- After a three-month-long closure, Sri Lanka opened its key national parks to the public on June 15 under strict health guidelines.
- Vehicle numbers entering parks have been restricted to prevent overcrowding of popular wilderness areas, and e-ticketing has been introduced to reduce physical contact.
- Experts have also called for urgent revision in visitation procedures to improve visitor behavior and limit numbers to minimize disturbances to park animals.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — On June 15, 2020, Sri Lanka’s wildlife and nature lovers were finally able to gain access to several national parks, which had been closed for three months in an effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sri Lanka ended its lockdown phase in late May, and the national parks are being reopened, albeit with some changes in procedure aimed at keeping people healthy and improving visitor behavior.
Wildlife enthusiasts and tour operators greeted the news of the parks’ reopening with enthusiasm.
“It was a heartwarming, fresh experience to visit a wilderness area after three months,” Erich Joseph, a wildlife enthusiast and photographer, said. Joseph was among the first people to enter Wilpattu National Park on June 15. “There weren’t many vehicles inside, so I could observe animals leisurely,” he said.
Sri Lanka closed all national parks and other nature reserves on March 15. Exactly three months later, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) reopened key national parks to the public under strict health guidelines. Seven out of Sri Lanka’s 22 national parks — Yala, Wilpattu, Udawalawe, Minneriya, Kaudulla, Pigeon Island, and Horton Plains — welcomed visitors on June 15 as the first phase of the reopening of the parks began.
Like Joseph, many wildlife lovers flocked to national parks on the day of the reopening, even as COVID-19 kept most people away from gathering in most public places. According to the DWC, 80 vehicles carrying a total of 800 tourists entered Yala National Park, Sri Lanka’s most popular park, on the first day. Wilpattu recorded 32 vehicles and 135 visitors. At Minneriya, 16 vehicles with 88 tourists entered, and Udawalawe had 14 vehicles and 68 tourists. Pigeon Island National Park had six boats carrying 32 tourists, and 132 tourists visited Horton Plains, which is a hiking-only wilderness area.
These seven national parks are also Sri Lanka’s most popular. The DWC set different caps on the number of vehicles allowed inside each reserve and announced the numbers ahead of June 15.
In accordance with COVID-19 health guidelines, visitors are allowed into the national park only after their body temperature is checked at the entrance and they provide their personal contact details. Only five visitors are allowed in safari jeeps, but there is no capacity restriction imposed on private vehicles.
“We urge all visitors to strictly adhere to health guidelines introduced by the Ministry of Health and the [DWC] to minimize any COVID-19 related risks,” Chandana Sooriyabandara, director general of the DWC told Mongabay.
To reduce health risks by minimizing physical contact, the department has introduced e-ticketing facilities, allowing visitors to obtain their entry permits online.
Most visitors have used the new option, Sooriyabandara said.
Overvisitation has been an issue for many of the most popular national parks, including Yala, Udawalawe, and Horton Plains. The DWC will use the current limits to control visitor numbers.
“We have introduced a cap on the number of vehicles permitted inside the parks and effectively reduced the average number of visitors by half. The intention is to prevent overcrowding,” he said.
Srilal Mittapala, a tourism and hospitality specialist, and Sumith Pilapitiya, a former director of wildlife, have proposed new guidelines aimed at addressing park management concerns.
Sri Lanka has the potential to be the best place for wildlife tourism outside Africa, but continuing a business as usual attitude with overcrowding, overvisitation and visitor misbehavior is impacting the long-term sustainability of wildlife tourism, Mittapala told Mongabay.
“We have come up with a set of guidelines to get a fresh start,” Mittapala said.
“We welcome the reopening of the national parks,” P. D. Keerthi, president of the Independent Safari Jeep Association in Yala National Park, said. “We were facing severe hardships without a means of income.”
Keerthi argued that authorities should permit jeeps to carry visitors at full capacity and not yet allow private vehicles to go in without being escorted by a tracker.
Safari jeep drivers are familiar with the road network and trails inside each national park, and visitors with their own vehicles typically must have a tracker with them. But this mandatory requirement has been relaxed for private vehicles post-lockdown to prevent trackers from being exposed to visitors and vice versa.
“We are planning to keep our officers at the main junctions and to undertake regular patrolling inside the national parks, which will help generate a better management mechanism,” DWC director Sooriyabandara said.
Sri Lanka’s remaining nature reserves are slated to reopen on June 22.
Banner image of a park worker checking the body temperature of a visitor to the Minneriya National Park in the island’s northcentral region on June 15, courtesy of the Department of Wildlife Conservation.