Sri Lanka may be the only country where one could get a glimpse of both the largest land mammal and the largest marine mammal, within a period of 24 hours. Known as a biodiversity hotspot, with many species of fauna and flora, around quarter of which are endemic, the island boasts of 123 mammalian species including the big four, the elephant, blue whale, sloth bear and the leopard along with 171 species of reptiles, 106 species of amphibians, 227 species of birds and an astounding 11, 144 species of insects and over 3,500 species of flora. Recognised by the world for its biodiversity, a conservation approach by Sri Lanka to wildlife tourism is key to attract high end tourists.
“The South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka is as ancient as it is beautiful; as complex a civilisation now as at any time in its 2,000-year history. Despite recent tumult (the horrific terror attacks last Easter), Sri Lanka remains an essential destination, an epicenter of history, with relics and ruins, temples and palaces, wildlife running free,” read the CNN Travel article as it declared the country as one of the best 20 places to visit in 2020.
As one of the world’s 34 ‘biodiversity hotspots’ housing leopards, blue whales, wild boars and some 5,000 elephants among many other species the country has also earned a unique spot in the tourism world. Sri Lanka was named ‘Asia’s best destination for Wildlife Tourism’ at the Top Asia Corporate Ball 2019 held at the Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, after competing against five short listed countries.
Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) statistics show that as at November 30, 2019 a little over 1,672,039 tourists have visited the country, which is a drop of 19.6 percent compared to the corresponding period in 2018.
The tourist arrivals since the Easter Sunday attacks are gradually increasing. The drop of 70.8 percent in May 2019 compared to May 2018 reduced to 9.5 percent in November.
Meanwhile, on Monday President Gotabaya Rajapaksa expressed his vision to boost revenue earned by the country’s tourism sector.
“Discussions held with officials of the Ministry of Tourism & Aviation Services to energise the tourism sector towards achieving $10 Bn revenue by 2025, through targeted promotions, building country image as preferred destination with superlative Sri Lankan hospitality,” he tweeted.
It seems like Sri Lanka is en-route to achieving this target as Lonely Planet named the country world’s top destination in 2019 and Ethan Gelber commenting on this states, “Already notable to intrepid travellers for its mix of religions and cultures, its timeless temples, its rich and accessible wildlife, its growing surf scene and its people who defy all odds by their welcome and friendliness after decades of civil conflict, this is a country revived”; Google’s annual Year in Search revealed that internet users had much interest in locating Sri Lanka; and Lonely Planet also recognised the country as one of the six destinations in Asia for solo female travellers.
Then the island nation saw a number of international celebrities vacationing and revelling in its beauty. Supergirl star Melissa Benoist and co-star turned husband Christopher Wood shared a photograph of them enjoying their holiday here. “Ayubowan, Sri Lanka, you are beautiful and we loved you,” Benoist captioned the Instagram photo. Actress Margot Robbie and actor Bill Skarsgard were also in Sri Lanka in the past week.
However, Sri Lanka has a lukewarm approach to wildlife conservation, and this is a key attraction, when it comes to tourism. The use of elephants in peraheras have been a hot topic over the years, as animal activists claimed it was cruel to use the jumbos in such events.
This also comes amidst the reports of the deaths of three leopards, and the reported deaths of over 360 elephants last year. Director-General of Wildlife, Chandana Sooriyabandara told the Sunday Observer that most of these elephants succumbed to injuries inflicted by humans using jaw bombs, bullets and poisoning.
Though the number of elephant deaths could be a result of more information regarding the same being collected now compared to the years prior to 2019, it paints a grey picture of Sri Lanka’s approach to animal welfare.
Last year, British MP Dr. Rupa Huq urged her Parliament to discourage tourism to the island nation and also to Myanmar, citing elephant cruelty. The MP questioned whether steps were taken to stop tourists visiting the nations where elephants were treated cruelly.
It was later revealed that the UK was working with the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) to create awareness among its clients and encouraging them to report if they see Asian elephants being treated badly.Then came the tragic death of Tikiri- the 60-year-old female jumbo who died after participating in a perahera.
The most recent example of this is the video that emerged of Myan Prince, the elephant who was housed in the Bellanwila Temple that also killed the temple’s chief monk in February 2018. The video depicts Myan Prince lying in a pond with legs chained and crying in pain as he is beaten by a man.
Lawyer and leading environmentalist Jagath Gunawardana says that Sri Lanka needs a fresh approach when promoting wildlife to tourists. He explained that most tourists, today, are animal-welfare conscious and would boycott if they see that a destination is mistreating animals.
“We do not take care of our wildlife. Not even the species promoted in tourism,” Gunawardana said. These animals are elephants and leopards.
Leopard deaths are mostly reported from the hill country area where human encroachment has left the animals struggling to find their own spaces.
“The Government has not put in enough effort to protect the wildlife, the environmentalist added saying that there needs to be a more positive approach to protecting wildlife.
He also added that Sri Lanka tourism should harvest the attraction of amphibian, butterfly and bird-watching tourism.