Sri Lanka’s wildlife is at a critical juncture, not only due to ongoing developmental activities but also because
relevant authorities are lagging in terms of law enforcement, technological resources, etc. Many perpetrators
apprehended for wildlife crimes have been released on bail, sometimes due to insufficient evidence or due to their
links with politicians. Other than wildlife, it is high time that the proposed Animal Welfare Bill saw the light of day in
order to protect domestic animals, stray dogs, etc. Large scale habitat loss has resulted in an aggravating human-
wildlife conflict, particularly with elephants and leopards. It is in this backdrop that Sri Lanka needs to prepare
itself to accommodate stringent regulations in order to safeguard all animals and the environment.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PROPOSED ANIMAL WELFARE BILL
The proposed Animal Welfare Bill was drafted in 2006 and tabled in Parliament in 2010. The existing law addressing cruelty towards animals is embodied in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance No. 3 of 1907. In her comments, lawyer and animal welfare advocate Lalani Perera shared her views about the progress of the proposed animal welfare bill, regulation of pet shops, animal slaughter practices, and sterilization programmes.
Q WHAT IS THE CURRENT PROGRESS OF THE ANIMAL WELFARE BILL?
The Cabinet has approved the Bill in principle. At present, it is with the Attorney General who has to give his advice regarding its Constitutionality. Once that advice is received, the Bill will be submitted to Cabinet for final approval. When final approval is received, it has to be published in the Gazette and presented in Parliament for approval. We do hope that there will be no more issues or delays.
Q WHY SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT GIVE PRIORITY TO THIS BILL?
The Bill was prepared by Sri Lanka’s Law Commission and submitted to the then President in 2006. It is through a case filed in the Court of Appeal in 2010, that a group of us were able to draw the attention of the government for the need for this Bill. The law in force today is the archaic Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 which applies only to domestic and captured animals, with punishments being limited to a fine less than Rs.100 and a jail term that cannot exceed three months. Thus, while cruelty to animals is regularly exposed, even in the extremely few cases that end up in court, there are many inadequacies. The Animal Welfare Bill introduces many new offenses and prescribes deterrent punishments, that can go up to four years imprisonment and fines as high as Rs.125,000.
It defines “animal” as “any living being other than a human being and includes domestic animal, farm animal, animal in captivity, wild animal, companion animal, aquatic animal, stray animal, and food animal.” There was a lot of opposition to this Bill, especially from the meat industry. The petitioners in the court case have met former Presidents Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mr. Maithripala Sirisena and also the present President Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, all of whom were supportive of the Bill. The Bill has been pending for over fifteen years.
Q SRI LANKA HAS A NUMBER OF UNREGULATED PET SHOPS AND OPERATIONS SUCH AS ILLEGAL BREEDING. DOES THE BILL ADDRESS THESE AREAS AS WELL? IF SO WHAT ARE THE PROVISIONS?
The court case also dealt with the need to regulate pet shops and breeding. As regards to pet shops, the Animal Welfare Bill includes a range of provisions, with stringent penalties for violations. As for breeding, the proposed new Rabies and Registration of Dogs Act contains provisions to deal with illegal breeding. But, how long more will it take for this Act to be presented in Parliament and passed is the question. Until then it will be endless suffering for these dogs.
Q ARE THERE LEGAL PROVISIONS TO SAFEGUARD THE WELLBEING OF ANIMALS ON FARMS?
A draft new Animals Act which has been discussed at the Animal Welfare Steering Committee includes several safeguards for farm animals. It is the Ministry concerned with livestock that is working on this.
Q THERE’S A HUGE DEBATE ON ANIMAL SLAUGHTER, PARTICULARLY WITH REGARDS TO RELIGIOUS PRACTICES. WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THIS MATTER?
There are two aspects here – slaughter for food and ritual animal slaughter. As for slaughter for food, I understand that the new Animals Act proposed by the Livestock Ministry includes provisions for the humane slaughter of food animals, but it has not yet been passed by Parliament. As for ritual animal slaughter, subsequent to the massive massacre of goats and fowl at the Munneswaram Sri Bhadra Kali Amman Kovil in 2009, a draft law to ban ritual animal sacrifice was prepared and our group also met previous Hindu Affairs Ministers Mr. D.M. Swaminathan and Mr. Mano Ganeshan hoping that the matter could be expedited. Sadly, there has been no progress so far.
Q STERILIZATION PROGRAMMES HAVE BEEN NEGLECTED BY THE STATE. ALTHOUGH IT IS SOMETIMES DONE AT THE MUNICIPALITY LEVEL, THESE PROGRAMMES DON’T SUSTAIN FOR LONG. DRAWING EXAMPLES FROM OTHER COUNTRIES HOW COULD THE STATE PROVIDE FACILITIES FOR THESE PROGRAMMES AND RESOURCES FOR STATE-RUN DOG SHELTERS?
