Tripadvisor, Inc. the world’s largest online travel platform has picked Yala National Park as the 19th Best National Park in the world among 25 other Parks. Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka, bordering the Indian Ocean. When awarding Yala with this recognition, Tripadvisor reasoned that there are many different reasons to add Yala National Park to your must-see list, naming the safaris, wildlife, long winding paths and the areas of the park that touch the Indian Ocean.
The Serengeti National Park is a Tanzanian national park in the Serengeti ecosystem in the Mara and Simiyu regions, that was awarded as the best national park in the world. It is famous and well known for its annual migration of over 1.5 million white-bearded wildebeest and zebra and for its numerous Nile crocodiles and honey badgers.
Number two on the list is the Jim Corbett National Park, a forested wildlife sanctuary in northern India’s Uttarakhand State. It’s rich in flora and fauna, and is known for its Bengal tigers. Animals, including tigers, leopards and wild elephants, roam the Dhikala zone. After having a look at all the other parks on the list, the common factor seems to be beasts of the cat family like leopards, which Yala is famous for.
With the recent problems that the Park has been facing in terms of conservation, poaching and low maintenance, this title seems questionable, and yet, the park remains seen as one of the most luscious parks in the country. We spoke to a few personalities in the field of wildlife and conservation on their thoughts on this achievement.
Not a walk in the park: safari drivers
Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Yala Jeep Owners’ Association President, Ajith Priyantha commented that the availability of safaris undoubtedly contributed to putting Yala National Park on the map while adding to its name as one of the best parks in the world.
“Compared to other national parks, in Yala, it is much easier to spot leopards, which is why it’s such a famously known park,” he said, adding that these rare sightings are what makes people want to eagerly visit the park.
He added that in Africa, people spend days to find leopards, but in Yala, they’re so easy to spot, which is why we should be ranked as one of the best parks in the world. With the current pandemic, he commented that the livelihood of many drivers have gone down the drain, and therefore the money that the park was earning through safaris has decreased significantly, so the upkeep cost is not being met.
He also shared that being a safari driver is no walk in the park, the drivers require extensive knowledge on wildlife and how to handle them, which comes with years of training, “We have many trained drivers at our association, and have a good grasp of our national park, so they are ideal for tours and and even operate as guides.” As the pandemic continues to reign its wrath, Priyantha had to make the difficult decision to let some of these skilled drivers go, adding that there has been no move from the Tourist Board, Wildlife Department or the Government to protect his people. Despite the park being labelled as one of the best, the people that put in hard work to maintain its prestigious name are not being recognised by the officials of the country.
Locals have no idea how valuable this park is: Chandana Sooriyabandara
Department of Wildlife Conservation Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara noted that for years, they have been striving to make Yala the best park in the country and eventually, the world, so this achievement is quite commendable. “We were preparing a management plan, and we’re working on implementing that.”
They had planned many visitors centres, informative activities and making developments on activities that visitors require. “We are also making the habitat optimal for the flora and fauna found in the park by adding new species, providing water and creating grasslands for the animals.” They have also implemented a flora and fauna protection order to have it known as a protected area in Sri Lanka.
With the increase in visitors, there has been a spike in the destruction of the park, as the exhaust from vehicles and litter from badly behaving visitors puts the park and all its inhabitants in danger.
“We are currently monitoring and managing this situation. Locals have no idea how valuable this park is, they just see it as a place where they can extract resources from, which should not be the case.” He noted that they are fighting hard for the conservation and longevity of the park, and keep it safe from selfish hands.
We need to take it as a positive measure: Jagath Gunawardana
Yala National Park was initially known as Ruhuna National Park Complex and currently comprises seven blocks. Commenting on whether the park deserved to be recognised, renowned lawyer, environmentalist and educator Jagath Gunawardana said: “My answer is that the Wildlife Department has done their jobs according to the meagre resources that are available to them,” adding that if it comes to only the area that is accessible to public, that is Block One and Block Two, then there are many problems that need to be addressed immediately.
“Even if they had taken the total complex into consideration, I think the minimal staff at the Department of Wildlife who have worked hard throughout the years deserve this recognition for their hard work.” He explained that the staff had to face many hardships and troubles over the years to bring and maintain the park at the standard it is at now.
Talking about some of the more concerning short-term problems, he noted traffic and the lack of guidelines, “First and foremost are the three things that the Department of Wildlife needs to improve; enhance the staff and their capacity and capabilities, enhance the facilities given to the staff and last, give them up-to-date training on the different matter of law enforcement and park management.”
Despite the recognition, Gunewardana added that it is not something that we should just be proud of, “We need to take it as a positive measure for the future in terms of tourism, if we want to keep this recognition going.” He further stated that we have to address the short-term issues as quickly as possible and also have an assessment and form a plan of action to address the long-term problems that may arise in the National Park. He suggested enhancing staff and security thus also enhancing facilities at the park for the best experience.
Photos Krishan Kariyawasam