Nature Trails, the professional body of naturalists at Chaaya Wild, are much more serious about nature than just safaris and camping out in the jungle. They’re taking time to observe the villages surrounding the Yala conservation as well as their wilder friends in order to better understand the relations between the two and prevent potential problems. According to Chitral Jayatilake, Assistant Vice President of the John Keells Group as well as Head of Eco Tourism and Special Projects, leopard territory issues may become a problem for cattle farmers in the area. Having observed the issues chena farmers in the north-central province and surrounding areas have had with elephants in the recent past, and the level to which clashes have escalated, Chitral and his team are determined to prevent similar occurrences from taking place at Yala.
As young leopards grow into adulthood and begin marking their own territory, the space available at Yala begins to be insufficient and the junior members of this elegant yet fearful species are being forced to encroach into human property, using penned cattle for prey. With the help of foreign experts as well as our own wild-life enthusiasts, the Nature Trails team have embarked on Project Leopard. What they are slowly but steadily achieving is the availability of strong steel pens in which the farmers can house their cattle for the night, in the assurance that leopards will not be able to break into these as they do with the traditional pens.
Chaaya Wild is also serious about their waste management, recycling waste water and encouraging guests to take their garbage back to the city. “One or two of them, in fact, do take it back” Chitral shares proudly. He recognizes though, that better than guests to the property, it is the locals that are in a position to positively impact the conservation environment. “There are farmers and there are forest conservers” Chitral explains, “and most of the time there are clashes between the two groups. If they worked together instead, their work would be so much more effective.” Instead of just theorizing, Nature Trails is working. They conduct regular awareness workshops at local schools, in the hope that they will encourage the next generation to take a holistic approach to nature conservation seriously.
Nature Trails is also working with the drivers on the conservation, to give them guide skills as well. “We’re trying to build the driver-guide concept, get them vehicles, diesel etc. and educate them so they can provide better service to their customers and thereby earn a better pay”. This way, they hope, the drivers too will become more interested in the long-term impact they have on their environment, rather than just the short-term financial income.
“Sometimes the villagers misunderstand” Chitral shares regretfully, “but we have to be committed and we have to be strong.” He himself spends most of his time away from his family in Colombo, working to uplift the state of wild-life tourism in the whole island and set new standards. “These two years” he says with passionate determination, he is dedicating his life to the leopard.