka was ranked among India, US, Galápagos Islands, and Australia, as a top ‘next safari’ option outside Africa, with some tips on the best ways to enjoy them.

The writer of the article, Larry Olmsted, an award winning travel journalist, describing Sri Lanka, said, “Many in the travel industry have told me they think this will be one of the next big ‘it’ destinations, driven by a unique hybrid of the best land animals and largest sea creatures. The nation has one of the planet’s densest populations of leopards, and is arguably the best place to reliably see these magnificent cats, even more so than most of Africa. There are also Asian elephants, peacocks, water buffalo, monkeys, and sloth bears. Whale watching is hugely popular around the globe, from Cape Cod to the Dominican Republic, but Sri Lanka is one of the only places to easily see the world’s largest living creatures, blue whales…They also have a true classic safari product, and the combination of leopards and blue whales is totally unique”.

The island-nation, which is known for its rich biodiversity and picturesque landscapes, has continually been in the global spotlight for its tremendous wildlife tourism potential.

Wonderful wildlife

“We are basically the ‘Wildlife Wonder of Asia’, and it is not that we ‘think’ that way, but the world has realized what we have,” said Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, a widely acclaimed environmental professional and the former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), observing that trying to get our politicians and policy-makers realize that fact is a real challenge.

Referring to a study on 14 countries in Asia, namely Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, Philippines, Laos, Vietnam and China, he noted that Sri Lanka has come in first place in the Wildlife Tourism Potential Rank. “Where else could you see the world’s largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in the morning, and the world’s largest terrestrial mammal, the elephant, in the afternoon, and all on the same day?” asked the passionate nature lover, noting that Sri Lanka is also ranked the first in a category called ‘observability’ (how easy it is to actually see wildlife) in the same study.

“Wildlife tourism could be the biggest driver for growth of tourism in Sri Lanka”, Dr. Pilapitya said, citing examples of South Africa, Costa Rica and Rwanda as countries which have succeeded in high-end nature tourism.

“Rwanda, which was in a similar situation as we are following a civil war (1990-1994) targeted high-end tourism after the war ended. Focused on gorilla tourism, a one-hour visit costs US$ 1,500 per person in Rwanda, and it is usually fully booked,” the environmental scientist explained.

“The assets that we have are plentiful. Yala and Wilpattu are the best places in the world to see leopards. Minneriya, Kaudulla and Uda Walawe are the best places to see large herds of Asian elephants. Mirissa, Kalpitiya, and Trincomalee are the best places in the world to see blue whales and sperm whales. Since all these can be experienced in a short time, they fit well within a tourist’s schedule,” commented the wildlife enthusiast, also mentioning that Lonely Planet identified the Great Elephant Gathering as “The world’s sixth best wildlife wonder”. (The Great Elephant Gathering refers to a large congregation of elephants at Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks during the height of the dry season every year.)

“Unfortunately, with the advent of Moragahakanda Reservoir, I am no longer sure whether the Great Elephant Gathering will continue. Before the Moragahakanda Project, Minneriya and Kaudulla had 350-400 elephants during the months of August-October,” observed the environmental scientist, who has an impressive academic background and subject knowledge.


“There is no point talking about conservation to politicians. They do not relate to it, but if we can earn big bucks from wildlife tourism like the countries I mentioned above, then we will certainly get their attention,” he said, emphasising that it is time for all stakeholders to band together and support the DWC in trying to save these natural assets for future generations. “Having said that, if the Department does not do anything, then we should all get together and pressure it into doing what is right,” he added.

With that powerful introduction, he kicked off his lecture titled ‘Saving Yala from total destruction: What will there to be seen?’ at the BMICH on March 16, focusing on the problems in the Yala National Park (YNP) and how best to tackle them. The public lecture was organised by the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), with the funding from Nations Trust.

“It must be kept in mind that the purpose of establishing national parks is for the conservation and protection of wildlife, which is also the main mandate of the DWC. The promotion of wildlife tourism should be a secondary objective and should not be achieved at the expense of conservation,” said the environmentalist.

