The Sunday Leader

DWC Playing Wild Games?

By Nirmala Kannangara

Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has come under severe criticism for not taking action against Ajith Gallage who is a strong supporter of the previous regime, for violating Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO).

According to reliable Wildlife Department sources, Gallage is accused of keeping wild animals in his possession at the Bird Research Center in Nagarawewa, Hambantota and questions have been raised why the DWC is ignoring repeated requests by its own officials and environmentalists to bring Gallage to book as he has been violating the FFPO openly for the past few years.

Wildlife Department sources, who wished to remain anonymous, said although it is illegal to keep local wildlife birds and animals, Gallage is alleged to posses many protected local species at his Bird Research Center in Hambantota with the blessings of the DWC.

“We have seen fishing cat (handun diviya) and spotted deer (thith muwa) and many varieties of local bird species at this research center which is a violation of the FFPO. It is surprising why our higher officials are still silent without taking action against Gallage even after the change of regime. During the former regime DWC was unable to take any action against him (Gallage) as he had the political backing, but why does the present government too allow him to violate the FFPO?,” sources added.

Meanwhile sources from the National Zoological Gardens, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Gallage obtained over 10 pairs of local birds from the zoo few weeks before the January elections and added that the Zoological Gardens has no authority to release local animals for any private party.

“Few weeks before the January presidential election, Gallage got more than 10 pairs of ibis and spoonbills from the zoo. This is not the only occasion Gallage had benefited from the zoo,” sources alleged.

According to the sources, a former Chairman of the Zoological Gardens released a confiscated consignment of rare exotic birds in 2012 back to the importer amidst much protest from environmental organisations.

“When the Customs Department confiscated the consignment, after imposing a fine on the importer Hiran Jayasekera, the consignment of 120 bird species including hybrid bluebird and yellow macaws, finches, an array of parrots, exotic small ducklings, pair of swans and cockatoos were given to the zoo. It was revealed that Jayasekera has imported these animals for Ajith Gallage and since the latter was so close to powerful politicians in the previous regime, these confiscated animals were released back to the importer surprising all of us,” sources alleged.

All attempts taken by Jayasekera to smuggle these animals into the country was foiled by the Bio-Diversity Unit (BDU) of Sri Lanka Customs.

Meanwhile, Deputy Director BDU of Sri Lanka Customs, Samantha Gunasekera said that the importer failed to produce an import permit for most of the birds and the Customs confiscated the consignment and imposed a fine on the accused.

According to Section 163 of the Customs Ordinance, goods once forfeited by the Customs, can only be released back to the importer by the Finance Minister, who is the President.

A Customs official who wished to remain anonymous said that once goods are confiscated, they become state property, under the Customs Ordinance.

According to the sources, the market average value of these confiscated birds was Rs 13.4 million, but the importer has declared the value was only Rs. 250,000. “Considering the loss to the importer, we fined Rs.450,000 as a penalty,” sources said.

According to the sources, it was the then Customs Director General Dr Neville Gunewardene that gave the orders to the then Zoo Director Bashwara Gunaratne, to release the confiscated birds back to the importer.

Gallage is further accused of having three illegal elephant calves in his possession and according to Director Species Conservation Center Pubudu Weeraratne, Director General DWC’s failure to take any action against Gallage even after an audit query with proven documents is questionable.

“The Deputy Auditor General A.H.M.L. Ambanwela in an audit query (Ref. No:TM/L/WL/2013/AQ 02) dated July 22, 2014 to Wildlife Conservation Ministry Secretary stated that the three elephant calves bearing registration numbers 331, 358 and 359 belong to Ajith Gallage are illegal. According to the findings Gallage has forged documents to get these elephants registered,” Weeraratne added.

According to the audit query, Gallage has produced a letter from E.M. Asela Ekanayake of Mawela, Hingula to the DWC to show that he (Ekanayake) sold elephant calf bearing registration number 331 to Gallage.

