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Environmentalists commend DWC decision

Environmentalists who commended the Department of Wildlife and Conservation’s (DWC) decision to limit the number of jeeps entering the Yala National Park (YNP) asked that Department officials be allowed to enforce the regulation without any interference.

The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) of Sri Lanka which held a media briefing on the subject stressed that it was important that vehicle numbers be restricted in the park to conserve both wildlife as well as tourism.

“If it continues in the way it does and the tourist numbers grow, the park will not last for very long,”Vice President of the Society, Ranil Peiris said.

He was addressing the media at the BRC Clubhouse. “Around 70 percent of tourists who visited Yala said they would not return though they were able to spot animals because they had a uncomfortable experience,” added WNPS Committee member Rohan Wijesinghe who insisted that the government needed to focus on improving the tourism experience in the country, if the tourism numbers are to rise.

DWC sources stated that in 2016, Yala had a total number of 658,277 visitors to the park in over 700 registered jeeps; the most frequently visited national park in the country. Given such pressures put on the park, the Prime Minister’s Office appointed a Committee in 2016 headed by former DWC Director General Dr.Sumith Pilapitiya to look into ways of reducing the number of visitors.

“One of their main recommendations was to limit the number of vehicles entering the park and to enforce driver discipline,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.

“Their recommendation to limit vehicle numbers was thus implemented when the Park was reopened on October 23, almost a week earlier than expected. The DWC had earlier decided to close it for two months, due to the prevailing drought.

The sudden limits imposed on the jeep drivers however drew wide protests from the Jeep Drivers’ Association with many insisting that their incomes would be effected and have launched a boycott of Block 1 in Yala,” he said.

Dr.Pilapitiya who was part of the proposal however pointed out that the action plan prepared by his team had been implemented too soon and in an unsystematic manner. He blamed political interferences in the recent protest with the jeep drivers and stated that there would be no problem if officials and jeep drivers were allowed to come a mutually beneficial settlement.

“Wildlife has become highly political in the last 10 years, as a former DG, I know that we cannot do the job properly due to political interferences,”he said.

“Since 2008 vehicle numbers to the park have been on the increase, with numbers rising by over 1,000 percent from 2008-2016,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.

“In 2015, the reawakening Yala programme was designed and in 2016 we started to implement it. We were able to successfully implement that because the Department did not allow political interferences. For example, in the early months of 2016, former Park Warden Suranga Rathnayake banned over 70 jeeps and no one protested. “This was because we implemented the law for all equally,” Dr.Pilapitiya said.

He stressed that it was important to implement these programmes with the social aspect of livelihoods in mind and that jeep drivers welcome such changes as it would improve the long term viability of their own profession.

“The only grievance they have is that the law is not applied to all drivers equally,” the former DG said.

Dr.Pilapitiya’s committee had suggested 31 short term actions, nine mid-term and two long term but he pointed all of these had to be implemented without political interference and in a systematic manner.

The fastest possible decision to implement, he said would be the improvement of driver discipline.

“You cannot impose such rules immediately. The situation is very complex, it is better to have discussions and come to a common agreement that is beneficial for all,”Dr.Pilapitiya said.

The DWC and the Jeep Drivers’ Association representatives were expected to meet last night to come to an agreement over the limits.