Give them their space, at least in the parks

By Lankika de Livera

It was dusk and we were in the Minneriya Park. Towards sunset we headed towards the tank to witness the much talked of “Gathering” of the elephants. The scene that met our eyes was the very same that we had witnessed when we visited last year as well.

A large herd of elephants was grazing peacefully. Across the road lay the Minneriya tank. Without any consideration for the elephants, jeeps and cars were just haphazardly driving up and parking to get the best view for themselves. In their enthusiasm to get the best view, they blocked the path of the elephants. The result was that the elephants could not get to the water.
Elephants far left, with the jeeps blocking them from getting to the water. Photograph taken on October 17 by Kumar Perumal.
Grand Prix inside the Yala National Park: Jeeps being driven at 60 miles an hour trying to get to a leopard sighting. Pic by Uditha Hettige.

Our jeep driver informed us that this behaviour was the norm. So what is the recourse for these animals? The human-elephant conflict, due to the dwindling forest cover and encroachments has wreaked enough havoc. At least within the parks, the animals’ needs have to be respected. At the Minneriya park on October 17 some vehicles went into the park even without a tracker as there was a shortage of trackers. This often happens in other parks as well.

Whether on the land or in the water, the creatures of the wild have a right to live their lives without being harassed. A national park is a refuge for wild animals. Humans should watch them quietly and unobtrusively, says Kithsiri Gunewardene, lawyer, conservationist and wildlife enthusiast.

Kithsiri has seen this type of obstruction to the elephants at Minneriya many times. “It is cruelty to animals that they cannot get a drink of water. It is at times like this, out of sheer desperation and anger that they get violent. When they are obstructed, it is just an accident waiting to happen.”

Last year in April, on a whale watching expedition off Mirissa we saw the same violation of norms. Far out in the sea, we were watching a Blue whale from a distance so as not to disturb it. Suddenly, a little boat carrying foreign tourists sped towards the whale with great speed and sound. As they got closer, one of the men put out a long pole with a camera at the end of it. He poked the pole at the bewildered whale which immediately retreated into the depths.

There were times when boats followed a whale and each time it came up to breathe, they would speed up to get close to it, making the whale dive abruptly. Whale researcher, Anouk Illangakoon told the Sunday Times that a whale needs at least 20 minutes to mill (to float) on water while it breathes, before it dives into the depths. But this type of close scrutiny by humans according to Anouk, causes much distress to the whale.

Anouk reiterates that when boats surround a whale it can be dangerous. For in desperation to breathe the whale would be compelled to rise to the surface and in doing so could easily topple a boat in the deep seas.

Meanwhile, at the Yala National Park, another scenario unfolds with regard to the leopards. Whenever a leopard is sighted, about 25 jeeps at a time suddenly congregate and completely surround the leopard.
A wildlife photographer and frequent visitor to the park said that speeding inside the park was another offensive habit by drivers.

The speed limit inside the park is below 25 km, but some jeep drivers speed at 60 km trying to get to a leopard that had been spotted. With mobile phones, the hired jeeps’ drivers can keep in contact with other drivers about leopard sightings and rush from place to place. The wildlife enthusiast lamented that if deer were crossing, they could easily get knocked down. Apart from the dust clouds, it’s noise pollution and breaking of rules within a park.

It is time for Sri Lanka to learn from the practices of Indian wildlife parks where visitor discipline is strictly maintained by the officials of the Indian Forest Department.

Getting tough with violators

Director Operations, Department of Wild Life Conservation H. D. Ratnayake, said the DWLC was willing to get tough with those who flout park rules and appealed to the public to help the DWLC to safeguard the animals. He says the public can make written or verbal complaints to the respective park wardens. If they require anonymity, that too is accepted.

Phone calls can be made to the Hot Line which is operative 24 hours on 011- 2560380. This number is connected to the radio rooms of the parks and wardens and thus immediate action can be taken.

“Visitors have to enjoy the wildlife without disturbing them. If jeep drivers do not conform to the rules laid down in the Fauna and Flora Ordinance, we will take action. Already some jeeps have been banned from entering the Minneriya and Uda Walawe National Parks, because the vehicle numbers have been noted,” Mr. Ratnayake said.

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