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It is an honour and privilege to be invited to address you at the inauguration of this very important occasion, the international workshop on Sri Lanka Wildlife Enforcement Network-linking up with South Asia hosted by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. This occasion is especially important to me personally for two reasons. One is that the conservation of our National Heritage is an issue that is near and dear to me personally since my young days. The other is that is that I was leading the Sri Lankan delegation in my capacity as the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources when the decision was taken by the Environmental ministers of the South Asian countries to establish a South Asian Expert Group on Illegal Wildlife Trade during the course of the 11th meeting of the Governing Council of the South Asia Corporative Environmental Programme (SACEP) in May 2008.
Sri Lanka has a rich diversity of fauna and flora and about 25% is endemic to the country in general, although the rate of endemism is significantly higher in certain classes of animals. These species are facing the threat of extinction and one of the cause’s forts the threat is the illegal trade in the animals, plants and their parts. Although this is a problem shared by all the countries in the region, we are especially vulnerable as we have some species that are rare and are found within restricted ranges and are thus more vulnerable to the pressures of trade. It is also seen that a significant number of rare endemics have a greater value in the illegal trade as their rarity and endemism has enhanced the value. Hence it is our duty and responsibility to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and survival
The main legal instrument that helps protect and conserve our rich diversity of species is the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. I am happy to state that this law was amended in 2009 when I was the minister to enhance the protection given to the species and their habitats. The enhanced provisions are also meant to deal with illegal trade. According to the present situation, no one can export any animal or plant without a permit from the relevant authorities. The export of any wild animal or part needs a permit from the Department of Wildlife Conservation and this can be granted only in respect of scientific and conservation reasons and cannot allow any kind of trade in wild fauna. In case of protected plants, the permit procedure is the same and some plant material that falls under the category of forest produce needs a permit from the Forest Conservation Department. It is also relevant to mention that the Forest Ordinance was also amended during my term as the minister in 2009 to enhance the protection provided under this to habitats and plants. These two laws have helped a lot in the conservation of our fauna and flora and will continue to do so in the future.
The illegal trade in wildlife reminds many of such well known items like ivory, crocodile skins and edible birds’ nests, which are of both national and regional concern. However, it has to be mentioned that some species that are lesser known have fared much worse. One such example is the endemic aquatic plant known scientifically as Legenandra erosa, discovered only in the late 1970’s.It is now most probably extinct in the wild, being smuggled in large quantities in the 1980’s until it has vanished from the wilds. It is sold in European markets as an ornamental aquatic plant bringing in huge profits for the firms in those countries. Incidents like these are rarely reported and it is necessary therefore to draw attention to those species that are lesser known but nevertheless vulnerable due to the demand in the trade.
I also take this opportunity to draw your attention to a related issue that too needs to be considered as a priority. It is bio-piracy, the issue of foreigners taking intellectual property rights, in particular patents, over components of our biological heritage and associated traditional knowledge, depriving and restricting our rights. This term will remind you of the patents over Neem products and Basmati rice lines. We have a native species, Salacia reticulata, known in Sinhala as Kotala-himbutu which has traditionally being used as medicine, and the medicinal properties and compounds of which are the subject of over one hundred patents and pending patent applications. There are more than 300 patents and pending applications that are examples of bio-piracy. The prevention of illegal wildlife trade will also help combat bio-piracy in a significant way and is yet another area where regional co-operation can play an important role.
It is my firm belief that the protection and conservation of our native fauna and flora depends mostly on two inter-related factors. One is the strong legal regimes within the country that can be effectively implemented by the relevant authorities. The other is the co-operation and co-ordination between different countries, especially those in the region who share some of the species as well as the problems with us.
Hence, the Asia Experts Group on Illegal Wildlife Trade has a vital role to play, such as identifying priority species that are most severely affected and the areas of trade that have to be given priority. I am happy to see the Department of Wildlife Conservation has initiated the establishment of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Enforcement Network to carry these activities forward. It is with pride that we recall the excellent service rendered by the Sri Lanka Customs in preventing the illegal trade in wildlife and we are the first country to have a Bio-diversity Protection Unit in the customs. It has become a role model to many countries who have followed up with similar units.
In conclusion, I congratulate the Department of Wildlife Conservation for organizing this very important workshop and wish all the different bodies from all the participant countries the best of success in all their future endeavors in protecting the fauna and flora for future generations.