Wildlife Conservation Efforts in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, the teardrop shaped island south of India, boasts a natural bounty.

The nation has a long tradition of conservation rooted in its 2,230 year old Buddhist civilization, and is now composed of 100 areas of protected land and four major national parks, including Yala National Park, the destination of our Sri Lanka Wildlife Photography Workshop.

Text by Fernanda Hurtado Ortiz, images by Lucia Griggi

Sri Lanka’s mission for wildlife conservationism

Surrounded by the aquamarine waters of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka offers a variation in climate and biodiversity normally found only across an entire continent. The fertile jungles of Sri Lanka are home to herds of wild elephants and the enigmatic leopards, as well as sloth bears, monkeys, jackal, mongoose, loris and several varieties of flora.

For the last three decades Sri Lanka has struggled with the pressures of a rapidly expanding population, resulting in an increased threat to the biodiversity “by deforestation, land degradation and the unregulated exploitation of natural resources”, according to Equator Initiative.

Since 1889, Sri Lanka’s efforts for wildlife conservationism have increased through the founding of organizations like the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS). The society, which was established in 1995 by Sri Lankan-born Ravi Corea, functions on the belief that “providing people and communities with information, guidance and a variety of resources empowers them to make good decisions that positively impact conservation”.

Human-Elephant Conflict

The elephant has been a living symbol of Sri Lankan culture dating back to the pre-Christian era, more than 5,000 years ago. Even with this cultural bond, human-elephant conflicts have become a critical conservation problem in wildlife management, if not one of the most pressing environmental and socioeconomic concerns in Sri Lanka. According to data gathered by the Elephant Conservation Unit of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) every year, between 150 and 200 elephants are killed in retaliation by farmers for their destruction of crops, while between 60 and 80 people on average are killed annually by elephants.

SLWCS is the leading organization in the pursuit for elephants and humans to co-exist peacefully. Through its volunteer-based work, the non-profit collaborates with communities to address a multitude of environmental, social, economic, land use, and livelihood issues that impact people, elephants and other wildlife.

Yala National Park: home to the largest concentration of leopards

Situated in Sri Lanka’s south-east hugging the panoramic Indian Ocean, Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and was designated a national park in 1938. Yala, which, ironically, previously served as hunting grounds for the British elite is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. Among its most famous residents are leopards, majestic elephants, sloth bears, sambars, jackals, spotted dear, peacocks, and crocodiles.

Yala combines a strict nature reserve with a national park. The park is divided into five blocks with only two blocks currently accessible to the public. Block one is home to approximately 40 leopards.

Endangered Leopards

In Sri Lanka the current population of leopards roaming the island is estimated at 750-1000 adult individuals. The numbers of these elusive animals have decreased substantially over the last century. This was originally due to game hunting during colonial times and later through poaching for skins. The passage of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 1938 put leopards under legal protection, however poaching both inside and outside protected areas continued incessantly. According to the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Sri Lanka (WWCT), “from January 2001 to the present there have been at least 35 leopards killed by poachers in Sri Lanka.”

Due to the increase conflict between human and elephants, the leopard’s endangerment was largely ignored and its conservation was not addressed. Efforts have concentrated recently, through work from WWCTs Leopard Project, with the goal to preserve the present environmental balance, as leopards are the main predator.

Responsible Tourism Initiative

Tourism in Sri Lanka has been on the surge through persistent development and promotion with the transformation of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board into the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) in 2007. In 2013, Sri Lanka was ranked as the best travel destination by popular travel book Lonely Planet. Sri Lanka Tourism has formulated a broad Strategic Marketing Plan for year 2016 to maximize the benefits to the tourism industry and to position Sri Lanka as the most sought after travel destination in Asia.

With new strategic plans come initiatives regarding responsible tourism in order to protect the biodiversity. Elephant rides, which were once a mindless tourist attraction, have now come under spotlight due to the methods of training and the ethics of riding the wild animals. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has introduced a set of guidelines for managing riding elephants. The guidelines set forth five freedoms for all elephants in captivity: being free from malnutrition, terminal physical discomfort, injury and disease, fear and stress and to express normal patterns and behavior. Visiting elephant sanctuaries and wildlife reserves is a fundamental way to support the responsible protection of the majestic Sri Lankan environment.

Keen to photograph leopards and wildlife in Sri Lanka? Find out how to join our Sri Lanka Wildlife Photography Workshop with award-winning photographer Lucia Griggi!