Fishing cats and wildlife trade – Illegal activity under curfew?

By Jithendri Gomes

At a time all citizens are confined to their homes due to Covid-19, illegal trading continues to thrive in our country. The story of a fishing cat being illegally captured in an attempt to be sold in April is only one such example. Allegedly, this particular animal was captured from Maduru Oya National Park.

With relation to this incident, we spoke to several experts in the field regarding internal wildlife trading. While it is a thriving industry around the world, there are also many unknown transactions that take place within the country daily, and how it continues to thrive amidst a pandemic is almost unreal.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch was the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), which has championed the cause of protecting the island’s wildlife for over 125 years. “Don’t let mass murderers go free. The WNPS’s attention was drawn to a recent news article which stated that officials at Maduru Oya National Park have caught a man in the possession of a rare fishing cat kitten. It stated that the intent was to sell it for a large sum of money. We congratulate the officials for preventing this outcome,” they noted.

The WNPS finds animal trading and wildlife trafficking to be big global businesses and the recent incident is a sure sign of the trade flourishing in Sri Lanka as well. They have been raising awareness on this issue for many years, but only to see limited progress.

Looking at the current coronavirus, they said that it has its origins in the illegal animal trade, adding that these culprits are the real mass murderers who have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths so far. And yet they walk free.

“We should no longer be tolerant or silent, nor can poverty and other justifications be allowed to present themselves as mitigating factors. The WNPS urges our courts, the State and military, and the wildlife and other related authorities all over Sri Lanka to clamp down very harshly on illegal wildlife trade, poaching, habitat destruction, and the consumption of bushmeat in all parts of the country. You owe it to the rest of our citizens to help ensure their health is not compromised by turning a blind eye towards these activities. How many people must die before we say enough?”

We spoke to former Sri Lanka Customs Deputy Director Samantha Gunasekara, who was also one of the individuals who initiated and led the world’s first Customs Biodiversity Protection Unit (BPU) in Sri Lanka, which monitors and controls biological materials and wildlife trade at borders.

Commenting on the matter at hand, Gunasekara said: “When it comes to illegal trade that takes place worldwide, wildlife trade is definitely placed in the top three. It is something that happens around the world, including Sri Lanka. The fishing cat is one such animal that is unfortunately subjected to this illegal trading. They are not endemic to Sri Lanka, but there is a massive demand for them nevertheless.”

Further explaining, Gunasekara stated that over the years, traders have managed to smuggle fishing cats alive along with other types of cats from Sri Lanka, and in order to control this, there are a couple of mechanisms and sections in place.

“The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has a separate task force along with a separate unit in the Customs office as well. Yet, these international traders together with the locals who engage in these illegal activities manage to slip through all these task forces,” he stressed.

He said that it is very difficult to control and monitor these illegal trades, adding that in his opinion, he believes that any country in the world has not been able to completely put an end to it. However, in order for it to be controlled at least to a certain extent, the help of the people is mandatory, he said.

“Anyone who finds someone engaging in illegal trade can call the DWC as they are able to take the necessary actions. And if they are caught at the Customs office, they too have the authority to take action. The help of the Police is required if you need protection, especially against weapons,” Gunasekara informed.

There are many kinds of animals and insects that are being traded from Sri Lanka and Gunasekara urged the public to be vigilant and actively report if they see/hear anything suspicious and associated with illegal wildlife trafficking. Unfortunately, due to the continuous international demand and high immediate remuneration it offers, these traders continue to engage in this illegal activity.

Most of the time, people speak up or “make a scene” only if it is a larger and more charismatic animal like a leopard or elephant. But all of these smaller animals are equally important to our biodiversity and thus deserve protection. As such, every citizen has the responsibility to protect our animals and natural resources. Furthermore, he also mentioned the importance of creating awareness among the public in this regard.

Environmental lawyer and conservationist Jagath Gunawardana, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, explained the legal implications of such an offence. “This incident proves something that I have observed over the years; whenever there is a similar situation with curfew in place, illegal activities and traders thrive. Be it animal trafficking, poaching, or (illegal) mining activities, people who engage in nefarious activities continue to do so,” he pointed out.

He continued to explain that Sri Lanka has four animals in the cat family, all of whom are strictly protected animals as per the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Accordingly, all offences under this category against strictly protected animals are non-bearable offences, which means the offender can be arrested without a warrant and cannot be released on bail by the Police.

“Of course, it is very much punishable by law. They have caught the animal illegally, kept it in possession illegally, and also attempted to trade the animal illegally. So there are a minimum of three offences made under the same provision,” he noted.

When asked about illegal wildlife trading that takes places within the country, he mentioned that he has seen an increase in it over the years. He also feels that the DWC is not given sufficient power and authority when it comes to implementing and intervening in these matters.

“The Wildlife (DWC) together with the Forest Department should be given all the facilities required to mitigate these offences. This is an instance where the higher authorities have failed. There was a young boy who lost his life at Gal Oya National Park recently when shot by poachers. Because these departments don’t have the required means, the poachers wreak havoc now. It is a pathetic situation in terms of wildlife management during the Covid-19 crisis,” Gunawardana stressed.

There may be many more cases that go unreported every day, giving way to a flourishing illegal wildlife trade here in Sri Lanka. With such a large scheme underway, the help of the general public is vital and creating awareness to instil more responsibility may be a good step forward.