Taking aim at the trap gun

By Vidya Abhayagunawardena

A six-year-old girl was killed by a trap gun in front of her father in Galagamuwa in Kurunegala district in early December, (Lankadeepa December 3, 2010). The incident happened when the father was preparing the trap gun with his daughter looking on and it accidentally exploded. This was the latest death reported related to the trap gun menace in Sri Lanka.

The same month a police sergeant was seriously injured with a trap gun when the team of officers were conducting a raid on a illicit liquor (kasippu) den in Hataraliyada in Kandy district, (Daily Mirror December 20 & The Island December 23 of 2010). Those are just a few incidents reported to the government authorities and media, but there are many incidents related to trap guns in Sri Lanka which are not being reported due to the victim being a family member, relative or friend. Each year people get killed, permanently disabled, and injured due the trap gun and it has become an increasing threat not only for humans but also for wild animals in Sri Lanka. Victims of the trap gun include children, women, farmers, police officers, home guards and Wildlife Department officials.

History and the evolution

Historically people used different types of traps made from rope or iron wires to catch animals and protect their agricultural lands and crops from wild animals. The trap caused minimal harm to humans compared to today’s modified trap gun which can kill or disable a person on the spot.

The trap gun is not a sophisticated weapon. To prepare a trap gun does not require sophisticated technology. It only needs a metal pipe, metal pellets and explosives which easily can be found from firecrackers, explosive remnants of war (ERW) or readily available explosive chemicals.

The trap gun also has one feature that is similar to most landmines: both are activated by the victim itself. Victim-activated devices can never be used exclusively for only the intended target. The trap gun is hardly visible to the naked eye, and its trigger line (maru wela) is camouflaged in the jungle. In this background innocent humans and wild animals are at risk. It is the indiscriminate nature of those devices that make victim-activated landmines and the trap gun so dangerous and vicious.

The law

In Sri Lanka the Firearms Ordinance of No. 33 of 1916 has no specific definition for the trap gun. The Firearms Ordinance for small arms and light weapons provides the legal framework for civilian licensing, importation, sale, transfer, manufacture, repair and possession of all firearms. The Ordinance has stipulated a “gun” as: ‘Any barreled weapon of any description from which any shot, pellet or other missile can be discharged with sufficient force to penetrate not less than eight strawboards, each of three sixty fourth of an inch thickness placed one half of an inch apart, the first such strawboard being at a distance of fifty feet from the muzzle of the weapon’. Within this Ordinance comes the practical explanation of a gun, “the shooter pulls the trigger for the chosen intended target”. The trap gun does not fall into this category.

Under these circumstances prosecution for the manufacture of trap guns is minimal. Article 17th of the Firearms Ordinance states, “No person shall manufacture any gun without a licence from the licence authority”. Under this ordinance the trap gun falls into the illicit small arm category. Under these circumstances the manufacture, possession and assembly of trap guns are illegal.

According to the law, to possess a licensed fire arm, a farmer needs to have a minimum of five acres of cultivated land. Small farmers with less than five acres or those who cultivate someone’s land are left vulnerable and not entitled to have a licensed firearm. Then they basically fall into using the illicit trap gun to protect their livelihood. This problem is acute in districts such as Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Matale, Ampara, Kurunegala, Moneragala, Badulla and Ratnapura.

Today Sri Lanka’s agriculture-based rural economies rely on the illicit trap gun to protect crop and livestock from wild elephants, boar, deer, porcupine and leopards and also from poaching. This is an unacceptable and cruel way of protecting crops from wild animals. Most of the time, in the name of protecting agricultural land, people use trap guns to kill wild animals for economic purposes - for meat, to get their skin and body parts such as tusks. For some people this has become a lucrative business as there is a huge demand for those products in the market.

People also use trap guns to protect their lands from illicit economic activities such as ganja and cannabis cultivation, moonshine production, gem mining, illicit logging, etc.

Socio, economic and environmental cost

Sri Lanka’s total population today is a little over 20 million, out of which 17 million are rural poor with their daily life depending upon agriculture-based economic activities. Most of the trap gun related incidents reported are from the rural agricultural sector in Sri Lanka. Trap guns are for crop protection and poaching. The use of the trap gun to safeguard farming is not the solution, and also if there is death or injury, huge social and economic costs have to be borne by the victim’s family and society.
Trap gun victims appear to accept the injuries passively and often do not seek proper medical attention. There is no record of the incident with the relevant authorities such as police and hospitals. Sometimes injuries lead to death but that does not seem to discourage them in their use of this weapon again. Trap gun victims in remote areas have increased risk of death due to having to travel long distances to seek medical attention.

