Call A Friend If You See A Leopard. Actually, Call Them All.
- Leopard traffic jam in Yala
- Road kills cost to the country
- DWC : too little butter over too much bread
- Active poaching on protected soil
By Gazala Anver
Yala has been described as a natural and national resource, a National Park with a world wide repute. But it is now increasingly getting a bad reputation – the reason, according to Conservationist and trustee of the Leopard Trust Sri Lanka, Rukshan Jayawardena, is because of the lack of discipline and flouting of rules within the National Park.
It is now a common practice that when a leopard is spotted, the drivers call a friend, or two, or five, and all the vehicles race to catch the sighting. “It is a really bad situation. The drivers are rushing around, responding to information about sightings. They are extremely reckless as they try to get there before the crowd. It creates a huge leopard traffic jam. Around 30- 40 vehicles on a 10 feet wide road, all speeding. It gets really chaotic, and some of them even go off the road,” Jayawardena said. “You cannot simply get down, have tea and drive off the road as you wish at a National Park.”
According to Jayawardena however, despite the responsibility resting with the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), they are poorly funded, and find it difficult to even patrol the borders as they do not have adequate funds for vehicles. They are underpaid too, and with such “disgruntled foot soldiers” the impact on the wilderness and wildlife is huge.
“Ultimately, the Government has to make decisions about the resources. This is what brings in revenue and it should be fed back to build infrastructure and pay staff better salaries. The nature of the job is such that it is not a 9 – 5 job, but they are expected to respond 24 hours. If you starve the department and expect to make a revenue too, how do you hope to sustain this in the future?” he asked.
This issue however, doesn’t just concern one party or group: it is actually something that everyone, from the drivers and rangers to the park visitors, to the tourist board and telecommunication service providers, should look into. As Jayawardena said, the short term gain is “unsustainable.”
“It is an abuse of modern technology. Very few people look for leopards, the other simply call. It is a pathetic state, the drivers are more dexterous with the phone than with tracking the animals. If there is a signal blockage, say, during the peak hours of park visits, then people will have to look out for leopards the old fashioned way. They then can’t call in all four directions and hit 70 – 90 kmph on a narrow, straight forest road. If an animal jumps across, then there will be a collision.”
He added that there were two reported leopard deaths last year in Yala, and the investigations on the matter were swept under the rug. “There should have been a fine, an investigation. But there was nothing. The only way we got to know was because visitors to the park had seen the dead animals. It was then the DWC did a postmortem. But nothing happened beyond that, no action was taken and the incidents are repeated.”
These road kills are actually a cost to the country as a whole. National Parks have a unique eco-system, where everything is naturally interdependent and connected. As Jayawardena explained, if something is tampered with, it wi ll collapse, and this, according to him, has to a certain extent occurred at Yala. Bear sightings for instance, he says, are getting rarer. “Yala is particularly bad. Other National Parks are similar.”
Although Yala rakes in revenue for the country, and despite being a National Park accorded with the highest protected status, poachers have a field day. “A lot of violations take place, from logging to poaching. Anti-poaching is not happening,” he said, adding that for an anti-poaching patrol to go on duty, there is a long procedure, which is counter-productive at the end of the day.
“The overall attitude is bad, this is not a blanket statement, but people get off with bribes or influence and this happens increasingly. The big companies need to move to better practices too, and we should slowly start untangling, lobbying and putting pressure to bring these practices to an end,” he said.
In a similar vein, other environmentalists too have spoken extensively about the issue. Environmental lawyer, Jagath Gunewardena for instance spoke about the phot o frenzy, and how everyone just wants a close up shot of a leopard. According to him, disturbing an animal in itself is an offence under the law. This most certainly includes chasing. “Yala is severely understaffed and over visited. When the two come together, it is difficult to even guard the boundaries. There are too many thrill seekers visiting Yala, many who just want to take a close up shot of a leopard.”
Recently I came across an interesting blog post mentioning a passenger who had in fact sustained an injury in a speeding vehicle at Yala. To quote the blog jestforkicks.blogspot.com: “The jeep drivers, eager to earn money are hell bent on trying to show their clients as many animals as possible, so as soon as word is received of a sighting everyone races to the spot. Quite apart from the dangers to passengers, the roar of engines must surely be disturbing the wildlife, not to mention wildlife being run over by vehicles .”
But even for that perfect shot, the thrill of seeing an animal, it is a far cry from seeing them in their natural habitat, which is actually the point of a National Park, if there are so many vehicles racing around, and people openly disregarding the rules of the park. The price of thrill seeking is far too steep it seems. We are steadily trading away our natural resources, what makes us unique, at the hands of careless commercialism. Despite the attention this issue is gaining, the question remains, will the relevant authorities take this into careful consideration and remedy the situation before it is too late?