2020 Jun 30
The Emerald Isle, Sri Lanka has it all – lush forests, beautiful mountain ranges and majestic rivers, all surrounded by the incredible Indian Ocean. These are not just breathtaking sights, but these are also home to Asia’s largest concentration of flora and fauna, most of whom are endemic to the island. Unfortunately, this is where the sunshine associated with this label ends. Possessing extremely bio-diverse wildlife on a small island has paved way for a notorious multi-billion dollar industry to raise its ugly head in Sri Lanka.
All over the planet, animals and plants are caught or harvested from their natural habitats to be sold to a variety of markets – exquisite cuisines, skin and pelt, perfume ingredients, household ornaments, indigenous medicine and even as live test subjects for various research programs. The infamous practice of wildlife trafficking has been established in various scales, from large international organisations using elephants, tigers, whales and exotic birds as contraband, to local vendors selling rare spiders and indigenous fish.
The global smuggling arena
The illegal trade of wildlife has been around for decades, with an increasingly popular market for “organs of interest”. It is now labelled an organized crime and has become the 3rd most illegitimate form of trade, following drugs and weapons.
Majority of international wildlife trade currently takes place between Africa and East Asian countries. These transactions utilise nautical routes to attract minimum attention and remain under the radar of trafficking authorities. These routes use Sri Lanka’s strategic ports for refuelling and layovers in their voyages. This has led to the infamous development of Sri Lanka’s ports as illegal trading hubs for wildlife and wildlife associated goods.
Two significant accounts are the seizing and destroying of 359 pieces of blood ivory by Customs in 2012, and the apprehension of 28 containers of Madagascar Redwood in 2014. Evidence of such vessels passing undetected through the harbours of Sri Lanka has also been reported following the confiscation of such trafficked goods by officials at their destination ports.
Species of interest in Sri Lanka
Focusing on wildlife trafficking within the island, such activities go hand in hand with Sri Lanka’s menace poaching industry and has seen a spike in the last two years. With the majority of poaching being subsistence, species such as deer, sambar and wild boar are hunted by farmers and local villagers for food and additional income. These activities use primitive equipment and are common on the borders of the island’s national parks.
However, inadequate attention to this minuscule industry has led to its growth and shift to the international trade of Sri Lanka’s endemic wildlife for the following markets:
- Exotic pets and prized possessions
Studies have shown that 18 species of Sri Lankan reptiles have found their way to households in Europe, where they are being reared as exotic pets. The studies also show that out of the 18 species, 13 are relatively new to the listing of illegal trade, indicating a clear rise in the demand for our country’s reptiles in this part of the world. Species include native snakes and Agamid lizards, who go for over US$1000 per specimen and can be seen sold online through European websites such as www.terraristik.com.
Of these species, the most popular is the Indian Star Tortoise – native to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Since 1997, illegal smuggling of approximately 5500 star tortoises have been interrupted by the Sri Lankan authorities, as per Anslem De Silva – a leading herpetologist. The striking yellow and black markings on the shells of these creatures are believed to bring favour and good fortune to houses. Moreover, their slow movement and calm behaviour make them easy to poach and maintain within small compounds.
Trafficking of items such as elephant ivory and leopard skin has not been a major issue in Sri Lanka. Looking at ivory, only 5% of the island’s elephant population are tuskers. In addition to this, elephants are considered an “umbrella” species to Sri Lanka’s wildlife, meaning their conservation benefits a wide spectrum of island’s flora and fauna. Therefore, trafficking of tusks is considered a near-impossible task to hunters with the country’s regulations surrounding elephant well-being. However, despite these regulations, a group of eight Sri Lankans were arrested while attempting to smuggle baby elephants for sale as symbols of wealth in June 2019.
- Bushmeat and Traditional Medicine Practices
The biggest victim of illegal trade in Sri Lanka is the Indian Pangolin, a member of the scaly ant-eater family found on the island. Known as the “world’s most trafficked mammal”, its meat has now infamously shifted from being a local delicacy to commercial trade. Along with their bushmeat, pangolin scales and bile have also been sought after in many East Asian regions for traditional medicinal uses. Pangolins have never received the conservational attention it should have, unlike species like leopards and elephants, assumingly because it is rarely seen by humans – being a nocturnal hunter of ants and termites.
