de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). A billion rupees worth of elephants: How conservation can be an economic driver. Page 159. In Wijegunawardane, V. (2010). Sri Lankan Elephant: A Celebration of Majesty. 212 pages. 11″(H) x 14.25″(W). Published in December 2010 by the Author. ISBN 955529240-X.

Sri Lanka is an island which defies convention. Small islands are not supposed to have large animals. But this tiny island in the Indian Ocean does. Not only does it have the largest terrestrial animal found in Asia, but it does so in two unique ways. Firstly, it is the only place in the world to have a national park, where on every game drive there is 100 per cent certainty of seeing one. This is Uda Walawe National Park and this fact holds true even if one disregards the habituated ‘sugar junkies’ who take up positions behind the electrical fence bordering a main road. Sri Lanka also has the largest, predictably seasonally recurring concentration of elephants which takes place every year at Minneriya (and Kaudulla) National Park. To many journalists, tour operators and visitors I have taken for The Gathering, this has been one of their most life enriching experiences.

Sri Lanka is also special in many ways. I have tried to bring this out by branding Sri Lanka as the Ultimate Island Safari. In the latter half of 2010, I also began to more overtly brand it as the Best for Big Game outside Africa and began to popularize a Sri Lankan Big Five (Elephant, Leopard, Sloth Bear, Blue & Sperm Whale) as a tool which the mass market tour operators can use, to convey the idea that the tiny island of Sri Lanka is the best alternative to the gigantic continent of Africa. I will not dwell on these concepts here as they are covered in more detail by my other articles, but they provide a wider framework within which we need to view the island’s elephants.

The abundance of riches of this bio-diversity and big game wildlife rich island is under pressure from a population which has grown over twenty fold from around a million at the beginning of the 19th century to around twenty two million at the end of the 20th century. The approximately sixty five thousand square kilometers available to it is under intense pressure to provide land for housing and agriculture to a largely rural population. Much of this rural population is poor and have important and basic priorities such as employment or producing their own food to have a square meal. As a percentage, few can have the luxury of enjoying wildlife from a recreational perspective. Although at a national policy level, it is well understood that for many reasons a nation must conserve its bio-diversity.

For conservation to be effective under such competition for land and an escalating human elephant conflict, it becomes increasingly important that conservationists understand the importance of monetizing elephants. Wildlife in general must pay its way. We must also understand that national parks and reserves are not some inviolable unit of bio-geography. They are political units. They are only there as long as politicians perceive that it is the will of the people that an area of wilderness should remain so. Therefore, scientists, conservationists and those engaged in tourism need to be able to make credible case that there are quantifiable benefits. Some of these benefits, which are known as eco-system benefits such as the benefits of clean air and drinking water, water for farming, etc have to be estimated. Furthermore these benefits are often presented as costs which will be incurred if an eco-system is not maintained. For example, the millions or billions lost from farming if a watershed is not conserved or the impact on health if we do not maintain a healthy environment.

Revenues from tourism on the other hand provides a simple, easily calculable and a ‘cash in the bank’ measure for maintaining the island’s wildlife. Whilst other methodologies measure what we lose, tourism measures what we make or can make. It is for this reason, I estimated in 2008 (See Hi Magazine December 2008) that The Gathering is a Billion Rupees of Elephants. In September 2010, I was privileged to have a private dinner with Jonathan Porritt the famous international environmental lobbyist. I was with him and Englishman Len Porter who had been out to sea with me in Kalpitiya. When we were discussing monetizing wildlife as a conservation tactic, Porritt scribbled down my phrase a ‘Billion Rupees of Elephants”. This illustrates both the need to quantify benefits but also the need to use tag lines which catch the attention of media and politicians. Post war, the quantum of money which can be earned from The Gathering is even more. This early estimate simply looked at revenues to a small portfolio of hotels from half board revenues. When park fees, safari vehicle hire, tips for trackers and drivers, expenditure on other meals, mineral water, etc are factored in, the total revenue take is much bigger. Conservationists need to take the message that The Gathering of Elephants is at a minimum a billion rupees of elephants, which can be sustained for an infinite length of time, a source of employment and revenue for the local community and it can form the foundation for a tourism economy built on The Gathering. If this can be done, a centrally controlled government is much more likely to see the economic argument for maintaining the networks of parks and reserves which sustains one of the most exciting eco-tourism events in the world. As Sri Lanka develops into a post war tourism economy room rates in the north central province will grow from the conservative estimate originally used of a weighted average of one hundred and twenty US dollars. The actual rates could grow to double or treble that over the next few years. Perhaps, we can envision a day, in the next ten years when The Gathering is worth in excess of five billion rupees a year.

