Is a Sri Lanka safari trip ethical?

Considering a safari trip? The general verdict is that Sri Lanka is the best country in Asia for this kind of activity. Hardly surprising when you have the chance (if you’re lucky) to see elephants, leopards, and monkeys – just to name a few. But just how ethical are these safari trips?

Truth be told, it was thoughtless of us to sign up for a safari trip without considering the ethics until after. We want our readers to take a mindful, conscious outlook when it comes to eco-tourism to help make informed choices. As this trip shows, it’s something that we’re still working on ourselves.

We’re going to talk about our trip to Uda Walawe National Park and how the experience sat with our moral compass. We’ll also mention the opinions of locals and tourists who visited other national parks like Yala, and what they thought. This kind of topic is best explored through engagement, so please share your experiences and opinions with us. After all, the nature of eco-tourism is a frequently changing one (for better and worse). And it’s our responsibility to keep up to date.

Uda Walawe Safari Trip: Some Context

A safari trip is definitely not our usual choice of activity but after hearing about an organised group trip from our hostel for the price of 12500 LKR (39,4 euro) we decided to tag along. We visited the park in early June and were told by the guide that this was their low season.

Uda Walawe Safari Trip: The Park

Wild elephants, crocodiles, buffalo, leopards (if you’re lucky), wild hogs, deer, jackals and a variety of birds can all be seen here. Uda Walawe is just over 300 square km so it’s safe to say that the animals have plenty of roaming space.

Driving Around

We spent around 3 hours in the jeep driving around the park in search of wildlife (and lost count of the number of elephants we saw). In all that time, we only came across 2 other jeeps. We’d read online about Yala National Park and instances of 10+ jeeps to one elephant. We’d also heard similar things from other tourists. They spoke of how their time felt rushed and a continuous leap of seeing one elephant and then trying to search for another.

Our experience couldn’t have been more different. There was no ‘animal hopping’ and no jeep swarming. It was just us, driven around aimlessly by our guide and stopping every so often to admire the animals from what felt like a respectable distance. When the elephants came closer, it was them approaching us rather than the other way around.

After asking around and researching online, we’re certain that had we visited in the high season, we would’ve experienced something different entirely. This low-season visit suited us well (and the animals too).

The Driver

This was something we read up on and asked about after our trip. We think it’s a fair assumption that a guide who’s knowledgeable about the park’s wildlife will exercise common sense like maintaining respectful distances and not driving after animals. Apparently not. It seems that there’s been a rise of drivers acting under the guise of a wildlife expert when, in reality, they’re not.

Our driver was incredible. He had been working there for 8 years and knew exactly what he was talking about.

He prioritised the welfare of the animals over the entertainment of the tourist. (Oh, and he provided a home-cooked breakfast made by his mum – easily the most wholesome breakfast we’ve ever had).

Our Thoughts

The high-season tourist months see more emphasis placed on tourist entertainment rather than animal welfare. Though we can’t say definitively, it’s likely that the drop in tourists during the low seasons probably results in these ‘unethical drivers’ moving onto other more lucrative seasonal jobs.

So, should you do a safari trip while in Sri Lanka? Well, like most things it’s down to the individual. For us, it’s not something we would consider doing again. True, our experience was a positive one, centred around the welfare of the animals, and a wonderful driver to boot. But we can’t speak for the type of unethical activity that is rumoured to take place in the summer months. We’d like to put our money into the pockets of people with which animal welfare is the central priority all year round. Not just when the decline in tourists hit. Until we find such a place we’ll give safari trips a miss for the meantime.

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