Features

Stop the killing: Take accountability

By Jithendri Gomes

The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS) demanded that the relevant authorities do much more and take greater control over the ongoing killings of wild animals all over Sri Lanka, which is increasing at an alarming pace.

The WNPS is extremely concerned about the lack of serious focus on conservation and calls on all segments of society to raise their heads in the battle against the killings and destruction of the wild and free.

There is a rising tide of food outlets selling different types of illegal bushmeat, including monitor lizards, snakes, and birds, catering to consumer demands. This clearly goes against international environmental conventions and threatens our species.

The WNPS spoke to us exclusively to share their thoughts about the current status of wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka and the specific problems they will be highlighting and advocating for this year.

They hope that the recent death of the leopard in Udawalawe and many other animal deaths reported in the media (many go unreported too) will give rise to rapid action by the authorities in Sri Lanka to work harder to protect our wildlife.

“This is not the time for complacency. We see increased instances of smuggling, poisoning, snaring, and shooting wild creatures, and the seriousness of response to these acts is appalling. Wild cats such as leopards are being slaughtered all over the world for their teeth and claws, at times even to the brink of extinction. There is a rapid rise in such killings worldwide, where in all cases, the teeth and claws have been removed and are being smuggled to cater to the lucrative jewellery market where they’re used as pendants and amulets, largely in China and Southeast Asia.

“The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the global wildlife trade, prohibits commercial trade of such parts. Sri Lanka simply cannot let this trend gain a foothold in our small paradise. For years, we have been calling out that Sri Lanka needs to revise all laws and penalties immediately to ensure much harsher laws and punishment are in force for criminal elements engaged in poaching, smuggling, illegal tree felling, illegal land grabs, and other environmentally destructive actions.

“How much more do we want to lose before we acknowledge that we are doing a poor job in preventing this trend?” they asked rhetorically.

With record-high numbers of casualties on the side of people and elephants, shockingly the human-elephant conflict (HEC) policy document has been awaiting Parliament approval for years. The recent decision to recruit 2,500 civil defence personnel and issue firearms in order to control the HEC is a questionable step. This may even cause more conflict as injured elephants would only become defensive and therefore more aggressive.

The WNPS is very conscious about the sad and unacceptable loss of lives and crops which are outcomes of elephant behaviour. They firmly believe that these can easily be contained through a better approach. “Elephants need to move between locations, and the lack of corridors to link forests is causing havoc all around. The Government needs to commit to stop clearing and using more forests and wetlands for new projects such as housing, manufacturing, large-scale agriculture projects, etc. in an ad hoc manner. Having a more holistic view towards development will easily ensure co-existence.

“Understanding the traditional migration routes of these animals and facilitating narrow forest corridors bring far less of them in contact with the human population. What’s essential is for the Government to commit with serious action, milestones, and plans to immediately and substantially increase the protected land area in Sri Lanka by scientifically bringing large tracts of forest and land under the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), with special attention to forest corridors.

“This single action will help resolve multiple issues on the conservation front and benefit many other species as well. Our forest cover has dropped to below 20% now, thanks to our inefficiencies over the years.”

Development projects are being planned without naturalists and environmentalists being brought into the discussion. “We are isolating and breaking up the country into small pieces of land, because the crisscrossing highways and roadways don’t have any underpasses for many miles, thereby making it impossible for animals to link up with each other on the either side.

“The impact on the smaller mammals and creatures is devastating and the lack of breeding populations, inbreeding, and deaths while crossing the roads is leading to the extinction of several endemic species in Sri Lanka.

“We also urge that the Government immediately stop several ill-conceived roadways and development projects which cut through, pollute, or impact wildlife parks and nature reserves (as in the case of Wilpattu, Sinharaja, and Muthurajawela).”

They brought to light how making small and large underpasses is mandatory for all road projects at designated intervals and will greatly benefit wildlife – a practice that has been adopted in many African and European countries and even in smaller countries like Singapore.

“We are encouraged by the focus of the new President on tree planting and other environmental aspects. We urge his intervention and would like to see the declaration of more wetland areas and buffer zones around all national parks as protected areas and the reclamation of what has been given away by giving adequate notice over the next two to three years.

“Sri Lanka can still bring the balance back as we have much to protect and be proud of. With many global agencies still rating Sri Lanka as a top destination to visit, we certainly have good reason to keep our nature safe and secure, and also in the best interest of our people and wildlife.

“Sadly, we have not seen any visible steps taken in the recent years which are worthy of commendation. After over 70 years of self-governance, we do not have the luxury of blaming it on foreigners and other forces and must hold ourselves accountable for the mess we have created.

“To give this some chance of success, the Government must commit to appointing a minister exclusively for wildlife and nature protection while incorporating forestry, conservation, etc. under this ministry.

“Today, much of Sri Lanka’s wildlife lives outside the national parks and these lands are governed by other ministries and bodies. We also need to avoid any conflict of interest between this minister and the other ministries s/he may oversee, so that the interests of animals and nature, rather than voting humans, are considered.

“While many countries lead the way, Sri Lanka is yet to demonstrate its commitment towards the environment by banning single-use plastic and helping save many marine and terrestrial species. We could work to triple the total square area of the marina and ensure we protect what we have not already destroyed within our seas, as we see a lot of bottom trawling and other destructive practices still in play.

“Sri Lanka can become a case study country which embraces our ancient philosophy and religious belief that we need to live in harmony with nature and all species that walk this planet. Time is rapidly running out and continuous governments have paid a lot of lip service to this aspect, while in reality, destroying our precious motherland merely to obtain votes for the next election or for simple greed and other commercial interests is all that happens.

“Mother Lanka cries for leaders who will do what is right for her long-term sustainability and survival. At 125 years, the WNPS still remains committed towards fighting for the cause of conservation and hopes that many others will join us. The time is now!”