The overcrowding issue at Yala National Park has disrupted wildlife, jeopardized the nature experience of visitors to this facility and endangered the lives of animals. The Ministry of Sustainable Development took action to solve the longstanding issue.
Environmentalists, former wildlife officials and even current officials of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) claim that due to mounting political pressure, officials aren’t allowed to carry out duties and solve the overcrowding issue at the national park
Overcrowding isn’t a situation that was created overnight in the Yala National Park (Yala). The visitors to the national park have increased over 1000%, from 43,368 visitors in 2008 to 658, 227 in 2016, according to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) data.
Catering to the demands made by local and foreign tourists, the number of commercial safari jeeps in operation has also risen. The total number of jeeps operating in Yala in 2016 was around 600. Former Warden of the national park, Suranga Rathnayake, took steps to register all the safari jeeps bringing visitors to Yala.
However, the number of safari jeeps has skyrocketed by now. As stated by Independent Safari Jeep Drivers Association, attached to Yala, there are over 1200 commercial safari jeeps operating at present.
It is reported that the infrastructure at the national park hasn’t been designed in a way that would cater to the hundreds of people visiting this facility, each day.
In an interview with the Daily Mirror, a senior official attached to the Yala National Park said, “The huge increase in visitors to Yala has made the facilities at the park seem inadequate. We can’t wait and watch anymore. The authorities need to come up with a new management plan to utilize our resources”.
He said that the rest houses within the park had only two washrooms to serve the sanitary needs of visitors.
“How can animals walk in their habitat when hundreds of jeeps are passing them every day? This will largely affect animal behavior and their reproduction procedure in the long run. At this rate, there wouldn’t be any animals in the park in the future.”
A Senior Spokesman of the DWC speaking
on the condition of anonymity"
As stated by the official, Yala has employed only 75 guides to work at the park. When considering the number of tourist arrivals, it is obvious that providing a guide for each jeep is impossible.
A Sub-committee which submitted ‘An Action Plan’ to Improve the Overall Wildlife Tourism Experience at Yala National Park (Block 1)’ to the Policy Development Office of the Prime Minister’s Office, recently identified that the park lacks adequate staff and facilities such as patrol vehicles for Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to regulate activities within the sanctuary.
The Sub-committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, in order to look into overcrowding in popular tourist sites, such as, Yala and Sigiriya in 2016, is chaired by Former DWC Director General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya.
Environmental organizations such as Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) are critical on the errant jeep drivers who use mobile phones to update each other on animal sightings which leads to a number of jeeps speeding up and gathering at the same place, creating long lines of vehicles in the park.
The DWC managed to ban mobile network operations in mid-2015 to combat this menace, but the ban was lifted shortly thereafter.
A Senior Spokesman of the DWC speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “Each year motor vehicles causing deaths of animals makes wildlife at the park take a toll. Some animals, especially leopards, become road kill for the speeding jeeps. Some accidents are reported in the media while many aren’t.”
“How can animals walk in their habitat when hundreds of jeeps are passing them everyday? This will largely affect animal behavior and their reproduction procedure in the long run. At this rate, there wouldn’t be any animals in the park in the future,” the official affirmed.
It goes without saying that once the number of visitors becomes unbearable, the instances of violating wildlife laws would rise as well.
Environmentalists claim that jeep drivers and visitors don’t adhere to the law.
Not only normal jeep drivers, but there was also reports of a powerful politician in the area having acted inside the park as if it was his own property. Visuals of the said minister stopping his vehicle to take photos and blocking the road, creating traffic congestion in the process, were subject to criticism once uploaded on social media.
Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, the Chairperson of the Subcommittee, pointed out that Yala’s Block 1 was affected by too many visitors. This was largely because visitors didn’t have access to the wildlife in Blocks 3, 4 and 5.
He emphasized that other blocks at the Park should be promoted ahead of Block 1; where all the chaos is taking place.
