27 May, 2022


Sri Lanka & The International Illegal Wildlife Trade

By Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Vidya Abhayagunawardena

Vidya Abhayagunawardena

To Curb International Illegal Wildlife Trade Transiting or Exported from Sri Lanka’s Ports; Sri Lanka Needs to Introduce Legislations Enforcing the CITES Immediately

The Government of Sri Lanka publicly destroyed the forfeited blood Ivory on 26th January at the Galle Face Green, with the participation of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretary General John E. Scanlon who was invited by the President. This event received tremendous positive international publicity from both governments and the private sector. There is no doubt that this was one of the largest wildlife-related events held in the South Asian region.

We are all thankful to the Sri Lanka Customs for their excellent detection of the blood ivory container in 2012. However, Sri Lanka Customs were able to detect and forfeit only this one container of blood ivory, mostly due to the unusual circumstances of this instance, as the vessel with the illegal container was forced to make an unscheduled entry to the Colombo Port due to mechanical failure. Since then, although several other blood ivory containers transited under normal circumstances through Sri Lankan ports, they were not apprehended. This is due to lack of local regulations in place to properly enforce the CITES to which Sri Lanka has been a signatory since 1979.

Blood Ivory4Today the world’s largest illegal international trade contributions are from drugs, arms, human trafficking and wildlife. The report on Global Financial Integrity, “Transnational Crime in the Developing World,” finds that the illicit trade in “goods, guns, people, and natural resources” is a billion dollar enterprise, which most negatively impacts on the developing world. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme Year Book 2014, the annual dollar value of illegal wildlife trade is somewhere between $50-$150 billion dollars per year and INTERPOL estimates it is the third largest illegal trade by dollar value after drugs and guns.But we can argue that nature and wildlife cannot be quantified interms of monetary value as these are essential for the earth’s survival.

In recent years, the international illegal wildlife trade is growing at an alarming rate. It is run by dangerous international networks and sometime armed groups operating across borders. Wildlife and animal parts are trafficked much like illegal drugs and arms.In April 2013, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice sought to toughen existing laws by declaring wildlife trafficking a ‘serious crime.’ The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has also adopted the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) in September of last year, which includes specific targets on tackling the illegal trade in wildlife.

Critically endangered wildlife such as elephants, rhinos, leopards, tigers and cheetahs living in the African region are getting killed and driven towards extinction. As reported, if the current rate of killing elephants continues (one every 15 minutes for its ivory), the world will not have elephants in another 10 years and they will forever be extinct. According to the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC), there are certain places where wildlife trade is particularly threatening called “wildlife trade hotspots.” They include China’s international borders, trade hubs in East/Southern Africa and South-east Asia, the eastern borders of the European Union, some markets in Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

Booming Blood Ivory Trade in the East Asian Region

For some decades, Asian regions have become economic power houses for the world. They are China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. With their rapid economic growth, there are certain illegal businesses of drugs, arms and wildlife flourishing in these regions. Due to growing demand for the products of the illegal wildlife trade from the East Asian countries coupled to their economic growth, they fuel the businesses of illegal blood ivory and rhino horns. Tusks and other body parts of elephants are prized for decoration as talismans and for use in traditional medicine across parts of Asia, with China being a major market for such products.

Most of the trades, shipments and cargo are transiting via the Indian Ocean and it is in this respect that Sri Lanka’s ports are transit points for many shipping lines. Many of the African region cargo transit to East Asia via the Colombo Port. Sri Lanka can be supportive to curb this illegal wildlife industry at the transnational level, and the country can be a model for the world to help save critically endangered wildlife for future generations.

Is Sri Lanka Becoming a Transit Hub for the Illegal Wildlife Trade?

Sri Lanka is strategically located in one of the busiest international shipping routes in the Indian Ocean and most of the container ships, particularly between Arica and the Gulf region, to the East Asian region, pass through the Colombo Port to receive the services of transit or transshipment.

