Towards A Total Wildlife Experience
In recent years the reputation of the National Parks of Sri Lanka, especially that of the Yala National Park (Block I), has been severely dented, both locally and internationally, due to the uncontrolled and undisciplined behaviour of the jeep drivers and guides who take visitors into the Parks.
At times, such has been their behaviour that they have not only endangered the lives of their passengers but, in several instances, wild animals have been killed too. Such practice not only drives visitors, especially tourists, from returning but they also take with them a very negative image of the National Parks, and also of the country; a disillusionment that is conveyed to their kith and kin on return to their country of origin.
Changing a mindset
A major reason for this mayhem at Yala, and increasingly elsewhere is that the majority of visitors, particularly the local ones, are only interested in ‘sightings’ or en route to elsewhere and visit a National Park as a stop off either on the way to, or back from, their main destination. They, too, are in search of a ‘sighting’ in the limited time they have to whizz through the park. The preferred ‘sightings’ are almost always of elephant, leopard and bear, with scant notice paid to the other creatures of the Park. Kudos is earned not in the quality of the ‘sighting’ but in their quantity, with each trying to outdo the other in the number of leopard or bear they can boast of having spotted. Then there are also those who when finding a place of vantage will not give it up, sometimes for hours on end, with others chaotically jostling for position to try and catch a glimpse of the quarry.
As per available statistics, one third (1/3rd) of all tourists to Sri Lanka visit the National Parks, attracted by their rich biodiversity, and as promoted in all of the leading tourism websites. An added attraction is that Sri Lanka, Yala and Wilpattu in particular, are famed for hosting leopards that have no fear of being seen during the day, where elsewhere in the world, they are predominantly nocturnal. Uda Walawe is one place that the sight of a wild elephant can be guaranteed at any hour, on any day of the week, while ‘The Gathering’, at Minneriya, is now an international natural wonder for those who love to see elephants in numbers.
An economic bounty for local communities
As per a published study conducted by the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO), in 2016 along the Yala National Park (Block I) attracted an income of approximately Rs. 7.5 Billion, the majority of which was earned by stakeholders of the region other than the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). It has also been estimated that visitors to the Minneriya National Park, during the few months of its annual ‘Gathering’, contribute Rs. 1.25 Billion per year to the national economy. With the increasing popularity of the other National Parks, each has the potential to attract similar large revenue for local businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as foreign exchange for the country.
For this prosperity to be sustained into the future, however, not only is it important to preserve the integrity of the National Parks and that of their incredibly rich biodiversity, but also to ensure that they become places that visitors, particularly those from overseas, would want to visit again and again, and recommend to their friends and family as a preferred destination for viewing wildlife.
Bringing order through information
With this in mind, and with the active collaboration of the DWC, the Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO) has, with the assistance of noted conservationists and environmental experts, compiled a Nature Interpretation Programme specifically aimed at educating jeep drivers and tourist guides not only on the natural wonders of the fauna and flora of the National Park which is the source of their livelihoods, and of explaining their beauty and intricacies of behaviour to their customers, but also on maintaining Park discipline, as well as in etiquette and personal presentation.
Each programme will be specifically catered to address the National Park at which it is being conducted, and the presenters will be chosen accordingly. In addition, all participants will receive a Certificate of Participation endorsed by both FEO and SLAITO.
A successful first
The first of these programmes was launched at the Wilpattu National Park under the scrutiny of the Deputy Director of the DWC (Planning, ICT and Law Enforcement), Ranjan Marasinghe, and of Chandani Wilson, Deputy Director of Visitor Services. In total, 45 jeep drivers and guides actively participated in the programme, which was held over two (2) days. Thanks are due to the Jeep Drivers’ Associations of Wilpattu who readily accepted the necessity for such a training and encouraged their members to attend.
While it is easy for everyone to blame the jeep drivers for the anarchy in the Parks, no real effort has been made to give them the necessary knowledge and understanding of what is expected of them to become responsible guardians of the natural wonder into which they take visitors, and whose preservation is vital for their personal financial prosperity.
Neither have they been given any training as to how to interpret the nature around them, from the smallest to the largest, in ways that make each observation of special interest to the visitor. Most importantly, this was the first time that a senior officer of the DWC and the Warden of the National Park had engaged in direct discussions with them on how to achieve the objective of giving visitors a total wildlife experience, rather than just tick off numbers of sightings of leopard, bear and elephant.
A focus on knowledge
The Deputy Directors and Warden had the backing of an expert team of presenters, from several fields, to give the participants as much information as they required to improve their driving and guiding skills. This started with an in-depth presentation on the Wilpattu National Park, its geography, history, archaeology and fauna and flora, with a special section on its leopards. There was a section on elephants and their behaviour, as well as on all of the other animals of the Park, from insects and butterflies to birds to reptiles and mammals. In addition, bringing this all together was a section on self-presentation and nature interpretation.
The presenters all had an impressive pedigree with the combined knowledge that was eagerly shared, and received, with and by the participants. They included Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General of the DWC, Nishad Wijethunga (Committee Member of SLAITO), Kithsiri Gunawardena, Namal Kamalgoda and Rahula Perera. Each participant received a Certificate of Participation from the Federation of Environmental Organisations, as authorized by SLAITO. The cost of this programme was sponsored by SLAITO, Back of Beyond, Quickshaws, Uga, Governor’s Camp and Backwaters.
Further such programmes, once again in collaboration with the DWC, are being planned for the Yala, Minneriya, Kaudulla and Uda Walawe National Parks, with a further follow-up programme at Wilpattu for those who missed the first programme and have demanded another. In addition, the long-term intention is that the behaviour of drivers in the National Parks, and the quality of service they give to visitors, will be monitored by the DWC, and a graded certification given to each driver dependent on their performance.
FEO is a non-political, non-partisan organisation that provides a platform for connecting interest groups with a patriotic interest in safeguarding Sri Lanka’s natural heritage through conservation and advocacy. (Rohan Wijesinha)