An Indian Ocean paradise for leopards faces extinction as tourists turn against them

At the Raja Ampat National Park in Western Indian Ocean, on the coast of the island nation of Sri Lanka, nine leopards are on guard of their posts at the most popular access point to the inland forest areas of the park. The Tigers Hotel Club, a five-star resort which overlooks the forest from the beach at Mattala Raja Vidyalaya, is hunting for guests who will be responsible for the biggest and greatest threat to the animals’ survival — the tourist industry.

Many across the country have decried the human-wildlife conflict. The Sri Lankan government has taken “decisive action” to protect the animals, the head of the Wildlife Ministry, T.B.E. Wickramasuriya, said this week, while at the same time warning tourists “to behave responsibly.” However, eco-tourism is “violating” the environment, he added. It “must cease.”

This message comes as the Sri Lankan government faces international outcry over a document submitted to the United Nations Decisions Committee on Dec. 17, by the country’s environment ministry as part of its bid to continue its pollution-pristine status. The document, submitted under the urgent nature of the problem, detailed the impacts of poaching, logging, habitat destruction, and mass tourism in the area.

Specifically, environmentalists say, the illegal slaughter of leopards, which have become too rare to hunt, has created a massive void in habitat destruction for tigers. The country’s leopard population is now estimated at “around 13,” according to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (FAN), and growing quickly. Leopards typically spend their entire lives at the Patikuluthu National Park and the South Coast National Park, located south of the capital city of Colombo.

Nevertheless, the U.N. climate change conference will be held in Bonn in the first half of this year, and Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena attended the first round of talks in 2015. Until then, no Sri Lankan government had played a national role in the fight to save leopards. But the strong anti-tourism position taken by Sirisena, who assumed office in January 2015, has earned him a top spot on the World Wildlife Fund’s list of the top ten endangered champions in the world. So the government of the country of which his father was the president (of Sri Lanka, as well as the head of a party that ruled over the island for 37 years) recently reversed its commitment to further reduce logging and remove bird nests in order to solve the country’s leopard problem.

When I visited Sri Lanka several years ago, its promise of non-tourist tourism seemed a strong feather in the country’s cap. Now Sri Lanka is headed in another direction — one that seems to be in the thrall of the car, its imminent danger of being turned into a tiger-killer and coffin-maker.

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