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Crop protection by pellet

Crop protection by pellet

07 Nov 2023

 A recent decision by the Government to distribute air rifles amongst farmers as a measure against crop damage by wild animals may have unplanned consequences. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry commenced distributing air rifles to farmers at a concessionary price on 22 October, with a total of 250 rifles being distributed by then end of last month. However, the move has drawn criticism from conservationists.

The Agriculture Ministry earlier had designs to export endemic toque monkeys to China, a project which never got off the ground – pardon the pun. However, with growing complaints of crop raiding by wild animals such as monkeys, the Government has decided to use air rifles as its latest solution to mitigate damage caused by wild animals.  Conservationists have pointed out that the use of air rifles (a pneumatically power rifle which fires a small lead pellet, often at high speeds – in excess of 1000 feet per second), is cruel as it will inflict horrific wounds on the animals that will be targeted, and may exacerbate an already out of control small arms regulatory situation in Sri Lanka. While the Government has been quick to provide air rifles, what is clear is that there is no effective regulatory process, review process or mandatory training that is put in place to ensure that the air rifles are used properly and safely. This is typical of the “knee jerk” reaction decision the Government often takes, based on “public pressure”. The State must have effective regulation, a licencing system and compliance checking if they are issuing arms to the public or the farmers.

Conservationists and even some of the farmer trade unionists have cast doubt on the effectiveness of the issuance of air rifles to reduce or prevent crop damage, and have expressed concerns that the proliferation of such pneumatic weapons may create additional social issues. Sri Lanka already has a small arms crisis, the frequent shootings and murders by pistol-toting hit men make the news every day and the Police hasn’t shown tangible results on stopping them. However, while air rifles and air pistols have been found in the possession of criminal groups, their use in the commission of crime is rarely reported.  

Air rifles, which are loosely regulated in Sri Lanka have been around in Sri Lanka since the early 1900 and are often associated with target shooting disciplines, both at school and national level. Air Rifles and air pistols are not classified as firearms under state law, and as such, neither have strict regulatory nor licencing programmes, like the gunpowder cousins. This is not to say that air rifles are not dangerous, they can kill or seriously injure a person, or easily kill animals who are normally classified as “small game”, i.e. rabbits, squirrels, rodents, monkeys, pigeons and other bird pests such as peacocks and magpies. In some countries, air rifles are used for rodent control in greeneries and warehouses, where rats, moles and prairie dogs are found to be damaging storage. There are some high powered air rifles which are used to hunt larger game or pests like wild boars, and dingoes. However, such variations of air rifles are rare in Sri Lanka.    

Nevertheless, in many foreign countries, including some like the United Kingdom, where firearms are tightly regulated, air rifles have become a go-to solution for pest control and reduction of crop damage. However, in countries like the UK, there are strong regulatory processes, vetting processes to see eligibility and suitability to hold an air rifle licence. There are also strict guidelines on how to use, where and which occasions to use such air rifles for pest control, with strong penalties for abuse of the guidelines.

Recently the Ministry of Agriculture cited a report where crop loss due to animals had been calculated by Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Institute, to cost approximately between Rs. 17–20 billion, annually. Now, that’s a significant problem. And yes, the conservationists also need to come up with practical solutions rather than criticising every move the Government makes. On their part, the Government must first have a dialogue about the issue and formulate a national policy with multiple options which can be employed for pest control. Then, the public sector and the relevant agencies and the farmers can be trained accordingly to ensure compliance. Pest control is unfortunately a reality Sri Lanka needs to address, and fast. However, let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot.  

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