Looking down from a height, I felt as though I had been transported to a scene in Africa; one from several millions of years ago when humans were evolving in the savannah. I was atop the embankment of the Weheragolla Reservoir in Block 5 of Yala National Park in the southeast of Sri Lanka. On my right were the ghostly, silvery outlines of trees that had died in a man-made flood when the river was dammed to create the reservoir. On my left was a grassy slope on which Spotted Deer were grazing. A troop of Hanuman Langurs was idling about. It felt like Africa inclined at a steep angle. Meeting the slope of the grassy embankment was tall forest which was quite unlike the thorn scrub of the more visited Block 1 of Yala National Park. I was not sure what had brought the langurs to the top of the embankment. Infants cuddled up to their mothers. One adult carefully inspected its tail. Others groomed each other. Then they turned around and looked down the slope and into the forest. One by one they shuffled from the grassy embankment to sit atop a low concrete wall lining the road atop the reservoir embankment and gazed out to the distance. They were all neatly seated in a row like an expectant audience in a Greek amphitheatre. Langurs are remarkably humanlike and I could imagine our early human ancestors gathering like this, seated together, sharing a pensive moment.
The Yala Protected Area Complex (YPAC) comprises five blocks of the Yala National Park, the Kumana National Park, Kudimbigala Sanctuary, the Nimalawa Sanctuary and Strict Nature Reserve. Furthermore, the Lunugamvehera National Park abuts Block 5 which is now open to visitors. Yala Block 1 has been open for visitation for several decades. Since it was popularised as one of the best places in the world for Leopard Safaris in the early 2000s by the team at Jetwing Eco Holidays, the number of visitors has increased hugely. So much so that a common complaint is that the number of safari vehicles entering is too many and that the number of vehicles allowed in should be limited. Another suggestion is that increased pricing should be used to reduce the number of visitors. I have two suggestions. Firstly, that the tourism industry and the Department of Wildlife Conservation create a low traffic zone and a high traffic zone. The low traffic zone can be a premium zone and be priced high, with a limited number of vehicles allowed in and creating a high-end safari experience similar to national parks such as Kafue in Zambia. The high traffic zone can be priced modestly and be democratic in allowing people who do not have the money or the inclination to pay high-end prices. This will mean that no one from a modest economic background is deprived from visiting Sri Lanka’s premier national park for big game. The high traffic zone can offer tens of kilometres of one-way road which will allow every visitor to the park to have just as good a chance to see the beauty of the park and its key draws such as leopard, elephant and Sloth Bear. It would thus be fair and democratic. However, a leopard sighting could result in a log jam of 30 plus vehicles. But in life one gets what one pays for. If you want to have the chance of having a leopard all to yourself or more likely with just a tiny handful of vehicles then you pay the high-end safari price and buy a ticket to the premium zone. The second of my suggestions is already one which is in progress. I have for sometime now in the articles I have written, been suggesting (and others have also been doing so as well) that the whole of the YPAC is opened up to spread the visitors and to improve conservation as the presence of tourists deters poaching and illegal encroachment. Access to the YPAC has been improved in stages- firstly with an entrance at Katagamuwa for Block 1. Now Block 5, the smallest block has been opened with motorable roads. Block 2 is open but the roads are so bad that it is a requirement that visitors must take two vehicles with one having a winch. Block 3 is open but I gather that the road network needs to be developed and at the time of a visit in August 2019 I was told that some of the roads have tree saplings growing on the middle of the road. If all of the Blocks have good roads, then some of the larger Blocks could in turn be zoned into a cheaper access zone and a premium zone.
The cheaper zone is not necessarily for those with economic disadvantages. A local or foreign birding group who are in Sri Lanka to see birds would opt for the cheaper zone as it does not make sense to pay for the premium zone as they are not there to photograph leopards and have no need for a fairly private and extended leopard sighting. Even the high visitor zone will need to be managed such that there is traffic discipline so that people who wish to bypass a leopard sighting can move on without being trapped at a leopard sighting where 30 plus vehicles are jostling for a view.
