Big money for big game – but no damage

Young and passionate, bespoke tented safari operator Leopard Trails is out to show Sri Lanka how high-end, low-impact tourism is done

Radheesh Sellamuttu made a final business pitch to four potential partners one February night in 2012, as the sun set on their campfire at Yala. Haresh de Soysa, his brother Amrith, Hasitha Leanage and Nilrusha Pieris were his trusted circle. They had broached the topic before to not much conviction, but now Sellamuttu had the financial information they needed to finalize the deal. The five shook hands on it over drinks that night. The plan was luxury hospitality – fine wining and dining combined with colonial comforts – in the heart of the jungle.

Leopard Trails provides bespoke tented safaris in Yala and Wilpattu. Taking inspiration from luxury safari providers in the African continent, the operator tweaks established models for optimal results in the Sri Lankan context. They run on a passion for wildlife and ethical business, with a clear vision to enhance the safari industry in Sri Lanka; the not-so-recent, high-end, low-impact model of tourism is way the island should go, they say.

“Everybody talks about how Yala is such a great place to see leopards, but the thing about South Africa is that they’ve taken it to another level. They know the animals individually.”
Radheesh Sellamuttu

Leopard Trails’ five directors have known each other for years, in different circles and settings. The defining feature of their close friendship though is a love of wildlife: safaris in particular. Their history with safaris began in Yala on family trips together and expanded as they grew older to include wider circles of friends at a greater number of locations in Sri Lanka, and other parts of South Asia and Africa. With time, as their passion for the hobby deepened, so did their understanding of the potential the industry held in Sri Lanka, so far unmet.

“We would always think ‘wow, what if we had this in our own country’,” Managing Director Sellamuttu says, “and we always compare…the difference in the whole experience.”

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority boasts that tourist arrivals last year were “booming” and that foreign exchange earnings are climbing. The fact is, international travel is trending globally, and much of South Asia is reporting significant growth in tourist arrivals and spending. On the flip side, World Bank data reports that Sri Lanka’s forest area is slowly but steadily declining, while the rest of South Asia is increasing its forest cover. The data is noteworthy in an economy that depends on the well-being of its wildlife for visitor generation, and a great example to learn from and emulate is South Africa.

Safari operators in the African continent have mastered the high-end, low-impact product, helping generate higher foreign income, reduce poaching, increase forest cover and develop the industry. The Sabi Sands and Kalahari Game Reserves in South Africa, and the Masai Mara in Kenya are home to some of the most lavish and correspondingly most expensive wildlife experiences in the world. Some packages at Londolozi, a private game reserve within Sabi Sands, begin at $1,600 per person/night. In Tanzania, where big-game hunting is still legal, Lukula Selous, a non-hunting camp, pays the government hunting fees to reserve nearly 300,000 acres of prime hunting land for its eight guests. These guests, nevertheless, do not shoot game, contributing to growth in wildlife population in the area. In Kenya, lodges lease cattle grazing land from local farmers, giving them alternative income and freeing grassland for wildlife occupation. Sri Lankan safari scales do not compare, but there is a wealth of applicable knowledge and experience in the global industry that we are very slow to latch on to. This is the gap that Leopard Trails is determined to fill.

By June 2012, the founders were a registered business with a permit issued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation to operate mobile tented safaris within Yala National Park. They weren’t the only group with such a permit and others in the game had been around for years, but Leopard Trails had plans to do things very differently.

First, they set about adapting global industry standards to fit the local setting.

All of their tents were designed by Sellamuttu, taking into account Yala’s particular climate requirements, and custom built partly in South Africa and India. Much of Leopard Trails’ furniture is also designed in-house along the same lines and produced locally. The tents are equipped with everything from lavish bedding to soft carpeting, comfortable bathrooms and air-conditioning. All meals are freshly prepared and include a variety of local dishes, which are served al fresco by the lake or on romantic rock formations. The wines accompanying the meals are handpicked by House of Wines to work best with the climate and the menu; and if an Earl Grey Chiffon is your choice of birthday cake, so be it. When Leopard Trails says “bespoke,” they mean bespoke.

Then they took industry issues particular to Sri Lanka as points for innovation.

Leopard Trails saved money, while the local community got better jeeps and additional high-end customers. A simple win-win

“We recognized that it was really important to engage the local community,” says Sellamuttu. Established operators already sourced whatever they could (groceries, hardware, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc.) from local producers. “But they were having a lot of trouble with local jeep suppliers. Sri Lankans feel entitled to the parks, so they didn’t like outsiders coming in and making money off it.”

The problem was double-sided. The jeeps available in the locality weren’t of a high enough standard for the guests Leopard Trails planned to bring in, but buying their own jeeps easily meant investing another Rs50 million in vehicles, plus driver salaries and maintenance.

