Would any animals be left in our national parks in the future? The question looms large as national parks are being overcrowded – especially during visitor seasons. Yala, the most popular national park known for leopards as well as elephants, sloth bear and birds had seen overcrowding for years. Now, parks such as Minneriya and Kaudulla are at the receiving end.
On a recent visit to the Kaudulla National Park, hoping to see elephants in their hundreds, the Sunday Observer team saw not elephants but jeeps in their hundreds. ‘Disappointed’ was the word many visitors used to describe the experience. However, little did they know that they themselves was the cause of this disappointment.
Visitor behaviour as well as actions of jeep drivers adversely affect the natural behaviour patterns of the elephants roaming the park. Sadly, most of these drivers who are dependent on this park and wildlife, especially, the elephants, were acting utterly insensitive and callous about the elephants and the delicate ecosystem of the park. HOUNDING and HARASSMENT OF ELEPHANTS SEEMED TO BE THE ORDER OF THE DAY. The drivers in their eagerness to please their clients broke all rules regarding the comfort, privacy and security of the elephants.
Jeeps were being mercilessly driven over the grass on the tank bed.
As the waters recede, succulent grass sprout covering the tank bed with a carpet of green grass. Apart from water, it is this grass which the elephants love, the great attraction of Kaudulla Tank bed. Off road wheels going over only results in the destruction of this valuable fodder for elephants.
For a long while it was just one handicapped lone cow elephant feeding on the tank bed. However, she was surrounded by about 35 jeeps at close quarters.
Suddenly, as the news of a small herd of elephants emerging from the jungle spread among the jeep drivers, nearly 100 jeeps converged there, blocking elephants’ access to the tank bed. Most of the jeeps went off regular paths, creating routes of their own. Elephants continued to linger at the edge of the forest, unable to reach much needed water in the sweltering heat while over-eager jeep drivers hounded them there.
For over one and a half hours, volunteer guides who double as ‘traffic cops’ inside the park struggled to control jeeps and open a corridor for the herd to reach the tank.
Kaudulla National Park, with an extent of 6,900 hectares is a popular destination for elephant sightings. It is also the home range to about 200 elephants, which roam Minneriya and Huruluwewa as well through the seasons. During the dry months, from April to October they converge at Kaudulla with many water bodies namely Relapanawa, Olu Madhu Wewa, Pulliyankallewewa, Minneriya-Kantalai Yodha Ela canal, Aluth Oya stream and Hatharas Kotuwa Oya inside the park, close to each other. As the season stretches and smaller water bodies dry one after the other, they roam the edges of Kaudulla Tank, one of the two largest reservoirs in the area and the centrepiece of the park.
During visitor season from May to September around 500 vehicles enter the park daily, said Park Warden Pradeep Hettiarachchi, when the Sunday Observer contacted him on Wednesday. This year up to first week of September, the number has been around 35,000. It could go much higher by end of the month, he opined. Though a total of 20 personnel work at the entrance and at the office, the number of guides being limited to five makes jeep control a difficult task during peak visiting period. Violations by visitors are minimum, Hettiarachchi commented. However, jeep drivers affect the behaviour of animals and park eco system by driving off-road on higher speeds than recommended; obstructing animals from reaching fodder or water and driving closer or into the herds of elephants violating the boundary lines and risking the lives of visitors, he explained.
The park employs a suspension system to control these violations with one to three days suspensions for causing damage to the eco system and four to seven day suspensions for offences affecting natural behaviour of animals.
Other violations by the community include illegal fishing, poaching and releasing cattle into the park affecting the fodder for elephants.
Ranjan Marasinghe, Deputy Director, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) told Sunday Observer that they are contemplating a star rating system for jeep drivers in order to decrease violations of park rules.
The Department in collaboration with the Federation of Environmental Organisations and the Inbound Tour Operators Association implements a pilot project in selected National Parks in the country which includes Minneriya and Kaudulla.
The project strives to create awareness and understanding among jeep drivers so that they would act more responsibly within the parks. While 60 jeep drivers from Minneriya – Kaudulla area were trained in July, another 60 would receive training on 8th and 9th September, he said.
After training and accreditation, the list of names of jeep drivers will be included in the DWC website with the star rating they had achieved. While responsible behaviour would raise their rating, violations would result in bringing down their star rating, he commented.
The live stream of vehicular movement at National Parks accessed through DWC website, not only helps manage traffic within parks but also helps avoid overcrowding as guests tend to deviate their visits to other parks or protected areas in the vicinity, he opined.
The dearth of guides in National Parks necessitates nearly 700 jeep drivers operating in Minneriya and Kaudulla to act as guides, said Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, former Director General of the DWC, who is also involved in the training of jeep drivers. Therefore, knowledge about animal behaviour benefits them in giving a better park experience to their clients.
The issues arising from overcrowding are twofold commented, Dr Pilapitiya. On the one hand, overcrowding and overuse of the parks affect animal behaviour and the park eco systems. The violations being communicated through social media creating a negative image affecting the country’s tourism on the other. Whether vehicles or visitors, simply limiting the numbers won’t have any impact, he argued. “First we have to establish discipline and then set limitations,” he said.
Citing his experience in mitigating the problem of overcrowding at Yala National Park, he said that a more stringent suspension system could have yielded better results.
The system employed at Yala, suspended jeep drivers for one week at the first count of violations, two weeks at the second, one month at the third, three months at the fourth and one year on the fifth. None went beyond the first count of violations, he commented. “At the first count itself, they felt its effects on their livelihood. Therefore, they restrained from violating park rules.”
However, eliminating a problem that was created over many years needs time, and needs to be done by subject experts, said Dr. Pilalapitiya. It needs to be done in a gradual manner that wouldn’t affect the livelihoods of dependent people in the community. Further, managing the parks would be done easier if politics could be kept out of it, he commented. While politicians could guide with policy decisions, the day to day management and maintenance of the protected areas need to be the responsibility of the DWC and therefore be left in the hands of subject experts, he opined.