The Killing Machines – Poaching and Its Devastating Impact on Sri Lanka’s Wildlife
ECONOMYNEXT – There is a certain pride and poise to the old poacher as he poses with his homemade gun assembled from a steering rod of a Morris Minor car and the iron spear he had beaten to shape on the anvil of a local blacksmith. His modest dwelling is nestled in the vast remote wilderness of the Central Province surrounded by the Wasgamuwa National Park and several forest reserves— providing for him a verdant wildlife-rich hunting ground.
He is not the only poacher in these forests. The entire region is infested with poachers and they operate with impunity using a lethal arsenal of weapons to kill animals ranging from mouse deer and pangolins to elephants. The Wasgamuwa National Park is so heavily poached that a remote camera project to study the ecology of mammals had to be halted due to extensive camera theft.
The poacher explains his main target is Sambhar as he receives Rs.45, 000 for the carcass. Another fervid poacher in the area is a young man who used to be a novitiate studying to be a monk at a Pirivena.
It is of paramount importance to study poaching to understand its ramifications for conservation in Sri Lanka since the practice is manifested throughout the country. Empirical information on poaching is essential because poaching is highly diversified with various scales and levels to it. The different forms of poaching need to be understood to develop poacher profiles to aid in designing strategies to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of our already endangered wildlife.
In another village nestled in the margins of the Sinharaja Rainforest in Weddagala—the bucolic setting of the village in the backdrop of the luxuriant landscape does not naturally lead to associate it with death and suffering—has eight full-time poachers hunting in the area.
Looking about 70 years, the old man has been killing animals for as long as he can remember. There is no remorse as he lists all the animals he had killed over all those years: mouse deer, sambhar, wild boar, jungle cats, fishing cats, porcupine, hare, giant squirrels, and even the occasional leopard that has fallen victim to his trap gun. He is also a part-time Kitul (Toddy) palm tapper and sets snares upon the Kitul palms he taps to kill civet cats that come to drink the sap. These snares also catch lorises, which are killed and thrown away.
This lack of remorse is an attitude that is prevalent in all poachers that we have encountered including those farmers who kill animals in the guise of protecting their crops. They have no compassion nor are they concerned at their continuing massacre of wild animals. The old man explains that not all animals caught in snares or get shot from trap guns die immediately. These luckless animals are bludgeoned to death while they are alive. Even the occasional leopard, that is wounded by a trap gun or get entangled in a snare is beaten to death and buried immediately to avoid detection. The sad reality is, animals that are not killed immediately by these cruel and barbaric methods are left injured and maimed for life, or to die from a prolonged and agonizing death.
Once the trap gun is set, the old poacher relates the massive blast notifies them that an animal has been hit. But they will not visit the gun or search for the victim for at least 2 days, in case, forest or wildlife rangers were waiting to apprehend them. According to the old man the local poachers consider it is their birthright and legacy to hunt. Even though the entire village consists of Buddhists the old poacher claims most villagers are not averse to killing animals. The meat from poaching is either consumed at home or sold to villagers who have a penchant for game meat.
Listening to the old poacher and his impenitent attitude to killing raises the question of how much devastation poachers throughout the country must be collectively causing to wildlife populations? This is given the fact that animals are killed every day by poachers! Entire populations of animals can be decimated by poaching as was the case in Lahugala. From 2007 to 2009, while conducting a biodiversity survey in the large forest tracts in Lahugala, Karankova and Hulannuge, poachers decimated all large mammals in these forests. Several elephants were also killed. By 2009, the most numerous species of mammal left in these forests were palm squirrels. It was unfortunate what happened to these forests because they were considered ecologically important and were within a proposed elephant corridor connecting Yala, Gal Oya, and the Lahugala National Parks.
Another middle-aged poacher from Kalawana specializes in trigger snares. He had acquired the skill from his father who had been a renowned hunter in the village. He sets his snares every day to hunt hare, porcupine, pangolins, mouse deer, civet cats and wild boar. It is incomprehensible to think of all the animals he had killed and will continue to kill. The surprising fact is that there are still animals left in these forests given the undiscerning slaughter they have been subjected to. One can only imagine how amazing these forests would’ve been or could be if this massacre of animals can be controlled or stopped.
