Yala National Park in Sri Lanka recently enacted a partial ban on cell phones to protect park wildlife from animal and car collisions. Within the past year, protected leopards, elephants, deer, and bears have been killed in accidents. Park officials believe that cell-phone use has attributed to these incidents, noting that when tourists communicate an animal's position via mobile device, other visitors rush to the location with hopes of seeing the animal. Yala rangers are worried that this eagerness to see wild animals is what is causing the fatal accidents. Therefore, with the help of mobile service providers, the park has effectively blocked all cell service within the park during the peak hours of 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. in addition to the ban during these times.
The new rule is already in effect, but it's too soon to determine if it helps protect the wildlife. However, regulations on cell phones in protected areas are not a conversation reserved only for Yala. As we become increasingly tied to our devices, it poses the questions: Do cell phones have a place in protected wilderness? Do cell phones cause more harm or help in nature?
According to Linda Friar, information officer for the National Park Service (NPS) Eastern All Risk Incident Management Team, technology has always had a place in our national parks. And as technology changes with the times, so does its presence in nature and relationship with the NPS. "Visitors to national parks have taken memento photos for nearly 100 years, the technology may have changed, but the activity hasn't," says Friar. "Whether it's a small camera or a cell phone, we hold our visitor safety as the highest priority and provide guidance to keep a safe distance from wildlife and to explore remote area's responsibly. There is no current discussion to ban cell phones from national parks."
In fact, U.S. national parks like Yellowstone incorporate technology to promote awareness and interest in wildlife with apps (such as the YNP Wildlife app) that allow you to track herds of bison, pronghorn, and wolves within park boundaries. While cutting down on the number of visitors disappointed by not seeing a few creatures in the wild, these promoted interactions increase the numbers of human/animal contact, which in turn increases the chances that something could go wrong. An app called Where's a Bear promises news of "up-to-the-second animal sightings" in Yellowstone, but with hordes of people descending upon grizzlies fishing in a stream or a pack of wolves feeding on a carcass, there is concern that the animals will become too comfortable around humans, that crowds will put stress or unnecessary interactions on the animals, and that this will create a loss of that "special" feeling of not knowing what to expect out in nature. So while it does promote interest and increases interaction, there are negative consequences.
The consequences can go beyond endangering wildlife, however. In the past few years, there have been countless incidents attributing selfies, social media posts, and cell phone use to human deaths in national parks and wilderness areas. Examples can be found in headlines from all around the world:
In Japan, the mobile network NTT DOCOMO announced this year that they are providing eight Wi-Fi hotspots on Mount Fuji — including one at the 12,389-foot mountain peak. Similarly, there have been rumors from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that a $34 million fiber-optic network could soon run through Yellowstone National Park and along roads leading to Grand Teton National Park. Verizon has reportedly installed equipment on a tower to provide service at Mammoth Hot Springs. These integrations of technology into wilderness areas is a chance to broaden the use of national parks to younger generations, but how much should nature adapt to us rather than us adapting to nature?
It's a struggle that the parks are having to address, with concerns of balancing the ability to keep enough interest and revenue in the parks while still maintaining what the parks are protected for in the first place: nature. In March, the NPS announced a "Go Digital" initiative as part of its A Call to Action plan for the NPS's 100th anniversary. "As we approach our centennial year, 2016, and strive to connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates, digital strategies are part of our outreach efforts," says Friar.
And while efforts are being made to modernize and integrate, the chances of technology invading the total acreage managed by the park service — which totals 84.5 million acres, with about half of that designated wilderness — anytime soon is slim. So even if tourist hubs have WiFi and abundant cell towers, the vast wilderness areas are not likely to have digital access due to their primitive-by-law nature that, for starters, prevents mechanized vehicles from entering. You might be able to Instagram selfies (at your own risk) next to Yellowstone's most famous geyser, but don't expect to be checking your email next time you are camping in Death Valley.