de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Wildlife Tourism Has to Pay Its Way. LMD. June 2006. Page 60. Volume 12, Issue 11. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan laments the lack of research and initiative in developing wildlife tourism.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on the connection between research and wildlife tourism

In the previous two months, my articles in the LMD proposed giving state agencies such as the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department a twin mandate. A mandate for continuing the traditional role of being the custodian of the nation’s bio-diversity as well as to unlock the revenue generating potential of the parks and reserves. In this article I will continue to explore some of the issues which need to be addressed in unleashing wildlife tourism as an economic tool.

Research is another area where the attitude of the state agencies is described by many as hostile. I have also dealt with the DWLC’s Research Committee. No doubt the committee has many eminent people on the committee. But my copies of correspondence will demonstrate that the administration of the committee is a sad testimony of institutional shortcomings. I fear even the administration of the research component of our parks and reserves may need to be sub-contracted to a suitable outside agency. This is not a personal criticism of the DWLC staff. But if people are under-resourced (man power, training, IT etc) and under-paid, we cannot expect them to perform to private sector standards. Research is an important part of revenue generation for Sri Lanka Inc. This may seem a surprising statement, but it is true. Look at Costa Rica. Every year, hundreds of researchers from the USA engage in field work and hundreds of research papers are published. Some of the more interesting discoveries are carried in the popular science magazines. From there, it works its way into the popular press and onto television programs on Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, etc. As a result, more and more people want to visit the rainforests of Costa Rica.

Not one of the national parks (administered by the DWLC) of Sri Lanka has a permanent research station welcoming local or foreign researchers. In contrast, hoteliers in Sri Lanka are beginning to offer the use of their hotels as research bases. If this practice continues, the lead for bio-diversity research in Sri Lanka will move out of the DWLC into the domain of the tourism industry. The DWLC will be relegated to the role of a poor cousin, seen by some as an obstructionist poor cousin. In contrast, the private sector will be seen as the champion of bio-diversity research. This may seem a provocative statement but it is very likely to emerge as the truth if the state agencies do not take on a more pro-active role. We are already seeing the tourism industry being more supportive to wildlife researchers than the DWLC. People studying leopards, folklore, dragonflies, primates and other aspects of bio-diversity are being welcomed into the hotels of some of the leading companies as a part of the tourism industry’s support for research and conservation. Tourism may emerge as the savior of research and conservation whilst the state agencies may ironically be portrayed as the bad guy who is against it.

Some state agencies are better than others in embracing the value of the private sector. The Forest Department is actively involved in plans by the tourism industry to set up a hotel with a purpose built research facility in the eastern borders of Sinharaja on land owned by a plantation company. The eco lodge is being built by a consortium of Sri Lanka’s leading companies in tourism. The lodge is intended to be a role model for responsible and sustainable development in or near an ecologically sensitive site. The research station may in time be the preferred port of call for researchers from around the world who wish to undertake research in rainforests. The FD have a nominee on the research committee to ensure that they are a partner and not a detractor in a move to develop Sri Lanka’s capacity for biodiversity research. In contrast, the DWLC’s failure to emerge as a champion of research fails our biodiversity and our economic progress. Another project emerging in Sigiriya may contribute even more to relegating certain state agencies to the back seat. The first purpose built wetland in Sri Lanka is being completed by one of the leading players in tourism. It too will have purpose built accommodation for researchers.

Before long the DWLC will have to opt between being a dinosaur in an age of progress or to ride the wave of private sector interests. At the moment it is a dinosaur. The manner in which the DWLC’s research committee is administered points to a number of flaws. Firstly the attitude is hostile and the intent seems to block rather than facilitate research. My personal experience of the administration of the committee left me with the impression that a 12 year old school child could have done it better. Sometimes it is clear that the people involved lack a basic understanding of what research is about and what it entails. Too much red tape is used to block rather than looking at ways of facilitating the progress of Sri Lanka. There is no vision or passion. Quite simply, the Research Committee of the DWLC is failing the people of Sri Lanka. It is a silent betrayal, which is not so obvious or visible as a bomb by the LTTE in a public place.

Sri Lanka’s national parks and reserves are a reservoir of biodiversity which are a heritage which have to be conserved for all of humankind, for scientific as well as moral reasons. Whilst doing so, a business focus needs to be applied in parallel to the custodial role of the relevant state agencies, so that our wildlife can be a key contributor to our economy.

In the long term it will be difficult to justify setting aside so much land for wildlife unless it is playing its part for the country’s economy. Costa Rica and Kenya are good examples of how wildlife is seen as a key economic strand. In Sri Lanka too, wildlife will have to pay its way.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist on wildlife & tourism issues. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.