By Dennis Mombauer
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis with far-ranging repercussions. Besides the virus itself, Sri Lanka is affected by its own lockdown measures and those of other countries, impacting sectors such as trade, tourism, industry, transport, services, and financial markets. However, the prevailing curfew across large parts of the island have allowed for a rise in the illegal hunting of animals, otherwise known as poaching.
Poaching is the killing or catching of an animal protected under the law or killing an animal using illegal methods. It can involve a wide range of different species, methods, means, and motives in countries across the globe. Poaching and wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest illegal businesses worldwide, with a total worth between seven and twenty-three billion dollars per year according to a widely cited 2014 UNEP report.
As a biodiversity hotspot with a wealth of endemic species, Sri Lanka is a lucrative target for poachers. The country is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, including iconic species such as elephants, leopards, pangolins, blue whales, or dugongs. 28% of all flowering plants and 30% of all vertebrate species are endemic to Sri Lanka, including 85% of amphibians, 60% of reptiles, and 50% of freshwater fish.
However, climate change, encroachment, habitat destruction and degradation, land-use conflict, population pressure, and deforestation have brought people and wildlife closer together than ever. 27% of bird species, 66% of amphibians, 56% of mammals, 49% of freshwater fish, and 59% of reptiles in Sri Lanka are threatened. Human-elephant conflict has escalated in recent years, with more than 360 dead elephants and more than 100 humans killed in 2019 alone. There are regular clashes between farmers and leopards, and incidents of elephant and leopard poisoning have been reported in recent years.
It is of vital interest for Sri Lanka to control the decline of species, as both the economy and the environment depend on sustaining healthy wildlife populations. From coral reefs and mangroves to inland jungle and savannah, Sri Lanka’s ecosystems harbor a unique biodiversity that attracts attention from tourists and poachers alike.
Poachers in Sri Lanka can be divided into two groups. The first, subsistence poachers, hunts small game—such as wild boar, sambar, and other deer—for food or supplementary income. Subsistence poachers use low technology and rarely kill large numbers of animals. Most times, they are from farming communities living close to jungles or national parks, for example around Yala, Wilpattu, Udawalawe, or Horton Plains.
The second group of poachers are commercial. They are after bushmeat or other animal products, such as leopard skin or elephant tusks, not for their own survival, but to make a profit. They often work with organized transnational groups and take part in the global wildlife trade, selling animal parts or live animals to customers in the US, Europe, or China. A well-connected subgroup of commercial poachers in Sri Lanka is after elephants, trying to take baby elephants alive for various purposes, including as pets.
Commercial poaching is a smaller problem in Sri Lanka than it is in India or most African countries, but it is not insignificant. As only around 5% of Sri Lankan elephants are tuskers, poaching for ivory is not a major issue. However, hunting for bushmeat, domestic trade, or illegal export of organisms and parts is of great concern for Sri Lanka, which is why the country has joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1979 as only the eighth country in Asia.
Mammals such as deer or sambar are hunted for their meat and pelts, reptiles such as tortoises and turtles for their meat and eggs. As pointed out above, poachers also target animals for other parts, such as elephant ivory or pangolin scales.
In Sri Lanka, the 1937 Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) is the primary legislation that protects wild animals, including mammals and reptiles. Most animals are protected under the FFPO, and several species—near-threatened, vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered—are classified as “strictly protected.” Hunters of protected animals can be arrested without a warrant but bailed out, while hunters of strictly protected animals are not bailable at all.
However, there are constraints to the effective implementation of the ordinance and other relevant laws. According to various sources, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) as the responsible agency has gaps in manpower, training, monitoring capacities, and funding to curb poaching and wildlife trafficking everywhere on the island.
Sri Lanka has seen relatively few cases of COVID-19 so far, but the pandemic affects the country’s population and economy in many ways. Curfew, social distancing, and the collapse of global travel threaten the livelihoods of large segments of the island’s population. There is no hard data on poaching numbers during the curfew, but accounts from conservationists, wildlife officers, and media indicate that the virus response measures have strengthened both the pressure and the opportunities to poach.
With the parks empty of tourists, many poachers see a window of opportunity. As the DWC has limited staff, it cannot patrol these extensive areas on its own, allowing poachers to go undetected. And even where the wildlife officers catch poachers in the act, things can go wrong—for example on April 23rd, 2020, when a wildlife officer was shot dead by a group of hunters inside Gal Oya National Park.
In many areas around Sri Lanka’s national parks, tourism has only recently replaced poaching as a major source of livelihoods and transformed the rural economy. Instead of hunting and selling wildlife, second- or third-generation hunters now drive safari jeeps, vans, tuk-tuks, or boats, and work as tour guides or staff at guest houses. Some hotels and lodges buy their supply from the villages, and the tourists bring additional business to local shops and markets.
However, there is still little economic diversification in these areas. Apart from agriculture, sources of income are rare. As COVID-19 and the curfew have brought tourism to a halt, non-farmers often find themselves with zero income and zero employment options, leaving them no choice but to go back to poaching, cutting trees, and illegal breweries.
Poaching threatens many species and the ecosystems that depend on them. It causes suffering in animals and endangers the lives of wildlife officers, reduces ecosystem functionality and affects the growing wildlife tourism and eco-tourism industry.
Sri Lanka has the laws to prohibit poaching, but the rise of poaching during COVID-19 highlights difficulties in enforcement. More than that, it shows the value of economic diversification, as many traditional hunters had left poaching behind when steady jobs in wildlife tourism became available. If Sri Lanka can revive its tourism industry in the wake of global lockdowns and travel warnings and bring alternative livelihoods to more villages around the national parks, subsistence poaching will further reduce.
In financial terms, the calculation is simple. Illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative business, but wildlife tourism has a far higher value for a much larger group of beneficiaries. While trafficking is estimated to be worth USD 7-23 billion, wildlife tourism contributes over USD 120 billion to the global economy, over five times as much as even the highest trafficking estimate.
Experiences across the island show that subsistence poachers can turn away from poaching when presented with alternative livelihood options. If the tourism sector manages to recover after the first wave of the pandemic, there is a great potential to expand sustainable wildlife tourism and transform the relationship between local communities and the surrounding wildlife. This could also free up capacities in the DWC to deal with commercial poachers, although support from law enforcement, tri-forces, and civil society might be necessary to put an end to the illegal hunting and trading of endangered species.
Gunatilleke, Nimal, Pethiyagoda, Rohan, Gunatilleke, Savitri (2008). Biodiversity of Sri Lanka. In: Journal of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka Vol. 36 Special Issue, 25-62.
Ministry of Environment (2012). The National Red List of Sri Lanka. Conservation Status of the Fauna and Flora. Ministry of Environment, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Nellemann, C., Henriksen, R., Raxter, P., Ash, N., Mrema, E. (2014). The Environmental Crime Crisis. Threats to Sustainable Development from Illegal Exploitation and Trade in Wildlife and Forest Resources. A UNEP Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, Nairobi and Arendal.
World Travel & Tourism Council (2019). The Economic Impact of Global Wildlife Tourism. Travel & Tourism as an Economic Tool for the Protection of Wildlife.
World Wildlife Fund (2020). TRAFFIC: The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network. Accessed May 2020 at https://www.worldwildlife.org/initiatives/traffic-the-wildlife-trade-monitoring-network
Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer and researcher on climate change and education. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder in the field of education. Besides articles and research, he has published numerous works of fiction in German and English.