Birds detected at BIA raises Interpol concern

  • Exotic species brought into country illegally to be sold at exorbitant amounts
  • Questions over co-ordination of various agencies involved in implementing Animal Diseases Act
By Chandani Kirinde

The recent detection at the BIA of an attempt to smuggle several exotic varieties of birds into the country has triggered interest of the Interpol that is probing whether this was part of a global live animal trafficking trade.

Interpol’s Environmental Crime Committee in a letter to the Criminal investigation Department (CID) has requested any intelligence that the CID may have gathered from investigations into the illicit trafficking of birds, the Sunday Times learns.

Samantha Gunasekera

The recent detection was of a consignment of 121 live birds brought down by a regular importer who had documents to support the import of only ten birds as per the permits issued by the Department of Wild Life Conservation (DWC). These permits are given only after a quarantine report is obtained from the importer as required under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The market value of the birds was around Rs. 13.6 million but the declared value was just US $ 1130 (around Rs. 120,000). The man was fined Rs 450,000 and the birds were handed over to the National Zoological Gardens where they will go on display in about a month’s time. The ten birds for which the man had proper documentation were handed over to him.

While most of the birds were varieties of parrots, what was disturbing was that among them were several small exotic varieties of duck and a pair of swans which are high-risk carries of Avian flu (bird flu).

Customs Bio-Diversity unit Director General Samantha Gunasekera who led the detection having kept tabs on the importer for more than a year and having been tipped off by an informant said this was perhaps one of the few cases that was detected while in other instances live animal and bird cargo are smuggled into the country for ornamental purposes to be sold at exorbitant rates.

Another shocking revelation was the amount people are willing to pay to buy different types of macaw and cockatoos to keep as pets. The blue and gold Macaw, indigenous to South America is sold at around Rs.1. 2 million while prices of other exotic birds range between Rs. 100,000 and Rs. One million. (See graphic for prices of imported birds sold in Sri Lanka). “The bird consignments come from Bangkok but the birds originate from South America, Australia or New Zealand,” Mr.Gunasekera said.

While the Customs Department makes the detections, the quarantine office run by officials of the Department of Animal Production and Health (DAPH) are entrusted with checking live cargo. “The importer has to inform the Department when the consignment is due and our officials check them when they arrive to give clearance.

If there is some suspicion we keep the animals or birds at a quarantine centre outside the airport and release them later,” a spokesman for the Department Dr. Susil Silva said. However, the Sunday Times learns that the DAPH has come under criticism particularly that the live cargo is not examined properly and that regular importers are allowed to leave with the goods without proper scrutiny.

When questioned Dr.Silva said the Department works with the resources available and that so far the Department has ensured that no diseases are brought into the country. “We have to implement the Animal Diseases Act and that is what our officials do,” he said.

The Sunday Times found out that with varying government agencies involved in enforcing laws pertaining to this area, there seemed a lack of co-ordination. For example the Department of Wild Life Conservation (DWC) which issues permits and is entrusted with carrying out raids now functions under the Ministry of Agrarian Services and Wild Life whereas it was earlier under the Ministry of Environment which formulates policy on environment related matters. The co-ordination between the DAPH and the Customs too seemed inadequate.

Environment activist and lawyer Jagath Gunawardena said although the Flora and Fauna Ordinance provides adequate laws to deal with the import and export of live and endangered species of both animal and plant what was lacking was its implementation as well as trained officers.

“The law has been amended to meet present day situations but it has to be better implemented and we need more trained personnel so that we can close the loopholes that exist,” he said. Meanwhile, Samantha Gunasekera of the Customs said that other than the import of live animals, the unchecked import of various types of plants and fish too has proved to be hazardous to local bio diversity.

One of the 121 consignment of birds that were detected at the airport. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

“I warned many years ago that the import of piranhas and knife fish was detrimental to the survival of fish species. Their import was banned much later but now these fish are found in our waterways,” he said.

He added that similarly other types of animal imports could cause much harm. “The Customs sometime back detected a pair of ferrets that had been imported as pets but these creatures are a highly invasive species and if released into the wild could wreak havoc by killing off many of the smaller animals found here,” he said.

“We need to educate the public as well as have better trained people to ensure that both local bio diversity is protected and there is no trafficking of endangered species,” he added.

Permits before pets

The Department of Animal Production and Health has reiterated that those who want to bring their pets (cats, dogs, birds etc.) into the country need to obtain an import permit from the Department prior to their arrival in Sri Lanka.

An official said despite many public notices to this effect, many airline passengers still continue to bring pets without a valid permit and this has caused inconvenience to the quarantine officers who are forced to send them back to the countries from where they were flown in.

He said, sometimes the pets are not accepted by the respective countries and are sent back to Sri Lanka, causing further inconvenience to officials and the owners.

Locals target endemic birds as pets

By Malaka Rodrigo

A bird-import racket was busted by the Customs last week, but another covert and illicit bird trade is being conducted within the country. The operatives catch birds in remote areas, sometimes deep in the jungles, and supply these to pet shops. The law allows only exotic birds to be kept as pets, but these pet shop owners deal in any indigenous birds.

Parrots, munias, the black-headed oriole, grackles and even sparrows are among the birds being traded. The grackle, or Hill Myna, known locally as Salalihiniya, is especially vulnerable. The bird is in big demand because it comes under the business category of “birds that can talk.”

The grackle, or Hill Myna

The racket came to light last year when a Galle resident was caught in the act of delivering grackles caught in the wild to a pet shop in Mount Lavinia. Acting on a tip-off that birds were being transported to Colombo, Madura de Silva and Nadeeka Hapurarachchie of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle, accompanied by members of the Flying Squad of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, lay in wait near the Mt. Lavinia pet shop in question.

A three-wheeler drew up in front of the pet shop, and a man stepped out. He was caught in the act of handing over a plastic crate containing grackles to the pet shop owner. The man told the Flying Squad the grackles were caught in the jungles of Gampola. He said he had also supplied other bird species, including the Layard’s Parakeet, a bird endemic to Sri Lanka. It is understood that the illicit bird business has been going on for quite some time. The bird supplier and the pet shop owner were both fined.

Madura de Silva told the Sunday Times that there seems to be a growing demand for endemic local birds. Some of these birds have permanent nesting sites, and repeatedly visit the same tree and tree hole to lay their eggs. This makes them easy prey to bird catchers.

It is quite common for villagers to keep birds, such as the mynah and the rose-ringed parakeet, as pets. Usually, these are birds that have been found abandoned or lost as fledglings, and out of compassion the villagers adopt the birds and take care of them. It is a different situation in the towns and city, where illegal bird trading is a lucrative business.

While these birds may not be threatened species, they could be in danger if they became heavily targeted species, warned Madura de Silva.

All indigenous and migratory birds, except five bird species, are protected under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance of Sri Lanka. The five unprotected species are the Large-billed Crow, the House Crow, the Rose-ringed Parakeet, the Scaly-breasted Munia and the white-backed Munia. The Rose-ringed Parakeet and two species of Munia are often available for sale in pet shops.

It is illegal to keep even unprotected bird species without a licence, says environment lawyer Jagath Gunawardane. He believes there are a few organised groups engaged in the illicit bird trade, but the “situation is not out of control.” He recommended a proper investigation to review the situation.

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