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“This is the best time for the government to show their obligation towards CITES, either by disposing it publicly or sending it back to Tanzania – the port of origin. Today is World Animal’s Day and if the government takes one of the two options, it is good for the country at their attempt to get the GSP+ facility which back,” Customs sources said on conditions of anonymity.
This shipment of 359 elephant tusks, which is believed to have been removed from poached African elephants in Kenya, were to allegedly be sold illegally to a foreign country in the guise of gifting to Buddhist temples to make money by the former First Family. However, the alleged move was foiled by environmentalists as well as certain Customs officials.
“Being a signatory to the convention, we have to work in accordance with CITES. The former First Family is being accused of wanting to smuggle out the contraband blood ivory from Customs to a company in Wattala with plans to sell them to a foreign country in the guise of gifting part of it to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and the rest to other temples. As we knew that the Interpol had already carried out a DNA test of them and in the event this stock was exported we had to face the international authorities,” sources added.
In a letter dated December 19, 2012 by the then Senior Assistant Secretary to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Deepa Liyanage to the then Director General of Customs Jagath P. Wijeweera, had wanted to release the 359 pieces of tusks to the Presidential Secretariat as soon as possible.
The letter states as thus, “Forfeited stock of 359 pieces of elephant stocks- This has reference to your letter dated November 28, 2012 addressed to me regarding the above subject. 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. Therefore, 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 magnanimous trust 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”.
Upon receiving this letter, the then Director General of Customs on December 24, 2012 had instructed the Additional Director General of Customs (Enforcement) to ‘attend soon’ to the matter.
“This stock of blood ivory was valued at over Rs.360 million and were piled in a 20 feet container and had to open to inspect what was in it because it gave a bad stench. As there were flesh on these ivory it was confirmed that they have been cut off from the elephants after killing the tuskers in cold blood. This is the largest consignment of blood ivory which weighed more than 1.5 metric tons that have been seized by a South Asian Country,” sources added.
The environmentalists described as to how the Rajapaksa regime wanted to sell the entire consignment after it was handed over to the Dalada Maligawa.
“Before announcing that these tusks would be handed over to the Dalada Maligawa, there was an attempt to hand over the consignment to a company in Wattala on the directives of the then Chief of Staff of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gamini Senerath which was highly controversial. However this move had to be ‘stopped’ due to strong protests from the environmentalists. After failing their first attempt, Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to ‘gift’ these tusks that were taken after slaughtering the animals to Dalada Maligawa and the other temples. What they wanted to do was to sell the tusks to a foreign country ‘unofficially’ thereafter,” Pubudu Weeraratne, Chairman, Species Conservation Centre alleged.
According to Weeraratne, even young elephants may have been killed as there are small tusks amongst the large.
AYoung elephants may also have been slaughtered as there are small tusks. What would have happened to the elephant calves once their mothers were killed? In such instances the orphan babies would have left to die in starvation as they suck milk for about five years. Being a Buddhist country what made the Rajapaksa who visits temples very often to hand over blood ivory to Dalada Maligawa?” Weeraratne added.
The environmentalist further pointed out how important it is for the Sri Lankan government to follow the recommended guidelines of the Convention of International Treaty on Endangered Species (CITES) in order to stop animal slaughter.
“Before the August general election we met President Maithripala Sirisena who is also the Environment Minister and made a request to destroy the blood ivory that was seized in May 2012. Although the President gave us an assurance to destroy this blood ivory consignment it is yet to be implemented,” Weeraratne added.
According to him, Sri Lanka became a signatory to CITES in 1979 and although there are no rules imposed, we have an obligation to conserve endemic species even in global level. He further stated, “The best way to stop these illegal cross boarder activities is to destroy these blood ivory to show the racketeers that Sri Lanka is against blood ivory,” said Weeraratne.
Meanwhile, it is learnt how Paul Udoto of the Kenyan Wildlife Service raised concern when Rajapaksa administration wanted to ‘gift’ the blood ivory to a temple when it is against Buddhist philosophy.
“On behalf of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Udoto was surprised to note that the tusks were to be given to Buddhist temples. His argument is very true. As a predominantly Buddhist country why did the Rajapaksa’s who are said to be practising Buddhists wanted to gift these contraband blood ivory to Buddhist temples.
As custodians of the greatest Buddhist philosophy on ahimsa, Buddhist monks should have reject the idea before the environmentalist protest to their plans. Now it is up to the new government to show the world that they are against the animal poaching and destroy the consignment publicly,” Weeraratne added
According to him, the lengths of these tusks are from 1 ½ feet to 8 feet which clearly shows that the poachers have massacred even the baby elephants.
“They may have killed a herd of 170 to 200 elephants to obtain these tusks. What is the reason why the Sri Lanka Customs keep these illegal consignment in their warehouse without destroying it,” Weeraratne queried.
However, Customs Spokesman Lesley Gamini said the consignment of blood ivory will soon be crushed as the Environment Minister President Maithripala Sirisena had wanted the Customs Department not to burn the stock but to crush it which is an environmental friendly method.
“President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe instructed the Customs Department to destroy the entire stock. Very soon we will destroy them either in Galle Face Green or in the land adjoining the Customs Headquarters in Colombo. We have to invite the local and foreign media to cover this event,” Gamini said.
He further said when the Customs Department wanted to destroy the consignment before the general election, President Maithripala Sirisena had wanted to postpone it till the election was over.
“Since it could be an election propaganda programme, the President wanted us to destroy the consignment after the general election.
Since the President was out of the country attending the UN meeting, we could not get a date for this and once a date is given by the President and the Prime Minister we will crush the entire stock publicly,” Gamini stated.