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Unwilling to walk the talk?

Sri Lanka’s failure to destroy the confiscated consignment of blood ivory is earning the country a bad reputation:

The container load of confiscated elephant tusks slated for disposal three years ago, continue to occupy space at the container yard of the Sri Lanka Customs, earning the country a reputation of being unwilling or unable to walk the talk. The detection of 359 pieces of tusks, weighing nearly 1.5 metric tonnes, was made on May 12, 2012 when the container transiting through Colombo was detained on a tip-off received by the Customs Central Intelligence Unit. The estimated worth of the illegal consignment was nearly Rs. 370 million.

The tusks were sawed off from brutally murdered African elephants. Environmentalists charge that in delaying the disposal of the confiscated loot, Sri Lanka has failed to send a strong message against the merciless massacre of elephants.

The consignment of tusks was forfeited on October 3, 2012 following a formal investigation by the Sri Lanka Customs. Tests done by the Interpol, in an American Forensic lab, revealed the tusks were from elephants in Tanzania.

High praise

At the time of the detection, Sri Lanka received high praise from the international community for its smart move in breaking one avenue of an illegal trade. However, failure to carry through with the decision to destroy the consignment has reversed the sentiment. “The Government not taking any action so far to destroy the blood ivory is damaging the country’s image, especially at a time when the new government is trying to rebuild the international image,” pointed out Samantha Gunasekara, environmentalist and former Director, Sri Lanka Customs Bio Diversity Division.

Reportedly, the topic had been discussed at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) held in Bangkok in mid March 2013, with the then government drawing criticism for its alleged move to retain the confiscated consignment of blood ivory, in contravention of the established procedures of disposing of seized ivory as regulated under the CITES. The previous government is accused of attempting to use the stock of confiscated ivory to adorn the walls of the Dalada Maligawa and other temples, in a move euphemistically described as ‘magnanimous trust work’. In fact, the former President had ordered the release of the tusks for this purpose in a letter dated December 9, 2012 and signed by Gamini Senerath, addressed to the Director General Customs, Jagath Wijeweera and relevant officials.

Hypocritical

The uncouth move renders hypocritical Sri Lanka’s CITES obligations and makes it near complicit in facilitating the black market operatives using the country as a free port for their ‘business’.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), illegal wildlife trade has grown into an industry that earns billions of dollars a year, making it the fourth largest global illegal activity after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.


Letter ordering the release of the ivory stock

According to the findings of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, it is ahead of the illegal trade in gold, small arms, oil and diamonds. The situation is much worst now as present day poachers are more organized and have better weapons so that they can, and do kill whole families at a time.

Lessons from the Far East

In 2013 the government of Philippines destroyed nearly three metric tonnes of blood ivory as the government was working to shed its image as a major transport hub for illegal ivory. Philippines is cited as one of nine countries considered as ‘priority concerns’ because they were used as a smuggling hub for illegal ivory.

A significant amount of blood ivory was also destroyed by China in the recent past, despite the country being accused of using these illegally acquired elephant tusks for numerous uses, ranging from medicinal to superstitious.

Hong Kong is another country of the region, which established its name against illegal wildlife trade by destroying nearly 12 metric tonnes of seized blood ivory. The latest display of burning confiscated ivory was in Kenya where 15 metric tonnes were destroyed in public by the Kenyan Government.

Sri Lanka is compared in such a background, said Gunasekara, adding, “Despite the errors made by the previous Government, at least by now, correct action should have been taken without delay by the new government.”

Methods of disposal

There are three options defined in the CITES guidelines for the disposal of elephant tusks forfeited by Customs and other authorities in the world. One option is to burn the stock of blood ivory in public to garner public attention, make the public aware and break the chain of illegal ivory market. Burning can be done in three ways – crushing and burning, burning using firewood or in an incinerator.

The second option is to return the stock to the owners in the country of origin.

The third is to store the stock of blood ivory for educational and research purposes.

No legal owner

In the context of Sri Lanka’s detection and detainment, the second option, returning to the owner, cannot be done as there is no legal owner. Sri Lanka Customs has retained three pieces for their museum at the head office.

In a move that showed things wouldn’t be changing in the near future, a March 2015 discussion between officials of the Presidential Secretariat, Finance Ministry, Sri Lanka Customs and the Department of Wildlife Conservation, on destroying the consignment of blood ivory in public, saw the decision being deferred once again. Following the discussion, the Sri Lanka Customs had in writing strong suggested to the Finance Ministry that the consignment of elephant tusks need to be destroyed in public, if Sri Lanka is to build up a good image.

“The Customs has all the powers by law to take a decision on this,” said Spokesman for the Sri Lanka Customs and its Director (legal) Leslie Gamini.


The confiscated container with the ivory consignment

The previous Government’s demand, requests from temples and the opposition from environmentalists and community groups is holding back the customs from taking a decision. “We do not want to create disharmony among people where we clearly see opposing ideas,” he explained.

Violating principles

According to the Customs, most of these tusks are singles and cannot be made into a pair. Some of the tusks have been cut into pieces and customs officials are of the view that the tusks cannot be exhibited in temples, as traditionally, tusks are exhibited in pairs.

Commenting on the requests from temples for these elephant tusks, Secretary of the National Sangha Council, Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera said it was a shame to see bhikkhus violating the basic principles of priesthood.

“We come to the ‘sasana’ making a vow to leave behind the greed for all the worldly pleasures in order to achieve enlightenment in life, in this sansara,” Anandasagara Thera said, adding, “We as Bhikkus should be compassionate to all living beings on this earth like a mother loves her son unconditionally”.

Anandasagara Thera said it is bhikkhus who should be in the forefront to work against harming any living being, even a wild animal. “Temples really do not need items like ivory.

If a monk requests these items, it shows that he is going against the teachings of Buddha and trying to embrace an aristocratic life instead of a humble one,” he stressed.

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