An Innovative Scheme for YALA National Park: Cable Car Journeys

Nigel Kerner, a reprint from The Island, 5 October 2013

I am an expat Sri Lankan and I wrote about this some years ago and it was published in this paper. It is time for a reminder, in the light of recent happenings, for the wheels of innovation in Sri Lanka sometimes grind exceedingly slow.

CABLE CAR NEW COLOURThe recent internationally featured article on the chaos that reigns in Ruhuna (YALA) National Park in Sri Lanka has brought into focus the utterly asinine situation that prevails in the beautiful National Parks of lovely Sri Lanka. The description that this island is a true paradise is not a tourist euphemism. It is topographically, scenically, historically and culturally just that, a Paradise. However, as with most things, the mote in the eye of the beholder runs a ragged route and there is much that is yet untended and out of focus in the Sri Lankan tourist industry.

Now how does this reflect on a National Park and all that it offers to the unsuspecting witness. It offers the chaos that you see with thirty jeeps chasing the sight of one leopard.

My last three experiences of visiting Ruhuna National Park (YALA) in 2011 and 2012 were, to say the least, chaotic. I went within the usual tourist ethos of a visit i.e.: local rest house or hotel facilities, to jeep and a long meandering run in a line of about twenty jeeps, on one occasion. I was in the middle of the line on all three visits and saw very few animals or indeed birds. This was of course logical, because many of the jeeps, usually badly maintained, sounded like rocket sledges and the approach of the first one in line usually frightened off most of the more mobile animals, with the result that the jeeps in the middle and the back of the line saw almost nothing.

LEOPARD  It was a farce. On one occasion a leopard was spotted on a tree. Within 15 minutes there were thirty jeeps crowded in every possible piece of road space near that tree. Mobile phones in the possession of the drivers saw to that. The leopard shifted position anxiously it seemed and then bounded down at speed and disappeared into the forest cover.

I talked to the locals and was told that this was an everyday occurrence and many tourists were complaining that they never get value for money at the venue, after sometimes long and arduous journeys to get there. I talked to many tourists and the majority consensus was that our national parks were a washout and the last on their list, as a tourist attraction, because of a previous experience, or what they had heard from friends. It would amount to a huge revenue loss to those concerned, not least the reputation of Sri Lanka as one of the top tourist venues in the world.

I have to admit that my instincts are that of a wildlife conservationist and ideally I would love to leave the wondrous wildlife of Sri Lanka in their own realms, to their own devices, undisturbed. But this is to ignore the huge national tourist asset they are and thus an unrealistic notion, when seen as a huge fiscal asset in developing the national economy. There had to be a compromise that would serve as an all-round solution to this dichotomy, and on thinking about this all, I struck on this idea:


I propose the installation of a cable system to take visitors silently and in obscurity all around the full extent of the National Park, The silent glide-way will permit a minimum of disturbance to the incumbent fauna and flora and at the same time give a maximised view of all the bird life, fauna and flora life in the park. The disturbance to the wildlife now is horrendous and this will cure this problem at a stroke.

The cable glide way will require the installation of a series of metal or strengthened concrete pylons along the route lines of the park’s already existent network of roads. This will be true for any park but is especially suitable for Ruhuna, by far the most popular. These pylons placed perhaps 20 metres apart will support a cable which will support a number of Perspex or heavy transparent plastic enclosed viewing capsules, or gondolas, made from heavy rattan spars and a central seating spar on which 22 people, ten on either side, and two trackers guides will sit to observe or to photograph the wild life. Each of these capsules will move off from a central loading area and travel at spaced intervals along the cable line. A speed of about ten kilometres an hour will be ideal. An ideal height would be 40 ft. above ground level measured to the bottom of each capsule to allow for the maximum view of both ground and tree borne fauna and flora. The propulsion system should be electrical, through either grid, or a single point generator produced electricity, or both, to allow for emergencies and power cuts. Something like the way Ski cableways operate. There will be no danger to bird life or wild life, because the cable would have to be earthed at the point of contact for electrocution to take place. Shielded or insulated carrier wires could also be used where the live wire is only partly exposed and contact is only accessed by an acute probe on the cabin support structure itself. Alternatively each moving cabin could carry high conservancy high powered lithium batteries powering a motor that would require overnight charging. This would probably need a driver in the cab. It would thus be silent through the park and speed can be varied according the load capacity borne at any given time.

Toilet facilities can be provided at requisite spaced points and built alongside any one of the pylons along the route. An emergency ladder set up underneath the capsule could extend to ground level for evacuation purposes in a medical or other emergency.

All the technicalities will of course be the prerogative of a qualified design engineer.

The initial expense of the erection of the requisite pylon numbers and cable line for say a 30km closed looped journey around the park and the cocoon cars will be the heaviest costing. Distances and numbers of all these requisites could be calculated according to tourist number projections.

This could be a hugely profitable project for either the Government or Private Enterprise.

Surely the whole project is not beyond the capacities of any good structural and electrical engineer. I am no expert, but even I can see its simple structural form will not require rocket science.

