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21st February 1999
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Is an organised network of 'bio-smuggling' posing a threat to the country's rare fauna and flora?

Rape of the rare

By Udena R. Atygalle
They dance a beautiful dance, their delicate bodies fluttering in the wind. Butterflies are creatures of spellbinding beauty and intricate colour.

All set to become some rich man's treasured collection
But then this butterfly doesn't dance. How can it,when it's dead and hidden between the pages of a book in some secret compartment, being transported to a foreign country to be a part of some rich man's treasured collection. 

This is the world of 'bio-smuggling'. The network is vast, the stakes high 

The jungles of many developing countries are being raped of exotic and rare fauna and flora. These smuggled specimens either go to add to the value of some exotic collection or help create some new drug to cure some disease. The latter is a laudable endeavour if only it was legal, without endangering already scarce fauna and flora. 

The animals under threat are invertebrate land animals like leeches, leaf insects, butterflies and spiders. They are apparently useful for research purposes.

Recently a Japanese national was caught in Sinharaja forest with rare butterfly specimens. These included the common bird wing (the largest butterfly species found in Sri Lanka) and the tree nymph butterfly. Both species are rare, the latter endemic to Sri Lanka. Incidentally he had only one specimen of the Blue Bottle,the commonest butterfly in the island. Even a sweaty towel would attract hoards of this species in Sinharaja. Why this selectivity?

Jagath Goonewardena of the Society for Environmental Education said that the Japanese may well have been just another peg in the bio-smuggling network. The network begins with the field collectors. Highly paid, they are mostly foreign nationals, who are either top professionals or students working for some research institute, a museum or a private collector. They could also be traders who deal in this sensitive yet lucrative business. 

Usually it is during the first quarter of the year that most of these smuggling activities take place. The attraction could either be the dry weather conducive to collecting, or just the fact that students try to earn big money during their winter vacation in a warmer country. 

Part of the field collectors' success lies in how they exploit the locals. Local knowledge and skills are all exchanged for a few rupees.

Smugglers also use what is called the loop technique . For instance a few years ago when the authorities received information that two German nationals were collecting specimens in Randenigala, they were unable to nab them as the collectors had gone to Kandy and then made their way to Mahiyangana, only a few miles away from Randenigala. They had gone in a loop to mislead the authorities.

PharmaceuticalsThe next peg in the network are the farms where the specimens are bred. From here the specimens are taken to a research institute, where scientists conduct experiments, trying to unlock nature's secrets for the benefit of man. Many drugs invaluable to modern medicine have been produced this way. Big names in the pharmaceutical business, patent these discoveries. Then the mass production of these wonder drugs begins. This is where all the big money is. 

A drug that has helped the survival rate of child leukemia patients,"Vinicristin" was produced using an extract from the "Mini mal" flower. Though it is believed that flowers from Sri Lanka were used for the research into this drug, how many patients here could afford such treatment? 

According to section 31B of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance a fine of Rs 10,000-20,000 could be charged for each specimen, or a jail term of 2-3 years could be passed for collecting, killing or keeping in possession, a protected species.

Under section 40 of the same ordinance Rs 20,000-50,000 or a jail term of 5-10 years could be imposed for the export of indigenous animals or animal parts without a permit.

It is almost always at the Customs that the smugglers are caught, on the rare occasions that they are detected . Samantha Goonesekera, Superintendent of Customs and head of the Bio Diversity Protection Unit of the Customs said a Danish national had been caught with Tarantulas at the airport. The booty was hidden in an unobtrusive rigifoam container. Inside the container there were a couple of S-lon tubes in which the tarantulas were kept. 

On another occasion a foreigner was nabbed with butterfly cocoons,eggs and half dead adult butterflies (a sugar extract had been able to revive these creatures). The culprit was so bold that he carried the specimens in his hand luggage.

Permits to take flora and fauna out of the country are mainly given by the Department of Wild Life Conservation. Deputy Director (Training and Research) H. Ratnayake said the department had stopped granting permission for cases where indigenous flora and fauna were involved, except for government to government requests.

Wildlife Dept. Director K. Jayasekera pointed out that the common belief that the Fauna and Flora Ordinance is enforceable only in protected areas was a misconception. It is enforceable not only in every part of the island but even in some parts of the ocean!

Caught in the act

Flora and fauna smuggling incidents detected by customs during the last six years.
Invertebrate land animals
Information provided by the head of the Bio Diversity Protection Unit of the Customs, Samantha Goonesekara.
The detections form only a tiny proportion of the actual figure. 
Because invertebrate land animals are easy to conceal, such cases are rarely if ever uncovered.
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