Blood Ivory1This growing illegal wildlife trade between Africa and the East Asian region takes place on this shipping lane. This is proven through the Sri Lanka Customs detection and seizure in 2012 of blood ivory container with 359 pieces of blood ivory weighing 1.5 tonnes en-route to Dubai from Kenya. Another seizer of a massive consignment of 28 container loads of Madagascar Dalbergia timber (Rose Wood) worth US$ 7million, which was being transported from Zanzibar to Hong Kong via Sri Lanka in 2014 also took place. These two detections by the Sri Lanka Customs were highly praised by the local and international community.

In April 2015, Singapore and Thailand seized large hauls of blood ivories which may have sailed through the Colombo Port. The question is then raised as to whether Sri Lanka’s ports are becoming hubs for international illegal wildlife trade, given that in last year, certain events make it likely that illegal shipments may have transited through the Colombo Port. Under these circumstances Sri Lanka needs to immediately CITES with the necessary local regulations. Sri Lanka Customs needs the support of prompt international intelligence, as well as highly committed professionalism by the Sri Lanka’s Customs Authority. Since local regulations for CITES are not in place in Sri Lanka, most of the international wildlife traffickers make use of Sri Lanka’s ports as their transit/transshipment hub along the Indian Ocean shipping route.

Singapore and Thailand Seized 10.7 tons of Blood Ivory on 20th, 24th and 25th April 2015

In April 2015, the vessel CAPE MADRID 008E was carrying two containers of blood ivories, rhino horns and big cat’s teeth under the guise of 440 bags of tea leaves shipped in Mombasa Port, Kenya on 24th April 2015. The shipment sailed via the Colombo Port to Singapore. CAPE MADRID was berthed at the Colombo Port on 2nd May, and that particular week was a Buddhist religious holiday (Vesak Poya). The Biodiversity Cultural and National Heritage Protection Division of the Sri Lanka Customs were suspicious of those two transit containers, but however the Biodiversity Division were unable to scan the two containers due to lack of legislations in place.

Blood IvorySamantha Gunesekera of the Biodiversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Division of Sri Lanka Customs was able to inform the Singapore Customs authorities via the World Customs Organization, who monitored the two containers on the CAPE MADRID after they left Colombo Port on 2nd May 2015 and until they were intercepted. On 19th May 2015, the World Customs Organization wrote to Samantha Gunesekera that Singapore Customs had intercepted two containers and found 1,783 pieces of raw elephant ivory, 4 pieces of rhinoceros horns, and 22 pieces of teeth believed to be from African big cats concealed among bags of tea leaves.

The Singapore Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and Singapore Customs issued a joint media release mentioned that “Acting on a tip-off, the AVA and Singapore Customs and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, has seized a shipment of about 3.7 tonnes of illegal ivory and the haul is estimated at US $8million. This is the largest seizure of illegal ivory since 2002.”

The Singapore press release further mentioned that, “The illegal trade of endangered animal parts is fuelled by increasing demand and poaching. Tackling the illegal wildlife trade requires concerted efforts by the international community. The Singapore Government has zero tolerance on the use of Singapore as a conduit to smuggle endangered species and their parts and products. AVA will continue to corporate and collaborate with partner enforcement agencies nationally and internationally to curb wildlife trafficking. The public can also help reduce demand by not buying such products.”

Thailand seized a blood ivory container with 4 tonnes of blood ivory on 20th April 2015 arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo destined for Laos. They found 739 pieces of blood ivory worth over $6 million. The shipment was labelled as beans and it was the biggest ivory seizure in Thai history.

On 25th April 2015, Thailand Customs seized another blood ivory container which had over 3 tonnes of blood ivory. It was reported that it had found 511 pieces of blood ivory, in a container marked as tea leaves transported from Mombasa, Kenya, destined to Laos.

On 12th December 2015, Singapore Customs seized 0.8tonnes of ivory (255 pieces) and pangolin scales in a shipment that originated from Lagos, Nigeria on its way to Vietnam and Laos via Singapore. In the same month on the 18th Thailand and Vietnam announced nearly three tonnes of ivory sized.

