By Ashani Jayasundara, Sahla Ilham
World Wildlife Day fell on March 3. The day is meant to focus attention towards wildlife crime and illegal wildlife trafficking, a topic that has often been spoken of in Sri Lanka, since environmentalists claim there is an unprecedented spike in the illegal wildlife trade, threatening the existence of numerous species.
According to Sajeewa Chamikara, the Director of Environment Conservation Trust (ECT), Sri Lanka is among the 34 ‘Biodiversity Hotspots’ in the world, where wildlife trade is particularly threatening species. He defined Sri Lanka as a ‘Hotspot’ for being a bio-geographic region under the threat of humans, “Among those 34 countries, eight countries are known as the ‘hottest hot- spots’ in the world and Sri Lanka is one of those eight countries.”
Chamikara added that illegal wildlife trade is driven by high profit margins, “There are so many circumstances that hinder the process of implementing necessary laws against illegal wildlife trading in the country. The Wildlife Conservation Department also fails to take legal action against this kind of trading due to political interference.”
He also remarked that the Biodiversity unit at the Airport custom office is responsible for monitoring the biological resources that are being smuggled from the country though smuggling of rare species has been encouraged by the officials in the Airport custom in the recent times, “Smuggling of Wallapatta was a trade for a long time. Star tortoises and horned- lizards have also been illegally transported from Sri Lanka. Mattala Airport was used in the illegal wildlife trafficking for a long period of time.”
Chamikara further commented that the Department of Wildlife had given much priority to tourism and has failed to control the incidents related to wildlife trafficking. He also affirmed the point that in Sri Lanka there is an increase in the elephant trading since 2007 stressing that the government should be mainly responsible for the issue.
Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism, Vasantha Senanayake spoke to The Nation regarding the issues and affirmed that there are absolute facts that cause threats to the wildlife including the unplanned constructions that affect the traditional wildlife, “Most of these unplanned developments have affected the loss of the habitats for the wildlife. Encroaching of wildlife territories has resulted in the displacement of the cattle in Sri Lanka, which is a major current issue.”
Since human-elephant conflict has been a continual issue in the country, he added, “The illegal settlements, encroaching on wild parks and unplanned constructions have also displaced these elephants. There is not enough food for these animals due to human habitats. As a result they roam around human dwelling areas in search of food and disturb the residents becoming a threat to the people.”
He further commented that some of the environmental projects like Uma Oya affect the wildlife in the vicinity. Since there have been a lot of efforts taken for wild-life conservation, he said that the government tries to minimize the rising circumstances, “Government’s concern is there for both parties, to make least disturbance to both elephants and humans. Loss of environment for these animals is the main issue. So as result of these constructions, the grasslands are decreased and the animals like cattle lose habitats to dwell. Anyway, wildlife trafficking is banned. There are great penalties for traffickers in Sri Lanka. People buy these rare species and there is a good demand. So we have to stop marketing.”
Coordinator Operations at Federation of Environmental Organizations (FEO) Vinod Malwatte pointed to the case of 369 tusks which are considered to be blood ivory still held at the Colombo port after their detection in 2012. He said they wanted to see the ivory being burnt. Using land for agricultural purposes, such as banana cultivation in lands such as Tindukulum, should be stopped, he added.
“It also a contributing factor to the human-elephant conflict. Some 300 elephants die every day due to this issue. According to migration patterns elephants seasonally take routes to drink water. If the land used for this is encroached then there is a higher chance for conflict to increase.”
Environmentalist Rukshan Jayawardene said there has been an increase in illegal international animal trade in Sri Lanka.
When it comes to human-elephant conflict the situation is mainly created by humans. People have been invading the lands of elephants for agriculture. Therefore elephants do not have food. Badly placed settlements and politicians aggravate the situation, he alleged.
When it comes to illegal land encroachment, the situation is also the same, because of illegal settlements, violations of the protection the National parks and sanctuaries, and lower level politics. Especially illegal settlements should not be close to fauna and flora in parks such as Wilpattu. It illegal and it is breaking laws. Human habitation makes the land porous and even something like picking firewood can be damaging. Jurisdictions are violated and one would expect change. After all this land also belongs to future generations, and we cannot let one government destroy it, Jayawardene stressed.
Environment lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena said that for the past five years there has been an increase in the incidents related to wildlife crime and wildlife trading. He added, “The laws are there but the implementation mechanism is really weak in Sri Lanka. Although law is there the necessary legal steps are not being taken by the relevant authorities.”
He further explained, “The problem is that the humans are destroying the habitats and these animals are displaced and perish as a result. There are anyway negative impacts on the people too. It is not problem of only the animals, but the humans too.”
Gunawardena also affirmed that the enforcement of the laws have been hindered by the corruption of officials due to political interference and demoralization of the Department of Wildlife and other problems, “Impact is frequently made worse by habitat loss and other pressures.”
Director, Environmental Foundation Ltd., Eric Wickramanayake stated there are not many tuskers in Sri Lanka, and most of the illegal ivory trade in Sri Lanka is from shipments from Africa which are on transit to China and the Middle East. The government should protect the elephants as they are assets to the country. Sri Lanka has a lot of wildlife, when it comes to the Asian Elephant the country is only second to India, he noted.
It has become evident, that our own iconic elephant seems to be center of most issues surrounding today’s wildlife problems. It should be noted that Sri Lanka seems to be taking the Elephant as a tourism icon, but the government should be giving more consideration for its protection.