Blood Ivory destined for Sri Lankan temples

By Risidra Mendis — Ceylon Today

January 25, 2013

According to reliable sources, the illegal tusks cannot be given to a third party under the CITES Convention. "Interpol is carrying out investigations with regard to the smuggling of confiscated tusks and Kenya has requested the Sri Lankan Government to send a piece of ivory to the US for DNA testing," sources said.

It has also been pointed out the tusks are needed for further investigations and at this point, they cannot be handed over to the Dalada Maligawa.

According to Sri Lanka Customs (SLC) Media Officer, Leslie Gamini, Director General Jagath Wijeweera has agreed to release the 359 elephant tusks valued at Rs 360 m to the Presidential Secretariat.

Blood ivory

This large illegal consignment of ivory better known as 'blood ivory' was detected by the SLC Central Intelligence Unit (CIU) on 22 May 2012 and is the largest consignment of elephant tusks to be detected in a South Asian country.

It is referred to as 'blood ivory' because hundreds of elephants are brutally killed for their tusks. Sri Lanka banned the ivory trade in the 1970's and donating tusks is both of symbolic value and a status symbol.

But despite the ban in many countries, ivory is valued at around US$1,000 a kg in the market. In the South Asia countries, such as India it is of great concern that this ivory makes its way to the black market as there is no way of proving the provenance of tusks once distributed, as some are sawed off pieces and others are small tusks from juvenile elephants, which cannot be displayed.

Meanwhile, Lusaka Agreement staff member Theotimus Rwegasira in a quote via email said, the case concerning the seized ivory in Sri Lanka is still under investigation in Africa and the contraband ivory exhibits may be needed in case of prosecutions. "We are liaising with authorities in Kenya on this urgent matter. Releasing the contraband ivory to a third party is contrary to CITES," Rwegasira said.

Trade in both Asian and African Elephant tusks was banned in 1990 under the CITES Convention.

Director Operations, Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL) Vimukthi Weeratunga told Ceylon Today Sri Lanka is a signatory to the CITES Convention and the best way to dispose of this ivory is to either destroy it or send it back to Kenya.

Environment lawyer Jagath Gunewardene said, the Presidential Secretariat has no legal authority to request the release of the ivory consignment and has no legal powers under the Customs Ordinance to release these tusks as any directive sent to the SLC has to be first signed by the Finance Minister.

He added that, according to Section 163 of the Customs Ordinance, goods once forfeited by the SLC become State property under the said Ordinance and, that SLC officials also have the right according to the Gazette notification to dispose of the tusks in the most suitable manner.

The three containers consisting of logs and ivory were detected by SLC at the seaport while on their way to India and Dubai.

Some of the tusks were very large and long, and some were cut into two and packed into the containers among the logs when detected by SLC. The three containers were in transit from Kenya and the ivory consignment was on its way to Dubai while the container with logs was en route to India.

Temples and ivory

"The decision to hand over the tusks to temples reflects badly on Buddhism, as well as the conservation of the species. African Ivory is considered as 'Blood Ivory' because herds of elephants are killed for ivory. In many countries, the sale of ivory is banned," Weeratunga said.

He added that this consignment was coming from Kenya. "It is learnt that President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted this consignment of ivory released to the Presidential Secretariat so that it could be released to temples. It is a very sad situation if a decision is taken to hand these elephant tusks to temples," Weeratunga explained.

He said, there is always a possibility the ivory may go back to the smugglers, adding that it is the Buddhist monks who should make a statement against the handing over of these tusks to temples. "There will be an international outcry if these tusks are handed over to temples," Weeratunga said.

Wildlife Biologist, Manori D. Gunawardena said, the tusks should not be given to anyone, as a signatory to CITES and other international treaties on wildlife trade. The contraband is evidence and should be returned to the originating country or with their approval, destroyed.

"Currently, all tusks have to be registered with the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWLC). African tusks are impossible to monitor and license. Therefore, it is possible that the ivory may go into the market, thereby exacerbating the already difficult enforcement issues of ivory trafficking in South Asia; India is particularly concerned," Gunawardena explained.

She also stressed that all tusks in Sri Lanka are registered at the DWLC with photos of each tusk; if and when they change ownership, they have to renew registration, and added that in 2009, the DWLC stockpile of tusks consisted of tusks of elephants that died of natural causes, or were confiscated and were donated by former Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpila during the Western Provincial Council elections.

"Sri Lanka has banned the trade in ivory since the 1970s. As a nation, we should make a global statement as a country whose culture reveres elephants and are committed to elephant conservation. We will not condone the slaughter of elephants in Africa and therefore, publicly destroy the stock of ivory and declare that trade in ivory in Sri Lanka will not be tolerated. We should not sanctify tusks obtained in a brutal manner," Gunawardena averred.

He revealed that after examining the 359 tusks, there are tusks of varying sizes, indicating that entire elephant families have been massacred and questioned whether ivory obtained in such a brutal manner be donated to places of worship?

Meanwhile, the President of the Organization for Aquatic Resources Management (OARM), Shantha Jayaweera, said these tusks should be given to the museum and not to temples.

"As far as I know, the museum has only one pair of African elephant tusks. People who want to study elephants can make use of these tusks if they are given to the museum. If this large consignment of tusks is handed over to the Dalada Maligawa or temples, we don't know what will happen to them thereafter," Jayaweera opined.

Temples do have tusks that are either donated from private elephant owners whose elephants have died or from tuskers owned by the temples prior to their demise. However, it is not suitable to hand over a large consignment of tusks from elephants that were brutally killed to the Dalada Maligawa," he said.

Zoologist, Dilan Peiris said the best option is to destroy the tusks. "If the tusks are destroyed, nobody can make use of them. However, if the authorities are to destroy the tusks they should inform the media and the public, and openly destroy them.

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