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Asia travel

Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is the place to see leopards in Asia, but can it cope with hordes of tourists?

The park claims the highest leopard density in the world, but with large groups of jeeps fighting for the best views and visitors littering and feeding animals, there are fears the big cats’ environment is under threat

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2018, 10:34am

The purr of engines can be heard as safari jeeps prowl around the jungle; their exhaust fumes dancing on the dawn mist at Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park. It’s like the warm-up lap at a Formula 1 race. Soon after 6.30am, the safari guide’s mobile phone rings. “Let’s go and see some chaos,” he says.

And we’re off. Our safari jeep does a U-turn, splashing through a puddle as we leave behind a crocodile making light work of a dead water buffalo. We’re here to see another predator.

We approach two more vehicles, then another. Before long we’re in a throng of 25 jostling jeeps at a small water hole beside a grove of trees. We’re queuing for a cat.

Suddenly a jeep shifts out of the line and launches up the side of a rocky outcrop. Another follows it, before jeeps coming the other way stop their progress. A jungle jam develops as the drivers work hard to put their passengers in the best position, and to hell with everyone else. A good tip may be at stake. The passengers – mostly Western and Chinese tourists – look bemused, until the guides point ahead.“It’s there, in that tree! Can you see?” one yells.

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The leopard cub is dozing on a high branch, but it soon becomes active. It scratches, stretches and leaps about the tree, pausing only to wash its paws. Far below it, tourists stare at it from their jeeps, through binoculars and on zoomed-in smartphone screens.

This is a normal morning at the park, a protected area of over 900 square kilometres, and one of Sri Lanka’s biggest attractions since its 25 year-long civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers ended in 2009. “Before that people did come to Yala, but not in droves like they do now, and back then they used to come to see elephants, not leopards,” says Chandika Jayaratne, 31, a guide and head naturalist for Wild Coast Tented Lodge near the park’s boundary. “It’s only since 2009 that they have been promoting it as a place to come and see leopards.”

Jayaratne is concerned that there are too many jeeps in Yala – many of them half-empty – and that nature-loving visitors can have their trip marred by the crowds. “A lot of the Chinese tourists here are not bothered about what animals they see, they’re just here because Yala is on their itinerary,” says Jayaratne. “I saw several groups of tourists dozing in the back of half-empty safari jeeps, and even one Chinese tourist throwing food to a mongoose, something that is completely inappropriate. I also saw some locals throwing litter.”

Most guides turn a blind eye, hoping for a tip, he says, adding that one solution could be to make the safari more expensive, to put off people who are not genuinely interested, and another would be to ensure that safari jeeps are fully occupied.

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Ravi Corea, president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, stresses that what you see at Yala is not an exceptional situation: national parks across the globe are bursting with visitors. “The difference is, in other countries there is a lot of effort made to educate and create awareness in the visitors to value and respect the park and its inhabitants, and to treat the parks as national heritage,” says Corea. “This is what we need to do in our parks in Sri Lanka.”

Corea thinks that park personnel should build a good visitor centre, conduct workshops for safari jeep drivers, and get local people involved. “The responsibility to initiate such an effort is in the hands of the Department of Wildlife Conservation,” says Corea. “If they don’t have the resource personnel to do it then they should outsource it to a private organisation.”

Back at the water hole, a park ranger pulls up in his own jeep and starts barking orders at errant drivers, who continue to jostle and joust for the best view. Drowned out by engine noise and with nostrils filled by diesel fumes, we try to keep the leopard in view. Apparently uninterested in the melee below it, the leopard puts its head on a paw and gazes at us. He yawns, then disappears off into the undergrowth.

The water hole is now rapidly emptying like a car park after a sports event, and the jeeps rev their engines and begin powering through puddles. “All this for a leopard,” says Jayaratne, as we try to reverse up a steep slope to make our getaway.

Is this kind of traffic healthy for Yala’s leopards? “Diesel and sound pollution are issues, but it’s not killing the animals,” says Jayaratne. “And though there are too many jeeps here, there is a good side to the tourism, because it vastly reduces poaching.”

In the absence of any other research being done on the leopards, Jayaratne is helping set-up a leopard research station at Wild Coast Tented Lodge. Some of the lodge’s suites are arranged in the shape of a leopard’s paw, and leopards do occasionally drop in, often using the nearby beach as a path from the park.

When you see for the first time the hordes of people and vehicles, it seems like chaos and you assume it could only lead to some kind of negative impact
Chandika Jayaratne

“We want to create an information station, but also a place where researchers can come and work from,” says Jayaratne. “The ultimate plan is to attempt a census of leopards to see if the claim about Yala having the highest leopard density in the world is actually true.”

From anecdotal evidence and repeated observations of the same leopards, rangers believer there are about 25 to 30 leopards in the most popular safari area of the park known as Yala block 1. But no hard data exists.

Due to open during 2018, researchers at the station may also try to photo-ID leopard cubs, and perhaps even put radio collars on a few leopards to see exactly what their home range is. “I’m sure our leopards have intersecting territories, which is something leopards in Africa never do,” says Jayaratne.

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For now, how the surging numbers of tourists will affect the leopard population remains unknown. “When you see for the first time the hordes of people and vehicles, it seems like chaos and you assume it could only lead to some kind of negative impact,” says Corea. “But realistically, even though leopards can be observed relatively close by, they do not mingle with the vehicles, as in the case of lions and cheetahs in East Africa, so the impact on health could be negligible.”

“Animals are much smarter than we think they are, and they learn to adapt,” says Jayaratne. “I don’t even think most of them even notice us.”

The writer was a guest of Wild Coast Tented Lodge.

Getting there

Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon and Sri Lankan Airlines fly between Hong Kong and Colombo.