de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Wildlife Interventionism LMD. June 2010. Page 169. Volume 16, Issue 11. ISSN 1391-135X.
A provocative discussion on how national parks can be improved for the visitor experience.
In March 2010 I attended an illustrated talk by wildlife photographer Ruskhan Jayewardene. Some debate centered around whether an injured leopard should be treated. The root of this debate revolves around the two basic environmental management options facing park managers. The first is to let nature take its course. The second is a more interventionist approach for one of two reasons. Firstly, to argue that it is in the interests of conservation to intervene by exception to conserve certain scarce or flagship species. The second reason for intervention is for what I term the business of conservation.
Take for example an imaginary scenario that I am the warden of Yala National Park. I would interpret my role as that of a business unit manager who is responsible to my stake holders to maximize revenue from the park. Thanks to an overt campaign starting in 2001 by certain players in tourism, the leopard has now become the main attraction in Yala. As a site manager I would not want to risk losing one of the star attractions which not only generates revenue but also acts as an umbrella species for conserving the fauna and flora of 1,500 square kilometers of the Yala Protected Area Complex.
Not only would I want to treat an injured leopard, I would also send the bull dozers in. Oh.. and the chainsaws. Block 1 of Yala is particularly rich for leopard because ancient farming practices have left it with patches of scrub jungle cleared for agriculture, which has over time converted to grassland. There are also a number of man made lakes which was used for irrigation. These are ideal conditions for Spotted Deer and provide the basis for a large prey base which supports a large number of top level carnivores such as leopards. In fact the late Ravi Samarasinha repeatedly told me that his work on leopards showed an average density of 1 leopard per square kilometer in his study area. This is not to be confused with home ranges which are bigger at 2-4 square kilometers for a female and 16-20 square kilometers for a male.
The bulldozers can be used to cut more roads and more waterholes in the other blocks of the Yala complex. Together with chainsaws, scrub forest can be cleared to create more grassland. Over a period of five years there will be a measurable increase in a fast breeding herbivore such as spotted deer. With more deer to feed on there will be more leopards. The artificial conditions which support a high density of leopards in Block 1 of Yala can be replicated elsewhere. More leopards and more areas of the park to access will result in more revenue and increased vigilance in the park.
But I would do more with the bulldozers and chainsaws. I will ‘garden’ the branches of the trees around Kotigala so that more vehicles can view a resident male reclining in splendor. I will build a lane raised a few feet over the other near Kotigala so that two lines of vehicles can park and enjoy a leopard sighting comfortably without the current insane jostle that takes place for the best leopard sighting.
In April 2010 I was in the park with wildlife photographer Chitral Jayatilake. One evening we experienced the jostle around Kotigala. The next day we observed a pair of leopard cubs that had been feeding off a carcass which was on the Uraniya Plains. It was in the open and with just a few trees lining the road, even fifteen safari vehicles could line up without jostling. It struck me that if I really wanted to be an interventionist warden, I would put out a carcass here every few days. Such interventionist managements could see Yala’s reputation reinforced as the world’s best site for photographing leopard. Access to the locations where wild leopards are provisioned with carcasses can be made available by paying a special fee. Perhaps we could run a ‘bring your own carcass’ scheme. People who eat meat may not find anything wrong with ordering a safari jeep and a carcass in the same phone call. The local community may find chickens and goats can be farmed as bait photographers. Perhaps a cottage industry of ‘ethical carcasses’ may arise for the buffer zone community who will collect road kills as bait for viewing and photography. Of course none of this may ever happen because may be a howl of protests from certain quarters.
The next morning we were staking out a waterhole and I thought of a less controversial facility I could offer. I could build a series of large, spacious and comfortable photographic hides at waterholes. Serious photographers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts could use these hides. Perhaps a more innocent form of baiting with fruit and nuts for birds and water for animals could be used. In developed countries people put out food for birds and studies suggest that it helps wildlife. ‘Bring your own carcass’ may meet resistance, but there would be plenty of work for me to do to enhance the visitor experience and maximise revenues from a public asset, as an interventionist wildlife warden.