de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Science Based Eco-tourism. Serendipity. April 2003. Page 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne argues that scientific research is the cornerstone for eco-tourism
“Behind me lies the Prince of the Night, in the light of day. He is now on his throne, the supreme ruler of this jungle domain”. We listened and watched as BBC wildlife presenter Michaela Strachan uttered these words and the film crew from Two Hands Production rolled their cameras. We were at a rocky outcrop called Padikkema in Ruhunu (Yala) National Park. On a rocky ridge in the background was a male Leopard, in repose, catching the last rays of the setting sun. Its beautiful coat dappled with black rosettes had turned orange in the evening glow. Assisting them in the field was Ravi Samarasinha one of the Leopard Researchers hosted at the Yala Safari Game lodge under the Jetwing Research Initiative.
Amongst the wildlife cognoscenti it was well known that Sri Lanka was a good place to see Leopard, generally an elusive animal. In the 1970s Dieter Plage, made a superb film on the Leopards of Wilpattu titled The Leopard that changed its spots. Of late, several film crews have arrived at the Game Lodge to film stories centered around the leopards of Yala. Or, more correctly to film stories centered around the research work being undertaken on the leopards of Yala. Research is the magic ingredient which inspires the international media to work on a story. There are many reasons for this. Many film crews do not have the time or the budget to engage in a conventional wildlife documentary. This could take a year or more for camera work. Typically, an overseas film crew in Sri Lanka for a week would look to film at least 6-8 stories. Research based stories are easy to do as the researchers can be the center point of the story. A human angle is introduced, the wildlife moves to the back stage. There is also some hard facts which can be brought into the story. For example, Ravi Samarasinha believes that Yala has one of the highest densities of leopard worldwide. This kind of information hitherto un-available, also encourages film crews to attempt a story.
Research stimulates media attention across the board. It is not confined to glamorous animals like the Leopard. Even frogs can take on a new dimension. Research work undertaken by Rohan Pethiyagoda and Kelum Manamendraarachchi of the Wildlife Heritage Trust has discovered a significant species radiation in Sri Lanka. We are one of the amphibian hot spots of the world. There is a possibility that eventually, over two hundred species new to science may be described. We could have the highest number of frogs in the world, surpassing countries like Costa Rica whose eco-tourism image is associated with brightly coloured tree frogs. Scientific information like this entertains and educates adults and children alike. Tree Frogs are also photogenic, at least to those with even a passing interest in wildlife.
Our frogs, elephants, bats and leopards will be broadcast in September 2003 to a television audience which in the UK alone would number two million. The beauty of this publicity is that it is not ‘paid advertising’. Ironically, it would be more credible than a series of highly expensive ‘paid’ commercials run overseas. But it would be mistake to think it is totally free. As the old business adage goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Ultimately someone, whether it is a state agency or a private sector organisation, has to fund the research which catches the interest of the media. It is therefore all the more important that we don’t sell our high end eco-tourism potential at low end prices. Most Tour Operators do not invest in research and conservation. They do not see the full financial equation. However costs are being borne by many Sri Lankan hotels to recruit naturalists and researchers. It is important that this investment is not undermined by Tour Operators who may fail to price in the value of this long term investment.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.