In an exclusive interview with the Daily FT, Keells Hotel Management Services Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects Chitral Jayatilake said that over the years, Yala has progressed from being a great place to go on safari to a great place to see leopards.
According to Jayatilake, the transition took place over the last 10 years from the time ‘Leopard Hunters’ was made by BBC, to all the leopard studies done by very passionate naturalists and individuals.
He revealed that a couple of dedicated wildlife tours and safaris run over the last two years brought in some specialised people, like Paul Goldstein from the UK and Jonathon and Angela Scott, who came here and said this is probably the best place for leopard safaris in the world.
“All this reinforced the feeling created 10 years back, the momentum of which was lost due to the danger in coming here because of the war,” Jayatilake asserted.
Jayatilake emphasised that Sri Lanka was very lucky last year when Nat Geo Wild and Ammonite came here – a golden opportunity to reposition Yala as the top place for leopards.
“What we achieved in 47 days of filming was unprecedented. The crew ran short of hard drives and they bought 20 units of hard drives from here to pack up their footage. It was such a pleasant coincidence that the launch of Chaaya Wild was scheduled for November, as if it was manipulated. Last week the film came out in the UK and next week it comes out in the US and here we are launching the hotel from where it was done.”
Jayatilake revealed that during Roger Hooper’s visit here three weeks back, he had said, ‘look, I’ve seen leopard everywhere in Africa but Yala is special,’ and as Jayatilake asserts, it is very clear now that Yala is certainly by far the best place to see leopards which are totally free and wild.
“We have our own problems – there’s a bit of overcrowding and a bit of bad behaviour in the presence of a leopard sighting – but the good thing I see is that all this happens from the track. You’re not off the road or the vehicle so as much you’re sitting on a goldmine and there are some weaknesses in the system, I think we are well within our control to correct it,” he explained.
Commenting on Chaaya Wild, he said that given its location, just three km from Yala, and through the renovation, the company wants to position it as comparable to any top African lodge.
“We have no doubts in our mind that we want this to be the best jungle lodge in the country – that’s the starting point. But as our Deputy Chairman said, it’s got to go beyond and be one of the best in Asia, comparable with any in the world. To do that, you now got the infrastructure but my team has worked for the last three years conducting guided leopard safaris here and I would want to believe that we are among the best in the country doing that.”
On top of that, Jayatilake said certain other excursions have been designed to make guests’ stay enjoyable and exciting. “Here the vast majority comes for the wild. We want to create experiences outside of the park as well, including wader watching and bird watching, done with trained bird watching naturalists.
“We are also designing a separate chena visit, where we take guests into remote chenas run with the basics of existence. It’s a situation where during the peak of the season the guests can pluck fruits and vegetables and bring it back to the hotel and have it prepared for them.”
Another very exciting thing which is being done for the first time in Sri Lanka is the infrared night safari experience, outside the park and within the compound, said Jayatilake, explaining that this night safari will be done totally in the dark – the vehicle will drive with infrared head beams and you will be wearing infrared goggles and seeing in absolute darkness, converted with technology. Plans are also underway to equip these teams with infrared cameras.
“It’s a different experience created in appreciation of smaller beings – the civet cat, the porcupine and small mammals. Seeing them while driving in absolute darkness is your experience. If you do see a leopard or elephant, that’s the bonus. I am confident that we will have the service up and running by 1 December,” said Jayatilake.