The future of Yala national park

“If God created a patch of land for leopards on Earth, then it must be Yala National Park.” award-winning photographer Angie Scott.

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Yala is a national park that has drawn innumerable visits from both locals and visitors. Yala National Park is included in most Sri Lanka tour packages such as Sri Lankan south coast tour itineraries, Sri Lanka adventure tour packages, and Sri Lankan nature trips. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in southern Sri Lanka.

The question is, though: will Yala Park still exist in a few years? At the most recent WNPS monthly lecture, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, an environmental scientist and former director-general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, discussed the impending devastation of Yala National Park and the need for Sri Lankans to act quickly to stop it.

Sri Lanka’s overall potential for wildlife tourism

According to Pilapitiya, “wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka could be the biggest driver for the growth of the tourism industry.” He mentioned a number of nations, like South Africa, where tourism directly generates ten billion dollars annually. He clarified that there are two different parts to wildlife tourist promotion: the desire to do so and the ability to do it. According to a study he highlighted, Sri Lanka tops the observability category among Asian nations.

This indicates that it’s very easy to see wildlife in Sri Lanka and that we may start seeing it as soon as we start a wildlife safari in a national park. Pilapitiya clarified that, as Sri Lanka has the highest potential for wildlife tourism, we have an abundance of resources at our disposal. He also mentioned a few special resources that we can market and advertise.

Yala National Park, the leopard-land

On their Sri Lanka safari tours, every passenger expects to spot a freely roaming leopard in the park. According to statistics, the best national parks in the world to watch leopards are Yala and Wilpattu. He added that Yala National Park is home to 215 different bird species, including six endemic species, and over 40 different mammal species. He also quoted award-winning photographer Angie Scott, who said, “If God created a patch of land for leopards on Earth, then it must be Yala.”

In a similar vein, Pilapitiya stated that Yala National Park is the only place worldwide where albino elephants may be found living in the wild.

How is Yala National Park doing these days?

According to Pilapitiya, the number of tourists has surged by more than 1,000% between 2008 and 2017, and neither the Department of Wildlife Conservation nor any other organisation would be prepared to handle this growth.

He clarified that because of this, the department was forced to permit the Safari Jeeps to enter the park without a tracker. According to Pilapitiya, “every Safari jeep had a tracker to accompany them before 2008.” But this has altered due to overcrowding and a shortage of qualified trackers.

Pilapitiya enumerated a few of the documented effects of excessive tourism at Yala National Park, including traffic fatalities.

He recounted a sad incident in which vehicles inside the National Park murdered leopards. Pilapitiya went on, “Never take pictures at the expense of the animals.” He mentioned feeding wildlife, mistreating them when spotted, and altering their behaviour as further effects of this problem. Additionally, Yala is struggling with serious habitat issues, a decline in the number of animals, and a lack of attention to park management and conservation.

Anxiety for animals in Yala National Park

Elephants in the vicinity of automobiles tend to eat less because, as a result of their ongoing stress and defence mode, Pilapitiya noted in a study done at Uda Walawe. In his talk, he also brought up a study that reveals the presence of humans may change the behaviour and movement patterns of leopards, which may have a negative impact on their survival, health, and ability to reproduce. “All I’m saying is to give some space for the animals; I’m not saying we should stop visitingation,” he remarked.
Pilapitiya questioned if such misuse could persist in a natural ecology and yet achieve its goals.

Which are the matters that require immediate attention?

Pilapitiya identified a number of crucial concerns that need to be addressed in order to avert this impending catastrophe. Apart from the disciplinary problems involving safari drivers and passengers, some of the most important issues that need to be addressed are excessive speeding and reckless driving, traffic jams, over-promotion of Yala as a destination for leopard sightings, a shortage of staff and facilities, including patrol cars, and subpar nature interpretation services provided by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Pilapitiya further emphasised that one of the most crucial problems that needs to be resolved is the ongoing political meddling that prevents DWC from having the autonomy it needs to control tourism in Yala.

Can this tendency be reversed?

Setting restrictions on the number of vehicles that can enter Yala is a difficult task due to the presence of approximately 700 jeep drivers within the Yala National Park, as Pilapitiya stated. Limiting it will result in intense political pressure from both the hotel business and the jeep drivers, who fear that their livelihoods will be negatively impacted.

Drawing from his background as a previous wildlife manager, Pilapitiya emphasised that he discovered numerous issues that arise when imposing such restrictions. Consequently, he emphasised the need to reprimand the drivers of jeeps, both private and safari, as well as the passengers, rather than immediately placing restrictions on the vehicles. He added that in order to prevent our nation’s non-overcrowded parks from becoming like Yala, boundaries must be put in place right away.

Additionally, Pilapitiya stated that we ought to prioritise quality over quantity. He stated that the majority of visitors claim not to learn anything from visiting a park and that they want accurate interpretations of the natural world. This can be achieved by creating a strategy for turning Yala into a premier wildlife tourist location, one that emphasises the development of guest and driver discipline.

Aldo Leopold once said, “We can’t influence human occupancy now, but we might be able to save Yala from its current position if we create a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.” Pilapitiya used this quotation to support her argument.

Pilapitiya stated, “The majority of visitors come here to learn something, but we are not giving them that; we are just showing them the animals.” He said that we should create Sri Lanka as a land in sync with nature in order to preserve our natural resources.