Written: March 2011
For Short Overseas Journalism trip – Spring 2011: Sri Lanka, Wildlife conservation
Mixed results for wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka
In the wake of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, advocates of wildlife conservation seized this golden opportunity to advance the cause of wildlife conservation. But this was met with limited success.
Many locals are still indifferent to the pressing need to protect the natural environment.
Be it selling turtle eggs illegally or poaching leopards and elephants, acts of wildlife destruction still pose as a problem in the country, according to both experts and individual volunteers. This is in spite of the hype created by the state on conserving its flora and fauna
The President of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Ravi Corea, said that more non-governmental organizations have been established to address conservation issues.
He added that there has been a rise in animal populations over the last five years.
“Since we established our Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project no elephant has been injured or killed at our project sites,” Mr Corea said. “From our field observations it seems the elephant population has increased.”
Sri Lanka boasts of its rich natural biodiversity, and about 14 per cent of the land has been earmarked for conservation.
But it appears that only the elephants have a more promising future.
At the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, volunteers admit that many locals do not actively protect the turtles. Turtle eggs and products are still being sold on the black market.
Turtle eggs are believed to have medicinal value, and turtle shells are often used to make ornaments and jewellery.
As an incentive for locals to bring eggs to the hatchery instead of selling them on the market, the hatchery buys the eggs from fishermen at 10 rupees each. Volunteers bury the eggs until they hatch, and the baby turtles are cared for until they are mature enough to be released back into the sea.
But a volunteer, Ms Alison Joseph, admits that conservation work done by these organizations is not enough to have an impact on the natural environment.
Ms Joseph, 34, feels that the most important aspect of improving conservation is raising awareness among young people. Elementary school children are often given tours of the hatchery.
“I’d like to see the education of children (regarding conservation),” the British volunteer, who came to Kosgoda through a charity organization, Leo, said. She decided that coming Sri Lanka to volunteer would be a novel experience for her.
“But we need to have more local-language-speaking people to tell (the children) more about conservation,” she added. Her concerns stemmed from the fact that majority of volunteers there are usually British, while most of the children have no or little command of the English language.
Much as she felt strongly for raising awareness among children, Ms Joseph was more cynical about individual conservation efforts among adults. “Many of the local people know about how we should protect the animals, but the thing is they don’t really care,” she said. “The older people tend to be indifferent about it.”
She concluded: “For such education, it’s better to start with the young people.”
She is not the only one who sees the importance of educating the public on conservation. Efforts to raise public awareness protecting wildlife are also taken by the personnel at Yala National Park.
“Every year we have programmes for the villagers and children,” said a park ranger at Yala, Mr W.A.A.D.U. Indrajith. Programmes such as seminars aim to reduce human-elephant conflict, a prominent problem in the area.
When the elephants stray into village settlement areas for food, they create a disturbance, Mr Indrajith added. This often results in villagers acting aggressively to drive them away.
Despite being designated a wildlife sanctuary and putting in significant efforts to educate the public, Yala National Park ironically poses a threat to animal life.
To accommodate growing numbers of tourists, more jeep tracks had to be created. “The new tracks…become a problem for animals,” Mr Indrajith said. The birds often lay eggs on the ground, and these are destroyed with the laying of new tracks.
He added that overly-enthusiastic drivers also sometimes go against regulations and trail off the tracks to follow the animals, in a bid to secure more tips from tourists.
Mr Corea also accused tourism at Yala for triggering the poaching of animals – when they are meant to be protected.
“There is a flip side to the increasing number of visitors though because the poaching of…animals such as deer, sambar and wild boar increases due to the demand for game meat by the visitors to Yala and other cultural sites nearby,” he said.
Journey to the end of the world
The beauty of Nuwara Eliya (pronounced as ‘nu-rare-li-ya’), a town in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, is captured in the heart of the mountainous district. For many travelers, hiking at Horton Plains – Sri Lanka’s highest plateau – is one of the most breathtaking experiences (pun intended). If you desire adventure and an escape into a world where nature crafts one of her best art, this is the trip that you must take.
