Photo courtesy of WNPS

Today is World Wildlife Day 

In February 2023, the prestigious Forbes magazine proclaimed Sri Lanka as having the Top Wildlife Safaris Outside of Africa for the year 2023.

“The nation has one of the planet’s densest populations of leopards and is arguably the best place to reliably see these magnificent cats, even more so than most of Africa. There are also Asian elephants, peacocks, water buffalo, monkeys, and sloth bears,” it said.

For many years now, Dr Sumith Pilapitiya, the former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), has publicly proclaimed this on numerous platforms. “Where else could you see the world’s largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in the morning, and the world’s largest terrestrial mammal, the elephant, in the afternoon, and all on the same day?” he asked.

Sadly, from the arrival of the first European invaders in 1505 and through 75 years of independent governance since 1948, the attitudes of the prevailing policymakers has remained a constant – an appreciation of the natural world and natural resources of this island only as resources to be exploited, even to the point of extinction, rather than be sustainably used and preserved for the long term. Of course in these five centuries, human populations have multiplied exponentially and these millions need to be fed. This, however, calls for a far greater need to protect the natural resources, for a healthy environment and clean food and water to keep this expanded population strong. Fundamental to this is the improvement in the efficiency of Sri Lanka’s farming methodologies where currently the rate of productivity per hectare is far below levels that they should be even compared to the rest of South Asia. If this is done, then there would not be the need for the large scale clearing of wildlife habitat that continues to take place today, all in the name of agriculture, and feeding of the masses. In reality, Sri Lanka did not have a major food crisis until the fiasco of attempting to convert its agriculture 100% organic overnight. This means that the central problem is related to fertilizer rather than a shortage of land. Many of these present destructive practices, although allegedly perpetrated in the name of food production, are in fact for other, non-agricultural, commercial enterprises for the financial benefit of a select few rather than for the greater good of all.

This blessed isle

For how blessed is this island, this emerald drop that clings to the tip of the vast sub-continent it neighbors? Recognized as one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots, it is no wonder it is. Sri Lanka is fortunate to have:

  • 97 species of terrestrial mammals (including elephants, leopards, sloth bears and the critically endangered pangolins)
  • 29 species of marine mammals (28 species of cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – and one species of dugong)
  • At least 31 species of bats
  • 492 species of birds (inclusive of 33 identified endemics)
  • Approximately 11,144 species of insects (inclusive of 245 species of butterflies and 130 known species of dragonfly)
  • 387 species of spiders (of which 275 are endemics)
  • Over 120 species of amphibians (of which 90 are endemics)
  • 95 species of freshwater fish
  • 70 species of known trees
  • 3,210 flowering plants
  • over 100 waterfalls,
  • 103 natural river basins
  • 501 protected areas

The list goes on and on with all of this natural terrestrial wealth surrounded by a teeming tropical ocean with mangrove borders, sea grasses and coral reefs.

There is a wide contrast of habitat ranging from dry, thorny scrub forests that border the coastline through to rainforests in the mid-range hills, up to the chilly, mist laden, montane forests at the highest of elevations (going to above 7,000 feet) with the different animal and plant species that inhabit each, so it is no wonder that Forbes waxes lyrical about the wildlife and wild places of this country.

Does wildlife have to pay its way?

Conservation is as much about the preserving the human race as it is about the protection of wildlife and the wilderness. While ethics, aesthetics and simple common sense determine that these natural wonders should be conserved not just for today but for forever, policymakers possess few, if any, of these values and emotions. For them, wildlife and forests are a source of potential revenue to be exploited in the short term for an income to be had from their destruction for immediate profit, while damning the future.

However, as these pragmatists, or so they like to refer to themselves, demand that wildlife must pay for their continued preservation here in Sri Lanka, it must be understood that it has always contributed in disproportionately large amounts to the national economy. Over 35% of all foreign visitors will go to one of the national parks and a substantial number more will enjoy the natural splendors in wild places outside of them. It is the wildlife protected areas that conserve and protect the watersheds of all large reservoirs without which hydropower and irrigated agriculture may be a thing of the past. Unfortunately this contribution from the wildlife sector is not financially quantified.

It already does

In a published study undertaken in 2016 by the Sri Lanka Association of Internal Travel Organizers (SLAITO), it was estimated that Block I of the Yala National Park earned an approximate Rs. 7 billion in that year. Similarly, prior to the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 and the disastrous Covid pandemic and travel restrictions, it was estimated that the gathering of wild elephants at the Minneriya National Park, the largest such annual congregation of Asian Elephants in the world, earned approximately $52 million for the local economy, and the country – a conservative estimation. The Uda Walawe National Park, the one place in the world where a wild elephant can be seen at any hour of the day on any day of the year, has grown in the past three decades from a small hamlet of a cluster of village shops and one guest house to having over 100 hotels and guest houses, many restaurants and shops and over 400 safari jeep drivers, all sustained by the national park and its elephants. These are just three examples but with 501 protected areas and the bounteous oceans surrounding the land, there is so much more that may be sustainably marketed if protected.

