de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). Tourism No Habitat-Killer! LMD. October 2008. Page 145. Volume (?), Issue (?). ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan argues that tourism does not harm Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.
In May 2008, I was proof reading a book when I came across a line by the principal author of the book which identified some of the key factors for the loss of habitat. One of them was tourism. I suggested substituting the word ‘tourism’ for ‘housing’. The revised sentence included amongst other factors, housing and clearance for agriculture (including commodity plantations) as the key factors for the loss of wildlife habitats in Sri Lanka. My revision of this sentence was not because of any bias because I am engaged in tourism. But the stark reality is that tourism has contributed very little to loss of habitat and in fact as I will point out later in this article, may have conserved more than what has been lost due to it.
The reference to tourism being a cause for lost of habitat I suspect is partly because tourism is usually perceived as a contributor to loss or damage of habitats around the world. However in the last decade or so, there has been a strong shift to ensure tourism results in being net benefit to the environment than being a cost. In Sri Lanka, in terms of loss of habitat, the real answer lies in the growth of the population and its consequent demands.
In the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka had a population of one million. In the twenty first century, the population has soared to twenty million. It now has one of the highest population densities of any country in the world. Less than twenty percent of its land area has forest cover, which is significantly less than Newly Industrialized Countries like Malaysia or a developed country like Japan (which has just under 70% forest cover). The need for agriculture to feed this population has resulted in wide swathes of forest cover been converted to agricultural land by successive governments. I remember as I child when I used to travel to Yala, on more than one occasion I would ask whether we had reached Yala, because we were driving through vast stretches of scrub jungle on either side. Now, I do not encounter a single path of such forest cover until I turn off at Kirinda. All of those jungles have been cleared for agriculture. The explosive growth in our population has also created more demands for roads and housing.
In the last eight years, I have watched how almost half of the land available to wildlife around the Talangama Wetland have been built upon. The Western Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a critically endangered primate and the Yellow Striped Mouse-deer is losing habitat at an exponential rate. New comers bring with them large dogs, which unlike the smaller traditional village dogs are potent predators killing leaf monkeys, mouse-deer and hares. It is a double blow to Sri Lanka’s threatened endemic mammals. The new comers also use architects who do not use flat roofing sheets which are less vulnerable to damage by monkeys. The monkeys are being forced to use roofs not trees as aerial walkways. Unsuitable roof designs by architects who are not cognisant of the human primate conflict, further exacerbates it.
In the 19th century, large swathes of forest were cleared for tea and rubber. A poor country like Sri Lanka cannot forego the foreign exchange from commodity crops. The estates are here to stay. The export oriented plantations, together with the impact for agriculture for day to day consumption and housing will dwarf any loss of habitat by tourism. This is not to say that tourism should not continually strive to neutralise its impact, but we must realise that the critical factors hastening our environmental degradation lie elsewhere, not in tourism.
For wildlife, the larger tourist hotels are actually a saviour. Whilst the leaf monkeys in Talangama face eventual extirpation (like the endemic Red Slender Loris which disappeared in 2003), the monkeys around Hotels Sigiriya, and the Cinnamon Lodge and Chaaya Village have privately owned wildlife refuges of several acres. Hotels from groups as varies as John Keells, Serendib Leisure and Jetwing are actively creating habitat for butterflies and dragonflies. Sri Lanka Tourism has launched its campaign for a carbon free Sri Lanka and several hotels are now actively supporting projects for reforestation. More trees and more forests will mean more habitat for wildlife.