From left: Minister of Tourism, Christian Affairs and Wildlife, John Amaratunga presenting the receipt of the first e-booking reservation to Lead Environmental Specialist and Former Director General of DWC, Sumith Pilapitiya in the presence of Secretary to the Ministry S.Hettiarachchi ( extreme left) and DWC Deputy Director, Ranjan Marasinghe (right)
Pic by Pradeep Dilruckshan
By Nishel Fernando
Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) is to expedite the implementation of the strategic plan to tackle the over-visitation to Yala National Park and other national wildlife parks, while enhancing the quality of visitor experience. Despite two strategic plans being launched in 2015 and 2016 by DWC under the instructions of the then Tourism and Sports Minister Navin Dissanayake and later by a committee appointed by the Prime Minister, the implementation of these plans were disrupted by political interferences.
“Although we started implementing the plan with enthusiasm, the speed of implementation was not encouraging and most of the contributing issues were beyond our control,” DWC Deputy Director, Ranjan Marasinghe said.
He was speaking at the launch of the online entry permit service for national parks in Colombo this week.
The electronic pre-booking service was one of the key recommendations to limit over-visitation to Yala and to enhance the quality of service delivery in permit issuances.
Marasinghe noted that e-Service was developed several years ago by the DWC and the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA). However, several attempts to launch the service by the two agencies were unsuccessful.
He said that with the backing of the newly appointed Tourism Development, Christian Affairs and Wildlife Minister John Amaratunga, DWC was finally able to launch the e-service this week.
He pointed out that by pre-booking their entry permits to national parks, visitors can avoid long queues or eventually being turned away after reaching a maximum number of vehicles allowed into the parks.
“We had the problem of handling the next visitor to the park after reaching the maximums limit. A visitor who travels from a faraway place being denied entry at the park gate is a bitter experience for both the visitor and the officer. If the visitor is elite we lose, if he is pleasant he loses,” he said.
Initially, the service will be available for Wilpattu National Park, and it will be extended to other parks including Yala National Park this year.
“When the political leadership is behind us to encourage and to protect, we can take any challenge for the betterment of the society,” Marasinghe stressed.
Speaking at the occasion, Amaratunga asserted that he will facilitate the department officials to carry their duties without any political interferences, and urged them to not to be pressured by politicians.
Meanwhile, Marasinghe told Mirror Business that several recommendations in the Prime Minters’ committee report will be implemented shortly.
DWC has planned to rotationally close one block of the Yala National Park in order to provide ample time for the natural systems to recover and revive. A large number of safari jeeps entering the national park daily and various other visitor activities disrupt the breeding cycles of animals.
“For an example, if leopards are allowed to revive for a certain period of time, their breeding patterns and everything else will get back to normal,” he said.
Presently, the DWC closes down Block 1 of Yala National Park, the most congested area of the park for a period of two months annually.
Marasinghe pointed out that despite other blocks of Yala kept open to the public with a rehabilitated road network of 80 kilometres, safari jeep drivers are reluctant to drive the visitors to these blocks through Galge entrance due the distance from Tissamaharama, where most Jeep drivers are positioned.
“If they are going to Block 3, 4 and 5, they have to drive through Sellakatharagama to Galge entrance. Hence, they are reluctant to go there due to the added cost of few hundred rupees. They are interested in making quick money and that’s why they are taking visitors to Palatupana entrance (Block 1),” he noted.
Despite being over-crowded, the majority of foreign visitors to Yala National Park are satisfied with their experiences, the survey showed.
According to the Prime Ministerial Committee report, the marketing of Yala National Park as ‘wildlife sighting’ locations for the average package tourist who comes to Sri Lanka, has led to increased traffic.
“That is why the quality of the wildlife experiences are not as important as the sightings of charismatic species, even under over-crowded conditions,” the authors of the report stated.
The visitation has increased from 43,368 visitors in 2008 to 545,007 visitors in 2015, an increase of over 1000 percent in 7 years. In 2017, 290,069 foreign travellers visited Yala National Park out of a total 604,678 visitors, accounting for nearly 48 percent visitors.
The report recommended the need of systematically transforming Yala Block 1 into a national park and a wildlife observations site, by attracting high yielding tourists.
Marasinghe said that the DWC has set a target to increase the share of low impact, high-end, regionally-competitive wildlife tourism products to a minimum of 10 percent of wildlife tourism market by 2025.
He noted that DWC will select a few national parks such as Maduru Oya, Gal Oya and Bundala for this purpose, and they will be developed and managed for high-end wildlife tourism.
In addition, he said that DWC will also focus on upgrading the quality of existing wildlife tourism in national parks and to convert wildlife tourism services and products offered by the DWC to international standards.
In terms of setting standards for safari drivers and guides, Marasinghe revealed that a training programme will be launched for safari drivers and guides shortly, under an accreditation system and thereafter only the accredited persons will be permitted to operate inside national parks.
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