By Bernadine Rodrigo
When tourism was at its peak, unlike now, there was great human activity in places which ideally belonged to animals in its entirety. An issue which gave rise to grave concerns and caused a stir amongst people interested in wildlife conservation was the problem of overcrowding of wildlife parks, which was sometimes believed to cause the animals distress.
Taking the time off as an opportunity, former Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya and Asian Ecotourism Network Board Member Srilal Miththapala shared their views on ways to prevent these issues when things return to normal.
What we want to avoid
Wildlife activist Jayantha Wijesingha recalled the issues he and other activists brought up in terms of tourist activity before the curfew began. He mentioned that one great and rather obvious problem which existed was pollution which occurred as a result of so many vehicles entering these parks. He recalled that it caused air, noise, and visual pollution and said that the people who visited the parks ended up only seeing more vehicles, which completely diminished their experience of nature.
He added that overhabituation is another phenomenon which made the parks a terrible site for the animals. Sri Lankan conservationist Anjali Watson spoke about this and explained that overhabituation occurs when the animals get overly used to the stimulus of manmade objects – or rather stimuli which are alien to them – and remain unbothered by it.
Both she and Wijesingha agreed that this was not something that should be occurring. They said that this was a problem which appeared mostly amongst bigger animals such as leopards and elephants, but not amongst animals like bears who are generally too afraid to come out while humans are around.
Another point Wijesingha spoke about was how animals are being fed various things by tourists who enter these parks, and Miththapala reiterated this sentiment as well. Miththapala recalled an elephant named Gemunu who approached the jeeps and asked the people for food, which actually is a disruption in the normal lives of the animals of the parks, as it interferes with the processes of natural selection and competition within the species.
Wijesingha then spoke about how during this current period of curfew, where there is absolutely no human interference in these parts, the animals are being given the gracious opportunity to become normalised once again. “They have a newfound freedom now,” he said, adding: “They must be enjoying this.” One thing he was especially happy about was the fact that there was reduced hunting and the authorities now have more time to enforce the law on those who committed the crime. He said that our rangers are indeed doing a great job currently as they have been given the blessing of not having to focus on tourists entering. Furthermore, the animals too can prosper as with less people entering places such as Kataragama and Yala, the demand for wild meat – or bush meat – has reduced greatly.
With regard to animals’ freedom to roam about, Wijesingha said that it is not just a jubilant time for animals in parks, but also a good time for urban wildlife. He said that he noticed many more birds, including a Ceylonese paradise flycatcher (siyuru hora) frequenting his place in Boralesgamuwa, and opined that if their movement has increased so much in such urban areas, it must be far greater in the parks.
Miththapala confirmed this, saying that he was told by many rangers that this was certainly the case. Some of those who were patrolling had spoken to him and said that paths which were once infested by human beings are now brimming with animals; these animals included a variety of leopards and flamingos.
Here is where Dr. Pilapitiya’s and Miththapala’s concerns resurface. Miththapala spoke about how he asked the patrollers to take small videos of the hoard of animals so as to inspire people to behave better upon the memory of this when things return to normal. However, he is severely disappointed that he received no feedback here.
A good opportunity to restructure
The two of them realised that this time was a great opportunity for authorities involved in dealing with wildlife in Sri Lanka – i.e., the DWC – to plan ahead and prepare to maintain a less-stressful environment for animals in the future when tourism begins to revive.
Miththpala said that he has been working on setting some rules around hotels and other tourism facilities around these areas pertaining to the staff and how they interact with the outdoors. Similarly, he believes that it would not be a difficult task to do so as the staff work with the animals themselves.
Both Miththipala and Dr. Pilapitiya said that the restriction of vehicle movement into the parks is not what they want to do. “Restriction is a double-edged sword,” said Miththapala. Dr. Pilapitiya said that that this would cause great economic losses not just to the country but to the drivers themselves who make money in line with the number of trips made into the parks.