The two brothers, both poachers and the grandsons of a former village headman occupy their ancestral home—a beautiful antiquated house located in Rathugala, Bibile. They are 43 and 28 years old. With a certain sense of pride, they display three weapons with which they kill giant squirrels, macaques, jungle fowl, imperial pigeons, grey hornbills and various other birds including parrots. It is the Gal Dunna (rock bow) a modified bow that shoots rocks and was used in the early days to scare animals from raiding crops. But it is now mainly used to kill giant squirrels, macaques and large birds. It seems to be a weapon indigenous to Sri Lanka. In the hands of these poachers, it is an extremely lethal weapon that fires rock projectiles with deadly accuracy. They relate a rather gruesome and repulsive account of killing a serpent eagle and finding pieces of a snake it had eaten while disembowelling it prior to cooking and eating it.
The other two traps consist of a trigger snare specifically modified to catch jungle fowl, and the Yon Dunna, which is very similar to the Ojibwa bird snare that was once used to catch the now-extinct passenger pigeons in North America by the Ojibwa and Chippewa Native American tribes living around the Great Lakes in Canada. It too is a deadly weapon that breaks the feet of birds when they are snared. The Yon Dunna is mostly used to protect maize (corn) and fruit cultivations from various doves, hornbills and parrots. The brothers recount how they killed eight endemic grey hornbills within an hour with a Yon Dunna. Smaller versions of these snares are attached to maze stalks as the corn ripens to catch parrots that come to feed on them. They relate how a snared Layard parakeet had been hanging attached only by pieces of skin to its legs.
Three distinct characteristics stand out in all the poachers we’ve met. One is their complete lack of remorse and compassion for the animals they slaughter. The second is their ingenuity and the third is how well they know the behaviour of the animals they kill. Together they make formidable serial killers. They have specific traps for every type of animal they hunt based on their behaviour. They even have a special trap to catch monkeys.
The arsenal of guns, weapons, lethal traps and snares that poachers employ is quite diverse and varies from region to region and they tend to specialize in methods that are best for their location and the species they target. Many of the snares and traps are very old traditional methods that had been used for millennia. These traps are still assembled in the traditional manner using natural material such as vines, lianas, saplings, sticks and wood expect for one deadly difference, the noose is now made with iron cable wire or nylon rope. The gear and brake cable of tuk-tuks is very commonly used for the noose.
Rural farmers also kill a wide range of mammals and birds that are considered agricultural pests by employing various snares, traps and guns. These animals range from palm squirrels and blue-breasted button quail to elephants. The most common method is the snare which they set for all mammals including wild boar with the exception of elephants. For elephants and also for wild boar they set trap guns as well. The height at which the gun is positioned is based on the animal they are aiming to kill. In Wasgamuwa, farmers use a special trap to catch blue-breasted button quail and jungle fowl. It is assembled with sticks and is called the Aithi Kuduwa. Unlike most other traps and snares the Aithi Kuduwa does not kill immediately. It traps the birds alive and then they are disposed of by the farmer.
Poaching is prevalent in villages and towns that are located adjacent to forest reserves, national parks and sanctuaries and practically in all agricultural communities. It is epidemic and complex and if efforts are not made to find solutions many species will become locally extinct if not already as was the situation in Lahugala.
Why is poaching such a major issue in Sri Lanka? It seems incongruous for a country vested in Buddhism and with a legacy of respecting and protecting nature for millennia to have become a killing field. A sad outcome of this is that it has become increasingly difficult to see wildlife even in national parks. In the Wasgamuwa National Park other than for buffalos, peacocks and elephants all other animals are shy and nervous and flee as soon they see an approaching vehicle.
