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Sri Lankan Spotted Fever

SRI LANKA | Wednesday, 15 April 2015 | Views [390]

The safari jeep raced across the red clay track at a speed I would have thought impossible given the pitted, rutted, boulder littered road surface. Every teeth jarring bump we hit made my brick sized camera body with its foot long telephoto lens swing so wildly on its strap that I was sure it would crush my sternum, or worse, my crotch.


This frenzied dash had been initiated by a brief cell phone call received by my safari guide informing him that a leopard had been sighted in a different area by a different guide. Leopards are to Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park what lions are to the Serengeti, or Tigers are to parks in India. They are the apex predator of the eco system. The fabled King of the Jungle. Everyone who goes on safari in Yala wants to see them. The problem is that everyone can.  


When I was a young boy, Easter Morning was always marked by an Easter basket hunt. As my brothers and I slept on Easter eve, my parents would stay up late hiding goody filled baskets in ingenious locations throughout our small suburban home. We’d find our baskets tucked into the back of jacket filled closets or hung high in the rafters of the garage. On one memorable Easter, I found my basket hidden in a basement hamper used to store logs for our wood burning fireplace. 


I always loved this Easter tradition because you knew there was something awesome waiting for your discovery, but you didn’t know where it was or when you’d find it. Unlike Christmas where all you had to do was look under the tree, Easter required diligence, patience and exploration.


Perhaps this penchant for discovery is why I’ve always been so drawn to exploring the wilderness in hopes of seeing (and photographing) wildlife. Whether I’m hiking through Denali in Alaska, boating down an Amazonian tributary in Ecuador or taking a night drive in a South African game reserve, it’s all just one big treasure hunt. Incredible animals are there, but they are wild, and there is never a guarantee that you’ll see them. Yet with diligence, patience, a large amount of luck (and often a skilled guide) you just might just have a National Geographic moment.


Sadly, much of the safari magic I’ve described is missing from Yala National Park. The animals are definitely present. Elephants forage the plains. Sloth bears prowl the forests. Crocodiles and water buffalos bask in the wetlands. Leopards, not having to compete with bigger cats as they do in Africa and other parts of Asia, are large, confident and often highly visible. Like so many places, the problem with Yala is not the animals. It’s the people.  The authorities put absolutely no limit on the number of vehicles that can enter the park on any given day. Consequently, hundreds of  vehicles packed with tourists race around the publicly accessible portions of the park every single day, almost all of them are focused on leopards. Many of the so called “safari guides” who lead excursions to Yala have very little knowledge regarding the local wildlife and no particular skill at finding it. Many are just guys who own a jeep and a website. They drive their guests around the park looking for other vehicles that have spotted animals and then they stop at the same place. 


Consequently, a jeep safari in Yala  often turns out to be the game viewing equivalent of the classic movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The only difference is that rather than Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Buddy Hackett and Sid Caesar tearing around southern California in a race to find the “The Big W,” in Yala, it’s a cast of German Backpakers, Indian Honeymooners,  Japanese tour groups and Sri Lankan extended families racing around southern Sri Lanka in hopes catching a glimpse of a big cat. 


When news of a leopard sighting in the park spreads with the lightning speed of modern mobile technology, every jeep in the park heads for the sighting spot as fast as the bumpy roads will allow (and oftentimes faster than they will safely allow). Jeeps careen past each other in forward and reverse. Fender benders are common. Drivers yell and curse. Frustrated tourists shout at other tourists to get out of their way. 


The reason that everyone moves so quickly is that they know that if they aren’t among the first jeeps to arrive at a sighting, they’ll be caught in the massive traffic jam of other vehicles all headed to the same location. At one point in Yala, my jeep was surrounded by no less than forty other jeeps all jockeying for position to watch a mother leopard and her three cubs swiftly cross the road. It was certainly not the unspoiled natural paradise of a BBC documentary.  Worst of all, the animals people most yearn to see often suffer due to all the unfettered human intrusion. I read that several years ago one of Yala’s leopards died after being run over by a rampaging jeep. 


Now, I realize that I am part of the problem. Just like everyone else, I am a tourist hoping to see these majestic creatures in the wild. Granted, I have invested more in camera equipment than most other tourists (using an iPad as your safari camera should be the first thing the park officials ban), and I do hold myself out as a bit nature photographer. However, my presence certainly adds to the overcrowding.  


Additionally, I do understand that Sri Lanka is a poor country with a rapidly developing tourist infrastructure following a thirty year civil war. The environment here is just not going to be protected like it would be in much of the world. Nevertheless, I would argue that eco-tourism could be handled much better in Sri Lanka than it is. I have been to places in Africa that are much poorer than Sri Lanka but which have much better regulation of their national parks and reserves. I’ve been on safaris in Africa both on foot and in vehicles where I never saw a single other tourist the entire day. If they can do it in Uganda and Swaziland, among the poorest nations on earth, they should be able to do a better job in Sri Lanka. 


I hope this post doesn’t give an overly negative impression of Sri Lanka. It’s a beautiful, diverse nation, that is in many ways much cleaner and better run than other nations I have visited in Asia. In fact, my frenzied trip to Yala was bookended by two extremely relaxed Sri Lankan locations, the beautiful beaches around Unawatuna and the amazingly serene highland tea plantations of the Nuwara Ellia region, both of which I would recommend without hesitation.


Sri Lanka is blessed with some of the most diverse and impressive ecosystems in Asia. It would be a shame to destroy them through mismanagement and unregulated exploitation. 

Tags: beaches, elephants, jeep, leopards, nuwara ella, safari, sloth bear, sri lanka, tea, yala

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