The changes they are asking for are simply in the attitudes of the drivers. This is mostly a problem in overcrowded parks, where the drivers do all they can to provide the tourists an experience of a lifetime by inching too close to the animals for too long or driving too fast in order to catch the animals they wanted to see.
Dr. Pilapitiya said that the main problem was harassment of animals and he added that obviously, if the animals are left alone and enjoyed from a safe distance, nothing would go wrong. He brought up the example of some elephants in the Minneriya National Park who began to feel so distressed that they started to attack jeeps that prevented them from going towards their watering holes. Elephants, being the intelligent creatures they are, realised that all they needed to do was attack one jeep and then the rest would follow, so they began to do so every time their freedom was obstructed.
Then an amazing thing happened in the parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla, something both Dr. Pilapitiya and Miththapala speak of in high regard; over 1,100 safari jeep drivers underwent a training programme conducted by the Federation of Environmental Organisations (FEO) where they took time every other weekend to educate the drivers about how they should act.
Dr. Pilapitiya and Miththapala both secretly observed these drivers’ behaviour after they had undergone this training and were both extremely happy to say that they witnessed change. The drivers of Minneriya and Kaudulla truly did behave better when mediating between animals after they were taught how to.
Dr. Pilapitiya also mentioned that the number of attacks by elephants significantly reduced, the drivers were keeping gaps between vehicles making space for the animals, and overall, 90-95% of the drivers improved largely.
He also said that the drivers had now created their own little organisation amongst themselves, where they check each other and take action if one of them goes against the rules. He noted that the underlying issue here might be the lack of awareness of the drivers with regard to discipline inside the national parks. He said that he was told by some individuals who have been through the training programme that they simply did not know about these things before.
This is a key branch of knowledge required for anyone entering this field which is lacking in these individuals, just because their superiors have not taught it to them.
Perfect time to plan
While, as Miththapala said, the training programme was supposed to be conducted in other national parks such as Udawalawe, Wilpattu, and Yala, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and the inability to freely move about in groups, these had to be halted.
Both Miththapala and Dr. Pilapitiya said that this period, when nothing is happening, is a perfect time to create a plan to enforce the necessary rules on the drivers and shape their overall decorum which should be maintained when inside the parks.
While the two have laid out a set of rules, they said that this is not necessarily what they should exactly follow. All they need to do is stick to the basic rules such as not driving too fast, not getting to close to the animals, not chasing after animals, and not trying to overtake them when they take too long to move.
While this may all seem simple and easy, the underlying problem according to the duo is that enforcement is not followed through due to politics. Dr. Pilapitiya recalled that when he was the Director General, he brought forward the rule that any driver who breaches the guidelines once shall be suspended for a week and if he repeated, i.e. a second time, suspension would be for two weeks; if three instances, a month’s suspension; and four instances, three months’ suspension. Dr. Pilapitiya made sure that the wrongdoers underwent their respective punishments and he said that all that was needed was the one-week suspension and they never did anything wrong again, as they would be losing income for the amount of time they missed out. However, the nuisance to him while doing this was that he received calls from politicians from respective areas asking him to relieve the suspensions of those drivers who are supporters of them. However, Dr. Pilapitya was able to stand his ground and say no straight away.
“I didn’t need the job,” he said, adding: “But I can’t ask the same from the current individuals in charge because that is their job. They can’t risk losing it.” He disciplined some 70 or so people this way.
Finally, what the two said is that the authorities should take this time off to create a plan to enforce the law to the dot in these parks.
“Ten badly behaved jeeps is worse than 50 or 100 disciplined ones,” they both said. What they ask is that the wildlife authorities should be given the freedom to carry out the law according to the way they see fit and the ministerial body should give them coverage for it, instead of trying to change their course of action for political reasons.
Furthermore, they ask that the discipline in the parks be maintained according to the comfort of the animals and that external forces not disrupt the fruition of this process. They believe that this is the perfect time to come up with a plan to make this happen.
Wildlife photos: Krishan Karyawasm