The cease of the war has brought an increase in visitor numbers to Yala National Park. The most recent statisctics from Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), from the year 2013, show that Yala National Park received a total of 236,700 local visitors and a total of 142,714 foreign visitors. The local visitors brought in revenue of Rs. 12,273,771.00, while the foreign tourists brought in Rs. 272,581,034.28 of revenue. The following charts show the increase in both number of visitors and revenue earned from 2009 – 2013.
Data Source: SLTDA statistics
This rapid increase in visitor numbers have in turn caused a variety of threats to the wildlife of the park, the very reason these visitors are drawn to the park. Over-visitation and increased demand and an inability to enforce the park rules by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) are leading causes that have led to the development and continuity of these threats.
Jeep jams have become a common occurrence due to the use of mobile phones, which are used to inform others when wildlife has been sighted. The large number of vehicles present in the park each day, which can be up to 500 or 600, when there should be only about 150, has led to this congestion. These congestions along with an increase in the associated noise levels scare away wildlife and can even cause disturbance to the predatory behaviour of leopards.
Local visitors picnicking in the designated areas don’t take their garbage back with them like they are supposed to. The left-over food attracts wildlife such as Elephants and Monkeys. This creates a safety issue as well as dissatisfaction in foreign tourists with their experience in the National Park, as they don’t want to see wildlife eating from polythene and plastic containers.
A senior jeep diver was caught taking Elephant placenta out of the park. Taking anything out of a National Park is illegal, as is getting out of a vehicle other than at a designated place. The incident had occurred when the driver had managed to isolate himself from two other vehicles that were all overseen by just one DWC trained wildlife tracker. Each jeep should be given an individual tracker but due to the increased number of vehicles and the shortage of trackers, some jeeps are not given an individual tracker during peak times at Yala. Although the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) has said that offending drivers who are caught would be suspended from the National Park, this jeep driver was observed in the park a few days after his release by visitors.
A young leopard was killed by a hit and run accident and there had been no investigation carried out by the DWC for six months after the incident at least. It could be that the DWC is hesitant to take action because the assailant maybe an influential person. Jeep driving at speeds of up to 100 kph, much higher than the nominal limit of 40 kph have been reported. This combined with revving up of engines, overtaking and shouting obscenities, all pose a large threat to the wildlife of the park. Such behaviour among tour operators can also cause displeasure among foreign tourists, who bring in a large part of the revenue earned by the park.
Although the threats are serious there are a number of mitigation measures that can be taken. The most obvious would be to ensure that the rules of the National Park are strictly enforced. The DWC needs to be able to operate independently for this to be a success. The number of wildlife trackers could also be increased to meet the requirements of growing visitor numbers. There were only 40 trackers in 2012.
Having scheduled tour operators run mini observation coaches in the park, managed by the DWC can also decrease the number of vehicles entering the park. Banning large buses of local pilgrims entering the park will also help reduce the number of vehicles as well as stop the pollution of the park by these buses that are of sub-standard.
Education and awareness of both the visitors and the tour operators on the rules of the park, as well as how not adhering to such rules could pose a threat to the wildlife can be beneficial. Publicising other wildlife such as elephants, sloth bears, antelopes and a rich bird life of peacocks and hornbills, rather than only promoting leopard-centred safaris can also help to reduce congestion in the park.