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Sri Lanka Yala national park await sloth bear season
11 May, 2008 09:10:53
By Charitha Fernando
May 11, 2008 (LBO) – Sri Lanka's Yala national park in the south of the country is seeing more visitors after a recent slump, just ahead of sloth bear season next month when wild berries ripen bringing the shy animals out to the open.
Officials say tourist visits to the Yala National park is picking up since the re-opening of the park in January this year, after a closure over security grounds.

Since January, over twelve thousand five hundred visitors both local and foreign have visited the park, officials said.

"We are happy with the security measures that are in place and the tourist zone is hundred percent safe for visitors," P M Dharmatileka, the assistant wildlife director for Yala and Bundala told LBO.

Both Yala and Bundala national parks are in the Hambantota district in the deep south of Sri Lanka.

Bundala is an internationally recognized Ramsar wetland reserve. From around August to April both national parks overflow with tens of thousands of migrant birds, especially waders such as terns and ducks associated with wetlands.

Sloth bear season

Already in early May, sloth bears (Melursus ursinus inornatus) are out and about as seen by the mother bear and cubs pictured here. The omnivorous animal is endangered in Sri Lanka according to the International Conservation Union (IUCN).

In the coming month sloth bears come out to the open to feast on the ripening berries of the palu (Manilkara hexanda) tree, officials say.

Yala's 'Block I' which is open for visitors, has a high concentration of large mammals and other game, partly because visitors drive away poachers.

The availability of game has also made it a hotspot for leopards, with the area believed to have one of the highest concentrations of leopards in the world.

Though park officials are encouraged by the increasing arrivals hoteliers say more is needed to be done to promote the park as a safe destination for to see wildlife.

They say local visitors still fear to visit Yala, though foreign visits are picking up.

The park was shut until January following a suspected Tamil Tiger guerilla attack on an Army detachment deep inside the park last year.

Perception Battle

Isolated attacks in the southern part of the island, also frightened visitors not just to Yala but also to nearby Kataragama, a religious site, crippling the southern Hambanthota district's tourism industry.

"I just want to request the media and responsible authorities to tell the world that this area is not as bad as they think," Ravi Perera, the general manager of Elephant Reach Hotel in Yala said.

"Come and visit Yala, it is safe," he said

The regions' forty three hotels and guest houses have over five hundred hotel.

These hotels are ideal staging points for game drives to wildlife parks of Yala and Bundala and cultural and religious destinations in Kataragama and Kirinda.

Star class hotels like the Elephant Reach, the Yala Village and Priyankara Hotel in Tissamaharamaya have also taken a beating after the tourism downturn.

The Hambantota Chamber of Commerce, supported by US-based Mercy Corp is drumming up tourism to the district with the national parks as a key part of their strategy.

"We took the initiative to bring together the local community and stakeholders in the tourism industry to start a program to promote the Hambantota destination. T

"The media very important to us to tell the truth, and to tell the proper status of the area," says Azmi Thassim director general of the chamber.

"From our point of view this areas is safe."

Hotel managers blame adverse publicity for the occupancy level which has halved in the early part of the year, and say they have to battle perceptions.

"When some instance takes place deep inside Yala, they put the Yala map on TV and say troubles in Yala," Perera said

"That is how they tell people. So people fear to come… I think someone has to come forward and say that this is a safe area.

"People who come are very happy and they see animals too," he said.

Though the bird migrant season is now over the Park has a large population of resident birds including the rare black necked stork.

A wide variety of mostly resident birds, ranging from peacocks to painted storks and pelicans to bee eaters, Brahmini kites are found in plenty.

Large mammals such elephants, spotted deer, wild boar, jackals as well as crocodiles are found year-round in the Park.

Game Drives

Safari jeep drivers, who take visitors into the park, are hopeful of better times.

Jeep drivers were hard hit by the closure of the Park and say their income plummeted by 80 percent at one time.

However, they are hopeful that more tourists will visit Yala in the future.

"Tourism is gradually picking up in the area these days, but visitors to Yala are still not as it used to be," says P.D. Keerthi, president of the 172-member, Independent Safari Jeep Association, based in Tissamaharama said.

"Security is good and the environment has improved for both foreign and local tourist to visit Yala. There are lots of animals as well to see," he said.

During the peak tourist season, a safari jeep makes three daily trips into the Yala park.

A jeep owner used to earn around thirty thousand rupees a month.

At the moment foreign tourists from abroad are leading the arrivals to the deep south's Yala national park.

The hotel industry in the south is hoping that the sloth bear season which is just around the corner would be an added attraction for visitors to come flocking back to the Yala national park.

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