Give DWC independence to do its job, urges former DG Tourism officials conspicuous absentees at biodiversity event By Kumudini Hettiarachchi Everyone else was there, except the tourism officials. Even though numerous invites had gone out to a wide-range of tourism officials, no one deemed it important to grace the discussions on ‘Biodiversity & Sustainable Tourism’ [...]


Yala National Park a mess due to political meddling


Give DWC independence to do its job, urges former DG
Tourism officials conspicuous absentees at biodiversity event

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Everyone else was there, except the tourism officials. Even though numerous invites had gone out to a wide-range of tourism officials, no one deemed it important to grace the discussions on ‘Biodiversity & Sustainable Tourism’ vital for people’s existence, held on May 22. This was what the participants at the event organised by Biodiversity Sri Lanka (BSL) on International Day for Biological Diversity held at the HNB auditorium in Colombo heard after queries were raised whether any tourism officials were present.

The panellists (from left) Dilhan Bandara from Tangalle’s Anantara Hotel, Madura de Silva of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Galle, Maeve Nightingale from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Four panellists dealt with the crucial topics of ‘Challenges in the Yala National Park (NP)’; ‘Vistas of Sinharaja’; ‘Dollars for deeds’; and ‘Significance of the coasts around us’, after which there was a robust discussion moderated by BSL Advisor Shiranee Yasaratne.

Tackling over-visitation and its consequences on the biodiversity of the Yala NP, former Director-General (DG) of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, questioned whether a natural ecosystem can sustain “abuse” in the light of tourist numbers skyrocketing more than 1,000% from 2008 to 2015 – from 48,368 to 545,007 visitors at Yala.

Explaining that no formal studies have been done whether over-visitation has adverse impacts on biodiversity, he pointed out that road-kills have increased within the Yala NP, there is harassment of wildlife at sightings, visitors are feeding wild animals and causing behavioural changes in them and there is anecdotal evidence of a decline in the animal population within Yala.

He was very critical of the government’s “over-emphasis” on tourism revenue, while neglecting protection and management of Protected Areas. Dr. Pilapitiya not only zeroed-in on the problems but also provided answers on how to overcome them. According to him the approach should be the identification of the issues that need to be addressed and the constraints in dealing with them; and studying the profile of tourists using Block 1 of the Yala NP where there are huge issues, while introducing a strategy to improve overall visitor experience there.

“The nature-interpretation services offered by the DWC are poor,” he said, adding that the DWC also faces a dearth of staff and facilities such as patrol vehicles to regulate tourism within the NP. The DWC is challenged by inadequate guide numbers, inability to get government approval for more recruitment, weak enforcement of NP rules and lack of independence to penalize violators.

While there are nearly 700 registered commercial safari vehicles, the issues to be addressed include the indiscipline of safari jeep drivers and passengers whenever there are animal sightings, high speed and reckless driving when attempting to reach such sightings and massive vehicle jams and disturbance of wildlife during sightings.

“If there is one paradise for leopards on earth, it has to be Yala National Park,” had said award-winning wildlife photographer Angela Scott but have Yala’s leopards been over-marketed?

The former DWC Director-General who resigned due to political interference preventing him from performing his duties, pointed without ambiguity, at “continued political interference” in the wake of which follows lack of independence for the DWC to regulate tourism within Yala. “There is uneven imposition of rules due to political patronage and interference.”

He also added that while Yala’s Block 1 faced much over-visitation, the wildlife in Blocks 3, 4 and 5 were not habituated to visitor-vehicles. Profiling the current ‘visitors’ to Yala, he said they are focusing on “sightings” and not “observations”, with the NP at present being marketed as a “leopard-sighting location”. Therefore, the short-term strategy for the conversion of Yala into a “wildlife observation site” is impractical.

Dr. Pilapitiya turns the spotlight on an implementable ‘Action Plan’ proposed, which includes:

  • 31 short-term actions to be implemented by January 1, 2018 — Regular patrolling, strict enforcement of rules, progressively increasing penalties, speed-bumps, uni-flow system where possible, training of both safari jeep drivers and DWC guides and using Blocks 2, 3, 4 and 5 for ‘wilderness’ tourism.
  • 9 medium-term actions to be implemented by January 1, 2019 – Zoning the park, opening the west-side of the Sithulpauwwa Road, a carrying-capacity assessment and halting the over-promotion of Yala by the tourism industry.
  • 2 long-term actions by 2023 – With increased sightings in Blocks 3, 4 and 5, imposition of vehicle limits in all blocks through gradual reductions and empowerment of DWC officials.

Dr. Pilapitiya is adamant that DWC officials “must” be empowered to enforce regulations without being fearful of a political backlash. “For this, the responsibility clearly lies with the highest-level political authorities and the Wildlife Minister.”

Referring to the coast around us, it is Maeve Nightingale of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who details marine and coastal tourism that Sri Lanka can engage in, however, stressing that there is a fine balance between conceptual issues and constraints to sustainable tourism, when taking into account the environment (natural habitats and local livelihoods) on one hand and financial criteria (infrastructural development, tourist arrivals and tourism products and services) on the other.

She pointed out that tourism as a whole is the most international “trade” item with reef tourism becoming an increasingly large component. However, the adverse impacts of reef-based tourism could be immense.
Citing the example of the small island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, Ms. Nightingale said that it has one of the largest dive industries in the world with over 65 dive schools and operators. It is also accountable for one-third of the annual registrations of the Professional Associations of Dive Instructors (PADI) internationally.

Jam-packed with vehicles – whose home is the Yala National Park?

According to her, Koh Tao’s management issues are wide-ranging – shortage of freshwater and groundwater; inadequate solid waste collection and disposal; untreated wastewater disposal from communities and tourist facilities; rapid unplanned development; construction and encroachment on beach and terrestrial forest; although building legislation and the requirement of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are in place there is no consistent enforcement; tourist numbers exceeding the island’s carrying capacity; the uneven distribution of benefits from tourism; and the high cost of living for the local people.
The list goes on: High energy demands and dependency on diesel-fuelled generators; localized oil-spills from fishing and tourism boats; coral-reef degradation; decline in fisheries resources; and a development plan launched in 1995 but not well-adopted.

There are key factors to sustainably managing coastal tourism, says Ms. Nightingale. They are:

  • Capacity development
  • Consideration of a complex range of sub-national, national and transnational relationships
  • Regulatory frameworks
  • Community involvement, trust, acceptance and support
  • Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) – compensating for loss of earnings, protecting and restoring habitats and conserving endangered species
  • Sustainable financing – entrance fees, fund-raising and private sector partnerships
  • Coordination among multi-sectoral and multi-faceted agencies
  • Collaboration of all stakeholders

Urging Sri Lanka not to go the way Koh Tao has gone, Ms. Nightingale added that many lessons can be learnt from this example.
BSL which organized the event is a private-sector owned and driven platform, with a membership of 63. It has been established to promote the strong engagement of the corporate sector in biodiversity and environmental conservation issues.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Sri Lanka and BSL entered into a collaborative partnership, with UNDP as its first Associate Member recently.
Both organizations have identified potential areas of engagement and a set of joint activities, on areas such as policy innovation, social innovation initiatives and engagement of small and medium-sized enterprises

(SMEs). Areas such as environment sustainability and disaster resilience, tourism and biodiversity have been determined where room and potential for collaboration exists, a media release said.  (Next: Focus on Sinharaja and how a hotel has turned dollars into deeds)

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