In summary the whole thing will provide:

* A silent and minimally invasive viewing base for all round viewing of both flora, birds and fauna at the closest quarters. To me the most important factor of all. The view from slightly above the usual scrub jungle that constitutes most of our national parks will be spectacular and intimate, because your view is not being interrupted by the thick tangle of branches and broad leaves presented to the eye obscuring viewing aspects at ground level. In a view from above, leaves and branches are seen in their narrowest aspect. It all means you see far more than from ground level.

* Easily maintained infrastructure. Steel strengthened concrete pillars require little or no maintenance.

* Flexible capacity for increasing or decreasing viewing numbers that are centrally polled. The number of gondolas circulating around the park can be varied and their locations and status at any one moment monitored electronically from a central control room or point of embarkation.

LIKELY CONSEQUENCES:  The re-vamped system will take out the gangs who run the present chaotic system: This of course will result in a display of protest and resistance because the present jeep drivers and trackers and jeep owners will lose their income.

No they won’t. The jeep owners can sponsor or buy into the scheme or buy specific gondolas. The income of which accrues to them or as a proportion of government fiscal interest in each gondola if the whole scheme is done on a private /government joint enterprise basis. The drivers and trackers can change jobs and act as guide escorts or cabin attendants, one or two for each car on the cable run. They will work on a shift basis thereby increasing numbers employed.

The tourists want their cameras clicking.

More clicks than ever, for more tourists at any one time, in more places at any one time. A treasure of all wildlife and topographical features revealed that are never seen by the average visitor in the past.

The park authorities won’t need the muddy roads and potholes constantly filled and thus there will be a loss of maintenance jobs.

No. The staff doing this at present could act as maintenance teams servicing the cable cabins and cable runway. Access roads will still be required too.

OPERATIONAL GUIDELINES: The cable way could include a capacity for thirty moving capsules on its overall route grid at any one time during daylight hours. Spaced at a kilometre apart, perhaps on a thirty kilometre total run. Each capsule or gondola could hold a maximum of twenty two people. They could move at 10 kilometres an hour, a speed slow enough to permit clear and detailed views of all wildlife be it birds flora or fauna. Beginning at 6.00am the first run could finish the whole loop of 30kms in three hours. The next run could begin at 9.00am and finish at 12 noon. The next begin at 12 noon and finish at 3pm. An evening/night run beginning at 3pm and ending at 6pm. A further night run could be the most popular run, if infra-red viewing mechanisms are provided for night viewing.

All this working at full efficiently operated capacity could take 2400 people around the park each day. Operating at 330 days a year. This would to allow for maintenance times and general park maintenance when the park can be closed. And of course Poya days and other religious holidays may not permit a run.

The fiscal income will be enormous per annum. It is reliably estimated that about 1.5 million people will visit Sri Lanka as tourists annually by 2017. Our game parks are a central feature of interest. A well run operation can expect 350,000 visitors to Ruhuna Park alone. That would provide an earning capacity per annum of  Rs: 1,500,000,000.

NIGEL K  Nigel Kerner

Below are listed estimated  maximums.

Gondolas: 30

The capacity of each Gondola: 22 adults

The number of runs per gondola each day: 4. 6am to 9am, 9am to Noon, Noon to 3pm, 3pm to 6pm.

Charge per tourist for each run: Rs 3000.

Operational of days per year: 320

I cannot cost the initial building of the scheme because it involves future prices. But it is not likely to cost what the scheme will make in a year. The rest will be huge profits into the future with all bank loans fully paid.

The system will provide:

*Centrally controlled and marshalled safety mechanisms.

*Guaranteed fiscal returns into the future. Sri Lanka according to the main tourist authorities will be welcoming over a million and a half tourists at a minimum annually by 2017. In 2012 the London Daily Telegraph carried an affirmation that Sri Lanka was the No 1 tourist venue in the world all things considered. The vastly better infrastructural transport and hotel facilities make Ruhuna an even more attractive tourist attraction since then.

*Better capacity for mobile educational facilities through on-site organised lecture tours. School lectures could be organised, thus keeping the younger generation of our people interested, advised and involved in the husbandry and future protection of the precious natural assets of their homeland.

*Best possible preservation capacity for historically significant sites within the park.

*Night safaris with electrical infra-red lighting mechanisms that will educate and inform in an unusual and novel way and reveal the night world of some of our wildlife, with the minimum of disturbance to the wildlife. A great boon to specialist scientific study too.

MAIN BENEFIT:  I am convinced that in a short time the wildlife in the park will get used to the Cable-Way and pay it little or no attention to it. It could be painted forest green to merge with the foliage. The animals will feel safe from the people and the visitors will feel safe in their elevated cocoon from the wildlife.

If well maintained, the light but strongly constructed viewing cabins made from heavy cane and Plexiglas with windows that can open and close will provide an ideal way of getting really close to the day to day symposiums of the wild world for really worthwhile photography.

Everyone wins.

Over to you all, you private entrepreneurs, and relevant government ministers and administrators. How many visionaries are there among you.

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