de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Creating Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism. Montage. December 2008. Pages 62-65. Volume 2, No 11.
A look back at Gehan’s ‘Eight years in Ceylon’ to create livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism.
In August 2008, the ever persistent Juliet Coombe asked me to stage an exhibition at the first Galle Art Trail to be held in Galle which would coincide with the fund raiser for the Galle Film Festival. I thought I would give this a miss as I had been warning colleagues that tourism will need to tighten its belt and brace itself for a difficult year. I did not feel it was quite right to stage an exhibition. Juliet subsequently attended one of the regular press relations events I stage in London on my visits to attend consumer fairs. Whipping out a copy of our tour brochure she marked out images good enough for an exhibition and robbed me of the excuse that I had not had the time to select images let alone stage an exhibition. A few of my colleagues felt I should go ahead and stage an exhibition demonstrating how a small team of individuals can make a difference in positioning a destination and the capacity of for wildlife and its imagery to create livelihoods.
The exhibition which was deliberately staged without ceremony and no fanfare of an exhibition opening was a ‘look back’ at how the face of wildlife tourism had changed and my part in it and that of the Jetwing Eco Holidays team. The underlying theme was the use of wildlife images for the creation of livelihoods. Wildlife must pay its way has been my mantra since I returned to Sri Lanka in December 1999, after fifteen years in the UK. I have taken the view that conservation will be an automatic consequence of local communities using wildlife as a source of income and employment. The exhibition showed a small selection of images which are a part of my continuing efforts to position Sri Lanka as one of the top wildlife watching destinations in the world. A few of them are amongst the most published images from Sri Lanka having featured in brochures of several tour operators, destination promotional material (including bags, bill boards and flyers), press releases and magazine and press articles.
I have been visiting the national parks and reserves of Sri Lanka since the age of three. But during my fifteen years in the UK, I realised that Sri Lanka’s potential for wildlife was little known outside a handful of people in Sri Lanka. In 1997, I lead authored A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka published by the Oriental Bird Club. The attention of people in Sri Lankan Tourism was then drawn to me. In 2001, Hiran Cooray invited me to develop Jetwing Hotels for eco-tourism and also in parallel to build a wildlife travel subsidiary.
I had a privileged opportunity to use the infrastructure of a strong brand in tourism not just to develop business for one company but for the nation as a whole. I was able to assemble one of the most talented teams in wildlife with a string of naturalists across the Jetwing Hotels and an outstanding team in Jetwing Eco Holidays. I apologize if I come across as being boastful or over-playing the commercial pitch. But I do honestly believe that a small team of people played a pivotal role in positioning Sri Lanka for wildlife. Of course, we used the talent, knowledge and enthusiasm of a large number of people in our quest.
What we have did well was to attune people. Take leopards for example. Today it is well known that ‘Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see and photograph Leopards’. Before 2001 this phrase does not appear in the literature. Leopards and Leopard Safaris had not entered the vocabulary of mainstream tourism. Between 2001 and 2004, almost every single article published, which promoted Sri Lanka as a destination for leopards, had the hand of Jetwing behind it. We sensitized a whole nation to a tourism product which could create livelihoods. Of course a handful of people always knew. But it was not in the public domain of tourism and in fact leopards were not so easy to find because the local jeep drivers and guides were not so attuned to it. Now with everyone aware, leopards are seemingly easy to find in Yala.
Similarly we were the first to realise the significance of an annual gathering of elephants. We branded and positioned ‘The Gathering’ of Elephants which is now gaining widespread acceptance. A few years ago, a guide in Sinharaja did not know the names of the butterflies. We have changed that with affordable pictorial guides to birds, butterflies, dragonflies and mammals. We now have safaris for primates, butterflies, dragonflies, elephants, leopards and natural history in general. Animals that until recently were absent in the vocabulary of tourism. In May 2008, we did it again with the first credible, authoritative account that Sri Lanka was Best for Blue.
Wildlife has always been hard work for me, but immensely enjoyable. The exhibition showed some of the images and the literature we have employed to equate wildlife with income generating work for a broad cross section of people. I would have sub-titled it ‘a reluctant exhibition’ as for me images have always been a means to an end, to create livelihoods. I have to thank Juliet Coombe for her insistence that I put on this exhibition, as sometimes it needs an outsider to force one to take a ‘stock take’. With over two hundred articles and fifteen books I wish I could day that the task was done and dusted. But Sri Lankan Tourism suffers form the inability of people from a developing country to see through the mind’s eye of those from developed economies. We are still a long way away from reaching anywhere near the full potential of this island’s capacity to generate income from wildlife tourism. But there are at least a dozen companies ranging from the specialist subsidiaries of the big players to small companies run by passionate naturalists who are now established. Sri Lanka probably has more depth in nature tourism than many Asian destinations. Perhaps one day, Sri Lanka may carve out the special place it deserves for wildlife tourism.