Before 2019, a group of economists estimated that the total revenue that a single elephant can generate for the country is approximately $59,000 or Rs.10 million over its lifetime for hotels, resorts, airlines, travel companies and local economies. The key words here are over its lifetime. They must live their full span of life to be of this economic worth. At the last survey, in 2011, there were an estimated wild elephant population of 6,000 on the island; a sustainable and extremely lucrative natural resource if kept alive.

The pillage continues

Yet Sri Lanka’s natural resources continue to be plundered and exploited until they have reached a point of exhaustion. The principles of sustainable development and preservation for the long term benefit of many, for today and the future, seem to be just statements to be meted out to the global community in attempts to find funding for this financially impoverished country while actively destroying a natural heritage of immeasurable wealth that could bring in large amounts of foreign income if properly protected, managed and sustained.

Sadly, both the tourism and wildlife protection agencies continue to be committed to the false belief that quantity is all that matters and that quality is of little consequence. This demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the way tourism is evolving today, especially wildlife tourism, where the experience counts more than the number of iconic species counted. What visitors look for is a total wildlife experience where they can learn from, spend time with and become absorbed in an environment and its inhabitants without intruding on them in any way; just enjoying their existence in the haven of their beautiful wilderness homes. They would be willing to pay much more for this exceptional connection with nature.

The present short sighted, irresponsible attitude has led to the adoption of bad management practices that have contributed to the deterioration of the natural habitat. Despite their enormous economic potential, wild elephants are being killed at an increasing rate. Last year saw the highest number of victims of the human-elephant conflict, both human and elephant, since records have been kept – 429 elephants and 133 humans. This is almost solely due to ill advised, outdated and unscientific methodologies being employed in attempts to mitigate it despite there being a national policy and action plan formulated by all stakeholders for the implementation of scientifically tested and proven alternatives. The gathering at Minneriya is under threat due to poorly thought out water management policies that are destroying the grasslands that attract elephants to it, during the season. The habitat of the Uda Walawe National Park has changed from grasslands to largely inedible scrublands due to the mechanized removal of invasive alien species that kept the roots in and aided the spread of these species. The bulldozer also destroys the native species. Uda Walawe once had populations of elephants that surpassed the numbers at Minneriya. Alas, no more. And yet just a few miles further east of Uda Walawe is the Lunugamwehera National Park that was also facing disaster due to invasive species. However, thanks to patient manual removal of these plant species from their roots by the Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO), grasslands have replaced the choking weed and herbivores, including elephants, feast on the nutritious growth. There are no quick fixes to the destruction of natural systems that have evolved over millennia although destroyed in a day. It takes time, patience and scientifically informed actions.

It is still not too late

For many decades, Yala has been treated as the harlot of the national parks. Used and abused by those adhering to archaic strategies revolving around the misguided view that the greater the number, the greater the reward. Hundreds of vehicles are permitted entry into the park on a day and jeeps jostle with and speed against each other for a sighting of an iconic creature, tearing past much other beauty along the way. The rules of the park are regularly flouted and the needs of the wildlife are marginalized; some animals even losing their lives in the melee. Its fame for its leopards seen during the day and accustomed to vehicles and visitors, has been its undoing. Yet there is so much more that is to be seen in this oldest of national parks that was declared, along with the beautiful Wilpattu National Park, in the early part of the 20th century, then promoted and guarded by the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society (WNPS).

In 2017, Dr. Pilapitiya was appointed to chair a committee of multiple stakeholders in formulating an action plan for improving the overall wildlife tourism experience in Yala. Sadly, these set of strategies that had the support of all have languished on the shelves of a ministry for all of this time while the mayhem continues.

Hope springs eternal

There is renewed hope of the plan’s revival, strongly supported by the WNPS, which continues to have a strong parental interest in the park it founded, as well as of other conservation groups. There needs to be a change in ethos, a change in vision and these are encapsulated in the plan. This can prove a possible template for the other national parks to follow.

Forbes sees Sri Lanka enjoying this position, of being second only to Africa, in 2023. This country, however, must ensure that it enjoys this position for all time. That will require much hard work, changes in thinking, the embracing of the knowledge of recent science and acceptance by the policymakers not just of today but those to come as well. After all, even the finest of strategies are just sterile words on a piece of paper if not implemented.

Every day in Sri Lanka should be a wildlife day.