The issue of biopiracy, commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material, has once again become a talking point following the recent arrest of a group of foreign ‘bio pirates’ in Kalpitiya
The group of six foreigners from Australia, Belgium, Germany, and Venezuela, were taken into custody by officials from the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) on February 25. Vials containing DNA material and specimens of protected plants and animals were found in their possession. They were fined Rs.435, 000 after pleading guilty before the Puttalam Magistrate Court on February 29.
The team, which included researchers and scientists, were part of a group called Exo Terra, which styles itself as “the market leader in reptile products for the natural terrarium”, according to their website. It is also engaged in a number of projects dealing with reptile conservation, it claims. However, Exo Terra also sends groups on ‘expeditions’ to various countries. Most of the group’s prior expeditions have taken place in Africa, according to the website. The group’s latest expedition, detailed at length in their website, is the “Sri Lanka Expedition”.
According to Deputy Director, Law Enforcement, DWC, Ranjan Marasinghe, at the time of their arrest, the team had several local frogs and a chameleon in their possession, in addition to DNA samples from a Star Tortoise, a protected animal. “It is illegal even for Sri Lankans to capture such animals, let alone obtain DNA samples, without first obtaining a specific permit from the DWC,” he said. Marasinghe, who led the team of officers who eventually arrested the group, explained that any foreigner who intends to conduct research on such animals in Sri Lanka, needs to first submit a formal request to a research committee of the DWC before conducting such activities.
“Among other things, the research committee is tasked with looking into what Sri Lanka stands to gain from such a research. The last thing we want is for people securing patent rights to something discovered in our country and obtaining monetary rewards, while completely shutting Sri Lanka out of the process. Our country must also benefit,” he explained. However, the Exo Terra team had made no such request and had no permits, he added.
Exo Terra is certainly not the first case of attempted biopiracy and genepiracy in Sri Lanka. Speaking to The Nation, Deputy Director of the Bio diversity, Cultural and National Heritage Protection Division (formerly the Biodiversity Protection Unit) of Sri Lanka Customs, Samantha Gunasekara, said this was a much larger problem than most realised. Gunasekara explained that even if the quantity stolen is small, the damage may well be extremely grave.
Gunasekara noted that foreigners would not be able to engage so freely in biopiracy and genepiracy if not for the involvement of local agents, who facilitate their actions. Research institutions and even local scientists were sometimes aiding these elements, either knowingly, or unknowingly, he said.
However, efforts are being made to stop such elements from exploiting Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity for personal gain. The Biodiversity Protection Unit of Sri Lanka Customs was established as far back as 1993. According to Gunasekara, this was the first such customs unit in the world. The unit has been in operation now for almost 20 years, stopping many attempts by various parties to smuggle animal and plant material out of the country.
Nevertheless, the unit still faces issues such as lack of man power, human resources and lack of coordination among government departments when carrying out its duties. “In the Exo Terra case, we had excellent coordination with the Department of Wildlife Conservation. In that sense, it was an extremely successful operation,” Gunasekara said.
Speaking on the issue, Environmental Lawyer Jagath Gunawardena also stressed the need for better coordination between various branches of the government. “Ministries such as the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of External Affairs, and the Ministry of Tourism need to work together to tackle this issue,” Gunawardena opined. He said bodies such as the Tourism Development Authority needed to brief tour operators regarding the threat posed by such elements, and also to educate individuals such as tour guides and drivers on how to spot such activities. “Steps should also be taken against locals found to have helped foreigners to carry out acts of biopiracy. For example, if a tour guide is found to have helped in such activities, his guiding license can be suspended,” he suggested.
According to Gunawardena, the team from Exo Terra were punished under Section 30 and 31 (a) of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. He was of the opinion that the present domestic laws were sufficient to curb acts of bio and gene piracy. However, the problem lay in their implementation, which was not being carried out properly due to various reasons, he added.
Marasinghe said capturing biopirates was difficult due to several reasons. One was that these persons were quite cunning and extremely adapt at concealing what they steal. They also make a point by spending heavily while in the country. “For example, they will pay their guides and drivers far more generously than most tourists, thus making a positive impression about them, and sometimes even making them their accomplices,” he said. He also noted that such persons take steps to establish a network of locals who help them in transporting what they have stolen, and even shipping them out of the country. “Most of these people are extremely well educated and meticulously plan their every move. Thus, it is always difficult to catch such persons in the act,” he pointed out.
What role can the public play in this issue? There was general agreement among those The Nation spoke to that the public needs to be more vigilant regarding such activities, and warn the relevant authorities if they suspect something illegal was happening. Marasinghe said especially tour groups directly involved in organising such tours and expeditions needed to be more responsible in this regard. They cannot simply pass the buck by stating they only organised the tour, he added. Education and vigilance is key to thwarting such