“According to this letter Ekanayake has sold the elephant calf (registration number 331) to Gallage on November 25, 2012 which was attested by Ravindra C. de Silva, Attorney-at-Law and Commissioner for Oaths of 596/ 5 Pattiniwatte, Pore, Athurugiriya. However it was later revealed that this Asela Ekanayake has died on August 16, 2011 at Osro (Pvt) Hospital, Mawanella. Although these findings were informed to the Director General DWC, H.D. Ratnayake, no action was taken against Gallage to take these illegal elephants to the Department of Wildlife,” Weeraratne claimed.

However refuting allegations, Ajith Gallage said that none of the documents he has submitted to the DWC were forged. When he was told that although he bought an elephant from Asela Ekanayake in November 2012, the government auditors have found out that Ekanayake has died in August 2011, Gallage said that Ekanayake who was old at the time of the purchase would have written the date incorrectly.

“Ekanayake was very feeble at that time and he may have put the date incorrectly which I did not see. All these allegations are levelled to discredit me. Let the DWC take action, I have all the documents to prove my innocence,” Gallage said.

However Gallage insisted that he had obtained the local birds from the Zoological Gardens as a part of animal exchange programme.

“The National Zoological Gardens informed me that they have excess birds and that they were willing to give them to my research center and requested exotic birds that I have got. So I provided the exotic birds to the zoo and obtained local birds. So what is wrong? When the zoo exchanges animals with foreign countries why cannot we as Sri Lankans get our own animals from the zoo?” Gallage queried.

However he said that he did not have a hand in the consignment of birds which were confiscated by the Customs Department in 2012.

“Don’t drag my name to this. I am a law abiding citizen and I will not do any illegal smuggling. Even I have provided swans, ponies, macaws and other imported animals to the former president. All these animals were imported after obtaining the proper approvals,” he said.

When contacted Director National Zoological Gardens Anura de Silva and asked on what basis he gave away the local birds to Gallage, De Silva said that there is nothing wrong in exchanging animals with private parties.

“Offhand I cannot say the animals we exchanged with Gallage. However we gave our birds to a registered bird research center in Hambantota. When there are excess numbers, we have two options. One is to call for tenders and give away the species or to enter an agreement with parties that can provide us animals under an exchange programme. We took the best option to give one of our own research centers the excess animals,” De Silva said.

Meanwhile, Attorney-at-Law specializing in environment studies Jagath Gunawardena said that it is illegal to use wildlife for commercial use under the FFPO.

“A person can keep spoonbills under a special authorization granted under section 55 of the FFPO and it is specifically stated that the authorization can only be given for a scientific purpose such as research and breeding. In addition one of the purposes of the FFPO is as stated in the long title is to prevent the commercial use of wildlife. Therefore allowing a commercial enterprise to keep spoonbills is illegal and if an authorization has been given, the relevant officer has committed a serious offence by exceeding his powers and it needs to be investigated and taken necessary action,” Gunawardena said.

According to Gunawardena, neither the National Zoological Garden Act nor the FFPO empowers the National Zoological Gardens to exchange animals under their purview.

“If the zoo has given such animals they have committed an offence because the zoo is authorized to keep protected Sri Lankan animals under Section 55 of the FFPO. Neither the National Zoological Garden Act nor the FFPO empowers the zoo to exchange or give away any animal in any other way, as the zoo is authorized to keep them under its purview,” Gunawardena added.

According to Gunawardena, to keep fishing cats in someone’s possession is strictly prohibited.

“Under Section 30 (2), it is strictly prohibited to keep fishing cat which is a protected animal. To keep spotted deer and barking deer too is illegal under Section 30 of the FFPO,” Gunawardena said.

Although several messages were left with Deputy Minister Wildlife Vasantha Senanayake seeking a comment on why the DWC has failed to take action against Gallage and is it because he was a close associate of a powerful politician in the previous regime, Senanayake did not return the calls till the paper went for publication.

 

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