Located in the south of Sri Lanka, Yala is the most visited national park in all of Sri Lanka. It is also one of the best places to spot leopards, with one of the highest densities of the elusive cat not just on the island, but anywhere in the world.
This, however, causes a problem. The border of the park is home to hundreds of dairy farmers, and at night leopards have been known to kill their cattle. Needing to protect their prized assets, farmers have set snares and killed many of these endangered creatures. And while Yala may have a high density of the cat, the total numbers are still very low – with around 70 estimated in the main park area and 32 in the buffer area where the farms are located.
In response, the Sri Lanka hotel chain Cinnamon, whose Cinnamon Wild Yala is found on the park’s border alongside the dairy farms, has spent the last six years implementing an ingeniously simple solution designed to protect the leopards, boost the farmers’ incomes, and offer improved tourist experiences all in one go.
Since 2010, the hotel has manufactured and donated more than 70 steel cages, which enable the farmers to protect their cattle at night. The difference is remarkable. In the 5 years before the project began, 50 leopards were killed by farmers trying to project their livestock. Since 2010, however, the farmers have not lost any cattle to leopard attacks – and so neither have they killed any leopards. And over the same period, the farmers have seen their income increase by over 20%.
Cinnamon also engages with its traditional competitors – the other Yala lodges and camps – coming together to fill the park’s watering holes during droughts, while making sure they too see the benefit to them of its conservation work. Even the production of the steel pens has been implemented to maximise local benefits – with local welding businesses making an extra $28,500 in the last six years through the contracts for their construction.
Finally, tourists reap the rewards too. Of course more leopards means more sightings, which makes for better safari experiences. But Yala has also made the project part of its offer to guests, who can now spend a morning with a farmer, learning of their lives and sharing tea together. The cage may keep leopards out, but in so doing it has brought many more communities together.