“We’re all here for the same reasons aren’t we?” David says, giving me a knowing wink as he pulls a giant camera from his bag and jumps aboard the jeep.

We are in Yala, block one, an area well-known for having the highest density of leopards in the world. If there is one place you can almost guarantee a leopard sighting it is right here, and hundreds of tourists pile into the park each day in hope of doing so.

David is a wildlife photographer, and he wastes no time in telling our naturalist, Nirmal, that he has traveled across the world in order to get a good shot of a leopard so that he can sell it back home in the states. The pressure is on. It’s a tall order, but Nirmal takes it in his stride, barely batting an eyelid as we set off. David isn’t the first – and he won’t be the last – to demand sightings of this endangered animal, and Nirmal is fully prepared to do what it takes to find a leopard for us, knowing that if he does there will likely be a large tip waiting for him at the end.

Yala is made up of a web of bumpy dirt paths, criss-crossing through the arid landscape. Clinging on to the sides of the jeep for dear life, I watch the scenery race past at lightning pace as we tear across the terrain. There is no time for appreciating the tropical birds, the buffalo, or the occasional spotted deer that leap past. Our purpose has already been set by David. It’s a leopard or nothing, and we’ll have to endure the vomit-inducing jerky ride through the park until we find one. We screech to a breaking halt only for a few minutes when we spot an elephant, but I barely have time to pull out my camera before we are off again.

After about half an hour, Nirmal receives a call. He speaks in hurried Sinhala, his eyes glowing with excitement. He motions to the driver to change direction and we charge off again, flying over the potholed roads hoping to follow whatever lead Nirmal has just been given. Soon enough, we find out what the fuss is about. We reach a small enclave where more than ten jeeps are crowded around a lake. The loud engines chug and sigh as each jeep crushes in closer to whatever is hidden behind the chaos of traffic. Nirmal shouts orders to other drivers, I hear a family close by squeal in delight, a woman in the jeep in front of us sprays a cloud of noxious insect repellent into our midst, and a group of Chinese tourists in Hawaiian shirts are chatting loudly whilst clicking away with their cameras. We pull slowly forward, crushing supposedly-protected plants and shrubbery on the side of the road in an attempt to overtake the other vehicles. And then I finally I see it: a leopard, a single male leopard, looking right at us. In fact, he seems to be surveying all of us with a knowing look of frustration. Like Nirmal, it would appear that this animal is no stranger to the leopard-obsessed tourists.

Photo Credit: James Manners

Photo Credit: Sankara Subramanian

Sri Lankan wildlife tourism is in a state of disaster. Home to its own “big five” (leopards, sloth bears, elephants, blue whales, and sperm whales), it is not surprising that the island makes a popular wildlife destination. But with the post-war influx in tourism, the country is barely able to manage the environmental factors that come with this, and it is the animals that are suffering.

Last year, a leopard was killed in a hit and run accident in Yala, something which drew to light the problem of traffic within the park. Over 300 jeeps enter the park on a daily basis, and – usually encouraged by the tourists – the jeep drivers are prone to both speeding, and swapping tips on the telephone, ensuring that every leopard found is quickly surrounded by noisy vehicles, most of which push so close to the animals that they disturb their natural behavioral patterns.

But it isn’t just leopards that are in danger. Deep in the heart of the Indian Ocean, there is another disturbance. The waters around the Southern tip of Sri Lanka are unique in their proximity to the continental shelf – a deep area of water that allows larger marine animals to thrive. Sri Lanka’s second major claim to wildlife fame, the blue whale, is so common in this area that Sri Lanka has been named one of the best places in the world to see it. Most boat-operators even promise a 95% whale-sighting guarantee during the peak season.

Posters and adverts for whale and dolphin watching trips now wallpaper the interiors of local tour agents, and if you simply walk along the beach in Mirissa (the allocated port of call for most whale-watching trips) you will likely be stopped by touts offering up trips for as little as 5,000 rupees (roughly 50 US Dollars). The mass of tourists all wanting to get the most bang for their buck has lead to an increase in unlicensed and unregulated tour operators.  Boats as small as a canoe, and some bigger than the whales themselves, head out every day packed full of inquisitive onlookers.

Environmentalists are now concerned about the impact that the increasing number of whale-watching tours are having on the mammals themselves. Several fatal collisions have occurred in the past few years, and there are reports of whale injuries sustained by boat propellers. Only last year a dead whale was found floating in the waters just offshore with its fin severed. Added to this, the pressure from tourists wishing to get the perfect photograph encourages tour operators to get as close to the whales as possible, something which is not only dangerous for the people in the boat, but could prove stressful and harmful to the whales as well.

Photo Credit: Kwan Kwan

But it isn’t all doom and gloom on the wildlife-watching front. Sri Lanka’s abundance of flora and fauna make it an excellent holiday destination, and there are plenty of ways to get your wildlife-fix without damaging the environment. If you are visiting Sri Lanka in 2013 here are some tips to help you be a responsible tourist:

-        Always use reputable tour-operators when organizing wildlife-watching trips. Ask them about their environmental policies and what they are doing to help conserve and protect the animals that they are promoting.

-        When in boats and jeeps, make sure that the driver maintains a moderate speed, particularly when in an area that is known to have animals residing in it.

-        When an animal is sighted, be sure to keep a considerable distance from it. If your camera is not up to the task of zooming in, just enjoy the experience for what it is. Do not push guides to get too close to the animals.

-        Be sure to move further away from any animals showing any kind of stress; never crowd them.

-        Avoid anything that may cause disturbance to the animals such as talking loudly, wearing strong perfumes or insect repellents, and using flash photography.

-         Have reasonable expectations of wildlife-watching. It is not always possible to get a sighting and you should not push guides to rush to do so. Exploring the national parks and deeper waters of Sri Lanka is an experience in itself. Enjoy the ride, don’t let you trip be defined by the animals.

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the author

Natalie Lyall-Grant is a freelance writer and founder of travel blog Girl and the World which she uses to help raise money for women's rights charities in Asia. She has been living in Sri Lanka on and off for over a year and she spent three months working for a safari organisation who were striving to improve situations for Sri Lankan wildlife.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=525080270 Stephanie Raley

    A very well written article and one that highlights a very negative impact of wildlife tourism. I had no idea that Jeeps compete and overtake each other in order to get the best sighting of an animal!

    • http://www.facebook.com/natalie.lyallgrant Natalie Helena Lyall-Grant

      Thanks Stephanie, really glad you enjoyed it. And yes, isn’t it shocking? Definitely something to be aware of when traveling to countries like Sri Lanka that boast such wonderful wildlife.

  • Shiv

    Wildlife tourism is a major source of revenue for the countrys politicians
    I dont need to say more