Missed Opportunities for Sri Lanka Customs

As mentioned above, Singapore seized stocks of blood ivories, rhino horns and big cat teeth and the evidence shows that both ships transited through the Colombo Port. In the same month Thailand seized two containers of blood ivory from two ships, which are also believed to have transited through the Colombo Port. Sri Lanka could have detected and seized all four containers of blood ivory making it the largest blood ivory haul in history within few days and, weighing at 10.7 tonnes (3033 pieces of blood ivory, Rhino horns and Big Cat’s teeth). Under the International Union for Conservation’s (IUCN) Red List, Elephants, Rhinoceros and Big Cats (leopards and cheetahs) are considered as critically endangered species, and all these species are banned from international trade under Appendix I of CITES.

Existing Laws in Sri Lanka to Curb International Wildlife Trade

The Fauna and Flora Protection (FFPO Amendment) Act, No 22 of 2009 and the Customs (Amendment) Act No 2 of 2003 An Act To Amend the Customs Ordinance (Ordinance No 17 of 1869) are the two main laws available in Sri Lanka relating to wildlife trade. But the FFPO is not sufficient to prosecute any of perpetrators linked to the international wildlife trade and Sri Lanka Customs are not able to prosecute any of the international wildlife crime perpetrators when the necessary domestic regulations have not yet been formulated. Under these circumstances, the only viable solution would be to have local regulations enforcing the CITES.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

CITES aims to ensure that the international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Around 5,600 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade. CITES is legally binding on the Parties which means they have to implement the Convention but it does not take the place of national laws. Rather it provides a framework to be respected by each Party, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.

Treaty Incorporation: CITES is an international treaty which is not self-executing upon a country’s adherence (i.e. agreements to be legally bound by its provisions). The implementation of CITES obligations requires that policy, powers, rights, duties and procedures be set forth in national legislation. Effective CITES implementation is impossible without an adequate legal basis at national level. Trade should not be allowed unless adequate legislations is in force.

Obligations: CITES Parties have some guidance on what to include in their legislation, Article III of the Convention set forth the conditions under which trade should take place; Article IX requires that Parties designate a Management Authority and a Scientific Authority; Article VIII requires that Parties prohibit trade in specimens in violation of the Convention, and penalize such trade and allows for confiscation of specimens illegally trades or possessed.

National Legislation Project: Unique to CITES and in operation since 1992 country which inadequate legislation could result in the CITES Standing Committee making recommendations that all Parties suspend commercial trade in CITES-listed species with such a country.

Legislative Analysis: Based on a comparison with Resolution Conf.8.4 (Rev.CoP15), legislation is placed in one of three categories: Category I. Legislation that is believed generally to meet the requirements for implementation of CITES, Category II. Legislation that is believed generally not to meet all requirements for the implementation of CITES, Category III. Legislation that is believed generally not to meet the requirementsfor implementation of CITES. (Source: CITES 2013).

CITES and Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been a signatory to the CITES since 1979, and the Department of Wildlife Conservation is the Management Authority for the Convention in Sri Lanka. The National Legislation Project of CITES is in operation since 1992, but Sri Lanka was not able to make any regulations under the Convention and this has created many obstacles for Sri Lanka Customs to prosecute suspects due to the unavailability of national regulations under the Convention. According to the requirements of CITES, to implement the regulations in any country, there should be a competent Management Authority, Scientific Authority and Enforcement Authority and each of those authorities should be independent from one another. These designations are still lacking in Sri Lanka. Currently Sri Lanka comes under the Category III Legislation which is believed generally not to meet all requirements for the implementation of CITES.

Currently the Government of Sri Lanka is working hard to get back the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP Plus) to Sri Lanka which was withdrawn in 2010. CITES is one of the Conventions which comes under the GSP Plus and introducing the necessary local regulations for CITES and the destruction of forfeited ivories will benefit with the ongoing negotiation process.

Current Working Status on CITES Regulations in Sri Lanka

The previous government’s interest on CITES regulations were minimal and they claimed that existing domestic laws are more than enough to curb the illegal wildlife trade. However they must also have been aware that existing domestic laws in Sri Lanka are unable to address the transnational wildlife crimes taking place at the Sri Lankan ports. According to the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) draft regulations were sent to the Legal Draftsman Department eight years ago. This was also mentioned by the Sri Lanka Customs in a newspaper article in 2014 along with an interview of DWC officials stating that the draft legislation was re-sent to the Legal Draftsman in 2013. However, no advancement has been made on this front since then.

