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Wildlife tourism workers in limbo as Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 shutdown continues

  • Sri Lanka’s popular national parks have been closed since March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting tour guides, jeep drivers, guesthouse owners, and many others dependent on the tourism industry for their livelihood.
  • While some are eligible for government programs, including a stay on jeep repayments, others such as campsite owners and whale-watching boat operators have little recourse for a return on their investments.
  • There are calls for affected workers to be temporarily employed as maintenance workers in the closed parks, pending the eventual reopening of the tourism industry.

TISSAMAHARAMA, Sri Lanka – Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka is the most visited wilderness area in the country. From the nearby town of Tissamaharama, would-be visitors leave before sunrise to reach the ticketing counter early. At a makeshift food outlet along this route, an elderly couple starts making crispy hoppers, a pancake-like snack, at 4 a.m. every day to serve these early birds.

But since Sri Lanka closed its national parks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, the couple has lost their regular clientele, and their regular income.

“There are a lot of people like this elderly couple who make a living by serving tourism that centers around Yala,” said H.G. Bandara, better known as Ali Banda, who works in the area as a safari jeep driver. “From curd sellers to those who repair safari jeeps, [people] are affected due to closure of the national park. I don’t have work these days, so I stay at home and plant some vegetables as it would at least help fulfill some of our daily needs.”

Safari jeeps entering Wilpattu National Park, days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of all national parks in Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of Gerard Mendis.

More than 700 safari jeeps offer tours inside Yala National Park. Most are financed through leasing facilities, leaving the owners struggling to pay the installments due to loss of income. This is despite the Sri Lankan government giving a grace period for such payments, P.D. Keerthi, the president of Independent Jeep Drivers Association, told Mongabay.

According to Keerthi, half of the jeep drivers depend on the income they make daily, and are now adversely impacted by the shutdown. “Some of them have begun working as day laborers to earn some money,” he said.

The volunteer guides of the island’s Department of Wildlife Conservation of Sri Lanka (DWC) are another group hit by the closure of parks. Chaminda Ranamukage, secretary of the Voluntary Guide Union, said there are 354 such guides islandwide who earn a daily stipend of about 700 rupees ($3.70). They often get even more than that in tips from tourists.

Volunteer wildlife guides have been directly affected by the closure of Sri Lanka’s popular national parks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving hundreds of them without the visitor tips that often exceed their daily wages. Image courtesy of Gerard Mendis.

“Voluntary wildlife guides are given the facility to report to the closest regional DWC unit and be paid for days reporting to work. But there are no tourists these days, so the additional income is lost,” Ranamukage said.

According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, wildlife parks earned a combined revenue of rupees 2.14 billion ($11.3 million) in 2018, accounting for 17% of total tourism receipts. Some 47% of all foreign visitors to the island also visited a national park in 2018.

While workers engaged directly in wildlifepark operations may qualify for some form of compensation due to the COVID-19 shutdown, those in informal jobs and dependent on park visitors may have to bear their losses on their own.

Those who serve tourists from their roadside makeshift food kiosks are indirect victims of the wildlife and nature tourism slowdown. Image courtesy of Fonny de Fonseka.

A complete collapse

The employees and owners of small guesthouses, bungalows and camping sites close to national parks are one such group affected by the current situation.

Namal Kamalgoda operates a small luxury camping site near Wilpattu National Park. He said that currently he employs four fulltime workers at the site and continues to pay them their basic salaries with the intention of retaining them.

“We used to source our needs such as vegetables and fruits locally and employ local people for all the other work ranging from laundering to cutting grass at the camping site,” he said. He has had to stop using their service, he said, as have other hotels in the area, “causing them loss of employment.”

While he remains stuck at his Colombo home, Kamalgoda says he also fears for the condition of his campsite. “Our tents need regular maintenance, and in the absence of humans, wild rodents such as rats and squirrels try to damage the interior,” he said.

Kamalgoda, a well-known figure in the environmental community, said the loss of livelihoods may turn some of the people affected toward illegal activities such as poaching as a means of survival.

A group of wildlife lovers is donating relief supplies for those affected in Wilpattu. The supplies are expected to last two weeks for a family of four.

“Wilpattu National Park has 45 day-waged families living in close proximity to the park, 55 jeep drivers and 21 volunteer guards,” said group member Raajiv Dyiya Wanigasekera. “The response was really great where wildlife lovers who regularly visit these parks came forward enlisting to provide necessary relief within few hours.”

Like those working close to the terrestrial parks, other Sri Lankans engaged in whale- and dolphin-watching operations are also reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown.

A newly purchased whale-watching boat is docked at Sri Lanka’s top destination for the attraction, Mirissa, in the island’s south, until tourism reopens. Image courtesy of Prabanath Piyadigama.

Prabanath Piyadigama in the southern coastal town of Mirissa sold his 35-seater boat and took out a loan in January to buy a new 70-seater cruiser specially designed for whale-watching. “As there are no tourists now, I must anchor the boat at the harbor and also employ a guard at night. When boats are not used, they also require servicing more often,” Piyadigama told Mongabay.

“In a way, recovery for the daily wager may be easier than those of us who invest a lot of money in the industry.”

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry had been on a steady rise since the end of 30-year-old civil war in 2009, but was hit hard by the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings  in April 2019. “Even though foreign visitors dried out, we had local tourists to earn some money that helped us to keep our nose above the water,” Banda, the jeep driver at Yala National Park, told Mongabay. “But this pandemic is worse than bombs as it impacted everybody, so we fear that COVID-19 would drown us this time.”

Sumith Pilapitiya, a former director-general of the Department of Wildlife, said jeep drivers should be allowed to find employment within the closed parks, undertaking different jobs for the time being, such as maintaining water sources, weeding out invasive plant species, and repairing safari tracks.

Banner image: the entrance to Udawalawe National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular. An islandwide shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has kept thousands of visitors away and deprived communities of a key source of income. Image courtesy of Gerard Mendis.

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