The week after my own visit to Yala National Park, something particularly worrying happened. On August 17, one of the park’s best-known tuskers, Gemunu, came close to a safari vehicle looking for food. This isn’t unusual: he’s been doing it with increasing regularity since irresponsible drivers and guides started letting him take food from the vehicles, to deliver a “thrill” for their passengers. In this alarming Youtube clip from July, he almost topples a jeep over – the driver should never have let him get this close to the vehicle:
Then on August 17, Gemunu approached a safari vehicle again, but this time a vehicle of military personnel happened to be passing through the park, and an army officer discharged a gunshot into the air to scare Gemenu away (you can watch the clip here…)
The use of a firearm by an army officer has shocked the wildlife community, because the national parks are under the control of the Department of Wildlife, and this soldier did not have the authority to fire a gun. As elephant expert and tourism veteran Srilal Miththapala asked in a recent opinion piece: who is in charge here? And why were armed forces even allowed into the national park?
The Department of Wildlife certainly doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of curbing irresponsible behaviour at Yala. It’s not just feeding of the elephants: there is also an overcrowding problem, with as many as 300-400 jeeps are being allowed into the park each day, leading to traffic-jams when a leopard or group of elephants is discovered (as I witnessed myself here):
What’s needed is an effective team of park rangers to enforce more responsible behaviour (and a willingness to restrict the number of paying visitors). Srilal has made other suggestions for how such parks could be better managed: a one-way system around the park, for example, and penalising vehicles that carry only one or two passengers instead of being full. The Nation does report that during the month of September (when the park is being closed, after hard-campaigning from wildlife experts), literature to educate visitors on the dos and don’ts is also being prepared, which I hope might help.
Effective patrolling of Yala will of course cost considerable money (and Cinnamon Wild Yala has recently raised money to buy and maintain one patrol vehicle). But what I find frustrating is that these national parks should NOT be short of cash. Entrance fees for overseas visitors to Yala have rocketed in recent years, now costing around £15 per person. With local visitors as well, Srilal calculates that the park might be bringing in around 2M-3M rupees per day (up to £15,000 EVERY DAY).
As a visitor, it’s hard to see where this money has been invested. I was given no map or visitor’s guide at Yala, while at Minneriya I only received one after I specifically asked. There is nowhere to buy water or snacks outside the parks and most of the safari vehicles are old and battered. And while I’m sure some of the guides really know their stuff, the quality of the guiding and English language skills are nowhere near the standard I experienced in South Africa, for example.
The steep price-hikes are not just at the national parks, either. It’s the archaeological sites as well. I paid $30 (£20) to climb Sigiriya Rock – and of course tourists should pay a premium for the privilege of visiting such precious sites – but to get no info-leaflet and to have to pay extra to use these terrible bathroom facilities was an insult!
I understand that prices across Sri Lanka needed to increase, since they were so very low during the conflict-period, but when leading national parks around the world are cheaper and/or offer a far better visitor experience, it leaves the tourist rather dissatisfied.
As quick examples, South Africa’s Kruger National Park costs £12; America’s Yellowstone National Park £8; and Australia’s Uluru national park £12 for three days. If you pay £21 to visit the world-class Tower of London attraction you get free guided-tours, children’s trails and copious amounts of information. And toilets with loo-roll, free of charge…
I love you, Sri Lanka, but if you want to charge international prices, then you need to start delivering international-standard facilities, service and interpretation. And start demonstrating to tourists just how you’re using those considerable entrance fees to look after your incredible wildlife.