In the South Asian region, India and Pakistan have already passed local regulations for CITES some years ago, but Sri Lanka is still grappling and struggling with this matter. Through CITES, India banned the seahorse fishery some years ago but the dried seahorses are caught in India, smuggled into Sri Lanka by sea and re-exported due to weaker regulations in Sri Lanka for CITES. Without adequate legislations, Sri Lanka will not be able to join with the international community to fight and curb illegal wildlife trade to save the last surviving critically endangered flora and fauna on earth. Delaying such important legislations means that Sri Lanka directly helps drive critically endangered species towards extinction and boosts the business of illegal international wildlife trade.

The Way Forward

Currently the Sri Lanka Customs is carrying out its service in fighting the illegal international wildlife trade in order to conserve and preserve the world wildlife heritage. This needs to be continued, but they need to be provided with the implementation legislation required. Container ships going through Sri Lanka’s ports need to be inspected, with the support of the international intelligence, to detect whether there are any wildlife cargoes being illegally transported. For this purpose, any suspected cargos need to be thoroughly screened before they are released to another port of call.

Minister for Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, is very keen on Sri Lanka introducing necessary local regulations to enforce CITES. In January he attended the Convention’s 66th Standing Committee Meeting in Geneva. He is the first minister from Sri Lanka to attend any CITES meeting. When the laws and regulations of CITES are finally introduced, Sri Lanka Customs will be able to take action without any delay and Sri Lanka can once again be known for its commitment to the protection of threatened species, not just domestically, but also internationally. Without legislations Sri Lanka’s ports will become safe haven for international illegal wildlife trade, and with that, bring about many trade restrictions hindering the development of the country.



Abhayagunawardena, Vidya & Westhuizen, Nicky van der (2014), An Urgent Call to Save the “Top Seven” in Sri Lanka and the “Big Five” in Africa, Sri Lankan Wildlife Vol. 10 No.1, Sri Lanka, Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Abhayagunawardena, Vidya (2016), Today is the Day; Sri Lanka to Burn Blood Ivory <https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/tuesday-is-the-day-sri-lanka-to-burn-blood-ivory/> [Accessed on 27th January 2016].

Bastian, Dharisha & Anand, Geeta (2016), Sri Lanka Destroys Illegal Elephant Tusks <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/27/world/asia/sri-lanka-destroys-illegal-elephant-tusks.html?_r=0>
[Accessed on 26th January 2016].

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<https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/disc/CITES-Convention-EN.pdf > [Accessed on 15th March 2014].

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<http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3047082/Thai-customs-seize-African-elephant-tusks-worth-6-mn.html> [Accessed on 20th September 2015].

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Note: Special thanks to Samantha Gunesekera former Deputy Director for Biodiversity Unit at the Sri Lanka Customs for providing important information on this article

*Vidya Abhayagunawardena can be reached at vidyampa@hotmail.com.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I still don’t fully understand what is gained by destroying this ivory. The elephants have already died, by doing this you make a scare commodity even scarcer and drive the demand up.

    This makes it even more lucrative for poachers and they get more and more for the ivory and they continue to kill.

    Wouldn’t it be better to flood the market, drive the price down and make it economically nonviable to poach ? After all all this is done for money AND THE ELEPHANTS ARE DEAD ANYWAY !

    • 0

      [Edited out]

  • 0

    Sri Lankan govt became Just Brain dead chicken with no back bone.

    They bent to Western stupid laws built on christian thinking. Sri lanka did not kill those Tuskers. Why do you have to destroy those when you did not kill. Sri Lanka should have used those tusks as a respect to those tuskers who died simply because they had it.

    Burning and destroying is acceptable to those countries which think that they are the almighty, as their religion is. They think, they are the most powerful as their almighty is and try to govern every thing.

    Sri lanka should not think like that. Some one killed those. As a respect to those animals we use those and remember those animals. Give merits to them. Because, buddhists think, These Tuskers are Bodhisathwas.

    Probably, the write is also a Christian and he does not know the holy truth and how Buddhists think.

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