Leopard Trails struck a deal with some of the offended parties. They would renovate the available jeeps to the standard they required – installing roof-hatches and camera resting points, electric winches for emergency towing, mud terrain tires, after-market suspensions and a host of improvements for added comfort and safety – and then use the services of the local business people who now had much better vehicles on offer. The cost of renovation (about Rs1 million) would be taken off the jeep-owners’ charges. Leopard Trails saved money, and the local community got better jeeps and additional high-end customers. A simple win-win.

“We were immediately seen as a friendly operator who was engaging the local community,” Sellamuttu shrugs. Business is almost intuitive to him.

While custom-built tents and cooperation with the local community are well and good, these don’t place Leopard Trails that much ahead of their competition in the grander scheme of things. Other players who have been around for longer have stronger operations and logistics, fine-tuned through years of industry experience. “But they were missing one key element that Africa had,” Sellamuttu points out. “That is, really top-quality safari guides. They had guides, but they were only one step above the jeep driver.”

caLeopard Trails’ game rangers do more than just track the game. These are degree – holding professionals with a particular passion and training for what they do. They learn the life of the bush and share it with their guests. After returning from a safari, they switch roles to telling stories, explaining the local food and doing everything a colonial host must do. Not a job role that your run-of-the-mill safari guide can handle.

“We really upped the ante there,” Haresh de Soysa says. Leopard Trails boasts what they say is Sri Lanka’s highest price point for luxury accommodation – starting at $800 per night, per couple. The value their game rangers add to their product is so clear that Leopard Trails’ partners envision a not-so-distant future when an academy for training safari guides in Sri Lanka is viable. “It’s very easy to go into the park and break rules,” Sellamuttu says, “but we avoid that at all cost.”

Employing highly skilled and conscientious game rangers is “the first step” in Leopard Trails’ conservation strategy. Their theory is that a guiding school and ensuing standardization will help transform the whole industry, and a guide exchange program with Londolozi in South Africa is already underway to that end. A Leopard Trails game ranger will spend 16 days in April with rangers in the African savannah, following which a Londolozi guide will spend time in Sri Lanka. Each will learn different techniques from the other, as well as gain insight into the unique problems and solutions the profession offers in different settings, helping the niche industry to move forward. Beyond raising the bar on the hospitality and experiential aspects of the industry, and looking for ways to improve and sustain the business, Leopard Trails has created further value for itself in an expected arena: data production.

“Everybody talks about how Yala is such a great place to see leopards, but the thing I realized about South Africa is that they’ve taken it to another level,” Sellamuttu says. “They know the animals individually. They’ve named them, they’ve developed techniques to identify them, they know when they’re mating, they know their lineages. When you go on safari with them and you see a leopard, within 10 seconds they’ll tell you all this, and suddenly it’s a character who lives here!”

For one month in March 2014, Sellamuttu did only one thing: he looked at hundreds of gigabytes of leopard photographs on his computer. Using techniques he learnt from trackers and guides in the African continent, he was able to identify 56 individual animals sighted within just one-third of the Yala Block 1 space. Setting up a database, he looped the rangers in on a data collection venture to identify, name and locate each leopard they encounter. Using a WhatsApp group, team members keep each other updated on sighting information, thereby developing a history for each animal. They make a special note of matings, and keep a lookout for cubs when the time is right, generating lineage information. There are “layers and layers” to the identification process, and the mass and quality of information Leopard Trails can generate is creating interest among wildlife researchers, a number of whom have already approached them about potential work.

“We genuinely feel this is the right way to go for our country to develop sustainable businesses.”
Haresh de Soysa

“What started off as just a fun project has turned into a huge undertaking,” de Soysa says, “and a good business.”

Authorities recognize the importance of conservation and of drawing high-end tourists to the island, Sellamuttu says. But this recognition is not translated effectively enough to policy that supports ventures such as Leopard Trails that focus simply on the niche customer.

“One thing that we’ve done wrong is being purely leopard-centric,” de Soysa says of Sri Lanka’s wildlife tourism. In his view, the leopard safari, the elephant gathering and bird watching are “fantastic” products that are not being utilized sustainably to their full potential. Still for all, Sri Lanka’s safari sweet-spot, in de Soysa’s opinion, is the fact that “wildlife tourists can travel very quickly between completely different ecosystems. One evening you can be watching birds, butterflies and snakes in Sinharaja and the next morning you can be in Yala with the leopards!”

The tourism industry, as de Soysa sees it, has not yet grasped the potential Sri Lanka holds in terms of a high-quality safari product. “Over the past couple of decades, the safari industry has been dominated by large hotels,” he says. They are only interested in filling rooms, Sellamuttu points out, and safari is “just another dot on the map for them”.

Only Leopard Trails and a handful of other operators in the area envision a wildlife-intense, niche product. They target high-end customers with a boutique experience that is both private and educational, while focusing on being sustainable and authentic. “We genuinely feel this is the right way to go for our country to develop sustainable businesses,” de Soysa says. To Sellamuttu, it is “still exciting, has so much potential, and we are still passionate about it”.