We all speak about the adverse effects of Covid-19. They are known; they are ongoing; they will likely be felt for years to come. But Covid-19 has brought with it a few positives as well. It has given many people a chance to reflect on how they live their lives, the choices they make, and how those choices can be improved.
Sri Lanka’s wildlife is legendary. Though we are one small island, we have an incredible range of biodiversity. Sadly, much of this renowned biodiversity is at risk. Finite land resources and an exploding population coupled with poorly managed development means much of the land that was previously wilderness has now been converted to land for human settlement as well as for agriculture, pushing the country’s precious natural heritage to the brink.
Sri Lanka’s wildlife resources have many stakeholders – the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Department of Forest Conservation form a custodial and management role supported by others like conservationists, scientists, and tourism operators, as by and large, tourism in Sri Lanka is “nature-based” and the country’s tourism-dependent economy is heavily reliant on its wilderness and wildlife. Sadly, the latter rides on the coattails of Sri Lanka’s enviable biodiversity but has also been at great cost due to issues like over-visitation in wildlife parks.
The recent pandemic has been an eyeopener for many but also provided respite for the country’s wildlife within park borders. This month’s Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) Public Lecture focuses on these themes, where Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) Director Rukshan Jayawardena addresses the windfall as a result of Covid-19 in terms of how we manage tourism in wildlife parks.
Jayawardena is a lifelong wildlife enthusiast and photographer who believes the role of photography in conservation is best served by adhering to standards and ethics. Jayawardena is a Founding Trustee at the Leopard Trust, Chairman of the Wilderness and Protected Areas Foundation, and Past President WNPS. Ahead of the WNPS Public Lecture, The Morning Brunch reached out to Jayawardena for a little more insight on how exactly the pandemic has been a boon to wildlife conservation.
The good side of Covid-19 for SL’s wildlife
Jayawardena explained that many of Sri Lanka’s wildlife parks, especially the popular parks like the Yala National Park and the Horton Plains National Park struggle with over-visitation in the name of tourism and that in the national context, tourism can often take precedence over protecting national parks and biodiversity.
“No long-term studies have been conducted on the over-visitation of wildlife parks,” Jayawardena said, adding: “And until you study and quantify and look at it through time, you can’t say anything for sure. However, the pandemic led to park closures and people being unable to visit in any number.”
This drastic drop in visitors to national parks for a period close to three months has given wildlife conservationists a unique opportunity to see how parks, and wildlife in particular, develop with little human interaction; it had very telling results.
“If you were to take Yala, for example, sightings of animals like leopards and other mammals have increased dramatically,” Jayawardena shared. “The duration of sightings and range of behaviours the animals show has also improved greatly. I see this as a direct result of the pressure from tourism being reduced, and really, it negates the need for a long-term study because in a very short time, without the pressure of tourism on the parks, you see a rebounding of the parks’ usual natures and much more relaxed behaviour from the animals.”
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Yala, which is Sri Lanka’s most well-known wildlife park. Jayawardena commented that this trend has been observed in most if not all wildlife parks across Sri Lanka.
The reduced numbers of visitors, particularly after lockdown, has also made park management much more effective. “It is much easier for the park management to manage and control tourist behaviour in reduced numbers,” Jayawardena said. “The Department of Wildlife is chronically understaffed, and high numbers of tourists in parks greatly interfere with the animals’ behaviour.”
The impacts of over-tourism on our wildlife
The key issues Jayawardena raised that were compounded by over-tourism were issues like roads and other development cutting through animal habitats and not only inhibiting the animals’ way of life but also decreasing the quality of tourism because animals are not used to humans and so end up staying away from the main roads or they only come within 10 m of the road, regardless of if the vegetation by the side of the road is what they normally eat. There is also tremendous interference to animals accessing waterholes because of vehicles coming by every 30 seconds-one minute.
“Just because a few animals are habituated and don’t show fear around humans doesn’t mean that they represent all the animals in the park,” Jayawardena stressed. “We can no longer say it doesn’t matter because it definitely makes a huge difference. It may not be fatal to them in any way, but roads that intersect parks so that animals have to cross them, combined with large numbers of visitors, can be traumatic to the animals.”
Jayawardena explained that the need for tourism to take precedence and the need to make money can lead to serious ecological consequences in the long term. “There is great value that animals and ecosystems provide. Symbiotic associations between animals and plants create things like the quality of our water and the quality of our soil – things we can’t achieve artificially without great inconvenience.”
Over-tourism can even sometimes lead to damaging environmental consequences in the name of improvement, Jayawardena shared. Because of the priority tourism takes, initiatives like restoring old water tanks and improving waterholes are undertaken with the idea of both providing animals with extra water as well as boosting tourism through animal sightings at these waterholes.
Jayawardena explained that the ecological impacts of manufacturing waterholes like this can have lasting adverse effects, citing South Africa’s similar initiatives as an example. In South Africa, water was pumped up form windmills into waterholes, even during rainless times where waterholes normally dried up completely. The result was that the natural vegetation around these waterholes was overgrazed by herbivores, basically creating mini ecological deserts in the areas surrounding these waterholes. South Africa has since ceased this practice, the result being that the strong animals survive, which is what is necessary.
“These are tried and tested evolutionary cycles. Sri Lanka still provides water to areas in waterless times. This needs to be done very judiciously, “Jayawardena explained, adding: “Especially doing things like restoring old water tanks on the boundaries of parks. In this sort of instance, we need to be prepared to protect this sort of area because poachers and illegal hunters are also automatically drawn to areas where animals are abundant.”
Getting things right for the future
Jayawardena shared that limiting the numbers of visitors to parks is a crucial way forward. There has to be a way of staggering visitors entering parks and a quota on how many visitors enter a certain park at any given time. Jayawardena said: “Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya headed an excellent park management study and made a proposal to the former Government on such measures. The study was conducted with all Sri Lanka’s wildlife stakeholders including the tourism industry. It looked at sustainably reducing visitors to parks in a way that could be beneficial to all. Now, proposals like this have a lot more strength because we can see how parks have fared with reduced numbers of visitors.”
Jayawardena noted the financial impact to reducing the numbers of visitors allowed into parks, both in terms of tourism as well as funding for the DWC, but he stressed that Sri Lanka’s wildlife is a living resource. “Our inability to control this is going to have a long-term impact on these ecosystems that may be irreversible over time. We may not see the impact immediately, but in 50 to 100 years, we may see the disappearance of animals in these parks because of how they are affected by noise and people.”
Jayawardena also shared that important steps for the future included the DWC developing better practices in parks and improving overall park management. Jayawardena also commented on the role political interference plays when developing these systems, especially when disciplinary action is taken against people who abuse wildlife.
“This is the time for us to take stock of what has been happening and decide the best way forward,” Jayawardena said, adding: “Sri Lanka’s wildlife is not any department’s personally owned thing. It’s something that is held in perpetual trust for future Sri Lankans and the world. Many of our wildlife parks are World Heritage Sites.”
Rukshan Jawayardena discusses the themes above and more at this month’s WNPS Public Lecture which takes place today, 22 October at 6 p.m. via Zoom and Facebook Live on the WNPS Facebook page.
By Naveed Rozais