Dr. Pilapitiya was instrumental in the formulation of the ‘Action Plan for Improving the Overall Wildlife Tourism Experience in Yala National Park (Block 1)’ in 2017. The authorities have been sitting on this comprehensive Plan for many years, but there is hope of its revival this year. The renewed interest on the Plan was after the infamous incident in October last year where 32 powerful off-road vehicles went off-track at the YNP and ‘had fun’ at the cost of the wildlife. The incident, which caused a furore, acted as an eye-opener for the higher authorities.


The former DWC DG pointed out that the YNP is burdened due to over-crowding, observing that the number of visitors to it had increased over 1,000 percent from 48,368 visitors in 2008 to 650,000 visitors in 2017.

“The DWC, or any other agency for that matter, was not geared to handle this exponential rise in tourism. The Department in total has only 1,500 staff, and out of them 800 are in the field, but sometimes we have 850 vehicles in Yala. That was why the Department had no alternative but to allow safari jeep drivers to enter the Park without a tracker. The mistake we made was that we did not train those drivers before letting them go in,” he said, observing that the Department tends to neglect protection and management of the Park, because the resources are geared towards supporting tourism than conservation as a result of the Government’s over-emphasis on tourism revenue.

Speaking on visitor irresponsibility and harassment of wildlife, Dr. Pilapitiya said that they have records that there had been road kills within the YNP. “Even leopards had been killed in traffic accidents inside parks. National Parks have been declared not for us, but for the wildlife. Indiscipline is a bigger issue than the number of visitors. Sometimes, there is complete chaos because of indiscipline at wildlife sightings. The DWC, safari jeep drivers and visitors are all responsible for indiscipline in Yala,” he stressed.

Playing a video of an unscrupulous group, claiming themselves to be wildlife photographers, the wildlife researcher pointed out that he had noticed a lot of misbehaviour among wildlife photographers.

“Some do not know the first thing about wildlife photography. A good wildlife photographer takes his photographs in a way that the animal does not even feel his or her presence. Never take a photograph at the expense of an animal. If you cannot get your shots on the first visit, come again. You must have the patience if you want good photography,” he advised.

Political meddling

Explaining the adverse conservation consequences of political involvements in decision making, the elephant researcher pointed out that elephants in Yala have become malnourished as a result of a one dimensional ‘political’ decision to erect an electric fence around the boundary of the YNP, without heeding the advice of wildlife experts.

“The Department was under pressure to erect the fence on the administrative boundary of the YNP. It was because the local community could go illegally into the lands coming under the Forest Department and do chena cultivation. Votes of the local community were involved in that decision. With the erection of the fence, the elephants lost access to the Forest Department’s lands in the dry season. Due to lack of food to support the elephant population in Yala, some elephants died.

“The charismatic wildlife in the YNP, before the leopard mania, were elephants, but you do not see many elephants in Yala now as you saw 20-30 years ago. The Centre for Conservation and Research (CCR) has been doing a study on elephant calves since the construction of the fence. Our data show that 54 percent of elephant calves below two years are still dying in Yala Block 1, and we, in the CCR, feel that it is malnutrition,” he narrated.

Drawing his attention to the overcrowding at the Park, he, however, said that putting limits on vehicles entering Yala Block 1, as many suggest, is easier said than done. He pointed out that redistribution of vehicles has to be done strategically to avoid adverse impacts on the livelihoods of safari jeep drivers, numbering to over 700, and the hotel industry, which has about 1,000 hotel and guest rooms in the area.

“Limiting the number of vehicles cannot be done immediately because there will be too much political pressure against that. We have to always make sure that we do not bring in any decision that will be forced to overturn. If you overturn one decision, you are sending a message that anything can be overturned,” he cautioned.

“In the Action Plan we take five years to bring limits of vehicles to Yala, but I would like to appeal to the DWC to impose limits on non-overcrowded parks immediately. Do not let them become Yala. Then you can discourage unnecessary hotel rooms and accommodation being constructed. The easiest is to start with the non-overcrowded parks and then move into overcrowded parks. However, there should be a moratorium of hotel construction in the YNP area right now. The President was also agreeable to it,” the wildlife expert recommended.

