Yala Safari SUV Limits – Off limits

Yala Safari SUV Limits – Off limits

By Lahiru Fernando

11 Jan, 2018 | 4:26 pm

Tourist numbers have increased rapidly over the last decade, from 43,368 visitors in 2008 to 658,277 in 2016 according to Sri Lanka Tourism statistics. With rising tourist numbers, together with poor waste management, the level of pollution and stress to fauna has increased significantly.

To mitigate the growing problem of over-visitation to Yala National Park, a multi-stakeholder committee appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office has developed an Action Plan.

The committee was chaired by Dr. Pilapitiya. Based on the consultation findings, the Plan accommodated for the fact that a sudden reduction in the limit of SUVs is neither socially nor politically feasible. As such, it introduced a staged-approach to implementation.

Despite the Action Plan being in place the Minister of Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera proposed a reduction in the limit of SUVs to 150 on 18 October 2017. Just 21 days later, on 8 November 2017 the limit was raised to 500 SUVs a day after the Minister bowed to SUV driver pressure.

Overcrowded Yala National Park

Most conservationists argued a limit of 500 was tantamount to no limit at all as it was set the limit higher than the average daily visitor number. Countering this argument, was acknowledgement that at the very least, a limit was introduced by the Minister ahead of the 2020 time frame, thus preventing the situation from getting worse until carrying capacity studies are completed.

There are around presently 700 commercial safari SUVs in the area.

Toward the end of November, the limit was reduced to 300 SUVs per day by the Prime Minister in a show of leadership. The limit was brought while the Prime Minister appeared critical of the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife and Hambantota representative, Minister of Housing and Reconstruction Sajith Premadasa for his role to play increasing the limit to 500. However, once again the limit has increased. The new limit is 600 according to recent newspaper reports, 100 more than the highest previous highest limit of 500 a month ago. Thus, demonstrating a disturbing trend of a steady increase to the limit and rendering SUV limits an infective control measure. There are plenty of vested interests to remove SUV limits (including hoteliers) and enough political clout to disregard any limit put in place. In practice, the number might be higher.

According to one SUV driver on this latest reported increase: ‘“Dhang chandaya ne, miss. Gaana wadi kerala. Mukuth salasmak na ne hariyata” [It’s election time, lady. Numbers have increased. Nothing is organised in a proper manner].

Conservationists are bitterly disappointed. This time, the Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Mahinda Amaraweera allegedly took a sudden interest in tourist numbers, and pushed for an increase in SUV numbers to accommodate them. The Minister is incidentally a representative of the Hambantota district. With the local government elections looming, it is perhaps unsurprising that local politicians are interfering with SUV limits. It appears representatives of the Hambantota district are only interested in preserving their voter base and not our priceless natural heritage. Perhaps scathing reviews of Yala by tourists on sites such as Trip Advisor may be our only hope for conservation in Sri Lanka.

Trip Advisor – the only hope?

Perhaps scathing reviews of Yala by tourists on sites such as Trip Advisor may be our only hope for conservation in Sri Lanka.

Supposed to be a National Park with wild animals roaming freely but the most we saw were noisy jeeps, about 300-400 converging into one location upon the sight of one lone elephant and then fighting among the drivers and the guides to take a vantage position to capture photographs. Its just crazy.]…[ Wonder if there is anyone in charge at Yala!!! They seem all out to charge the fees and that’s about all. An utterly disorganized National Park if it can be called that, with not even the basic facility of a toilet. An utter waste of time and money. Look elsewhere.” Trip Advisor, 6 January 2018. (Complete article here)

The Sri Lanka Tourism Board’s Strategic Plan 2017 – 2020 acknowledges the problem, “Reviews on Trip Advisor for whale watching and the Yala National Park experience are overwhelmingly negative, despite the fact that these are potential flagship experiences for visitors to Sri Lanka.”

This appears to be a rare example of where a sensible Action Plan to deal with a complex issue has already been formulated and agreed upon by relevant stakeholders. However, as often is the case in Sri Lanka, political interference has prevailed over common sense.