5 solutions to the shameful Sri Lankan safari
Due to seasonal floods, Minniriya and Kaudulla National Parks were closed so we headed to Hurulu Eco Park for an afternoon safari.
Having already visited the Udawalawe and Wilpattu Parks, we were excited to visit Habarana, an area declared to be the largest gathering place of elephants on the Asian continent.
Sadly, it also seemed to be the largest gathering of jerks in jeeps.
Careless drivers and selfish selfie-takers drove too close to the families of elephants, often blocking their paths through the park.
The vehicles crowded the animals in a haze of engine noise and fumes visibly distressing the poor creatures.
Some utterly thoughtless drivers even took their jeeps off the marked road, blocking the elephants’ escape route away from the hordes of Instagrammers desperate for the perfect shot of their close encounter.
Whilst Hurulu Park offers a cheaper alternative to other safaris across Sri Lanka - and you are almost guaranteed to see large numbers of elephants - in no way can your experience be termed authentic. Or kind. Or respectful.
This was a rude interruption of nature, an abuse of human privilege and power; the balance utterly ruined by eyes that saw only through a screen and minds that thought only of themselves.
We both felt ashamed to be part of this debacle and to have caused discomfort and frustration to animals in the little homeland they have left.
The local view
For many people living in rural Sri Lanka, elephants are not beautiful creatures of nature but large pests who destroy crops and take human lives.
According to a report by the International Elephant Foundation, damage caused by these largest of land animals equates to more than £7.6 million per year.
Examples of elephant look-out hides used by farmers to watch over their crops.
The human-elephant conflict accounts for the loss of more than 60 human and 225 elephant lives each year.
So what can be done?
It's practically impossible to stop the so-called progress of tourism so here are 5 potential solutions that could encourage a safari experience that benefits, and is sympathetic to, all parties.
#1 Wages & tips
Currently, drivers are paid around 500rs (£2) from the 4000rs (£17) 3 hour jeep fee, the rest goes to the vehicle owner.
Tipping creates a culture of the driver racing from place to place trying to deliver major-league sightings and getting much too close to the animals so that their passengers will have an 'intimate' (photography) experience.
Therefore, a simple solution would be to pay the drivers a proper wage and discourage tipping.
#2 Regulated entry & park rangers
Another idea might be to limit the number of jeeps allowed to enter in order to reduce congestion.
In addition, having trained rangers monitoring driver conduct would enforce respect (ironic) but, more importantly, allow the animals to move freely around the park.
Nearly all drivers will have experienced loss of human life and livelihood in their communities; therefore, in order to become a safari driver, the person has to attend a re-education course.
These could be run, standardised and certified by charitable organisations. These could provide information on animal welfare and good Codes of Conduct (eg. safe and respectful distances from the animals), appropriate driving speeds and how to handle passengers who don't behave.
The course should be paid for by the jeep owner or subsidised by the government from the park entry fees.
#4 Appropriate punishment for misconduct
A driver that violates the agreed Code of Conduct, should be given a yellow card for the first offence.
This means that the jeep is not allowed entry to the park the following day thus causing loss of earnings for the jeep owner, the main money maker.
A second violation could result in a red card, a 3 day ban.
A third violation could result in a black card ban of 7 days.
Parks should keep track of all driver and jeep violations. Jeep owners will have visibility of driver misconduct and hopefully opt not to hire persistent offenders as this could result in their earnings being compromised.
Drivers who persistently break the Code of Conduct should have their certification revoked.
#5 Surveillance cameras
To further enforce these regulations, the National Parks would need technological support in the form of unobtrusive cameras put up inside their park areas. This could track drivers who violate and provide evidence when contacting the jeep owners.
Video clips could also be used on training courses.
Whilst money is ultimately the driving force in a capitalist society/business, reputation is closely correlated to money and is what the government and tourist boards should be concerned about.
For example, Yala National Park is already contending with a negative image of leopard-chasing jeeps which puts off many travellers from visiting, including ourselves.
There seems 3 immediate barriers to implementing such a sustainable, long-term system:
Time and money needed to invest in technology infrastructure and education.
Resistance from jeep owners who would have their easy earnings regulated and potentially disrupted.
Resentment from drivers who would have to gain accreditation and modify their behaviour.
There is great potential for investment and sponsorship from charitable organisations and companies who could all have their branding alongside a more ethical, more morally justifiable, community-based, animal welfare-concerned tourism industry in Sri Lanka.
They would have the prestige of being a shining light in what is otherwise ethically dubious wildlife tourism.
After nearly three decades of terrible civil war, ending in 2009, a devastating tsunami in 2004 plus the tourist-targeted bombings in April, 2019, Sri Lankan tourism is still developing (and recovering).
Now is the perfect time for this stunning island to become a world leader in respectable, sustainable wildlife tourism, alongside countries like Bhutan. A place where tourist revenue is used to support local communities and protect their wildlife for future generations.
If you think the ideas and proposals are relevant, then please do share and comment below.