He assured that other blocks, especially block 3, has a density of animals similar to Block 1. Then, traffic would be diverted, he said.
“Although the Plan recommended the closure of Block 1 for 3 months every year—this is to encourage visitors to travel to other blocks—it was decided by the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife that the park will be closed for 2 months this year and then extended to 3 months from next year. However, the Minister of Wildlife and another politician representing the interests of jeep drivers instructed the DWC at a meeting on October 18th, to open Yala earlier than planned and to introduce limits to the number of vehicles entering the park,” he said.
Grievances of Jeep Drivers
Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera decided to limit the number of jeeps entering the park during a day to 450 —300 in the morning and afternoon sessions. This rule is applicable for jeeps using the Palatupapana entrance. Efforts will be taken to limit the number of jeeps using the Katugamuwa Entrance in the morning and afternoon sessions to 150. The environmentalists commended his decision, but said that the way in which it was implemented, without any awareness and preparedness, can’t be accepted.
Regarding the issuing of tickets, 8 am and 2 pm were announced as deadlines; both during the morning and evening safari rounds. How did jeep drivers, the main community group that benefits from the influx of tourists in Yala respond to the new regulations?
They claimed that the new regulations posed a threat to their livelihood. They even staged a demonstration blocking the entrance roads to the Park claiming that they have faced severe injustice. Shops in Tissamaharama pulled down shutters in protest.
As jeep drivers and jeep owners stated, below are the problematic situations and grievances that they are facing due to the restricting of vehicles.
President of Independent Jeep Drivers Association P.D. Keerthi, told the Daily Mirror that limiting vehicles would cause road accidents as jeep drivers have nothing else to do other than driving fast with the aim of obtaining the tokens first.
“According to that regulation, ticket counters at Yala are closed sharp at 8 am after starting issuing tickets at 6 am. When many tourists arrive late and they have to return disappointed. We used to pick tourists up at 5 am and stay in the queue for an hour or less. We will have to pick up tourists at least by 4 am to be included in the first 150 vehicles. The problem is that tourists aren’t keen on being picked up as early as 4am. Once we pick them, we will have to drive fast to obtain the tokens first, else our business is gone for that day. We won’t be able to maintain the speed limit of 30 kmph due to the tough competition that exists to enter the park,” Keerthi remarked.
It goes without saying that there is no other group of people like jeep drivers who know Yala like the palms of their hands. Due to the fears of losing their livelihood, the circumstances will push them to become poachers, Dr. Pilapitiya warned.
Dr. Pilapitiya, who resigned from the post in June, last year, due to an unbearable political backlash, said that immediate action taken to restrict the number of vehicles will adversely effect the jobs of many drivers.
“It is impractical and ridiculous to find overnight solutions for issues that have existed for many years. Hasty decisions will lead to new issues. When drivers feel insecure about their jobs, they look for alternative earning opportunities,” he said.
Commenting on what Dr. Pilapitiya predicted, President of Independent Jeep Drivers Association P.D. Keerthi said they can’t give a guarantee that affected drivers would restrain from poaching activities unless they are provided with other options in the future.
Even Minister Jayawickrama Perera in an earlier interview with the Daily Mirror accepted that a poaching mafia is in operation in many forests belong to the DWC, including Yala.
S.P. Sugathadasa , a driver who has been working in Yala for almost 35 years, told the Daily Mirror that business entities based on tourism in Tissamaharama would suffer due to the limitation of vehicles entering the park.
“From star-level enterprises to small scale shops, all the business entities in Tissamaharama will face problems with the decline of income from tourists who used to pour into the park daily. All we want is our business to continue smoothly,” he said.
Commenting on limiting the jeeps, Dr. Pilapitiya said that the sub-committee headed by him felt that it wasn’t practical to introduce limits to vehicles until Yala Blocks 3, 4, 5 and Lunugamwehera National Park are developed for wildlife tourism.