In January this year, a Chinese national was apprehended at the Bandaranaike International Airport while trying to smuggle 200 live scorpions to mainland China. Upon questioning, authorities found out that the smuggler had acquired most of his catch from many regions in the island, through intel received from local tuk drivers. The venom was to be extracted once the individual landed in China for aid in the traditional treatment of diseases such as arthritis, muscle sclerosis and cancer.
Sri Lankan leopards have received a lot of attention in the past month after the death of the island’s famous black leopard. There has been speculation amongst conservationists that the snare was strategically placed to capture the leopard in an attempt to retrieve its rare skin. However, no concrete evidence has presented itself to date. Wildlife experts say that in addition to their fur, these magnificent creatures are also hunted by locals for their claws, bones and teeth to be sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine practices.
In addition to the smuggling of timber for construction from unlawful deforestation, some of the island’s tree species are cut down and sold for ingredients in perfumes and incenses. Agarwood is a highly aromatic resinous substance secreted by members of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops families as a defence mechanism against parasites such as fungi and insects. Floral conservationists have stated that only 10% of the Gyrinops walla trees on the island are mature enough to produce the resin, whereas there has been an increase in young saplings also cut down unknowingly by traffickers.
Reasons for concern
Quality of Sri Lanka’s natural ecosystem has seen a decline in recent years, mainly due to habitat loss and climate change. The addition of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade has enhanced the downward trend of endangered and threatened species in the island, as they also end up as non-targeted victims in traps set up by hunters. This has made conservationists’ task of protecting the island’s endemic wildlife all the more difficult.
All over the world, zoos are being set up with the aim of increasing the population of endangered species through controlled breeding programs. However, this noble concept has been tarnished with the influence of politics and other financial leverage. New-born animals in captivity, especially big cats, have been smuggled out of these establishments for increased trade through incest breeding. Moreover, the release of animals raised in captivity to the wild is also considered disastrous by conservationists. These animals are often killed by predators, not knowing to defend themselves. Furthermore, these creatures are friendlier towards humans and wander into civilisation, causing unnecessary misunderstood conflicts.
Illicit trade of wildlife also paints a picture beyond that what meets the eye. One of the bigger side effects that can be traced back to this industry is its impact on global health. Restaurants and kitchens resort to the purchasing of meat from the black market for various reasons such as ease of acquisition and lower cost. However, oftentimes on this level, bushmeat is sold under false labels. For example, dolphin meat has been sold to hotels, passed off as shark meat. This may have created pathways for new diseases to cross the animal-human border, such as SARS and COVID-19.
In addition to this, the absence of laws for the level hygiene maintained during the smuggling may lead to the consumption of stale meat, or with various poisons used in the hunting process. In the case of trafficking live animals, it is needless to mention that it falls within all definitions of animal cruelty. Chained, tied up and frequently drugged, these animals often die during transportation. In cases of survival, they experience immense pain, hunger, distress and loss of freedom in captivity.
Sri Lanka’s fight against Wildlife Trafficking
International trafficking of Sri Lanka’s wildlife is made easier with loopholes in governing laws for the legal transportation of flora and fauna for conservational and educational purposes. To manage the trade in Sri Lanka, the government has adopted the treaty of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This treaty regulates and permits the transportation of certain wildlife species with strict adherence to welfare standards. Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation is also the first in the world to establish an electronic permit system in collaboration with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The system was launched in March 2020, facilitating efficient reporting by authorities, and enabling better-targeted inspections.
However, experts in Sri Lanka have claimed that the biggest difficulty they now have when it comes to prevention of wildlife trafficking, is the lack of baseline studies for the country’s flora and fauna. When it comes to animals, data on the current wildlife population is critical to detect early trafficking activity. Therefore, they request more youth to be involved in pursuing the conservation of the island’s wildlife in the form of higher education, aiding in the conduct of research on animal population numbers in the island.
Most animals have been around for over 200 million years. Humans are relatively new to the planet, with earliest signs dating back to only 3 million years ago. Hence, as guests on this planet, it is our duty to stop treating wildlife like its owners and put an end to the malicious act of trafficking; while doing our best to conserve what is left of the original inhabitants of Mother Earth.