A recent visit to our premier national park reveals many woes. Hiranthi Fernando reports Is the country’s best known and most visited national park losing its appeal? Reports of indiscipline and overcrowding at Yala National Park have appeared increasingly of late but a recent visit to the park revealed another major problem. Roads within the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Yala really gone to the wilds!


A recent visit to our premier national park reveals many woes. Hiranthi Fernando reports

Is the country’s best known and most visited national park losing its appeal?

Reports of indiscipline and overcrowding at Yala National Park have appeared increasingly of late but a recent visit to the park revealed another major problem. Roads within the park are in a shocking state. Some of the side roads, which visitors usually travel on, are impassable. Deep craters and potholes make them practically off-road tracks. Even the main road has deteriorated to levels never experienced before on many trips to Yala. Drivers say vehicles often break down by negotiating the bad roads.
The park has not been closed for the past two to three years, a tracker who accompanied us said. Customarily, the park closes from September to mid-October, for maintenance and also to give the animals a respite from the hordes of visitors who invade their habitat. Since the park has not been closed, there has been no opportunity to carry out necessary repairs on the roads.

Taken for a bumpy ride: The sorry state of the roads in the park

Inside the park, a state of complete lawlessness prevails. The shortage of trackers is one reason for this. The park has some 60 trackers although on a weekend over 400 vehicles enter the park each day. The authorities permit some drivers to enter the park without a tracker and thus have no way of maintaining discipline. We saw drivers as well as visitors climb on the hood of the vehicle to view a leopard on a tree. There were even instances where visitors have alighted from the vehicle to take a photograph of their friends inside the vehicle. Such practices are strictly forbidden. Visitors are only permitted to get off the vehicle at two stipulated spots in the park but all such regulations have now fallen by the wayside.

Visitors and drivers seem to be a law unto themselves, endangering other visitors as well as harassing the animals. There was a case where a driver alighted from the vehicle, went into the jungle and dragged a python out for his foreign clients to see, no doubt benefiting at the end of the tour from a handsome tip.

There have been instances when animals have been killed by speeding vehicles inside the park. A tracker told us that some drivers who frequent the park inform poachers about the movement of park officials after closing time. As many of the drivers are from nearby villages, some of them aid and abet the poachers. A number of restaurants in the area have recently been found to have venison in their freezers. Items such as birds’ nests and animal horns are picked up by drivers and given to tourists. On this visit we found there were a lot less animals such as deer and sambhur to be seen.

The lack of toilets for the visitors is another problem. “There are just two toilets near the river to serve all the visitors and no toilets at all near the beach at Patanangala,” a jeep driver said, adding that even the two existing toilets lack water. “We drivers can even transport water in buckets if some proposal is made,” he said. An experienced park driver himself, he admitted that some of the drivers are only interested in money. He said that drivers who have had no complaints against them are permitted to enter the park without a tracker. However, he said some drivers go on till after the prescribed time inside the park and speed up to the gates in a rush.

Warden of Yala National Park G.U. Saranga cited the lack of funds as a reason for many of the problems. The roads have broken up due to the recent heavy rains experienced. “If we have money we can repair the roads,” he said. The main road is maintained by the RDA. He says repairs have been done from Kirinda up to the park office.

The park has not been closed as there would be a loss of income. They have about 50 to 60 trackers, while over 450 vehicles enter the park during weekends. Drivers who have been driving in the park for a long period are allowed to enter the park without a tracker. The use of mobile phones in the park creates a problem and the vehicles drive too fast, he said. His officials go on inspections from time to time. “We are discussing ideas of restricting the vehicles and speeds,” Mr. Saranga said.

A team from the Economic Development Division visited the park recently and proposals have been made to provide more toilet facilities. ‘We need a lot of money for development,” the warden added. The income from the park goes to the Treasury and money is allocated for maintenance. With the increase in tourists, the money they get is not sufficient for proper development. Recruiting more trackers also needs additional facilities, he said.

Vice-President of the Wild Life and Nature Protection Society and an avid wild life enthusiast Lal Anthonis who had been a frequent visitor to Yala in the past says he hasn’t been to Yala for about four years due to the state of the park now. “I find it far too crowded and things getting out of hand,” he commented. “There is no discipline. We don’t like to see what is happening. The animals are harassed with numerous vehicles crowding round them. There is noise pollution and diesel pollution. Some of the jeep drivers are a law unto themselves.”

“This has to change,” reiterated Rukshan Jayewardene, another well-known conservationist. Last February he said they organized a workshop for the jeep drivers on maintaining discipline in the park. Using mobile phones, irresponsible driving and unruly behaviour were some of the issues taken up. “They were told that if they do not buckle down, the army has a proposal to run a jeep service in the park. At the workshop the Independent Jeep Drivers’ Organisation agreed to abide by a Voluntary Code of Conduct. However, I hear this organization has broken up after a clash.”

Rukshan emphasized that it was the responsibility of the Wild Life Department and park authorities to enforce discipline and speed limits inside the park. Authorities too find it difficult to enforce discipline due to interference from politicians. When a driver is suspended the official receives a phone call asking that he be let off. One cannot even be sure that these phone calls are really from the politician or some other interested party, he added.

“The people concerned need to sit down and talk about the situation,” Rukshan said. “The minister needs to take action. Indiscipline in the park does not only lie with the jeep drivers. There are also well-educated, well-heeled visitors who behave badly and drive like maniacs in the park. We can talk, advise and speak to the minister but the responsibility is with the Wild Life Department to initiate change.

If political pressure is a problem they should also talk to the people concerned to address the problem.” Rukshan further said the Director General of the Department of Wild Life Conservation needs to pay more unannounced visits to the park to see for himself the situation on the ground. An official visit does not give the true picture as everybody is on best behaviour. “The park authorities need to realize that all this indiscipline is tarnishing the wildlife tourism image of Sri Lanka. Some tour operators are reducing their visits to Yala because the reports are so bad. This is our natural resource, which belongs to everyone. Are we being good custodians?”

Give me time, says Minister

The new Minister for Wild Life Conservation Vijithamuni Soysa, who recently assumed duties says he has plans for road repairs and other maintenance work to be carried out. “Give me a little time and I will take action,” the Minister said.

He has requested approval for recruiting more trackers and will also impose regulations for drivers. Those who do not comply will be banned from driving in the park. He says no one will be permitted to harass the animals or inconvenience other visitors.

Mr. Soysa plans to visit Yala soon and see the conditions for himself. Any complaints and suggestions could be directed to him at the Wild Life Department, he told the Sunday Times.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.