YALA Revived | Sunday Observer

YALA Revived

Yala National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist destinations, where Yala block 1 is reputed to have the highest density of leopards in the world. The Park is also notable for its many elephants, seasonal freshwater crocodile concentration and aquatic birds. It is one of the 70 most important bird areas in the country, as rated by Birdlife International, and is home to 44 species of mammals, altogether.

The Yala National Park was thrust into the limelight last week with a hue and cry that rang out with its reopening to the public by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). The reopening date being earlier than was expected drew criticism from several environmentalist groups, while the DWC decision to limit the number of safari jeeps entering the Park gave rise to protests from jeep owners and traders in the area.

A media release by the DWC, dated October 22, announcing the reopening of the Park stated that although a decision was made by the DWC on the advice of a special committee to close the Yala Park for two months, from September 1 to November 1, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera requested the DWC officials to open the Park from October 23. Minister Perera has taken the decision at a discussion held at the Prime Minister’s office, on a special request made by the Minister of Housing and Construction, Sajith Premadasa. The Release further states, the early opening was approved by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The reasoning behind the special committee’s advice to close Yala for two months was twofold. One reason is due to the high visitation of vehicles to Block I, over 300 vehicles on an average, per day, which called for animals to recover from intrusion by humans and vehicles. On holidays, the number of vehicles entering the Park surpasses 700 per day. Secondly, to encourage visitation to blocks III, IV & V, all of which have the same rich biodiversity as block I.

Accordingly, the DWC took measures to reduce the impact on the wild animals by reducing the number of vehicles that enter the Park. Vehicles are allowed to enter in three, four hour sessions, i.e. morning, afternoon and, evening. Each session would allow 100 vehicles from the Palatupana entry and 50 vehicles from the Katagamuwa entry. Special arrangements are made for local tourists and school tours arriving in tourist buses.

Visitation and its effects on Yala

According to data provided by the special committee report, An Action Plan for Improving the Overall Wildlife Tourism Experience in Yala National Park -Block 1 (2017), from 2008 to 2015, the visitation to block I of Yala has increased from 43,368 to 545,007, indicating a 1000 per cent increase.

Speaking of the numbers, former DWC Director General, Dr.Sumith Pilapitiya said, the lack of proper visitation management would create issues to Yala. “The priority of the WCD is to protect wildlife, tourism is something that arises as a result of this wildlife. We should utilize wildlife and forests to generate revenue by conserving them,” he said.

Speaking of the importance of limiting the number of entry on these grounds, Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Vice President, Ranil Peiris said, if things continue this way, Yala will not last long, due to pressure.

Thus, the Action Plan has been formulated by a committee of experts on the invitation of the PM, where Dr Pilapitiya was the President. Accordingly, some of the issues to be addressed are: indiscipline of safari jeep drivers and passengers, at sightings; reckless driving; vehicular congestion and disturbance to wildlife; over-visitation in block 1; poor nature interpretation services offered by 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.

Further, constraints to dealing with issues are: insufficient guides to assign one guide per vehicle, as was the practice about 15 years ago; inability of DWC to obtain Government approval to recruit the required cadre; and weak enforcement of Park rules and regulations.

According to Dr Pilapitiya, although approval has been given to fill 500 cadre positions as tour guides, the Ministry of Finance has so far failed to allocate sufficient funding to fill these positions.

“In the Action Plan, we recommended 31 short term, nine medium term and two long term solutions. Of this, the solution which could be implemented promptly, is ensuring the discipline of jeep drivers. Zoning the entry was a medium term solution,” Dr Pilapitiya said.

Vehicle limitation

Speaking on the vehicle limitation, Dr Pilapitiya said, in 2017, former Park Warden Suranga Rathnayake banned over 70 jeeps from entering but no one protested because the law was applied to everybody equally.

He said, “It is this sudden implementation that is attracting protests. This issue needed step by step implementation.”

He pointed out, the reasons for recommending blocks III, IV and V lay in ensuring a steady income for those who depended on Yala tourism for their livelihood. “When block I is open, tourists do not visit other blocks,” he said.

Dr Pilapitiya opined, “Three days was not enough to come up with a proper implementation mechanism. However, e ticketing has been suggested as a method of streamlining the entry.”

