The Sunday Leader

Legal Luminary Accused Of ‘Stealing’ Elephants

By Nirmala Kannangara

Following the release of the Auditor General Department’s initial report on the investigation of illegal elephant registrations by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), all eyes are now focused on the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) as to what action they are going to take against the Fort Magistrate who is accused of producing forged documents to obtain an elephant registration.

AG Department letter to the Wildlife DG requesting to get Thilina Gamage for an inquiry, The audit query and The illegal elephant registration certificate

Fort Magistrate Thilina Gamage is accused of illegally possessing an elephant calf without a valid registration. Deputy Auditor General A. H. M. L. Ambanwela has conducted the investigation and according to the audit query dated July 22, 2014, all documents that have been submitted to the Wildlife Department to get this elephant registered are fraudulent and the signatures of government officials have been forged.

According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) Section 22(A) as amended in 2009 any person who owns, has in his custody or makes use of an elephant which is not registered, and a license obtained in accordance with the provisions of this section, shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not less than one hundred thousand rupees and not more than two hundred thousand rupees or to imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not exceeding five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.

However, after this highly remarkable audit query was sent to the Secretary of   Wildlife Resources Conservation ministry on July 22, the Deputy Auditor General A. H. M. L. Ambanwela who conducted the investigation by recording statements from 43 officials who were involved in the illegal elephant registration, has been removed from all investigations he was conducting and was transferred to another section with less responsibilities.

All attempts to contact Ambanwela to get a comment failed as we were told that he was on leave.

However Auditor General H. A. S. Samaraweera confirmed to The Sunday Leader that Ambanwela was transferred to another division from August 1, not as a punishment but as per their routine procedure.

According to the audit report signatures of the Divisional Secretary Homagama A. J. Karunaratne and Grama Niladhari H. P. Bandulasena and their official stamps have been forged.

The audit query report further states, “Although the address of the applicant in the elephant registration application has been given as 409, Meegoda, Ovitigama, it was revealed at the audit investigation that there is no such person by that name living in the given address.

Two former Grama Niladharis H. Bandusena and Ranasinghe Arachchige Ranjith Gamini, the present Grama Niladhari Thilan Attanayake and Divisional Secretary Homagama A. J. Karunaratne confirmed in writing at the audit inquiry that an elephant calf was not born at the address given in the registration application and there is no evidence to prove that there was a she-elephant living in the area which has given birth to a calf”.

Meanwhile giving evidence at the audit investigation Priyanka Sanjeewani, Management Assistance at the DWC has admitted that she had to prepare the fraudulent documents and number them on the instructions of her superiors.

She has further stated that the documents pertaining to the elephant registration number 334 were inserted to the elephant registration book at the DWC removing some other documents in the book. She has also confirmed that although the date of the application for registration was dated as November 12, 2008 the application has really been forwarded to the DWC at a much later date.

It was in 2009 that new amendments were brought to the FFPO where it was made mandatory for elephant owners to inform the DWC when a she-elephant gets pregnant and the department has to be informed within seven days of a birth of an elephant calf. These regulations were brought to prevent the elephants being captured from the wild.

The report states further, “The management assistant stated that she had to back date this particular application as November 12, 2008 in order to circumvent the new regulations that said registrations are given only to the elephants that are born after the new regulations were introduced. Since this animal was not born to a domesticated elephant and was captured illegally from the wild the wildlife officer had to put a bogus date to the application form”.

According to Priyanka Sanjeewani although she had to put a date to the application and followed the superior instructions she was not aware that the date that was put in the application was a public holiday- the full moon poya day.

The audit officer in his investigation report has stated as to how the DWC has given the elephant’s details in the registration license which was the same as given in the application form.

“In the fraudulent application submitted on November 12, 2008, the height of the elephant calf was given as four feet and six inches and his age as three years. However the DWC, in the certificate of registration too has given the animal’s height as same as in the application but only changed the age of the elephant to five years,” the report states.

According to Pubudu Weeraratne Director Species Conservation Center it was a noticeable miscalculation by the DWC to put the same details of the elephant calf given in the application in the certification of registration as well.

“This clearly shows how the DWC officials were desperate to give the registration to the party concerned in a rush. If not how could they include the same details in the certification of registration of the animal as per in the application form,” he added.

