I’ll be straight up about this right away. This didn’t feel right, and if I knew what my safari in Yala National Park was going to be like beforehand, I wouldn’t have gone. The excitement of seeing a leopard was entirely cancelled out and then some by how a dozen safari Jeeps clogged the area as tourists clamored to see it through the deep brush. As far as responsible wildlife experiences go, this was far from one.
I was in South Africa a few months earlier, spending a few months in the country and going on a couple of game drives. Each one of those felt like a good balance between responsible tourism and fun. I was able to see rhinos, giraffes, zebras, and even lions. For each one of those, there would never be more than three vehicles in the area, as the reserve would limit vehicles and visitors. The elusive leopard evaded me throughout my time in South Africa, so hearing that there could be a chance to see one while I was in Sri Lanka had me hooked on the idea.
This was my second safari in Sri Lanka. The first was in Minneriya National Park, which was a little crowded in some areas but not immersion-ruining. Hearing that leopard sightings were possible at Yala National Park, my friends and I made our way down to Tissamaharama and arranged a safari with our lodging. It cost $70, which I considered to be a bit steep but for the chance to see a leopard, why not? And I’m not even particularly a wildlife enthusiast.
It felt a bit like the night before Christmas morning, and despite a 4 AM wake up call, I wasn’t too bothered. We were picked up early by our driver and hopped into the vehicle. It was about an hour’s drive to the entrance of Yala National Park. Well before we even arrived at the gates, I could tell this was going to be a far less enjoyable experience than I was expecting.
There were dozens and dozens of vehicles lined up, and we waited for close to an hour before our driver came back to tell us we were good to go. We got back in the truck and waited for nearly another hour as the long, long line of Jeeps started inching forward. For that first hour or so, it felt like there was only one road. We basically paid $70 to be in a traffic jam in an open-aired vehicle under the Sri Lankan heat.
Then, a commotion started stirring as the first guide spotted a leopard through the brush. I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it and snap a few good photos with my zoom lens. Within seconds, it was scared away as the loud vehicles crowded the area where it was seen. The loud hum of the engines destroyed any semblance of a peaceful morning in the wild. We were visitors in this national park where all of these animals lived, and instead of quietly admiring from a distance, we were actively disturbing their habitats.
It felt wrong, and it’s hard to pin the blame on anyone. Had I known better, I wouldn’t have gone. The drivers and guides know that people pay good money to see a leopard, and they want to deliver that value. The majority of drivers have no training or education regarding wildlife and responsible tourism. From what I’ve heard, it seems like whoever happens to have a vehicle and a driver’s license can enter the park and lead a game drive. And if a local Sri Lankan can make around $500 for driving a group of seven people around for a few hours, who can blame them?
I’ll admit, if I paid $70 and didn’t see a leopard, I would have been a bit bummed but I knew the risk going in that it wasn’t a guarantee. I would have preferred to not see a leopard and had a more responsible experience that didn’t feel disruptive and destructive.
While I adored Sri Lanka as a whole, it did seem that they have yet to catch up with other countries in terms of how they view wildlife. South Africa was all about preserving their wildlife habitats and respecting their animals. Their biodiversity is one of their biggest prides and joys, and in Sri Lanka, it felt a bit more like a money grab.
I tried my best to enjoy the rest of the game drive, and I’ll admit, it did get better as the vehicles spread throughout the park. There was no shortage of wildebeest, wild boars, crocodiles, monkeys, and a colorful variety of birds to fill the several-hour-long safari. It was rounded out with a visit to a small but beautiful beach, and a drive through the open plains with surreal landscapes around us. Aside from the leopard incident, it would have been a great day out.
If you’ve come to Sri Lanka in the hopes of seeing a leopard and visiting Yala National Park, it’ll be hard for me to dissuade you from doing so. I tend not to plan too far in advance while traveling, which led to me taking the word of our homestay hosts and reserving the tour for us. However, if you have the option to ask around and do a bit of research, I recommend searching for a more responsible safari operator or guide. Human interaction and interference should be kept to the absolute minimum on safaris, but for now, it feels like Sri Lanka’s attitude and approach to game drives has a long way to go.