“This will take a couple of years, so the Committee recommended that vehicle limits to Yala Block 1 be introduced in a phased manner commencing in 2020. In the meantime, the introduction of a uniflow system within Yala, strict enforcement of discipline against drivers violating park rules, speed bumps to regulate the speed of vehicles and an extension to the closure period of the park, were among the 31 short term, 7 medium term and 2 long terms actions recommended in the Action Plan,” he stated.
Turning his focus on the plan, he said, it was even endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office and DWC was instructed to implement the plan, which they commenced. However, as with everything in Sri Lanka, politics took center stage and there was political interference in a professionally prepared plan.
Even though jeep drivers protested, Minister Jayawickrama Perera told the media that the regulation wouldn’t be relaxed.
Out of the blue, the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickarama Perera on Wednesday decided to increase the number of safari jeeps accessing the Yala National Wildlife Park to 500 a day.
The limits on vehicles the DWC announced at the instructions of the Minister of Wildlife, has now been increased on three occasions by none other than the Minister himself, who introduced the limits.
This new decision has drawn angry responses from environmentalists and wildlife activists. According to the information received by the Daily Mirror, the decision had been taken amidst opposition of some senior officials of the DWC. Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Minister Sajith Premadasa, Director General of the DWC M.G.C.Sooriyabandara, Director of Planning of the DWC Ranjan Marasinghe and four jeep drivers associations attached to the Yala Park attended the meeting.
Speaking to us after the meeting, President of the Independent Safari Jeep Drivers Association P.D.Keerthi said it was minister Sajith Premadasa, local politician from Hambantota district, who fixed the meeting with Minister Jayawickrama Perera for jeep drivers to present their demands.
During the said meeting, Minister Perera also decided to extend the time period during which ticket counters are open for visitors. Accordingly, the ticket counters will be open from 6 to 11 am and 1 to 2 pm. Thanking the Minister Premadasa, Keerthi said they are satisfied with the decision that was made.
" Thanking the Minister Premadasa, Keerthi said they are satisfied with the decision that was made"
The DWC was planning to introduce an online tickets booking system for visitors entering Yala. Sources close to the Department said the relevant officials had already started developing the software for the system. The jeep drivers associations opposed the online ticket booking system because they feared it will eat into the extra income that they generate by selling tickets to foreign tourists at higher prices, a senior DWC Spokesman told the Daily Mirror.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Minister Perera instructed the DWC to withdraw the online tickets booking system, disregarding the effort of the relevant DWC officers. “The department had put up banners in English informing foreigners about real ticket prices. The jeep drivers showed opposition and the authorities instructed the staff to remove these banners. The mafia of jeep drivers is all empowered by politics,” he said.
Dr. Sumith Pilapitya criticized the new decision and said wildlife will subject to more repercussions.
“I for one, was totally opposed to the early opening of Yala and limiting the number of vehicles all of a sudden. I was shocked that the politicians had decided on a limit to the number of vehicles, when everybody except obviously the two of them, knew that they themselves will overturn their own ruling due to pressure from the jeep drivers. This is exactly what has happened. The limit of vehicles entering the park has been increased to 500 per day following a decision taken by the Minister of Wildlife on November 8, 2017, just 20 days after his first ruling to limit the number of vehicles,” he said.
Dr. Pilapitiya was also of the view that allowing 500 vehicles to enter the park every day is like having no limit at all because 97% of the year, the number of vehicles entering Yala Block 1 is less than 500 vehicles.
He further went on to say, “It is unfortunately the DWC as the custodians of wildlife has to make an announcement to increase vehicles, making them look indecisive and unprofessional.
“I was opposed to placing limits on vehicles entering the park until the other surrounding parks are developed and wildlife sightings are improved in these parks, because one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that the politicians don’t have the backbone to implement the decisions they themselves make. So now we have meaningless limits on vehicles, which is another attempt by the politicians to hoodwink the public and conservationists. This is because the new limit is higher than the number of vehicles actually entering the park, except during the December holiday season—so basically there is no limit. Had the DWC been permitted to stick to its plan, this mess wouldn’t have happened and the DWC would not have lost credibility.”