Although the DWC gave the registration license to the elephant calf in question on March 27, 2012 based on the fraudulent documents, in a letter dated October 26, 2012 Udeni Wickremasinghe the then Acting Director General DWC cancelled the license of this elephant calf (registration number 334) claiming that the documents provided to obtain the registration was fraudulent thus ordering the owner to hand over the animal to wildlife department.

However this decision was reversed on January 21, 2013 by the Director General H.D. Ratnayake.

In a letter dated January 21, 2013 by the Director General of Wildlife to the Secretary Ministry of Wildlife Resources Conservation has stated that the investigations carried out by the Assistant Director (Investigation) Wildlife Resources Conservation Ministry has recommended to annul the October 26 decision and to give back the registration number 334 to the owner.

According to the audit query, Assistant Director (Investigation) Wildlife Resources Conservation Ministry H. M. G. K. Kaluhendiwela has not conducted a thorough investigation to unearth the frauds that were carried out to get Thilina Gamage’s elephant registered as he (Kaluhendiwela) has considered what the Fort Magistrate and the wildlife officials have stated at the preliminary investigation as factual.

However the audit officer after speaking to the Divisional Secretary Homagama and three Grama Niladhari officers of the area and the wildlife officials have uncovered the fraud that took place in registering an elephant calf that was captured from the wild and not born to a domesticated animal.

Meanwhile reliable sources from the Auditor General’s Department who wished to remain anonymous said Ambanwela was transferred to a section with less responsibility because he conducted the investigation.

“Everyone knows that Ambanwela was an acid attack victim because he carried out an investigation to expose malpractices in the Education Ministry some years ago. He is not sacred of these attacks and that was why he initiated an investigation into the irregularities that has taken place in registering baby elephants at the DWC. Despite the instructions he wanted to find out who the culprits are and how a magistrate was involved in a fraud which is a serious offence under the FFPO act.

The sources further accused the Auditor General Samaraweera for following instructions to safeguard the Fort Magistrate from being exposed of fraudulent activities.

“The AG’s Department cannot be swayed by any person in the country. We have to be independent. If we could find faults even at the Presidential Secretariat and send our reports which they have accepted in high esteem why should we be biased in exposing those who are involved in illegal elephant registrations?

The Department learnt that when Ambanwela presented the audit query report to the AG, the Attorney General has asked Ambanwela whether he wanted yet another acid attack on him. Instead of safeguarding Ambanwela who is an asset to the AG’s Department,  if the DG wants his officials not to conduct investigations the trust people have  in the AG’s Department will soon fade away,” said the sources.

The sources further accused the AG’s Department for not cooperating with the audit officers to summon Thilina Gamage and the former owner of the elephant calf for an inquiry that was held on July 7 and 8 at Deputy Auditor General Amabanwela’s office. “Audit Superintendent G.S.S.G. Perera in a letter dated July 2, 2014 to the DG Wildlife Resources Conservation requested to summon the present owner of the elephant Thilina Gamage and the former owner Chandraratne Yatawara for an inquiry that was to be held at Amabanwela’s office.

A request was also made to Ratnayake to make arrangements to release veterinary surgeons and to provide transport for the auditors to pay field visits to inspect all elephant calves that were registered illegally. The AG’s Department never responded to our request,” the sources added. According to the sources, although Amabanwela could not release the final audit report because of the unfair transfer, Ambanwela was able to prove that the elephant registered under number 334 is not born to a domesticated elephant but was captured from the wild.

However refuting allegations, Auditor General Samaraweera said that Ambanwela transfer was not an isolated incident but part of the general transfer procedure. “Together with Ambanwela, we transferred seven more officials. Ambanwela transfer was not based on this particular case as stated but merely part of the general transfer procedure,” added Samaraweera. When asked as to who will conducted rest of this highly controversial illegal elephant registration scam after Amabanwela, the Auditor General said that one of his Deputies will conclude the investigation and will release the audit report.

All attempts to consult A. H. M. L. Ambanwela for a comment failed as he was on leave according to the officials at the Auditor General’s Department.

Meanwhile an officer who answered the telephone at the Judicial Service Commission did not connect the call to its Secretary after he was told that The Sunday Leader needs to get a comment from the JSC as to what action they are going to take against Thilina Gamage for involving in a fraud which is an offense under the FFPO. The call was disconnected immediately after the paper’s requirement was told.

2 Comments for “Legal Luminary Accused Of ‘Stealing’ Elephants”

  1. Kiri Gamarala

    Horu samaga heluwen!

  2. gamarala

    What is the ‘prestige’ attained by owning an elephant?
    Is this not cruelty?

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