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With the recent deaths of two leopards in two different incidents in the Udawalawa National Park and Labukelle peeking public interest once again on protection of the Sri Lankan Leopard, the general public especially on social media sites have lately taken issue with a eco tourism hotel in Deniyaya by the name of Rainforest Eco Lodge allegedly promoting Leopard trekking night time safaris on their social media page.

Many allegations have been leveled against the hotel in the said letter, including that of engaging in illegal Leopard trekking safaris thereby harassing the animal, the setting up of cameras to indentify Leopard dens as well as construction of the hotel illegally in the Sinharaja forest buffer zone

The said hotel had uploaded a photograph of a Leopard in a cave with the post maintaining that the hotel’s ‘experienced trekkers’ had on receiving information about it traced the animal. The echo lodge states that treks can be arranged for adventurous guests on requests. The resurfacing of this post and the claim by the hotel however has now outraged nature lovers. The hotel has received a major backlash due to the issue and certain environmental organizations have petitioned to various government institutions to probe the matter.

Serious allegations
Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, an environmental organization, has written to the President, Prime Minister and several other parties detailing a list of allegations against the hotel.

Many allegations have been leveled against the hotel in the said letter, including that of engaging in illegal Leopard trekking safaris thereby harassing the animal, the setting up of cameras to indentify Leopard dens as well as construction of the hotel illegally in the Sinharaja forest buffer zone.

However, when contacted by The Nation Conservationist Rukshan Jayawardene of the Leopard Trust said according to his knowledge the photograph which has resurfaced is in fact over a year old. According to him the photograph shows a Leopard that was caught in a snare during the month of April last year. “The wildlife authorities were called to the scene in order to free the animal,” he said adding that the animal was trapped in the cave for somewhere between 24 – 36 hours. According to Jayawardene he believes the photograph was taken during this period and not during a night time trek as claimed by the hotel in order to promote the establishment. “If the Leopard was not ensnared it is likely the photographer would have been attacked and even killed” he said. Rukshan Jayawardene went onto explain that it is highly unlikely that anyone would have the competency to carry out such a safari as even leading Leopard researchers would not dare to track a Leopard to its lair due to their nature as the animals are known to not back down when confronted.

UNESCO seeks clarification
Secretary General of the Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO, Dhammikaa Wijesinghe confirmed that they had received a complaint from Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka regarding alleged illegal and dangerous harassment of Leopards by staff at the Rainforest Eco-Lodge. However, she noted they did not have any additional information at present to verify whether any of the allegations were true.

“We will be writing to the Ministry of Environment to seek clarification as they are the state party to the natural heritage sites,” she added. Wijesinghe said the letter would also be copied to the Department of Forest Conservation requesting the department to inquire into the matter and report back to UNESCO as soon as possible. In the meantime, she said discussions would be held with the Deputy Conservator General of Forests.

Another allegation against the hotel is that the establishment has been constructed in the Sinharaja buffer zone. According to the allegation the land, named Ensalwatta, Deniyaya, where the hotel is located, was part of the Land Reforms Commission (LRC) to be annexed to the Sinharaja rainforest as part of a cabinet directive PS/CP/26/2004 on July 22, 2004. However as confirmed by leading Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardana on a visit to the site inspection of the land revealed the hotel is located outside the boundary marked by the LRC. Therefore there is no illegality in this instance he said. While fingers were also pointed at the Forest Conservation Department for not taking steps to annex the rightful land to the forest, when contacted by The Nation Chief Conservator General of Forests Anura Satharasinghe said all steps had been taken to demarcate the land. “However it is the LRC that is pulling back on the matter by demanding compensation to be paid for land that is to be annexed” he said.

Eco Lodge responds
Responding to the various allegations, Rain Forest Eco Lodge (Pvt) Ltd Assistant Manager of Business Development Kevin Wijeratna, in an email, stated that the picture of the trapped Leopard was taken one an half years ago and posted on the site, but to date the hotel has never taken any guests on night treks to the so called leopard dens or undertake such tours. However, this is contrary to a reply by the hotel to a guest’s inquiry regarding the incident on social media and the post has since been removed by the hotel.

Also Wijeratna clarified that Rainforest Eco Lodge obtained all statutory approvals from the relevant authorities before commencing operations three years ago, contrary to allegations of being built illegally. Further according to him the hotel has not set up camera traps to locate dens of Leopards adding that it was in fact a guest who was able to obtain images of another Leopard through such a trap in a different situation.

Therefore according to Conservationist Rukshan Jayawardene of the Leopard Trust in this instance the uproar created is not required. “When it comes to protection of Leopards this is a non issue as this was a trek that never happened” he said adding that this is in no way an attempt to exonerate the hotel or defend them.

False advertising
While stating that even attempting such a trek is foolhardy as well as illegal, Jayawardene said in this instance the hotel is only guilty of attempting to misuse the photograph for promotional purposes and that has now backfired on them. “If at all they have misled the customers through such a claim as sighting Leopards is highly sought after by nature enthusiasts” he said adding that the incident has brought into question the judgment of the Eco Hotel.

Along with false as well as misleading advertising by a corporate in order to promote themselves, the story also brings to light the issue of false information being circulated on social media at breakneck by at times over zealous organizations or otherwise for reasons best known to them.  This can be seen clearly with many people having received news of the allegations flooding the social media page with negative comments despite not having verification of the matter. The story also therefore highlights the need of responsible reporting and verification by media at all times, a duty neglected quite often today.

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