South Asia link up with wildlife forensics to combat illegal trade

By Malaka Rodrigo

Wildlife crime is increasing, becoming the second largest illegal trade in the world. South Asian countries which have over 15% of the world’s flora and 12% of its fauna too have not escaped from the wildlife crimes which have become increasingly organized.

Wildlife trade is also transcending national boundaries and to counter this ever increasing threat, wildlife conservation agencies in South Asian countries met recently with the aim of collaborating in wildife law enforcement in the region.

The meeting was held under the aegis of the recently setup South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) at the University of Forensic Sciences, Gujarat. The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has represented Sri Lanka on this forum by the ex-Director General Dr.Chandrawansa Pathiraja. He said the meeting has become a sharing of experience among wildlife officers in the region on how to confront wildlife crime in the South Asian way and getting to know of new tools that can be used in fighting wildlife crime.

Because of this richness in biodiversity, South Asia has been one of the prime targets of internationally organized wildlife crime networks and to curb this ongoing trend, it become necessary that the existing conservation measures and enforcement strategies are reinforced through regional cooperation. With this aim, the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) has been set up for the development of regional programmes through networking, sharing and effective dissemination of knowledge and information.

Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) – the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network - has been a cornerstone of SAWEN helping to set it up and providing technical support. TRAFFIC carries out research and provides analysis, support and encouragement to efforts aimed at ensuring that wildlife trade is not a threat to conservation of nature and wants to strengthen the same in the region.

Setting up its own network to fight wildlife crime, Sri Lankan experts too get together and setup the Sri Lanka Wildlife Enforcement Network (SLaWEN) last January. Representatives of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Enforcement Network with those from international agencies involved in regulation of wildlife trade, including INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and TRAFFIC.

Addressing this forum chaired by Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Dr. Pathiraja said that in an era where the country’s economy is moving forward, the Department of Wildlife Conservation has a major role to play in developing the ecotourism industry which has the potential to be one of the county’s main foreign revenue earners. This will be nullified if the biodiversity, including wildlife, is not conserved properly and stressed the need to curb wildlife crime.

The workshop held in Gujarat two weeks ago mainly aimed at strengthening wildlife forensics. Wildlife forensics is concerned with the use of technology like DNA profiling (‘DNA fingerprinting’) and DNA sequencing and using this information to fight wildlife crime.

Forensics can help curb jumbo-sized crime

Only a few Asian elephants have tusks, so they are not being hunted for tusks locally. But instead, another brutal wildlife crime has started where baby elephants are kidnapped from the jungles. It is believed most of these baby jumbos are being abducted from thejungles around Habarana or the Udawalawe.

The methods utilised to seize these calves from their mothers are not clear, but some even believe these racketeers could have killed the mothers. Another theory is that the elephant herd is disturbed and then the lost jumbos are picked during the panic created. They are then transferred to individuals who are usually powerful figures in society.

So far the Wildlife Department’s Flying Squad has seized three such baby elephants abducted from the wilds. The easiest way to verify these racketeers’ claims is to use wildlife forensics. Whenever a female elephant is named as the mother of the baby, the DNA analysis can be used to verify this claim, as mother-child DNA has similarities that can verify the family bond.

After the existence of this wildlife crime racket surfaced, the DWC has made it mandatory to register all the new jumbo babies. But when registering the parents of the baby jumbos should be named so that it can be mandatory to do a DNA analysis to verify the parenthood of the said jumbos.

Wildlife DG is removed

The Sunday Times was planning to meet the Department of Wildlife Conservation Director General to get his views on using wildlife forensics to curb the baby elephant snatching racket. A message sent by him from Yala said that he will respond to a matter when he got back in Colombo. But he was removed the next day from his post with no reasons given.

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