Educating visitors

Turning to a study on wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka done by the World Bank and Colombo University, he revealed that less than two percent of repeat visitors to Sri Lanka, go to a wildlife park on their repeat visit. “What does that tell us about the experience they had in the national park? If it was good they would have gone again,” he added.

The environmental professional highlighted the importance of providing proper nature interpretations during park visits.

“Let us improve ‘quality’ over ‘quantity’. The majority of visitors are coming to learn something, but we are not giving them that. In the YNP we have all the ingredients for high quality nature interpretation. Yala has the best studied elephant population in Sri Lanka. Instead of just showing them elephants, explain elephant behaviour and habits to the visitors.

“It is not the number of elephant sightings, but the quality of the visitation that matters. If the visitor experience is better, we can charge more money,” said the well-known environmentalist, taking the time to explain two video clips of how two male elephants, who are friends, put their trunks to mouths in a friendly gesture like the humans shake their hands, and how a less dominant male elephant shows submission to a dominant male by turning his back. “Listening to an explanation of what is going on is better than seeing without knowing what it means,” he commented.

Strict rules

The most important issue that needs to be addressed in Yala is the continued political interference, the former DWC DG emphasised, adding that the very first action mentioned in the Action Plan is that “the DWC officials should be empowered to enforce regulations without political backlash or interference”, and the responsibility in that regard lies with the President’s Office.

“If the DWC suspends a jeep driver, he runs to a politician, and the politician calls the park warden and puts pressure to remove the suspension,” he said also recalling similar experiences he encountered in his short stint as the DWC DG, and how he further extended the suspension on them for complaining to politicians.

The Action Plan has 31 short-term actions to be implemented in one year. Regular patrolling by the DWC, putting speed bumps every 100 metres, introducing a uni-flow system wherever possible, and training and accreditation of safari jeep drivers were some salient points proposed as short-term actions.

It has been encouraged to adopt Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) in relation to behaviour within the National Park and at wildlife sightings. It has recommended to register all commercial safari jeeps with the Department, and not to permit any unregistered jeep in Yala Block 1.

“The Department will have a website where names and vehicle numbers of offending commercial safari drivers are listed, so that tourism operators and hotels can blacklist them and not provide business, while rewarding good drivers. That is the best incentive to get the drivers to behave themselves. Unfortunately, some of the hotels around Yala are hiring the worst drivers because they claim to guarantee leopard sightings. Everybody likes to blame the DWC. It has to be blamed for not doing the right thing at times, but safari jeep drivers, hoteliers, tour operators, and visitors are all to be blamed for the mess in Yala,” he remarked.

Giving all visitors a five-minute briefing of the rules of the National Park prior to the entry, a price differentiation for early booking, introducing a system of entry fee surcharge for vehicles with low load factor (vehicles with one or two passengers), and introducing a surcharge on entry fees during long holiday periods to discourage over-visitation are some other short-term actions recommended in the Plan.

Putting into action

The Action Plan has proposed eight medium-term actions to be implemented by the end of Year 2, and several long-term actions to be completed by the end of 2028. Gradually limiting the number of vehicles entering Yala Block 1 comes as a long-term action that needs to be done in conjunction with the improvement of wildlife sightings in Yala Blocks 3, 4, and 5, and other developments in adjacent national parks.

After the recent Yala fiasco involving a group of unruly motorists, who went off-track, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, convening a meeting in November last year, has instructed the DWC to implement the Action Plan.

“If this Plan is implemented now, the YNP will return to its old glory may be in another 5-6 years. Do not cherry-pick the easy ones to do. It is like baking a cake to a given recipe. You are not going to come up with the cake if you put only 30 percent of its ingredients. This plan will work if it is implemented comprehensively,” he emphasised.

Dr. Pilapitiya summed up his persuasive and thought-provoking speech that continued for more than an hour with the quote, “The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance,” by Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), an American writer and conservationist considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology, leaving the audience pondering on its high relevance on the wildlife in our country.

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