Questions over amnesty period granted for Wildlife offences

24 September 2013 06:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Following a press briefing by the Minister of Wildlife Conservation Vijith Vijayamuni Zoysa, environmentalists expressed their concern and disbelief over the recent decisions taken by the Minister. They claimed that the decisions made by  him regarding illegally abducted elephants, illegal turtle hatcheries and raiding illegally captured ring necked parakeets have jeopardised the very subject the Minister is supposed to safeguard.

The press briefing which caused quite a stir among the environmentalists focused on granting an amnesty period to hand over the illegally abducted elephants. It was widely reported that the Minster has decided to provide licences for the elephants that are handed over to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) during this amnesty period. There were news reports which also claimed that the Minister has decided to stop the raids conducted to confiscate illegally captured ringed parakeets and to issue licences for illegally run turtle hatcheries.


A collective of environmental organisations gathered to express their objection to these decisions and some environmentalists raised doubts over the credibility of the advisers to the Minister who advise him on issues relating to wildlife.
“We know that Minister Zoysa is just another legislator who doesn’t have a deep understanding about wildlife and that his advisers help him to reach certain decisions. But it is questionable that anybody who knows anything about wildlife would advise the Minister to reach such decisions, unless they have an ulterior motive other than protecting wildlife” said environmental activist Nayanaka Ranwella.




Amnesty period- doing more harm than good?
Ranwella claimed that since the Minister’s decision was announced about providing licences to illegally abducted elephants, attempts to abduct elephants are already being reported from Yala, Habarana and Galgamuwa. He also said that they have received news of a group that has camped outside a forest area in Anuradhapura to abduct elephant calves.

He pointed out that the amnesty period will be a stepping stone for those who are involved in the racket of abducting elephants.

“These elephants are taken from their mothers and sometimes the mother is killed while abducting the elephant calf. Most of these animals are then sold to temples and wealthy businessmen. Some of the elephants that go in processions are abducted elephants that have been domesticated” he alleged.

Nadeeka Hapuarachchi from the Galle Wildlife Conservation Society said 359 elephants have been registered in the DWC as elephants not living in the wild. From that 359 elephants 94 are in the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens and the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Thus about 205 elephants are among the possession of private owners.

Ranwella commenting on this situation said that while there are 205 elephants with private owners, they often complain there aren’t enough elephants to participate in Perahera processions and added that their claim is not environmental friendly because there have been many instances where elephants have been treated in the most brutal manner to tame them. He also added that after 1990 there have been no births among the domesticated elephant population in Sri Lanka and added that most of the elephant calves found in temples and houses of wealthy businessman are elephant calves that have been abducted from the wild. He noted that most elephant calves have to undergo severe conditions as they are kept in enclosed areas and garages because they are closely hidden until tamed.

 “There were even video tapes of persons holding the top most positions in the Dalada Maligawa allegedly beating an elephant calf. When MP Jospeh Micheal Perera donated the elephant ‘Kapila’ , to a temple it died of malnutrition. Kapila was also said to be an abducted elephant. Also we have found out that elephants released into the wild from the Udawalawe Elephant Care Centre are being abducted. Since a chip is inserted into these elephants’ hind legs for the purpose of later identifying it, the abductors are now careful to remove it when the elephant is caught. In some cases when the elephant calf is still conscious they have cut into the legs of the elephant to take the chip out. This type of cruel activities are further encouraged by the Minister’s decision to grant an amnesty period to turn in abducted elephants so as to give them licences. It is similar to declaring that all rapists are given an amnesty period” charged Ranwella.






No legal basis for amnesty period?
Senior Environmental Lawyer, Jagath Gunawardena said the Minister cannot declare such an amnesty period as there is no legal provision to do so.  He pointed out Section 12 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance (FFPO) which states that no elephant can be kept out of the wild without registering and obtaining a licence from the DWC. He noted that there is a legal assumption by the Act that any elephant kept without a licence is a stolen elephant.

Gunawardena also noted that  when an unlicenced or illegally abducted elephant is found, the captors or the ‘owners’ are prosecuted under the Public Property Act for
There were even video tapes of persons holding the topmost positions in the Dalada Maligawa allegedly beating an elephant calf. When MP Jospeh Micheal Perera donated the elephant ‘Kapila’ , to a temple it died of malnutrition. Kapila was also an abducted elephant
violating public property. He said that while this is a non- bailable offence the Minister does not have the power to grant amnesty for violating public property under the Act.

