Ask people to list the great wildlife parks of the world; Yala is unlikely to be among them. Ask about the best countries to go to for a safari; I’d be surprised if they mention Sri Lanka. Yet, one day, they could be on everyone’s lips.
I knew nothing about this magnificent gem until a couple of months ago. Mrs Footprints was involved in a training course in Colombo and I had the opportunity to join her. There were a few days after the course finished before we had to be back in the UK, so I looked for something to do.
I’m sorry Sri Lanka, one day I’ll come back and enjoy your many cultural delights, but this time the opportunity to see a new (to me) species, the sloth bear, was too much to resist and Yala was the place to see it.
The 130,000 hectare park is in the south-west corner of Sri Lanka – a seemingly interminable drive from the capital. The route to the park is peppered with tempestuous traffic filled towns alongside tranquil temples. Like a river meandering slowly through fertile fields at the end of its passage to the sea, our journey, too, slowed to below walking pace a few kilometres from the park. We had to wind our way through a temple procession, complete with extravagantly decorated elephants. (I will write about those elephants in a couple of weeks’ time.)
The park, when we eventually got there, (or rather the Cinnamon Wild Yala, for that is where we stayed) was an oasis of calm at the end of our long, chaotic drive along the island’s south-west and south coasts. Never have the welcome drinks been more welcome!
Yala is divided into five blocks, two of which are open to the public. It has a variety of habitats: grassland, scrub, thin forest, rocky outcrops, ponds (both natural and artificial), beaches and saltwater lagoons.
Some of the artificial ponds date back two millennia to a time when Sri Lanka’s kingdoms were at their height. Then, they were reservoirs providing water for agriculture and the island’s rulers. Today, they provide a lifeline for animal royalty, making Yala a wildlife hotspot, particularly in the dry season.
The park contains a number of mammalian subspecies that are unique to the island, including the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the Sri Lankan sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus) and the Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus). The last of these, unusually for an island species, is the largest of all Asian elephants.
It’s not just about headline species. Yala is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species and there is always something to look at during game drives. This, alongside the varied habitats, should make the park one of the top destinations in the world for animal lovers and photographers.
Interestingly, the vast majority of animals survived the December 2004 tsunami, an event that claimed the lives of more than 50 tourists and about 200 others in and around the park.
The Tsunami Memorial beside the beach at Patanangala, one of the few places where leaving your vehicle is permitted, is a rather shabby reminder of the tragedy. A short tiptoe through the scrub (and used toilet paper!) takes you to the pristine beach. About an hour before the tsunami struck, three elephants were observed running away from this beach, trumpeting a warning – somehow the animals were able to sense the impending disaster, it’s a shame that humans couldn’t.
The open toilet that is the memorial is just one part of the problem that spoils Yala’s chances of joining the great parks of the world. If it was the only one, it would be easy to avoid. The behaviour of drivers in the park, on the other hand, is harder to get away from.
We were told that there are around 40 registered safari companies that operate in the park. In practice it seems that anyone with a jeep will offer to take people into the park. At peak times there can be more than 300 vehicles traversing the landscape. A large proportion of the drivers of these vehicles, both registered and unregistered, seem to have no formal wildlife training, and it shows.
The park publishes a map that helpfully indicates where leopards, bears and elephants may be seen. It appeared to us that the drivers circulate around the marked points. When one finds an animal, the others are phoned and then, it seems, every jeep in Yala converges on the unfortunate victim. The race to the sighting involves vehicles fighting to pass each other on the parks narrow roads, in the hope of arriving at the location before the animal scarpers deep into the bush.
If the animal is still around, the drivers jostle to find the best position for their clients. The sound of 40 plus diesel engines, in such a small area, inevitably ensures that most sightings are brief.
To be fair to the park authorities, other countries have similar problems; the Maasai Mara in Kenya and parts of the Kruger in South Africa have problems with congestion at animal sightings, too.
These mass mechanical gatherings are not good for the animals, which can become stressed and less inclined to remain close to vehicles. They are not good for the paying safari goer, either, who often, at best, obtain a fleeting view of the animal, frequently in the distance.
Yala is reputed to have the highest density of leopards in the world. One could be forgiven for finding this hard to believe because the cat is as elusive as its cousins elsewhere in the world.
For example, while we were in the park, we were told of a vehicle spotting a resting leopard. As soon as the jeep stopped the leopard got up and disappeared deeper into the bush. I am convinced that the main reason for this lies in the mayhem that follows many such sightings.
If Yala is to become a mainstream safari destination, progressing beyond being an interesting side trip for the backpackers, beach holidaymakers and cultural tourists, who provide most of its foreign visitors at the moment, preserving the status quo is not an option.
For things to improve, the government will have to take radical steps. Perhaps it should be mandatory for every vehicle that enters the park to be accompanied by a qualified ranger/tracker who can ensure that people are distributed throughout the park and not just searching around a few well frequented places. That tracker does not necessarily have to be an employee of the park. The drivers that use the park at the moment could be offered the chance to train for this role, so continuing to provide employment to the many people from the surrounding area who benefit from the park at the moment. Of course, drivers should be allowed to let others know of any significant sightings but, maybe, there could be a limit on the maximum number of vehicles allowed at any one sighting at any one time (as happens in Sabi Sands in South Africa).
Fewer vehicles harassing the wildlife would, in time, lead to better animal sightings, as they become more tollerant of the presence of jeeps. They would learn, too, that the vehicles, and their often excitable contents, pose no threat to the animals and their ability to hunt (or forage) and survive.
At the moment the best way to experience Yala’s wildlife is often through a powerful camera or binocular lens. It is my hope that one day the Sri Lankan Government, the park authorities and the safari operators will work together to close that gap between animals and vehicles by providing an environment where animals aren’t harassed and so feel more comfortable in our presence.
Nothing is more thrilling than having a close encounter with a wild animal, to look into its eyes as it looks straight back at you, to hear the ground compress under its feet as it walks, perhaps even to smell its breath. I long for the day when I can experience that in Yala. A day, perhaps, when Yala will be mentioned in the same breath as the Maasai Mara, Kruger and Etosha by people choosing a safari. Whether that day comes is in the hands of the Sri Lankan government and its Department of Wildlife Conservation. Let’s hope that they have the political will to make the correct decisions, if only for the sake of the animals. It won’t be easy in the short term but it would be worth it in the end.