The archaic Rabies Ordinance of 1901 and the Dog Registration Ordinance of 1893 allow stray dogs to be seized and destroyed as a rabies control measure. This is totally inconsistent with current global animal welfare norms, where animals are no longer considered chattel, but considered living beings or non-human persons.
However, with the “NO KILL POLICY” declared by the then President in 2006, Catch-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release (CNVR) which is the humane alternative to destruction commenced, with the Ministry of Health vested with the responsibility for these programmes. In 2016 when the responsibility of conducting CNVR was transferred to the Department of Animal Production and Health (DAPH) there was a temporary setback, perhaps due to transitional issues, but the DAPH commenced these programmes during the latter part of 2018. But in February 2019 by yet another Cabinet decision, this responsibility was once again vested in the Health Ministry, which is currently conducting these programmes in certain areas, such as Embilipitiya.
A proposed new Rabies and Registration of Dogs Act prepared by the Ministry of Local Government is also pending. This Act requires local authorities to vaccinate all dogs in their areas and to sterilize all stray dogs in those areas. Further, under the proposed law, dogs suspected to be rabid are not allowed to be killed without observing whether they are actually rabid and if so, they have to be euthanized.
Dogs shelters are not a solution – certainly not State-run shelters, as evidenced by the one set up at Nellikulama by a local authority in Anuradhapura, where many dogs suffered harrowing deaths and only a few could be rescued by animal welfare groups. You cannot just dump many dogs in one block of land with no facilities. Separate sections are required, depending on the animals’ needs and circumstances, such as their health and temperament. But we do have a few private shelters, which despite financial constraints, are maintained well.
TECHNOLOGICAL SUPPORT TO TACKLE WILDLIFE CRIMES
Sri Lanka has recently witnessed an alarming increase in wildlife crimes. The Department of Wildlife Conservation has over the past few months caught many people who have entered protected areas, Forest reserves without permission while some of them were apprehended for poaching. However, Sri Lanka needs to streamline its use of technology and trained personnel in tackling wildlife crimes. Adding his thoughts, Serendipity Wildlife Foundation Founder Ravi Perera said that more and more organizations are using technology to fight wildlife crime around the world. “Serendipity Wildlife Foundation’s CSI wildlife programme and the TUSKS programme are heavily involved in electronic technology to detect and investigate wildlife crime in Asia and Africa. Our equipment ranges from cell phone detection and interception, satellite imagery, thermal imagery, social media investigation, and a variety of hidden camera devices.
We offer our services and assistance to our partners in Asia and Africa free of charge. In addition, Serendipity Wildlife Foundation has a classified database exclusive to wildlife crimes, with information that can be shared with worldwide agencies. In 2019, three DWC personnel were trained in electronic forensics and due to Covid, all work had to be put on hold in starting an Electronic Forensic Workstation exclusively for wildlife crimes. Now, with the country opening up, we will continue our plans to complete this project, and have Sri Lanka as the very first country in Asia to have a Wildlife Electronic Forensic Workstation to analyze and investigate cell phones, computers, and other devices involved in wildlife crime.”
THREATS TO TURTLE NESTING AND FISHING PRACTICES
The X-Press Pearl inferno posed an irreversible threat to the marine ecosystem. Apart from that many marine species have been posed with threats due to developmental activities that are underway along Sri Lanka‘s coastline. Turtles for example have been threatened with light pollution as many hotels have now come up near coastal areas. “Beach vegetation is on the decline mainly due to human encroachment and due to natural incidents such as rough seas,” opined Thushan Kapurusinghe of The Turtle Conservation Project. “For example, many green turtles prefer to nest under bushes or vegetation and these species will be threatened with extinction. On the other hand, people poach turtle eggs and nesting beaches are now frequented by stray dogs. Stray dogs destroy incubating eggs and prey on hatchlings. Many turtle hatcheries have restricted obtaining eggs as they don’t have an income with the ongoing pandemic.”
Speaking about the ornamental fish industry, Kapurusinghe said that there is seawater fish and freshwater fish being used in this industry. “But a majority of fish that are being exported are freshwater fish and they are not endemic to Sri Lanka. However, people also have the habit of catching colour fish, also known as reef fish. These fishes are being caught from lagoons thereby posing a threat to the population size. For example, butterflyfish feed on polyps and maintain a healthy coral reef. Some people also have the practice of breeding or raising ornamental fish and releasing them to rivers and lakes. Species such as catfish, glass cleaner have become a threat to the local freshwater fish population. Another species called the Apple Snail has been introduced to Sri Lanka and now it is an invasive species.”
When asked about regulations, he said that people cannot catch certain endangered, critically endangered fish as it is prohibited by the law. “But we don’t know how many specimen are there in our waters to keep a tab of population sizes and other details. Some countries give a quota for fishermen in order to balance the fish population while allowing fishermen to make an income. In Sri Lanka, there was a ban on catching female lobsters with eggs, but then fishermen still caught female lobsters and removed their eggs prior to maturation. Therefore there’s an issue in enforcing the law as well. The state has to negotiate with fishermen and introduce sustainable fishing practices,” he added.