The people who are poachers and the reasons why they poach are as varied as in any other profession. Poachers also include those that come from the cities and towns to hunt illegally. Some of the rural poachers the SLWCS has reached out to have stated emphatically that they are poaching because they did not see any other options to further their lives economically and socially. This highlights the need for national development programs to be designed to provide opportunities to fulfil the aspirations of the people rather than the egocentric ambitions of the country’s rulers.
Others have admitted that they kill animals because they want to. Some have very confidently affirmed they do not believe in God or religion. Some poachers are literate like the former scholar at the Pirivena and have attended school up to some level while others are illiterate but have astounding self-knowledge. The fact is whatever the reasons for poaching, the poachers are having a devastating impact on our wildlife and we need to take steps to control it.
It is unfortunate that poaching gets publicity only when a news-worthy animal such as a leopard is rescued or found dead strangled by a poacher’s snare. The tragedy is that the real issue always gets sidelined or buried, which is, that poaching is an epidemic in the country. After the initial uproar and outcry about the leopard subside the issue of poaching fades from the minds of the public until the next such incident. A sad fact is that while there are numerous public awareness campaigns in the country to save the domestic cow there are none to raise awareness about poaching or how poaching is decimating our wildlife!
Rather, unfortunately, no efforts are been made to address the poaching especially targeting communities that are involved in these inhumane methods of killing wild animals. For every animal that is saved or recorded killed from a poacher’s trap many thousands of animals die unreported and unrecorded. Every year the toll on wild animals from shotguns, trap guns, wire snares, various traps, pitfalls, explosives and poison laden bait cannot be estimated but surely it must be in the hundreds of thousands. Further, poachers do not respect whether animals are in their breeding season and kills indiscriminately: Males, females, nursing mothers, pregnant animals, juveniles, babies, nesting birds, and untargeted species all fall victim. It is a pernicious method of killing where most times it causes a slow and agonizing death or leaves animals maimed for life.
Farmers target animals that cause harm to agricultural crops and some also indulge in subsistence hunting. Then there are the poachers who hunt in forest reserves, sanctuaries and national parks operating at a commercial scale. Different strategies are needed to address the various levels and scales of poaching and killing of animals by farmers. To apprehend poachers operating in protected areas need a concerted effort of the forest, wildlife, law and legal agencies to work together supported by the greater public and private organizations. The other levels of poaching need to be addressed through education and awareness-building programs conducted in partnership with schools, social and religious institutions and government agencies. Efforts must be made to develop effective non-lethal measures to protect crops from various animals that are considered agricultural pests.
The reality is our jungles and forests are becoming empty. Apparently the political, legal, national development, education, religious, economic, and social systems of the country have failed. This means this issue has to be addressed through these institutions as well. Poaching is so widespread that to control it purely by apprehending poachers would be a futile effort, and whatever solution has to be based on education, awareness and socially responsible programs supported by the legal system. There should be heavy prison sentences for poaching especially in protected areas so they act as a deterrent. The sentence for a convicted poacher should be at least 3 to 5 years imprisonment.
The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society has been reaching out to poachers for decades and has been successful in getting several of them to give up poaching and work for the society. But to eradicate this menace to our wildlife needs a more concerted national effort bringing public, private, law and religious and government administrative institutions to work together. Poaching occurs in various scales: from subsistence level hunting to commercial scale operations to supply the huge demand for game meat that is generated from Colombo and other large towns.
To help forest and wildlife authorities the SLWCS is starting a pilot project to establish a K-9 anti-poaching unit to help to track down snares, trap guns and explosive bait. Dogs will be trained to track and scent trap guns, traps, explosive bait and snares set up in the forests by poachers. These dogs and their handlers will work with forest and wildlife officers and the police to rid our forests of the lethal killing machines that are decimating our valuable wildlife. Given the number of animals that are killed annually, one can just imagine how rich our country is in wildlife. If the killing can be stopped the populations of animals will recover making Sri Lanka a true wildlife paradise. (Colombo, August 29, 2020)
The Authors are members of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society – https://www.slwcs.org