“The only thing the Minister can do is to waive off the fine provided for the offence. Thus it is clear that whoever advised the Minister to take these decisions did not know the boundaries of the legal framework protecting wildlife” he added.

Meanwhile Hapuarachchi claimed that one of the advisers to Minister Zoysa is also a defendant in a court case relating to an alleged illegally abduction of an elephant in Balangoda. He said that in such circumstances there is reasonable room to question the credibility of the advisers.




Will establish a DNA database
When the Minister’s media secretary, Nayana Thennakoon was inquired about this issue earlier, he said the Minister came into this decision to discourage the abduction of elephants and to have a complete record of the domesticated elephants.

“The Minister has given instructions to set-up a DNA database after inserting a chip into these elephants that have the licence to be reared out of the wild. This will immediately tell us which elephant is illegally held, as ones who will have licenses will have the chip and their records will be in our data base with their DNA data” he said.

However Minister Zoysa declined to comment further on this issue. He said he will be holding a press briefing soon to explain his decision and told us to contact him later as he is busy with provincial election activities.




Banning raids on illegal sale of parakeets
Gunawardena also criticised the decision taken by the Minister of Wildlife Conservation to ban all raids conducted to apprehend those who sell parakeets without a licence. He said that though they are not protected animals according to the FPPO they cannot be sold without a licence as all sales of wildlife done without a licence are illegal according to Section 49 of the FFPO. He said that it would be a dereliction of duty as the immediate power to apprehend these illegal sellers placed on the DWC. He said though the Minister claims that the Customs have the duty to take these illegally imported bird nests and birds into custody , the legal provisions merely pass the duty to Customs if the need arises but the provisions has not excluded the power of DWC to carry out raids.




Turtle hatcheries promoting turtle conservation for tourism?
 Shantha Jayaweera, an expert on Marine Biology and a member of the Organisation for Aquatic Resources Management (OARM) voiced his concern about the legalisation of illegally run turtle hatcheries.

He said there are 15 turtle hatcheries islandwide and only about two of these hatcheries follow the guidelines to conserve turtles.

“They were advised to keep 20% of the hatched turtles in their ponds for the tourism attraction factor and to release the other 80% of the hatched turtle to the sea to increase he turtle population. But only about two hatcheries follow this process. Others try to put as many turtles as they could into one pond and in some places there is hardly enough room for the turtle to come to the surface and breathe as there are too many turtles in one pond. So how can we expect the DWC to monitor these hatcheries and ensure that they will be committed to turtle conservation” he questioned.

Jayaweera said most turtle hatcheries do not release the hatched turtles into the sea right after they come out of the egg because they want to keep them at least for three days for the tourists to see.  He said they label these turtles as one day old turtles and three days old turtles for the tourists to see young turtles and eventually after several days they are released into the sea.

 Explaining the repercussions of this method, Jayaweera said that for two days after they are born turtles flap their arms to go as far as they can go, out into the sea. Only on the third day they begin to search for food. He pointed out that they try to go as far as possible to avoid predators that eat young turtles. However when they are released on the third day they do not learn to swim but merely wait for food in the shallow sea. At this moment Jayaweera said that most of the turtles are eaten by other predators or they try to eat each other as they cannot find food in the shallow sea. In this manner most of the turtles do not live to be fully grown turtles and their gene pools die due to the non completion of the reproduction cycle.

“Out of the seven species of turtles found in the world, Sri Lanka can see five species in our shores and all of them endangered species. Thus it is important to have an organized mechanism to conserve turtles. Most of the hatcheries take the eggs and put it in a sand pit which has a concrete bottom. But the depth of the pit the turtles dig to lay eggs is different from each species as they need different temperatures to hatch. So only a small number of turtle eggs are hatched or some hatched turtles find it difficult to dig their way out of the pit if the pit is too deep. In the end it causes their population to dwindle because of human intervention. The best conservation effort is the one done in Rakawa as the conservation of eggs is done where the turtle lays eggs and the turtles  can go straight to the sea when the eggs are hatched” he added.

Jayaweera expressed his doubts over the monitoring process and questioned that if the DWC cannot limit the coral destruction, how can they be effective in monitoring turtle hatcheries which are geared towards promoting tourism and not turtle conservation.

DWC’s media spokesperson Hasini Sarathchandra however said that though the process is not initialised yet, when the licences for the unlicensed hatcheries are issued the DWC will be carrying out regular inquiries to see whether the licenced ones are up to the specified standards.

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