Elephant chasing safari vehicle
Escaping the attentions of an angry elephant is not easy on Yala’s axle-threatening tracks. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A great national park is being spoiled by traffic chaos

Sri Lanka is justifiably developing a strong eco-tourism reputation – particularly among birders. But its most famous national park sucks!

Established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900, Yala National Park (about 300 km from Colombo) covers almost 1000 square km and is by far the country’s most visited such facility.

There is excellent wildlife everywhere, and it should be one of the great nature experiences on the planet. But it is not!

Dawn chaos on Yala National Park tracks
Too many vehicles, inadequate roads and ‘game rush’ equal gridlock. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

There are two main reasons why I think Yala doesn’t work: bureaucracy and logistics.

For a morning game drive, you are picked up well before sunrise in your safari-style vehicle (they range from swanky to manky) and head for the park’s main gates. The operators know the gates will be closed for some time, but they want to get their customers near the front of the queue.

Eventually the park officials arrive and drivers and guides make a dash through the continuing gloom to pay the entry fees and do the paperwork. (You’ve gotta thank the Brits for the local obsession with paperwork.)

Fastest runners

Despite being near the front, it is the fastest runners who get their ‘chitties’ first. So remember to ask for a former Sri Lankan sprint champion as your guide.

In peak season up to 200 of these privately owned safari vehicles (some no more than utes with a cage – standing room only) will converge on the main entrance around the same time.

When everything is in order and you at last begin to move into the park, you are immediately in a convoy. There is thick bush on each side of the narrow, deeply pitted dirt tracks. There is no overtaking and vehicles going in opposite directions almost touch on the way through.

Many safari vehicles assembled under tree
‘Downtown Yala’ – up to 200 licensed safari vehicles could be working the national park at the same time. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Whispered ripple

But the real whatsit doesn’t hit the fan until word goes out that a significant animal, like a giant Sri Lankan leopard, has been seen. A whispered ripple of excitement travels along the convoy – and there is instant gridlock.

The people in the first couple of vehicles will probably get good views, and can sit there for as long as they like. But for the other 198 vehicles – forget it!

After spending most of the morning in this state of enforced inertia, we negotiated a radical change of plan. It was based on the premise that in 1000 square km there must surely be somewhere we can go that isn’t clogged with safari vehicles!

Turn for the better

That’s when things took a substantial turn for the better. Our driver very kindly invited us to his nearby home where we had a great lunch cooked by his wife. And when we returned to the park we headed for the less popular but more open expanses of low scrub, lagoons and grassland.

Most of the images supporting this post were shot in the savannah section of the park, where there is an abundance of birds and animals to observe at close quarters.

Sri Lanka is a great country and the birding is excellent (I’d return in a heartbeat). If you are contemplating a visit, your tour people will inevitably recommend Yala. And all I can say is: you have been warned!

©Tony Neilson June 2017


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


2 thoughts on “GRIDLOCK ON SAFARI

  • Ian Hughes June 15, 2017 at 12:36 AM Reply

    Fantastic stuff! Neilson you are a genius. Am impressed with the astonishing photography of birds, other wildlife and the ever changing and fascinating seascapes and landscapes which you unerringly capture in mood. I look forward immensely to this monthly escapism which Natural Images affords me. Thank you….
    South Africa

    • Tony Neilson June 15, 2017 at 7:42 AM Reply

      You are too kind, Ian. But I thrive on praise and will now head into the wilderness in search of even more titillating stuff – just for you. Cheers old friend.

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