Night time, a little after midnight. Silence within the bungalow, but some serious bustling outside.  Looking through the shadows cast by the trees in the moonlight, as the stars and fireflies seem to flutter aimlessly and to shine of the same light, I felt a sense of excitement and wonder. The jungle is my favourite [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Shattered silence deep in the jungle


Night time, a little after midnight. Silence within the bungalow, but some serious bustling outside.  Looking through the shadows cast by the trees in the moonlight, as the stars and fireflies seem to flutter aimlessly and to shine of the same light, I felt a sense of excitement and wonder. The jungle is my favourite place to be, where I feel at peace with the world, far from the madding crowds. Listening to the rustle of the wild boar as they search for food near the waterhole, the deer quietly grazing a few metres away, the “marble dropper” (Indian nightjar) repeating its soothing call, and the nocturnal squawks of the grey-headed fish eagle remind us of the thousand lives awake at night. I feel as though nothing bad can happen.

Then, suddenly, the magic is broken. One single, loud, sharp gunshot. Right here, just across the waterhole: so close that I could sense its vibration inside my body, breaking the stillness of the night, giving me chills, and raising my heartbeat to a thousand! Anger growing, churning and knotting my stomach, and for a moment I feel lost. Then a bitter feeling grows in my gut, as if the safe boundaries of my flesh had suddenly all dissolved away, only for a moment, but enough to feel unhinged, adrift and outraged. Somewhere, right by the supposed safety of the waterhole, an innocent soul, probably a deer, had been destroyed.

Rudely awakened from our pleasant reverie, my friend and I went to get the tracker and bungalow keepers, hoping that something could be done. Sadly, they seemed less concerned, their argument being that with no weapons, it would be too dangerous to search for, one can only assume, the poachers. And that was the right thing to do, of course! It would have been folly to go unarmed after potentially dangerous men. Yet, I cannot believe that this can happen, in this day and age, and with such impunity!

An illustrious history
I am a French national from Orleans, and I fell in love with Sri Lanka two years ago during my first visit here. The variety of terrain, the areas of outstanding scenic beauty, from the grasslands to the coastal wetlands (that I have yet to discover): all harbour a wonderful selection of wildlife that would delight anyone. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most biologically diverse islands, and here nature conservation has a long and illustrious history – the island’s first wildlife reserve is said to have been established by King Devanampiya Tissa in 307 BC – shortly after being taught by Arahat Mahinda, who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The latter is said to have proclaimed the following wisdom:

“Oh! Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The lands belong to the peoples and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it”.

An enchanted place of  elephants
My first visit to Sri Lanka had included a visit to the Uda Walawe National Park. It had been a discovery, an enchanted first time, the way a child enters a mystical world, tiptoeing in; afraid to break the fragile balance between earth and the creatures inhabiting it.

Created to provide a sanctuary for the wild animals displaced by the construction of the enormous Uda Walawe Reservoir, this park, just south of the central mountains and on the Walawe River, has extensive stretches of grassland as well as scrub jungle and riparian forest. It is, in my opinion, the best spot to observe Asian elephants in the wild, at any time of the year! I was also impressed by the number of sightings of fabulously named raptors such as the changeable hawk eagle, serpent eagle and grey-headed fish eagle.

This time I had come back to Sri Lanka to show my cousin the magic of the jungle.
We stayed in one of the bungalows at Uda Walawe – Sinuggala – for three nights, allowing us to spend more time in the midst of the trees and far from the crowds, waking up at dawn, driving in the jeep, holding our breath while scouting for movements amongst the trees and shrubs. Our patience was duly rewarded: a couple of hundred of elephants, several herds, a few handsome tuskers, countless sightings of endemic birds and animals – and even a young leopard running across the road, an encounter that left us breathless.

We knew we had been lucky – despite the drought, we could sense the hundreds of eyes behind the leaves, we could smell the scent of the Ficus, we could hear the mysterious songs and calls of thousands of birds, as the jungle had shared some of its secrets with us. Our tracker had the ability to spot them instantly and was teaching us how to recognise them. This felt so right!

Inadequate resources
So I feel hurt, and cheated! What feels so wrong to me is this: How could such a beautiful experience turn so sour, in an instant of destruction? How is it possible that poachers can come in at night, and despite visitors and park officials being just 100 metres away, kill animals with impunity? How is it possible that this happens in national parks where the animals are meant to be protected? Why did the park officials not react as we wished them to and went back to sleep instead?

Of course the reason is simple: they could not because there are no resources for them to take proper action! How so? We, foreign tourists, pay such a high price to come in and stay in a bungalow. We were, therefore, shocked to discover that these park fees all go to the government. The parks see nothing of it! We were told that the Department of Wildlife Conservation just receives a paltry annual budget scarcely sufficient to cover their costs, and the park authorities often do not even have the funds for sufficient fuel supplies to undertake the necessary patrols through the park. Ideally, the trackers and rangers should be empowered to protect the park and its inhabitants, and when dealing with poachers, armed appropriately to protect themselves, if the need arises, and the lives of the animals under their custody.

The way I see the National Parks of Sri Lanka – and Uda Walawe for that matter, is that they, thanks to the money they make from the entrance fees, could be a major driver of employment, investment and foreign exchange, contributing to tourism and even used to fight financial difficulties of the local farmers. There already are tourism companies employing people directly as drivers, guides, secretaries, accountants etc. These companies also sell products to tourists such as art and crafts. I see ways of using this money to mitigate the Human – Elephant Conflict by involving the local farmers, and it also raises many possibilities of developing adventure and cultural tourism.

Foreign visitors would be more likely to support conservation schemes if they saw the benefits of being charged a higher entry fee, and would possibly be ready to pay even more for them. Parks could then contribute to the financing of more research projects, fund the establishment of electric fences around villages, increase visitors’ education in wildlife and nature conservation, all from the revenue raised from such entry fees.

I want to know
As a tourist, I want to know that my coming to the jungle will not spoil its serenity for its inhabitants. I also want to know that my entry fee will be used for its proper conservation. I come here because I want to be able to see the animals roaming free and peacefully in their own world, but not only this. I also believe in safeguarding what we have for future generations, and I, as a teacher, believe in sharing that knowledge with new visitors to the jungles.

In the light of the recent elections, I do hope things will improve and I look forward to my next visit when, hopefully, poaching is severely dealt with and the parks can thrive from the benefits of conservation projects and responsible nature-based tourism. They are important for Sri Lanka.

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