The value of projecting wildlife to an annual income measure is one which is gaining ground around the world. I first estimated on a spreadsheet the value of The Gathering in response to an enquiry from Manori Gunawardana, a researcher of elephants who had read my articles on making wildlife pay. Vajira Wijegunawardane’s invitation to write this article also suggests that those engaged in creating awareness for conservation of wildlife in Sri Lanka are increasingly seeing the value of engaging tourism as a protector of the environment.

This is not to say that tourism is not without its share of problems. I have had a steady flow of complaints ever since I branded The Gathering about the bad behaviour of some visitors with their vehicles. But these are problems which can be addressed with training and imposing rules. When elephants die from being constrained to marginal areas or are shot during crop raiding, the problem is less visible to the wildlife enthusiasts from the big smoke. Over the years, I have got used to this complaint that I was the one who spoilt it for the others. It seems, the prevailing notion amongst the well off elite in the big city, is that the leopards and elephants were the exclusive preserve of a few. I have spoilt it for them by popularizing the island’s wildlife for other local residents and particularly for those foreigners who arrive in a convoy of tourist vehicles. As in many things with wildlife viewing, rules and regulations for visitors evolve after a demand from users necessitate it. The problem created by a demand for people wanting to see a flagship species, is a good problem and one that can be addressed more easily that on that sees an animal dying from a loss of habitat or poaching.

Of the many complaints made to me, I reject the complaints that arise from a notion of exclusivity. From a philosophical point of view, I believe every country must have a buy in from its wider population who must be more aware of their bio-diversity and excited about viewing it. Also as I have argued in this article, if being Best for Big Game outside Africa does not translate into revenues in the state’s coffers and cash in the bank for the local communities, wildlife will have a grim future. I do accept that monetizing wildlife does create its set of problems. However, creating facilities for visitors or having to deal with vehicles or boats jostling for a sighting of an enigmatic animal is the lesser problem to deal with. Demand for viewing should also be seen as an opportunity for conservation. Resurrecting an animal which has been extirpated by competition for land or poaching, is not an option for a middle income country.

Let me pick in a separate paragraph the subject of local communities. I am generally loathe to dwell on community based tourism etc., although I did find myself appointed to such a sub-committee once, of the Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority. My reluctance to use such fashionable parlance is because it puzzles me that we even have to use such terms. To me it is blindingly obvious that wildlife must be a part of the economic fabric of local communities in much the same way as the locals who run the pubs and restaurants benefit from the ‘Square Mile” in London, Europe’s financial capital. Who else but the local community is selling the T shirts, souvenirs, water bottles, driving the jeeps and guiding the visitors as trackers at Sri Lanka top elephant sites? When the visitors go back to their hotel, or stop at a local road-side cafe, who but the locals are serving, preparing the food in the kitchen? If more and more large hotels come up, most of the thousands of jobs which potentially can be created will go to locals. Admittedly, some skilled staff will be imports. Today’s safari vehicle driver is unlikely to land the job as the General Manager of the new star class hotel. But maybe his son or daughter may have such a career path opened even if they start their career at the bottom of the ladder. Wildlife tourism can be a social enabler, provide social mobility to rural youth who may get a chance of being trained locally and receive the opportunity to move around the country or in the world in a skilled job in the hospitality trade. And maybe one day return to a local job once again as a skilled veteran. For a country like Sri Lanka, the economics of wildlife tourism means conservation is not a block to local communities. It can be a passport to economic prosperity. A chance for skills and jobs, that are presently a mere dream for many. Well, I could go on, but let me leave it at that.

Sri Lanka is a very special island. It is an island phenomenon for being ranked in the top three or five for many vertebrate groups for the total number of species or number of endemic species per unit area of land. It is also a big and bold story that this tiny island is the next best to the mighty continent of Africa for being Best for Big Game. Conservationists need to use brand labels such as this and the notion that Sri Lanka is the Ultimate Island Safari to enable economic aspirations and conservation goals to achieve convergence. In this densely populated island, elephants and leopards will be of no good to the rural poor, the majority, unless they are made core to an economic framework. Sri Lanka’s wildlife will only have a future, if it is aligned to one where wildlife pays its way.