"I was opposed to placing limits on vehicles entering the park until the other surrounding parks are developed and wildlife sightings are improved in these parks"
Specifically, speaking about continuous allegations of political interference at the Wildlife and Conservation Department, Dr. Pilapitiya said, “The Government did nothing to manage this exponential rise in tourism in Yala over the past several years. We know that politicians are only interested in votes, so the livelihood of jeep drivers will be more important to them than wildlife conservation.
“What has political interference done to the DWC’s management of Yala now? The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance mandates the DWC to protect, conserve and regulate wildlife resources and this mandate does not lie with the Minister of Wildlife. Yet decisions are made by the Minister, without advice from DWC and reversed against the advice of DWC, which has only served to demean the regulatory mandate of DWC and makes DWC look unprofessional in the eyes of the public.”
Banda Friday, 10 November 2017 16:17
Its a sad day for those who wants Yala to be preserved for the future generation. I visited Yala two years back and thought I would never visit there again nor recommend that to any other. It is exploitation of nature and not anything else. Vinners are the rowdy jeep drivers and Premadasa who does not care a hoot!
Reply : 0 13
Ken Saturday, 11 November 2017 00:51
What we are seeing is beginning of the end of what once was an outstanding wildlife sanctuary. As usual, politicians preside over this debacle too, like everything else.Roadkill is just only the tip of the iceberg. There are much worse things bound to happen from effective loss of habitat.
Reply : 0 4
Dammika Friday, 10 November 2017 19:48
Strongly agree with this article to the greatest extent. Issue is well focused throughout, inspiring people to take action.
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Lalith Friday, 10 November 2017 22:47
The jeep owners and drivers are a bunch of greedy and selfish idiots! They have no regard to the animals and tourist either. The government should restrict the vehicle movement and also must introduce advance booking system to visit the park.
Reply : 0 2
Jaliya Saturday, 11 November 2017 08:59
This is an important topic that has been ignored by the media and only now it is being addressed effectively. Sri Lanka is a country full of two legged hypocrites, dishonest selfish and uncivilized individuals in the eyes of a civilized nation. To make things even more unpleasant, we have a group so called Safari Jeep Owners association who can bribe the policy makers to amend the rule of law in their favor. All in the name of greed not for the well-being of nature. Many of these safari vehicles are environment polluters and as ignorance as we are in SLK our emission standards are the lowest in the world allowing unacceptable amounts of HC NOX and CO emissions released in to the habitat of wild life. To make matters worse we have an incompetent greedy and inconsiderate group of jeep owners who employ uneducated and uncivilized drivers who does not value a human or animal life.
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Gune Saturday, 11 November 2017 13:37
It happens with the full support of a ruling politician.
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Jennie Zhanz Monday, 13 November 2017 01:54
I was there with my family for safari. It was worst safari. Drivers were driving crazy all over. cut in front of each other. I won't ever go there again. They needed to limit the vehicles going to the park. I don't recommends visiting this park with so many vehicles.
Reply : 0 3
Frank Cooray Saturday, 18 November 2017 08:30
Piyumi Fonseka should be commended for her well researched article that hi-lights a very important topic. During our visit to Yala recently, we felt very sad the way nature was treated by the Jeep drivers. They only cared for their pockets. Of course, tourists pay money to get a chance to see as many wild animals as possible but they also understand that this is not a zoo where animals are on exhibition for humans. The manner in which drivers operate with total disrespect for wildlife is really deplorable. In spite of telling the drivers to slow down many times, they kept driving at top speed in order to get to the vantage spots as quickly as possible. No wonder there are many roadkills. It is also heartening to note in the article that there are quite a few people who care for our National Parks and want to protect our wildlife. Bad reviews by tourists should be read by the responsible officials and corrective actions should be implemented without delay.
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