Sri Lanka is thought to hold a total leopard population of around a thousand, spread throughout the country. There is a concentration in the Yala national park which is believed to hold about 40 in Block 1. The leopards of Yala are highly visible, compared to parks in many other places, which makes it a particularly good attraction for visitors.

The density of the leopard population, however, is nothing compared to the density of the visitor population; according to news reports, the highest recorded number of jeeps in Block 1 peaks around 600 over the Christmas period. The park is now a far better place to spot Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrols and Monteros (not to mention the associated Nikon and Canon cameras) than leopards!

The numbers are bad enough, what is worse is the habits of the drivers who exchange news of sightings on the phone and then race to try and get to the spot. Cases of ‘roadkill’: leopards and other animals being run over are far too frequent, not to mention the problem of exhaust fumes, noise and even traffic jams.

As one disappointed visitor noted in a comment on Trip Advisor:

“A really disappointing experience that made me angry.

In the morning hundreds of Jeeps are waiting till 6 am to enter the park. Then the race begins. Noisy, stinky Jeeps everywhere.

If a “guide” spots one of the highlights, he calls other Jeeps, ending up with 50-80 Jeeps looking for a leopard on a narrow road. Employers (not rangers) are there to order the Jeeps in a queue, so you could see the leopard for 30 seconds and then NEXT!! All the time, the engines were running, and the guides were shouting instructions. This isn’t like a National Park, it’s more like a zoo. The worst thing is that all the drivers try to get as close to the animals.

On our tour, an elephant family with little babies were scared to cross the path to the water hole because 50 Jeeps drove alongside them to get the best view. And the park “rangers” were ordering the queue and supporting this behaviour. Seems like every idiot with a Jeep can enter in Yala NP!!

We didn’t see any Jeeps that behaved well and didn’t threaten the animals!”

The challenge is that the park is a lucrative source of revenue. A jeep safari costs about Rs.5000/- (a package for two is about Rs.7500/-) which means the collective daily take for the jeep owners is between Rs1.5m-2m (assuming 400 vehicles) rising to Rs2.25m to Rs3m (for 600 vehicles).

The growth in visitors has been phenomenal; increasing more than tenfold from 43,368 in 2008 to 658,227 in 2016. Few businesses would have experienced such a boom, so the jeep drivers have a huge incentive to keep the visitor numbers high. Previous attempts to limit visitors haven’t worked due to the political power wielded by the jeep drivers.

The attitude of the jeep drivers is compounded by the “trophy hunting” mentality of some of the visitors. For these people, Yala is not so much a sanctuary but a place to show off their latest jeep, camera equipment and photography skills. There seems to be a subtle (or not so subtle) competition to be the first on the weekend to upload a good picture of a leopard to social media. People are not looking for tranquillity and peace that a nature park offers but a trophy picture to enhance their social media page. This causes them to push the drivers to somehow find them a leopard, as soon as possible.

According to 2016 statistics, domestic visitors (385,442) outnumbered the foreign (272,835). Local visitors tend to travel on weekends (particularly long weekends), so the park sees a massive crush on weekends while it is relatively freer on other days.

The park is a limited resource. There is only a certain number of visitors it can cater to sustainably. The current visitor numbers are far over this. If demand exceeds supply that indicates a scarcity which needs to be reflected in the prices. This is not, so the starting point to managing numbers is to raise entry fees. Current fees for domestic
visitors are absurd – they vary between Rs60-120. To avoid overcrowding on weekends, a discounted rate could apply from Monday to Thursday. Higher rates could apply during peak seasons (long weekends and school holidays). Correctly managed, this can reduce visitor numbers while securing revenue.

This is essential because until everybody’s pot of cash is secured, it will not be possible to bring about some sensible discussion about rules. Some wildlife parks in India do this very well so we can quickly draw on their experience. Some rules from the Pench national park which covers 758 (about three-fourths the size of Yala which covers 979 are given below: They use jeeps with specially silenced engines, to prevent noise pollution. No outside vehicles are permitted.

Jeep no’s limited to 100 per day, half in the morning and a half in the evening.

To minimise intrusion still further, strict routes assigned to each jeep through a lottery. This spreads the (already limited) traffic through the park so that there is no congestion or noise. As no change in route is permitted, this will prevent mad dashes based on news of sightings. A wildlife official accompanies the tracker in the jeep to make sure rules are followed.

Routes are planned so that only 2/3 of waterholes (where the best sightings occur) are covered, ensuring the animals always have an area free of human activity at all times. The areas kept inaccessible are rotated, but at any time a third of the park remains reserved for wildlife.

No mobile phones or cigarettes are allowed in the park. The park closes during the rainy season to further minimize stress on the ecosystem. Drivers and guides are all adequately trained, so they have knowledge and appreciation of the wildlife and have internalized the rationale for the rules.

If the pricing is done correctly, the parks can raise a lot more revenue out of a much smaller number of visitors. Some of this money needs to go into training, better salaries and facilities such as toilets. The parks will also need to recruit more wildlife staff (or volunteers) to accompany the jeeps to ensure that the rules are followed.

The best way to enforce the limits on numbers is to minimise human intervention and move the entire system online.
It is also highly efficient and simplifies things for the visitor. The bookings of tickets and jeeps should be made in advance with the system limiting the number automatically. Education of visitors, to give them an understanding of the rules and their necessity could be done by a short 10-15 minute video film that the visitors are made to watch before the tour starts. The tour could end with a longer film that emphasises the beauty of nature, conservation and responsible tourism.

The problems of Yala are acute. If it is allowed to get any worse, the sanctuary may be lost for good.