Jeep Drivers meet Environmentalists to find a solution to Yala Madness

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A group of drivers who were present at last week’s forum

As the situation worsens in Yala  regarding Visitor and Jeep Driver misbehavior and Leopard-chasing, a short workshop titled “Visit Yala, Don’t Invade” was organized by Lakdasun, an internet-based conservation group (www.lakdasun.org),  providing a platform for jeep drivers and activists to interact.  This workshop was unique in that it was initiated as a result of an invitation from the Jeep drivers of the Independent Yala Safari Jeep Drivers Association, who have now realized the need for change.

Dr. Rishani Gunasinghe who was actively involved in organizing the workshop said that  Lakdasun wanted to use the opportunity to the fullest to get the Driver’s corporation, so therefore, a “Business-oriented” approach rather than a “conservation-oriented” approach was employed when organizing this workshop. Rishani said that they tried to show the Drivers that they were there not to point fingers at them, but to show them what the current situation is doing to their business, what tourism operators expect in terms of service and visitor experience offered, how their service and hence their business can be improved, and thereby how they wanted to arrive at sustainable solutions for Yala TOGETHER WITH the Jeep Drivers.

In addition to the Lakdasun team, resource persons present were Rukshan Jayawardena, Vimukthi Weeratunga, and Nishad Wijetunga, who is the director of a leading travel agent. Giving the Key speech, Nishad told the Jeep Drivers, “Your business will soon be affected if the situation is not improved”. He explained that tourists indeed know what is going on inside the park due to the internet, that they are very vigilant on driver/tracker behavior, and as a result, close to 20% of tourists now ask NOT TO nclude Yala in their itineraries.

With data, Nishad stressed that tour companies don’t expect Drivers to somehow show leopards. Drivers commented that some Guides pressurize them to find leopards, but Nishad explained that it is not the Guides who bring them business but the tour companies, and Jeep Drivers have their own right to tell visitors and guides that they are not supposed to chase leopards, and that they have to adhere to speed limits.

Nishad also added that there might be a misconception that one can get bigger tips if one shows leopards, but this is not often the case because most tourists come on a budget and have already decided how much they will give as a tip. Thus most of the time, a leopard sighting will not change the tip, and besides, they will not blame the driver even if a leopard is not spotted because foreign tourists take sightings or non-sightings as their own luck.

Nishaad also said that tour companies give 70% of the visitors to Yala and also have an optional 2nd visit. This 2nd visit is now not been taken by the majority of the tourists and this has already impacted Jeep drivers.  He mentioned that this lost crowd is a blow to our tourism and will not come back unless they see a genuine change.

Rukshan Jayawardena and Vimukthi Weeratunga addressing the workshop said that the real wildlife experience is to track the animals and not by driving upon sighting tips received by mobile phones. Rukshan emphasized that it is the wildlife that should get the priority to live in a national park and all the other tourists activities should be secondary mentioning that leopards’ behavior in Yala is changing.  Rukshan and Vimukthi also led an active discussion with the Drivers in which they were given a chance a express their own views openly.  Drivers expressed their willingness to change, even have a cell phone ban, if they get an official order from the Authorities.They also requested uniforms, fair punishments for all when violations are found, and expressed hope that all the Drivers at Yala will join the association so that the service can be standardized. At present there are many Drivers who do not yet belong to the Association.

Mithila Somasiri who spearheaded the Lakdasun group said that Lakdasun also wanted to stress that the jeep drivers, trackers and visitors alike should play an important role in protecting what essentially brings direct benefits to all.  Mithila said visitors, inlcuding themselves, should  share an equal part of the blame for the current problems. Lakdasun is also trying to raise visitor awareness by an email campaign, and distributing posters to be placed in each Jeep for visitors to read before entering the park -this is to urge visitors not to chase leopards but to see other animals as well, with an aim enhancing visitor experience, provide better shutter chances, disperse traffic and ease pressure on Drivers and Trackers.   Larger versions of this poster have now been placed in and around the visitors center, ticket office, washrooms and bungalows, with the fullest corporation of the Wildlife Department. Visitors are urged to read these posters and see the variety Yala has to offer, and, most importantly, make a conscious effort to improve the situation inside Yala by NOT contributing to leopard chasing and speeding. “Let us visit Yala, not invade” , urges Lakdasun to all visitors of Yala.

Lakdasun says that this is merely a start and that they are planning to take the momentum ahead together with jeep drivers and others who are interested at providing a sustainable and lasting solution for Yala.

The unedited version of article published on 08.04.2012

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2 Responses to “Jeep Drivers meet Environmentalists to find a solution to Yala Madness”

  1. Jack Point Says:

    Read sometjhing in one of todays papers that another one, a pregnant femeal was killed. Can’t seem to find the article now, pls go through print copies

  2. Jack Point Says:

    One of the English papers, may even have been the Observer or Island. The leopard was carrying three cubs.

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