PRICE OF FAME
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Price of Fame. LMD. November 2009. Page 167. Volume 16, Issue 4. ISSN 1391-135X.
On the personal financial cost of promoting wildlife tourism.
For many years I have evaded questions on what it costs me to do what I do. When I first entered tourism professionally, for the cost of my 600mm f4 lens, it was possible to buy a 4 x 4 pick up vehicle popular with other Yala enthusiasts. With vehicle import duties having risen too what they are now, such an extraordinary alternative, lens or vehicle, is no longer available. But at a time when a game ranger would struggle to afford a motor bicycle it was best to deflect any questions that would yield the answer that the lens in my hand could give the warden a new vehicle for patrolling the park. That was in 2001. By 2009, the game rangers are internet enabled on their mobile phones and know the current price of my kit even better than I do. People look at me in the field and tot up the value of the kit I am carrying. Sri Lanka now has a tier of senior management on top corporate salaries who opt for 500mm lenses without needing to compromise on their vehicle or a second home or apartment. This leaves me more comfortable at disclosing what it costs to do what I do.
One evening, I made a presentation to three Rotary Clubs at the insistence of my colleague Trevor Reckerman. I was in polite company and no one asked me ‘the question’ from the floor. But once the lecture was formally over and people had gathered around me to ask questions, the inevitable question arose. What does it cost to have the kit I do to take the images I do? I was in the company of successful business people. So I thought I will offer and honest and intelligent answer. I said that I estimate the personal cost at a cash flow cost of Rs 15m or in terms of an opportunity cost, approximately Rs 100m. That raised a few eyebrows. It usually does. So I explained the numbers. The actual cash cost for what I am able to do has a hardware component and a software component. For the hardware costs I have a fairly accurate record. I have a spreadsheet in which I have listed all my still and video photography equipment and sound recording equipment with serial numbers, brand and model names, etc which is required for insurance. The total costs of the principal hardware and peripherals amount to just over Rs 5m. But this alone will not enable me to be a champion of wildlife tourism. The inspiration and know how comes from a fairly significant library I have amassed over nearly thirty years. There are nearly 4,000 titles in my collection and I estimate this to have cost at least another Rs10m.
Most of the books were amassed during my fifteen years of living and working in London. But it did not stop there. After I entered wildlife tourism in Sri Lanka it was not unusual for me to spend USD 150 on a book, such as for example David Bailey’s book on the African Leopard. When I travelled to Bali on a work assignment, I purchased privately USD 400 of books. Knowledge is everything. But as money is limited, what I spend on one aspect, I have to reign in on others. When I add up, I can see that there is Rs 15m tied up over the year which give me the toolkit for what I do. The numbers are even scarier if you look at it in terms of an opportunity cost.
When I returned to Sri Lanka, I bought some land in Talangama. It appreciated to a multiple of 8 times and has now fallen back to a multiple of 6 or 7. This brings me to the opportunity cost scenario. Had I saved Rs 15m and bought land in Talangama in 1999, I could be sitting on a land bank of Rs 100m. Rapidly depreciating digital equipment is worth almost nothing and a library is not a liquid asset either. So its Rs 100m versus nothing. Well, perhaps I am left with a warm feeling that I have used personal assets to create livelihoods in tourism. Anyone entering wildlife photography seriously now will have to examine a similar scenario. Sri Lanka is poised to recover after 30 years of war. If you had Rs 5m to invest in digital photographic equipment, or land, what would be worth more in 10 years time?
The answer for people like me and other kindred spirits lies in the fact that we like to live life. I can think of many others whose company I have kept who think on the same lines. Chitral Jayatilake, Deepal Warakagoda and Amila Salgado are just a few of the people who come to mind. People who have invested hard earned money to fund a passion which is also a profession. I am fortunate in that I earned for a while in the UK. I also inherited some land which gave me a cushion for the children’s education. I could in relative terms spend more than people who earnings have been entirely Sri Lanka based. There are many wildlife photographers and sound recordists in Sri Lanka who have invested incredible amounts of money in equipment. A few of them are in wildlife tourism professionally.
But for them and me, this type of investment is a quality of life decision. Of course putting aside money for the family takes priority, but living life and excelling in what we do is important. We don’t wish to die with a pile of cash or land in hand, but not having spent days in the field. As the English say, you need to make the time to smell the daisies. Some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. There is a small but increasing circle of wildlife fanatics who know the value of living life. They drink it and revel in it. They are not very wealthy. But they will invest in the best possible of optics, so that they see every detail and capture the best possible images. Their books and images fill the web and the insides of books. Others, who are arguably more rational and prudent, who are a hundred times wealthier, save their rupees, for more worthwhile investments. Meanwhile this small circle are out with their optics, sound recording and photographic equipment, which they can barely afford. For them, living life, and living it to the max, is what they do best.