Many of the trap gun related cases lead to amputation. According to the Administrative Reports of the Inspector General of Police Sri Lanka, 80 deaths were recorded related to the trap gun from 2003 to 2007. The government also spends a lot of money for trap gun related patients for long stays at hospital and for medicine. The victim usually needs extra medical attention such as surgery, prosthetics and rehabilitation.

According to Dr. D.H. Widyaratne the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) Anurdhapura, “every year over 200 trap gun injured patients have been admitted to the Anuradhapura hospital. An injured person has to stay at least five to twenty days in the hospital and the cost of medical care and other hospital expenses for a patient of trap gun injuries is around Rs. 250,000 to 500,000. The government has to bear the cost.” He emphasizes the inhuman side of the trap gun setter.

“Once the trap gun is put in the place, the setter is always alert until the trap gun lights. As soon as the trap gun blows, trap gun setter reaches the place where the trap gun is placed, and if the victim is a human, he leaves immediately to avoid identification. Then the victim has to suffer with the injury till someone takes him to hospital. If there is a delayal the victim’s life is in danger” he said. There are also socio economic ramifications for the affected person’s family. If the bread winner of the family dies or is disabled permanently, the family has to face many socio economic problems.

Due to population increases, the demand for land in development, agricultural and living activities is always escalating. This has led to extensive habitat destruction and the human and wildlife animal conflict. The ongoing human elephant conflict has claimed many human and elephant lives in Sri Lanka. Up to September 2010 (nine month period) there have been 73 human and 173 elephant deaths reported according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

In a joint publication of Saferworld and SASANET in 2008 on “Trap guns in Sri Lanka” – a Wild Life officer from Anuradhapura noted: “I have personally witnessed many occasions in my career [when] many elephants have been killed due to trap gun injuries […] The damage to the front leg makes [an] elephant immobile [so] it dies of hunger, thirst and infected wounds.” When trap guns are installed in the forest, jungle or agricultural lands, those lands are not safe places for animals.

Broader approach

Sri Lanka needs to ban the use of the trap gun in the first place. Once the trap gun is banned it will easy to prosecute the perpetrators. Sri Lanka needs to amend the law of The Firearms Ordinance No. 33 of 1916. To have a licensed firearm, a farmer needs to have a minimum of five acre crop land or above. This law can be relaxed and the government could consider granting fire arms licences to farmers of small land holdings without having them resort to illicit trap guns. The existing laws need to be used effectively until this happens. The Police need to be more responsible in this matter. An awareness campaign is much needed for affected communities highlighting the impact of trap guns. This can be carried out with the concerned authorities to enhance the safety and economic viability of affected communities.

Poor farmers’ crops and livelihoods need to be protected from wild animals, otherwise their economic life will be severely affected. Most of the agricultural farming in rural Sri Lanka is not insured and any losses have to be borne by the farmer. The government and other concerned parties need to look into this matter seriously to protect farming activity from wild animals and protect their lives too. A new insurance scheme for farmers can be one prudent approach.

Putting up electric fences with uninterrupted power supply is another solution. Parallel to this there should be a suitable solution for communities to find non-timber products from the forest. Otherwise electric fences become a barrier for rural community to engage with the forest. Putting up new National Parks and conservation areas as well as policing wildlife corridors can minimize human elephant conflict to a greater extent. The Department of Wild Life should take this as a national issue. The authorities and concerned people need to encourage farmers in non-harming (human, animal & environment) methods of traditional ways of protecting crops at night, specially from wild elephants, by making loud noises, firecrackers and using other environmental friendly methods.

Ongoing development and economic growth should be trickling down throughout the economy and should benefit rural youth in particular to find employment opportunities, start self employment, quality vocational training and overall to overcome poverty. Then only can youth avoid work in illegal gem mining, illicit liquor sites in jungles, illegal timber industry in the jungle, illicit logging and cannabis cultivation. This will benefit humans and animals and free them from life threatening trap guns and preserve the environment for coming generations in Sri Lanka.

(The writer is a researcher in socio economic development).

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