Yala is the undisputed home of the Sri Lankan leopard, the star attraction of the Yala National Park.
With Sri Lanka claiming the highest density of leopard in Yala within 140 kilometres, the newest phenomenon in these illusive cats is the rapidly growing population, which has naturally seen them venture out of the park and into its surrounds, in search of prey and in marking newer territories.
Surrounding villages have thus become victim to these cats’ incursions, with their young cattle preyed upon and seeing a natural prompting of retaliatory attacks by farmers against the leopard.
Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects of John Keells Hotel Management Services Chitral Jayatilake surmises that this has resulted in many leopard deaths annually along the periphery of the park, which could have been avoided if only there was better preparedness.
Recognising the gravity of this situation, Project Leopard was initiated as a conservation attempt in July 2010 by Chaaya Wild in collaboration with John Keells Foundation – the CSR vehicle of the John Keells Group.
The simple yet effective idea is an improvement of the indigenous (and ineffective) method of using traditional stick and barbed wire stockades, replacing them with portable steel-fenced pens to herd the young cattle overnight for protection from leopards wandering outside the park boundaries.
Jayatilake surmises that many leopard deaths annually along the periphery of the park could have been avoided if only there was better preparedness.
“I believe that responsible tourism is about businesses practicing a brand of tourism that benefits both humankind and the fauna and flora and where, the business through its actions, reduces its carbon footprint with minimum disturbance to the natural phenomena in its locality. The benefits must be tangible and permeate even to the poorest of the poor who are impacted by the organisation’s very presence. At Chaaya Wild for instance, our biggest tourist attraction is the leopard. But there is absolutely no point if we don’t care about the impact the leopard is having on the villages in the vicinity. There has to be cohesion, where benefits must cascade to all stakeholders.”
Project Leopard was initiated in the remote cattle farming village of Nimalawa, Kirinda.
“This was an idea originally conceived by Dr. Ravi Samarasinghe,” says Jayatilake, speaking about the simple steel fence pen that is now donated to cattle farmers.
“We want to unite the cattle farming community, the scientists and entrepreneurs of the area, so that there will be more understanding of the leopard and its behavioural patterns. Naturally, the villagers regard the leopard as an enemy that must be eliminated. From a sustainable tourism point of view, that is not the solution. Instead, we need to introduce measures that will safeguard both their wealth (which is their cattle) and the country’s wealth (which is the leopard), making it a win-win situation for both sides.”
Chaaya Wild has also brought in the knowledge of biologists, using their studies and analysis on leopard behaviour to form an education and awareness foundation imparted to the village community, which Jayatilake hopes will eventually reduce the human-leopard conflict, while helping these villagers safeguard their livelihoods.
This initiative of Chaaya Wild has garnered international support and recognition in many forms.
“We’ve had some amazing feedback for this project through some of our star visitors who have been with us at Chaaya Wild,” says Jayatilake, naming former World Wildlife photographer Roger Hooper, leopard lover Peter Mason as well as Exodus Group UK who all donated towards the construction and donation of additional pens, while wildlife film and photographic producers Angie and Jonathan Scott and Andrew Chastney as well as film production company Ammonite UK have given the Sri Lankan leopard immense publicity, cascading to more awareness of not only the leopard but also Project Leopard which is now garnering worldwide focus.
“Chaaya Wild has committed US 50 cents for every room night towards leopard conservation, Paul Goldstein of Exodus is raising funds through annual safari trips to Sri Lanka and Jonathan Scott is organising continuous fund raising efforts including a talk at the Royal Geographic Society this year. We’ve also had the collaborative support of John Keells Foundation, contributing towards the cause, which has now seen a total of 25 steel pens have already distributed to villages in Rotawewa, Bunduwewa, Thambarawewa, Kotigala, Julpathana, Lolugaswala, Bambawe and Dalukema.
“This initiative is carried out with the blessings of the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Park Warden at Yala Indrajith and his staff have been very supportive of this initiative. There has been a marked reduction in leopards snatching young cattle among these villagers while leopards surviving outside the park as grown males and breeding females will eventually enhance the leopard gene pool in the country.”
Together with Project Leopard, Chaaya Wild has also mooted the Leopard Guardian Movement, the first of its kind, together with John Keells Hotels and Jonathan and Angie Scott.
“With increased sightings of leopard within the park, there is also increased indiscipline among visitors. While it is compulsory for each vehicle to have a certified tracker with them, most often the Department of Wildlife Conservation is short of personnel and therefore, a tracker maybe shared by among even four to five vehicles. This is not good practice, as visitors are not educated on behaviour in wildlife sanctuaries which can be a threat to their own safety as well as for the wildlife.
This prompted us to organise jeep driver and guide training programmes under the aegis of Sri Lanka Tourism, aimed at educating these very important stakeholders on how to enhance the visitor experience.
This will also add further awareness to discipline within the park and drivers will undertake the responsibility to ensure that visitor experience is enhanced, while safety procedures are maintained. Eventually, we aim to recognise those drivers who have had the most sightings and those who have acted responsibly with both the safety of the animals and visitor being foremost.”
In addition, chaaya wild has also installed a leopard tracker system within the game lodge, which empowers drivers to text their sightings after safaris, thus logging the day’s highlights which will aid research and tracking leopard behaviour within the park.
Asserts Jayatilake: “Responsible tourism to us is about ensuring that the impact we have on everything around us is a positive one and remains sustainable. Each of the initiatives we have implemented and are planning are sustainable as our partners, who are very passionate about this cause, have pledged long term commitment via funding and from an educational perspective, the knowledge we impart, through our educational and awareness programmes, will be a truss that will enhance conservation of the biodiversity of this country.”