DWC, Director General, M.G.C. Sooriyabandara said, at present, management plans are being prepared and when they are finalized, the DWC will decide whether to promote blocks III, IV and V.

Yala Jeep Owners’ Association, President, Ajith Priyantha, said, as a result of the implementation of the time slots, they have to pay twice per day, to spend the time allowed by the licence, which is 12 hours. “This limitation is inconvenient as we can’t ensure that animals would be spotted within the allocated time. Also, if no vehicles are allowed to enter after the first 100, it is not practical,” he said.

He added, as a result of the time slots, tourists would prefer to visit other National Parks and as a consequence 30,000 families dependent on the tourism in Tissamaharama and Kataragama would be adversely affected. Ajith added that they have submitted requests to the DWC and are awaiting a response.

DWC, Director General, M.G.C. Sooriyabandara said, the limitation has been imposed as a management intervention, to minimize further resultant damage to the environment, by tourism. “Whether the vehicle limitation will be relaxed due to protests will be decided by the Minister,” he said.

He added that several proposals to streamline vehicle limitation are currently under consideration.

Speaking on the vehicle entry limitation, former Hotel Corporation, Chairman and Wildlife enthusiast, Srilal Miththapala said,this was the “best news he heard for a long time”, adding that he had been clamouring for this decision for a while.

“Yala is a very valuable national asset that needs to be protected at all costs. The Tourism industry and DWC will lose out on some of the income, but it has to be done to preserve Yala for our children,” he said.

He added that anywhere in the world, there is a carrying capacity observed per tourist destinations. “Any decent country will do this. Otherwise, due to the negative impression acquired by the tourists, jeep drivers will lose out.”

Miththapala noted the importance of having a streamlined mechanism to implement the vehicle entry limitation. “There must be a roster so that some do not monopolize the entry. One way is to have a quota, where a fragment of the ticket can be booked early by paying double the usual price,” he said.

Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera said, restrictions on vehicle entry will not be relaxed. “However, we will invite the Yala Jeep Owners’ Association for discussions and accordingly, we plan to reduce three sessions into two, i.e. morning and evening.”

Potential source of revenue

The morning session will be from 5.30 am to 12 noon and the afternoon session from 2pm to 6pm.

Minister Perera said, the maximum vehicles allowed per session will be 150. “There are also proposals to allow 10 extra vehicles, in the morning catering to private travellers and school tours, etc.,” he said.

He emphasized, these will be one way trips, where the jeep drivers cannot turn back and return when they hear a leopard being spotted. “Otherwise, due to the negative image created by their lack of discipline and overcrowding, we would lose our asset and our tourists. We encourage jeep drivers to take the tourists to blocks III, IV and V, instead of block I,” he said.

An Action Plan for Improving the Overall Wildlife Tourism Experience in Yala National Park -Block 1 (2017) states that Yala National Park earned Rs. 437.7 million in revenue in 2015.

On Trip Advisor, there are many reviews on Yala, where the overcrowding, traffic and speeding of drivers were noted. Speaking on this, Dr Pilapitiya said, these would have a negative effect in attracting tourists to Yala.

WNPS, Committee Member, Rohan Wijesinghe said, according to an empirical study conducted on foreign nationals visiting Yala, 70 percent spotted a leopard. However, they have said, they would not return due to all the issues highlighted.

“We are speaking about the international debt we own as a country. Here, is a potential revenue generator which can generate two or three times more revenue if properly managed and conserved for the future,” said Wijesinghe, speaking of the tourism potential of the Park.

Wijesinghe added that according to estimates, jeep drivers’ earnings is approximately 80 per cent of the revenue made by the Park. He added that the economy in the area depends largely on tourist visits to Yala, including, hotels, shops, and other small scale businesses.

Therefore, on the whole, it can be noted, to ensure a sustainable source of revenue for tourism, it is essential that Yala is conserved for the future. Overcrowding Yala today, with the aim of increasing profits, results in a negative impression on the tourism industry, internationally. In addition, it causes damage to the Park and its wildlife. All this would result in the loss of a valuable asset and an income source, which indicates that regulations are necessary as a mechanism of prevention of further loss, and as a damage control mechanism.