By Marianne David and Cheranka Mendis
The safari savagery that erupted last week with mobile tented safari operators being attacked seems to have reached a ceasefire of sorts, following two meetings between stakeholders on Wednesday.
Employees attached to Mahoora Safari Camps, Kulu Safaris and Leopard Safaris were assaulted by mobs affiliated to the Tissamaharama Jeep Association during the month, with Sri Lanka Tourism and the Department of Wildlife stepping in this week to resolve the crisis.
A meeting presided over by Deputy Minister of Economic Development Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene was called on Wednesday morning by Sri Lanka Tourism, initiated by its Head of Standards, Quality Assurance and Investment Dileep Mudadeniya.
The meeting was attended by Sri Lanka Tourism officials, the Department of Wildlife represented by its Director General and Agrarian Services and Wildlife Ministry Secretary Udeni Wickramasinghe and other officials, officials of the Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) and the three operators, where the operators presented their case. Minister Abeywardene had commended the initiative by the operators, noting that their work was beneficial towards expanding Sri Lanka’s tourism product and asserted that violence would not be tolerated, calling on the parties concerned to discuss the issues and arrive at an amicable settlement.
At the meeting, SLAITO had called for law and order inside Sri Lanka’s national parks, which would enable coexistence and be beneficial for the environment and all stakeholders. The Minister had instructed the Department of Wildlife, as the authority in charge of parks, to look into the matter and propose a solution.
The morning meeting was followed by another meeting at 3 p.m. between the Department of Wildlife, the three operators and the Tissamaharama Jeep Association.
At the meeting, instead of answering queries on why the operators were attacked, the association had charged that the tented camp operators were creating a negative impact on the environment and that their operations were harming the country’s national parks.
No answers had been forthcoming in response to queries by Kulu Safaris and Leopard Safaris on why their staffers were attacked, with the association adopting the stance that their focus was solely on the environment.
However, Founder/MD of Eco Team (owning company of Mahoora) Anuruddha Bandara denied all charges of negatively impacting the environment, asserting that as the pioneer of the tented camp concept, Mahoora camps were 100% carbon free tented camps with zero carbon emission, with the remaining being offset with ethical carbon credit.
“Ours is the first such model in the world and the lowest impact accommodation option available in the country. We do not pollute or negatively impact the environment and we operate on a pack-in, pack-out concept. The other two operators also operate in the same manner. We conduct our business very responsibly as nature lovers,” he told the Daily FT.
The operators also called on the association to present their accusations to the Department of Wildlife so that it could conduct an inquiry in this regard.
Meanwhile, during the course of the meeting, the Department of Wildlife had also produced files containing accusations against the association’s jeep drivers comprising letters and complaints from the public, citing instances of reckless driving, including speeding inside the parks and disturbing and causing harm to the wildlife.
Sources said that at the meeting, the Department of Wildlife Director General had mentioned that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had in fact called him personally, to say he had received complaints about un-roadworthy vehicles operating in the park, lacking licenses, registration and discipline to boot.
Commenting on the outcomes of the meetings, Wickramasinghe told the Daily FT that all the problems had been resolved. “Everything was discussed and resolved. There were some small misunderstandings between the parties and we have successfully settled the issues.”
The Department of Wildlife had also issued a direction that from 1 October 2012, no vehicle of the association that was not registered with the department would be allowed to enter the park. Park officials had also been advised to be strict and monitor speeding.
Meanwhile, the association had given an assurance that they would not resort to violence and have a dialogue if any issues arise in the future.
“The outcome of the two meetings was positive, with acceptance of what the mobile tented camp operators are doing, a direction for registration and an agreement that the number of the vehicles entering the park needs to be restricted. Matters are settled for now and we are very happy with the outcome since all these steps will improve matters and uplift standards, which is good for all parties concerned,” asserted Bandara.
Meanwhile, an official of one of the three mobile tented safari groups told the Daily FT that threats to the operators to the effect that their movements would be restricted by the drivers of the Tissamaharama Jeep Association still prevailed.
“We have also been warned that if any new members of the operators come in during staff changes, there will be consequences for the operators,” he said.
However, he assured that the operators had not halted operations and would continue with their routine as usual.