20th February 2000

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Wildlife Conservation Dept. plans to ban exotic pets

Born free but not living free

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Have you ever wanted to own a monkey? Or have a peacock strut on your front lawn? Or play with a leopard cub on the hall carpet? Forget it.

The Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) is planning to come down hard on those who have made pets of wild animals.

But taking action against offenders would be a Herculean task because according to the Fauna and Flora Ordinance, the Department's Bible of right and wrong, almost every animal, bird and reptile in the country is deemed protected except for a handful of species.

The Ordinance, in an amendment a few years ago, listed the species not afforded protection by law. These include certain poisonous snakes in Sri Lanka (Cobras, Russel's Vipers, Kraits) and some birds that are identified as paddy pests like parakeets and munias.

This effectively throws a blanket cover of protection over all other animals in the country. Many of those exotic pets most of us are rearing at home are actually animals protected by law and severe penalties await those who contravene the law- fines are in the range of Rs.30,000.

Of course, all this time the hand of the law, more specifically the Department of Wildlife Conservation has been quite slow to apprehend those guilty of domesticating wild animals.

Occasional raids by the Department's Flying Squad had found elk (sambhur) deer, leopard and crocodile- but the habit was difficult to cure. Hotels, guest-houses, politicians, actors, cricketers and the general public simply could not resist the lure of caging up wild animals -mainly to show off as prized and unusual possessions.

Even pet shops sprang up in the city suburbs catering to people's exotic tastes. In certain hotels, institutions and tourist entertainment centres, wild animals have become part and parcel of the decor.

Tourists are allowed to handle crocodiles and pose beside sleepy leopards or drape a python around themselves. So much so that it was easy to overlook the fact that it was forbidden by law.

Now the Department has decided that enough is enough. They plan on asking nicely first- then raiding on tips-to gather these animals at a semi-wilderness rehabilitation camp and gradually re-introduce them into national parks.

While conservationists are happy that the Department is at last taking steps to curb the habit of domesticating wild animals, many remain skeptical about the department's capacity to carry out such a long term and full-fledged rescue operation.

There are still others, like the reader who wrote to a Sunday newspaper a week ago, arguing that some wild animals are better off in captivity, where they are cared for, nourished and can breed better.

But the Department is standing firm. "Wild animals belong in the jungle, in their natural habitat," said A.P.A. Gunesekera, Director of the DWLC.

"It is a crime, by the law of the country, to remove them from their environment. The law always existed. We are merely trying to implement a regulation that was ignored for a while."

But the list of animals to be taken in is endless. Star tortoises, giant squirrels, flying squirrels, monkeys, loris, snakes, birds like eagles, crocodiles and of course leopard, deer and sambur are all regularly domesticated species of wild animals.

"We need a lot of financing for our project," Gunesekera said. "The estimate is in the region of Rs. 60 lakhs to set up the rehabilitation centre." The centre will consist of 60-80 acres of forest in the Randenigala-Victoria sanctuary area. The land will be enclosed by an eight-foot mesh fence to prevent the animals from escaping to the wild too soon or roaming elephants from entering.

"We need to build staff quarters and develop the habitat in the chosen area," Gunesekera said. The animals will be watched for any disease and trained to forage for themselves before release. Naturally the carnivores and herbivores will be rehabilitated separately. Until the animals learn to forage for themselves, Gunesekera admitted that the Department would have to feed them. But the public will be barred from the centre.

But many conservationists express their fears over the project, pointing out that once an animal is domesticated it is almost impossible to keep them away from humans. Even after some rehabilitation, animals like deer, sambhur, peacock would be prime targets for poachers since they would have lost their fear of humans. Domesticated leopards could be potentially dangerous because they would be used to human contact, unlike those in the wild who are shy and fearful of people.

"The Department should give a clearer plan of how the project would be implemented," said Sagarica Rajakarunanayake, President of Satva Mitra.

Until they implement this proposal, Ms. Rajakaru-nanayake said that the Department should keep a strict check on those who are keeping wild animals, with occasional raids to ensure that people fulfil the conditions laid out by the Department.

Many agree that on principle it is good to discourage private ownership of wild animals.

The mini zoo at Ahungalle came under heavy criticism by the media and conservationists, when visitors were allowed to handle wild animals at the zoo like pet pups.

"I think it would be disastrous to re-introduce these animals to the wild. They would immediately become poachers' targets. It would be better to keep them in an open plan zoo instead of taking the risk of putting them in parks again," said Ravi Algama, Chairman of Environmental Foundation Ltd.

He also pointed out that implementing the law all the way would be an impossible task.

"The range of wild animals being kept in homes is so huge and the practice so widespread that it would be impossible to gather them all for rehabilitation."

Dr. Charles Santiapillai, Professor of Zoology at the University of Peradeniya pointed out that the plan would not work with all species. Birds and crocodiles will generally adapt very well, but deer and leopard are another story altogether, he said.

The Department, nevertheless is adamant. Said Director Gunesekera, "It does not matter if the animals are in homes, hotels, temples or churches. And it doesn't matter that the owners are very loving. A wild animal is nothing without its freedom."

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