Destroying the largest consignment of blood ivory confiscated by the Customs would send the right message to illegal fauna and flora racketeers loud and clear: "Sri Lanka does not tolerate smuggling rackets". Wildlife activists and protection authorities alike hope that this would deter any future smugglers from using the country as a transit point.
On International Customs Day (January 26) Sri Lanka Customs will destroy more than 359 African elephant tusks (Blood Ivory) in their custody, following religious observances at Galle Face Green in the presence of the President, Prime Minister, and Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the UN body dedicated to fighting the global poaching crisis.
The ivory is to be crushed first, using a modified crusher given by a gas company operating in Sri Lanka. Then it would be transported to Puttalam cement factory to be burned. The entire process would take place with Special Task Force (STF) and the Army providing tight security.
According to Customs Spokesman Lesley Gamini, this symbolic act of destroying more than Rs. 387 million worth of ivory seeks to dispel any hopes by poachers that they will profit by killing elephants.
Sri Lanka strategically located in one of the busiest sea routes, has become a key transit point for international smuggling rackets including fauna and flora. With ivory fetching a pretty penny in a number of countries including China and Hong Kong, poaching and ivory smuggling have reached unprecedented levels over the recent years.
In 2012, Sri Lanka confiscated a large consignment of 359 elephant tusks en route to Dubai from Kenya. The same year CITES announced that "Elephant poaching levels are the worst in a decade," and called for immediate action to address the issue.
According to CITES every year around 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa for their tusks, primarily to satisfy the demand for ivory products in Asia. Some of the African nations such as Mozambique and Tanzania have lost more than half their elephants since 2009. The consignment confiscated by Sri Lankan authorities is also believed to have tusks of elephants poached in Tanzania.
Countries such as Hong Kong and China are largest consumers of ivory and rhino horns, CITES claims. In recent years poaching has been driven by the increasing involvement of international criminal gangs, attracted by the lucrative ivory prices. Between 2013 and 2014 the price of ivory in China tripled. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, prices had risen for a kilogramme of raw ivory from $750 in 2010 to $2,100 in 2014. This has led to thousands more elephants being killed each year.
But the journey to Tuesday's scheduled event was not easy, claims Vidya Abhayagunawardena, a conservation activist who has been vociferous about the issue over the years.
"We worked hard to get here. During the last government there were attempts to distribute this blood ivory among the temples in the country. A number of non-governmental organisations and activists including me protested against such a move. It would have given the wrong signal," he claims.
The consignment came to Colombo Port on May 12, 2012. The Central Intelligence Division in Sri Lanka Customs acting on a tip-off from the Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO) alerted detained suspected container.
The custom declaration documents indicated that it had polythene waste, but upon scanning the container the Customs uncovered that it had items similar to ivory, recalled Gamini.
"We opened the container in front of the shipping agent and uncovered that it had ivory hidden in bags of polythene. We confiscated the items following the inspection," he said.
However, in 2014, the President's office announced that the ivory would be given to various temples in the country. This sparked a controversy and brought international attention to the issue as well.
"Although a letter came from the office of the then President, instructing the Customs to hand over the items to a person from the President's office no one came to take it. So it was lying there. Once the government changed last year, the call to destroy the ivory was renewed," Gamini explained.
Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, took the final steps to obtain Cabinet approval for the process and made arrangements to destroy the consignment.
Wildlife conservation activists in both local and international have welcomed the move, stating that it sends the correct message to the smuggling rackets.
"If we had made use of the illegal stocks then we would have become a part of the illegal racket. This way a clear message will be given that we will not tolerate it," one activist who declined to be named explained.
While welcoming the move Dr. Deepani Jayantha, a researcher in elephant conservation said that authorities should explore the possibility of preserving samples for DNA tracking to help identify smuggler rings.
In the resent times, investigations carried out through tracing and matching DNA of tusks and elephant dung has helped identify poaching hotspots in Africa.
She highlighted that if authorities are able to preserve such samples of the tusks to be destroyed, it could help investigations.
Sri Lankan authorities to get more teeth
Sri Lanka has been a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) - the UN body dedicated to fighting the global poaching crisis since1979, however the country is yet to ratify the Convention.
The Convention provides necessary laws to not only help apprehend smuggling rings but also protect the country's fauna and flora, explained Former Customs Deputy Director Samatha Gunesekara, who was instrumental in setting up Bio Diversity Protection Unit in Sri Lanka Customs. The unit, a first in the region, has been instrumental in controlling fauna and flora smuggling rackets in the country.
However, Sri Lanka Customs needs supplementary legislation to collaborate and enlist the help of other countries in arresting international smuggling rackets, he said.
Sri Lanka Customs officials are not authorised to inspect vessels transiting through Sri Lanka, claims Vidya Abhayagunawardena, a prominent wildlife conservation activist.
"There may be many more endangered species being smuggled transiting via Colombo Port but our Custom officials don't have the mandate to go and inspect them," he explained, stating that it is a huge limitation for protection efforts.
Sri Lanka is a strategic location in the fauna and flora smuggling sea routes, explained Gunesekara.
"This is why we see a lot of Rose Wood, Red Sand, live birds and other similar protected items and species being smuggled though our country," he said highlighting the importance of establishing the necessary regulations.
Added to this, the country has been unable to obtain the assistance of other countries in dealing with the smuggling of Sri Lankan endangered fauna and flora species.
"Although we try our best, racketeers manage to smuggle even some of the highly endangered animals belonging to reptile and amphibian species out of the country," Gunesekara explained.
The end destination for these smuggled fauna and flora is often the Middle East, where the smugglers declare that they are non-CITES species. Endangered species which are protected through international convention are commonly known as CITES species. Smugglers take advantage of the fact that the country has not adopted local regulations to correspond with the CITES Convention. The local authorities are also unable to enlist the help of these receiving countries to rein in the smugglers due to the absence of supporting legislation, Gunesekara explained.
The authorities are now trying to introduce regulations to fill this gap. The Department of Wildlife Conservation are discussing to prepare the supplementary legislation required to the Fauna and Flora Protection Act.
"We are meeting CITES Secretary General John E. Scanlon who is due to arrive in the country, to discuss the matter. The minister in-charge, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera is also keen on it," Gunasekara said.