Too many visitors Spoil Yala | Sunday Observer

Too many visitors Spoil Yala

If you have been to the Yala National Park recently and seen its present status and the enforcement of regulations, you may have returned disappointed and depressed, not having seen a single leopard for which it is famous. Instead, a long fleet of safari jeeps is seen queuing up at the entrance and creating a huge congestion.

You may not want to go to Yala again anytime soon, but, would be still blaming the authorities for not having a proper system to control the jeeps within the park.

Wildlife experts say, there are multiple sides to the current issues at Yala. These include, overcrowding, lack of facilities to gauge the capacity for and control the visitor influx, non-implementation of Park rules and regulations and far too much focus on ‘seeing Yala leopards’. The overcrowding makes it hard for visitors to enjoy themselves. The more people, the more littering and pollution, and the more maintenance the Park needs. As the middle income segment of society is widening, their travel also increase. “Many want to get away from the crowds, but then others too want to do the same. Ultimately, they end up going to places such as Yala - and all would end up at the same venue,” said a wildlife expert who wished to remain anonymous.

Block 1

When asked, “Should we limit the crowds at Yala?” he said, “Yes. We should manage Yala with restrictions. All other South Asian countries are managing their wildlife parks with proper rules and regulations. The issue is, Block 1 is always crowded. Block 1 should be divided into several zones and visitors given permission to visit only one zone at a time. This would help ease congestion to a great extent”, he added. On the other hand, Yala’s attractions funnel a thumping income to the hospitality business in the area, with a boom in the number of hotel rooms coinciding with the increased number of visitors to the Park.According to a recent analysis by Srilal Mittapala, a well-known wildlife enthusiast and past president of the Hotel Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), the economic value of the Park is worth close to Rs. 8 billion annually to all stakeholders. His analysis shows the total annual earnings by hotels in the area at Rs. 6,500 million, the Department of Wildlife earning, at Rs.612 million and jeep drivers’ income, at Rs. 527 million.

Mittapala is also a member of a Subcommittee which submitted ‘An Action Plan for Improving the Overall Wildlife Tourism Experience in Yala National Park (Block 1) to the Policy Development Office of the Prime Minister’s Office, recently. The Committee was appointed by the Prime Minister to look into over-visitation in popular tourism sites, such as, Yala and Sigiriya in 2016.

The Subcommittee chaired by Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya has looked into several issues to be addressed to improve the overall tourism experience in the Yala National Park. Based on consultations with relevant stakeholders and an analysis undertaken by the subcommittee, the following issues with regard to the poor quality of the wildlife tourism experience at Yala Block 1 have been identified:

* Indiscipline of safari jeep drivers and passengers at sightings;

* High speed and reckless driving when trying to reach sightings;

* Vehicular congestion and disturbance to wildlife at sightings;

* Over-visitation in Yala Block 1;

* Poor nature interpretation services offered by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC);

* Lack of adequate staff and facilities such as, patrol vehicles for DWC to regulate tourism; and

* Continued political interference resulting in the lack of independence for DWC to regulate tourism within Yala NP.

Yala National Park – Block 1 (Yala Block 1) is renowned internationally as one of the best places in the world to observe leopards in the wild. It is estimated that Yala Block 1 has the highest density of leopards in the world. While leopards are elusive in the wild, leopards in Yala Block 1 are unique, in that they are habituated to vehicles, thereby resulting in good sightings. This has attracted a large number of international and national visitors to the Park. The stability that was brought about as a consequence of the end of the war has led to an explosion of tourism in Yala Block 1. Visitation has increased from 43,368 visitors in 2008 to 545,007 visitors in 2015, an increase of over 1,000% in seven years, according to a recent report. Yala, the most popular National Park in Sri Lanka had over 658,000 visitors in 2016.

Peak

This has resulted in an average of 250 vehicles entering Yala Block 1 per day with increased numbers during holiday seasons, often exceeding 700 vehicles per day. The peak periods for visitation are between 6 am to 10 am and from 2 pm to 6 pm, during which time vehicle congestion is highest. Mobile communications within the Park compounds the problem, with SMS and phone calls alerting commercial safari vehicle operators to sightings of charismatic species, resulting in high speed, reckless driving to reach such sightings.

“Such reckless driving endangers animals crossing roads within the Park, resulting in several animal kills over the past few years and has even caused injuries to passengers in some vehicles. With the convergence of vehicles to sightings of charismatic species, the sightings become overcrowded and indisciplined behaviour of safari jeep drivers and their occupants harasses the animals and contribute to a poor quality wildlife viewing experience. Even under these circumstances, the Yala National Park earned a revenue of Rs. 437.7 million in 2015. However, continuing on this basis would be detrimental to the long term survival of wildlife in Yala. It must be kept in mind that the purpose of establishing national parks is 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.

“Considering that the issues and solutions for over-visitation at the two sites are different, a separate Sub-Committee was appointed with a mandate to develop an Action Plan for improving the overall tourism experience in the Yala National Park. A multi-stakeholder membership representing the public and private sector, which included representation from the DWC, Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife (MSDW) and the tourism industry was appointed to develop the Action Plan.

Tourism

“In order to ensure conservation of wildlife in the Yala National Park and promote Sri Lanka as a wildlife tourism destination, the current trend of tourism in Yala has to be reversed. Considering that there has been little or no regulation of tourism in Yala over the last decade or more, largely due to entrenched political patronage, an incremental approach to the reversal of the current trend in tourism in Yala Block 1 is proposed. A comprehensive action plan with short, medium and long term actions to reverse the trend of over-visitation and its associated adverse impacts have been outlined in this report.

While the mandate of the sub-committee is limited to proposing guidelines for improving the overall tourism experience in Yala, it must be emphasized that the DWC has to devote a significant amount of resources towards enhancing the conservation and protection of wildlife in the Yala National Park to ensure their long term sustainability.”

The report states, the DWC has not been able to successfully control the problem of driver indiscipline and bad behaviour at sightings, largely due to reasons such as, insufficient wildlife guides to assign one guide per vehicle, as was the practice about 15 years ago; inability of the DWC to obtain Government approval for recruiting the required number of guides; weak enforcement of Park rules and regulations; and the lack of independence for the DWC to take disciplinary action against violators of Park rules. The biggest constraint faced by the Department is continued political interference preventing it from enforcing regulations evenly to all visitors to the Park. Political patronage pressurizes the DWC to implement regulations “preferentially”, thereby losing the credibility to be an effective regulator.

The committee has recommended short-term, mid-term and long-term actions to be taken without giving in to political pressure, for an improved wildlife experience for each visitor to the Park in the future. 

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