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Sunday, 31 January 2016





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With a prayer and an apology

Sri Lanka joins the global fight against ivory trading:

The team from the Biodiversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Branch of the Customs.
(Pic Washington Post)

Conservationists’ slogan apart, by practice, only elephants should wear ivory, seemed to be the idea behind a special ceremony in Colombo last Tuesday (26) when a confiscated consignment of ivory was ceremonially crushed and later burnt.

Even in a world, galvanised into action, ivory trading continues unabated. It still makes poachers and traders rich and elephants dead.

Sri Lanka became the 16th country to destroy ivory than trade in– by crushing some 359 tusks weighing 1.5 tonnes at a ceremony attended by a cross section of the public – in an attempt to apologise to the gentle giants for the human tyranny in tusk-gathering and join the global fight against ivory trading.

Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera, who led the religious program at the simple ceremony at the Galle Face Green told the Sunday Observer, there was every reason to apologise to elephants for the cruelty shown. “They alone can wear ivory. Humans have no business trading ivory or possessing ivory.”

“It is the country’s entire stockpile of ivory,” said Customs Spokesman, Leslie Gamini.

Estimated to be worth over US$ 3 million, the tusks were were seized by Sri Lanka Customs in May 2012, en route from Kenya to the United Arab Emirates, though the tusks came from Tanzania.

The shipment was detained in Colombo following a tip-off from the Regional Intelligence Liaison Office in Korea. Three containers consisting of dried sprats were considered suspicious by the authorities who later led to the discovery of hidden recyclable plastic bags containing tusks. A scanner detected the tusks, declared as recyclable plastic, according to Sri Lanka Customs.

Customs officials also said the first response had been to donate the massive stockpile of tusks to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, given the cultural significance accorded by Buddhists to both elephants and their tusks. The government at that time was also keen to distribute the tusks among temples.

However, a possible public outcry reversed an initial plan and the tusks remained. The new government however, decided to have the stock destroyed than preserved. Temples too, it is learnt, rejected any possible ivory donation, due to tusks being collected by killing the gentle beasts in the African wilds.

“This is unacceptable. Elephants have been killed to cull their ivory,” Ven. Sobitha Thera said, adding that blood ivory was unwelcome in Buddhist temples.

Chanting by the Sangha, led by Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, to invoke blessings on the dead elephants
A memento was presented to former Deputy Director of Customs (Bio diversity Protection Unit) Samantha Gunasekara by Secretary-General, CITES, John E. Scanlon and Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera
A close view of the crushing process 
The crushed ivory

Another fear had been concerns expressed by conservationists about the possibility of tuskers being sold to third parties who might show the country in a bad light, as willfully creating conditions for the violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the agency tasked to regulate the global wildlife trade.

With the crushing of the ivory, Sri Lanka has joined 15 other countries that took the same path of destroying their ivory in recent years – Zambia, Belgium, Chad, Gabon, China, the Philippines, United States, France, Hong Kong, Kenya, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Thailand.

“The stockpile was publicly destroyed to make it a lesson for all: A lesson in conservation and non-violence,” said Sustainable Development and Wildlife Minister, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. “We are a signatory to the CITES Convention and wished to comply with State obligations,” he said.

Bleeding history

The story was a different one when the consignment first reached Colombo. In a letter dated 19 December 2012, the then Senior Assistant Secretary to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Deepa Liyanage addressed to the then Director General of Customs Jagath P. Wijeweera, required the immediate release of the 359 pieces of tusks to the Presidential Secretariat.

The letter also stated: “His Excellency the President has approved the release of these 359 pieces of tusks to be used to adorn the walls of Sri Dalada Maligawa, and the balance to be distributed to other temples. I shall be thankful if you could kindly get the 359 pieces of elephant tusks released to the Presidential Secretariat as early as possible in order to utilise them for the above work. Please note that the Colombo Logistics will be handling the matters related to the elephant tusks referred to above on behalf of the Presidential Secretariat.”

The former Director General of Customs in writing instructed the Additional Director General of Customs (enforcement) to ‘attend to the matter urgently” on 24 December 2012.

Due to protests by conservationists and other concerned persons, the ‘tusk distribution’ program was halted. Some of the temples indicated their unwillingness to accept ivory which had reached the island as a consequence of elephants being killed for their ivory and hence, going against Buddhism that promotes non-violence of all forms.

First in South Asia

At the Galle Face green last week, when finally the stockpile of ivory was crushed, two minutes silence was observed first. Speaking at the sombre ceremony CITES Secretary-General, John Scanlon, noted:

“Over the past 24 months, we have seen countries within Africa, East and South East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America destroy stockpiles of illegally traded elephant ivory that has been seized and confiscated.

“Today’s event is the first destruction of confiscated ivory in South Asia and it is the first time that such an event has included a religious ceremony to honour the elephants that were killed, which makes it a truly unique and remarkable event. This follows the joint announcement by China and the US last September to enact strong domestic trade controls that once in effect will represent near total ivory trade bans. China made its first announcement that it would phase out ivory trade at the Beijing crush of 662 kg of ivory in May 2015,”

He also said that ending ivory trade and saving elephants from the brink of extinction continues at a global scale with Sri Lanka having taken its own place in supporting the battle to conserve elephants and their ivory.

Bullet for brutality

A tusk with a bullet

Among the 359 ivory tusks crushed at the Galle Face Green last Tuesday and prepared for incineration at a factory in Puttlam, was a bullet that seemed to symbolise the brutality of the ivory trade.

Close to 180 elephants would have been killed, almost all of them savagely for the 359 tusks, confiscated by the Sri Lanka Customs in May 2012. The lone bullet was discovered among the ashes of the burst tusks.

An incinerator capable of turning the tusks to ash was found only in the private factory in Puttlam. If not for the private factory, the government would have been compelled to take the crushed tusks to Singapore, as it is the closest country with the facility. “The incinerator needs to reach 2000 degrees centigrade to properly burn the tusks to ashes,” said Samantha Gunasekara, former Deputy Director of Customs, explaining the reason for selecting an incinerator owned by a private company.

Tests done by the Interpol, in an American Forensic lab, revealed the tusks ere from elephants in Tanzania that had been brutally murdered.

Illegal Wildlife trade is the fourth largest global illegal activity after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. According to International Fund for Animal Welfare, the situation is much worst now as present day poachers are more organised and have better weapons so that they can, and do kill whole families at a time.


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