Our team hiked to the World’s End – the edge of the plateau with a sheer drop of about 3700 feet – the main attraction at Horton Plains, before heading to the famed waterfall, Baker’s Falls.
It was a race against time to reach the World’s End before the fog set in, which was estimated to be around 10am. We set off at around 5.30am from our hotel, and a van took us through a series of hairpin bends with flora and fauna dotted along the mountain countryside. Cows grazed peaceably on the hills some distance away when we passed, but our first encounter with nature trotting right up to us came in the form of an elk. It was, quite obviously, one that was used to tourists.
Before we had gotten out of our vans, the elk had eagerly leapt over the fence behind which it had been gazing forlornly at passing vehicles and came up to us, perfectly unafraid. One of our teammates fed it some grass and it licked her hand happily. The daring (and camera-friendly) elk was barely 30 centimetres away from my camera lens when I snapped away.
We broke away from our newfound friend and finally arrived at our starting point at around 7am. Besides the usual chatter of our team, it was pretty quiet around us. The other tourists mostly traveled in their small groups and were of some distance away from us. It was a vast landscape – we were all so minute in comparison to the magnitude of nature. We were surrounded by greenery, fresh air, and a distant promise of more mountainous paths and adventure.
Lagging behind a little, a few of us noticed a pretty spiderweb hanging loosely from two tufts of long grass. It was about twice the size of my palm, and spun with delicate, intricate details. The tiny spider was still hard at work, touching up its malicious creation.
The roads are rather rough and difficult, and I could feel the uneven hardened red-yellow soil beneath my sneakers. It took me a while to get used to the steep drops and rocky paths.
At least about an hour later, we finally reached the World’s End – with a spectacular view. Valleys are covered in dense vegetation and tea plantations, dotted with tiny red-roofed housing. More mountains loom over the horizon with the creeping, misty hint of a rising fog.
A local guide noticed my interest in the flora decorating the plateau, and ventured to point out the various plants to me. A small shrub with bright red flowers some distance downwards from the edge was the rhododendron. There are also buttercups, but more commonly decorating the vegetation of the plains is the Spring Gentian, a bright blue flower that is only about one to two centimeters in diameter. It is in fact an endangered species from European countries.
At the plains, much effort has been taken to preserve the natural environment – strict rules against smoking, littering and destroying any part of the flora and fauna reflected the importance of conservation in the area.
The dense vegetation gives way to a vast stretch of grasslands after departing from the World’s End. The roads are no easier at this point – I was rather fatigued by then – but the sights are equally captivating. From the distant forests, white butterflies fluttered across the grasslands towards us.
It was a continuous phenomenon, as though the forest were constantly releasing thousands and millions of these petal-winged creatures. Small streams wound along the way, around which a small collection of colourful flora would gather.
The journey to Baker’s Falls required us to venture into the depths of the forest again, and the roads were steeply uphill. We spotted a squirrel on the way, nibbling on a half-eaten apple that appeared suspiciously like the leftovers of a tourist’s snack. It was the first sign of litter that we had come across in the plains so far.
Walking (or should I say climbing) down to the Falls was no easy task – each step was at least half a metre high, and most were rather uneven. I was told that the steps did not even exist till a few years ago!
But the sight was worth the exhausting descent (and subsequent ascent).The beautiful cascade of water and its soothing crash into the freshwater stream greeted us with refreshing sprays in our faces. We ventured closer to the Falls, clamouring onto rocks on the edge of the stream.
Our way back was a more level path, passing through more grasslands and streams. By that time I was extremely exhausted – hiking nine kilometres was too much for me. We passed by some locals, some of whom were traveling with children. I wondered at their choice to travel at that time. How could they take the heat? The burning noon sun had begun to exert its power on us, and we all bought drinks from a store near the entrance of the plains to refresh ourselves.
On the homebound journey, I had much food for reflection, but one very decisive thought was that the beauty of Horton Plains is definitely worth the hike and difficult journey. After all, it has been said that Nuwara Eliya makes Cameron Highlands look like a children’s playground.