I was probably the first advocate for Yala to be branded as a top leopard safari destination in the international wildlife tourism market. In the early 2000s, I had no hesitation in recommending that serious wildlife photographers book ten or more game drives in Yala. Now, with the high volume of visitors and given the present lack of visitor zoning in Block 1, I would suggest using different strategies, unless the concept of a premium zone is introduced for local and foreign tourists with a special interest.
The first would be to travel with a company that understands your special needs if you are in Yala for leopard photography. I was in Yala as a guest of Jetwing Hotels. They understood my need for quiet enjoyment. They planned a schedule that took two strategies. The first was that when we entered the busy Block 1 we took alternate roads and avoided the so called ‘main roads’ taken by the majority of safari vehicles. In fact, to avoid the queues to get in, we arrived at a leisurely 7 a.m. by which time the queue for the 6 a.m. entry had dissipated. Our visit was during a long weekend during the school holidays and the published statistics showed that 348 vehicles had entered that day. I can assume that at the time we were in the park that morning, between over a hundred to hundred and fifty vehicles had also entered. But yet, for the first three hours we saw no other vehicle. If we had seen a leopard, we could have had it all to ourselves for some time until the driver’s best friends turned up in their vehicles alerted by a call or text. This would cascade into a convoy of vehicles. Therefore, we are back to the case for a zoning system so that even with drivers calling each other even in the premium zone, a sighting would never become too crowded in the premium zone.
The second strategy adopted by the Jetwing team was to take me into the less frequented parts of the YPAC. The Jetwing team are quite attuned to wildlife for a number of reasons. One, their sister company is Jetwing Eco Holidays which has pioneered many wildlife tourism products in Sri Lanka including Leopard Safaris in the early 2000s. They did this at a time when the rest of the tourism industry was sceptical that Sri Lanka had any potential to be branded for Leopard Safaris and be able to compete with destinations in Africa. Another is that the team in their head office includes several people whose hobby is wildlife. In the field with me were Senal Siriwardene and Nilushan Wijesinghe who are passionate wildlife photographers who routinely leave Colombo at 1 a.m. for day trips to Wilpattu National Park, packing in an all-day game drive to photograph leopards. Yet another reason is that Jetwing at their hotel have dedicated naturalist guides who have their finger on the pulse. Chamara Amarasinghe, the head ranger at Jetwing Safari Camp Yala, was also with us on the game drive and conferred with the driver on how best to avoid the crowds in Block 1.
A visit to Block 5 was also a part of the strategy to avoid the crowds and we were just one of three vehicles that had driven to the Weheragolla Reservoir to take in the view that I opened this article with. The other vehicles drove off and we stayed watching the langurs. They walked on all four limbs with their tails curved in a sinuous arc over their backs. After a while the troop that had been seated in a row gazing intently at the distance made its way down. I commented to the others that the langurs were not happy about something in the jungle. There were no angry and excited alarm calls. I thought it may be a smaller predator such as a jackal that would cause concern but not too much alarm to a thirty strong troop with large males armed with formidable canines. We took a road down that took us over a bridge passing riverine forest and into some scrub forest when our driver spotted a twitching tail. Perhaps this was the cause for concern. A subadult male leopard was seated on a fallen log. We had it all to ourselves for around fifteen minutes before it melted away into the forest. We were less than 15 minutes drive time from the entrance. In fact, this was our second leopard for the day. As we entered Block 5 we were tipped off about a leopard that was lying down. We found another vehicle watching it and later we were joined by another vehicle. It was probably another subadult. It moved away, its journey through the forest heralded by the alarm calls of deer. This, the first of the two leopard encounters that evening was less than a ten minute drive from the entrance. I would not want anyone reading this to think that seeing leopards in Block 5 or indeed in any other part of the YPAC to be that easy. If you are visiting Sri Lanka to photograph leopards, it is wise to plan for at least five game drives and to book with a specialist tour operator or a hotel that has skilled naturalists.
There is more to see and do in Yala, than just leopards. I will pick this up in a continuation article.