Are hordes of safari jeeps threatening the leopards in Sri Lanka’s famed Yala National Park? Maybe not…
Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is renowned for having the highest leopard density in the world. It is hugely popular with tourists, particularly from China, our second-biggest marker after India.
As a result, the South China Morning Post reports that “with large groups of jeeps fighting for the best views, and visitors littering and feeding animals, there are fears the big cats’ environment is under threat”.
This is not news for environmentalists who have been sounding the alarm for some time. But the Post has added a new twist—that the growing hordes are in fact helping to protect the park’s wildlife.
It quotes Chandika Jayaratne, a guide and head naturalist for Wild Coast Tented Lodge near the park’s boundary, as saying that “there is a good side to the tourism, because it vastly reduces poaching”.
He adds that while diesel and sound pollution are issues, “it’s not killing the animals”, and he is as much concerned because “nature-loving visitors can have their trip marred by the crowds”.
And he says that “one solution could be to make the safari more expensive, to put off people who are not genuinely interested, and another would be to ensure that safari jeeps are fully occupied”.
The Post also reports Ravi Corea, president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, as stressing “that what you see at Yala is not an exceptional situation: national parks across the globe are bursting with visitors”.
“The difference is, in other countries there is a lot of effort made to educate and create awareness in the visitors to value and respect the park and its inhabitants, and to treat the parks as national heritage. This is what we need to do in our parks in Sri Lanka.”
He sees a growing need for a good visitor centre, workshops for safari jeep drivers, and for local people to get involved. “The responsibility to initiate such an effort is in the hands of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. If they don’t have the resource personnel to do it then they should outsource it to a private organisation.”
Corea adds: “When you see for the first time the hordes of people and vehicles, it seems like chaos and you assume it could only lead to some kind of negative impact.”
“But realistically, even though leopards can be observed relatively close by, they do not mingle with the vehicles, as in the case of lions and cheetahs in East Africa, so the impact on health could be negligible.”
Jayaratne agrees: “Animals are much smarter than we think they are, and they learn to adapt. I don’t even think most of them even notice us.”
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