- Reduction in DWC anti-poaching activities leaves future of Yala National Park at risk
By Rohan Wijesinha
For many years now, Block I of the Yala National Park has been the source from which has sprung a prosperous economy for the local population. Hotels and guest houses have mushroomed in its vicinity, with over 1,300 beds currently on offer to local and foreign visitors. These, in turn, provide hundreds of jobs for the local community, either directly or in supply of goods.
Of the local population, the most to benefit, by far, have been the safari jeep drivers. According to Department of WIldlife Conservation (DWC) estimates, over 1,200 jeeps are available in the Tissamaharama, Kirinda, and Kataragama areas, and used as safari jeeps. A recent study has estimated that the annual income to them alone, as a group, is almost 90% of that made by the National Park. This is a figure that runs into hundreds of millions. As such, Yala has become vital in sustaining the local economy of the region, and in raising the standard of life of all who benefit from it.
Common sense would dictate that such an important resource should be protected, at all costs, to sustain the wealth of the region not just for today, but for generations to come. Yet the proverbial goose that is laying the golden egg may be in danger of being poached!
Venison is cheaper than chicken
As is normal in situations of economic crisis, the protection of the environment, wilderness, and wildlife comes at the end of the list of policy priorities. It is understandable that in the current financial meltdown, spending on infrastructure and development may have to be temporarily suspended till the required funds become available again. At the very least, however, every effort should be made to protect this precious economic resource for posterity.
It is reliably learnt that the fuel supply for the DWC vehicles has been drastically cut, to such a degree that they are unable to conduct their anti-poaching patrols to the scope they would normally do. This is disastrous for the park, with residents in nearby Tissamaharama reporting that a kilogram of venison is now cheaper to buy than a kilogram of chicken! It seems that the market is flooded.
Is the DWC not an essential service?
If they have not done so already, it is hoped that the hierarchy of the DWC is now in contact with those who make wildlife policy to argue the case that the work they do, the conservation of protected areas and wildlife, is an essential service, not just for today, but for posterity. Surely the volumes of fuel required to power the vehicles essential for anti-poaching activities are a mere drop in the ocean compared to the overall requirement of the State?
It has begun to dawn on the tourist industry that for its future sustainability, at economically profitable levels, it has to change its focus of provision from quality to quantity. The aim should be to give the visitor such a wonderful experience that they will visit Sri Lanka again and again, and encourage their friends and family to do so too. In this way, Sri Lanka will attract tourists of high worth who will truly contribute to the economy of the country, rather than the present policy of pursuing numbers with a population of visitors who end up having their holidays subsidised by the people of Sri Lanka.
What will the tourists come to see?
If politicians are blind to the ethical, aesthetic, cultural, religious, and medical reasons for wildlife conservation, their eyes should open wide at the prospect of the vast amounts of income to be made from its sustainable exploitation. For this to happen, there must be wild animals for the visitor to see, living in a pristine wilderness that they could not have access to anywhere else in the world; to leave with an experience that fills them with wonder, and a longing to return.
Anecdotal evidence from wildlife enthusiasts who have visited Yala for many decades is that the population of wildlife in Yala, especially those of deer and wild boar, is much lower than it was 30 years ago. If there is rampant poaching in the absence of proper anti-poaching patrols, which is likely to happen, the longer-term impact will be on the leopard population as their prey base may decline.
The above is not true just for Yala, but for all of the National Parks Sri Lanka is blessed with, each different to the other, with a distinct savour of its own. If, however, their wildlife are decimated to feed not only the ignorant urban visitor, for whom a trip to the wilderness is not complete unless a plate of bushmeat (දඩ මස්) is placed before them, but also the local community in these troubled economic times, nothing would be left! And what if the wildlife and wilderness of these special places are destroyed, then what is there for the visitor to see, one which they could not encounter anywhere else in the world?
The writer is the former General Secretary of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society WNPS and a current invited member of the Society’s Human-Elephant Conflict Sub-committee. Wijesinha is also the immediate Past Chair of the Federation of Environmental Organisations (FEO)
The history of wildlife protection in Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with that of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. At 128 years old, the WNPS is the third oldest non-governmental organisation of its kind in the world and was responsible for the setting up of the Wilpattu and Yala National Parks in Sri Lanka, and of the formation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).