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Sri Lanka Is First Country in the World to Apologize for Its Role in Illegal Ivory Trade

Sri Lanka became the fifteenth country today to crush and burn its ivory stockpile and the first to formally apologize for its role in the illegal ivory trade.

“We have to apologize,” the Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero, the Buddhist priest who led the service, told National Geographic. “Those elephants were victimized by the cruelty of certain people. But all of human society is responsible. We destroyed those innocent lives to take those tusks. We have to ask for pardon from them.”

The ivory, comprised of 359 tusks and weighing 1.5 tons, is the country's entire stockpile. Worth an estimated $3 million, the tusks were seized by customs authorities in May 2012 en route from Kenya to Dubai. However, DNA testing revealed that the tusks came from Tanzania.

The tusks were originally going to be donated to the Sri Dalada Maligawa Buddhist Temple, but the government changed its plans amid public outcry. According to National Geographic, critics of the plan feared the tusks would re-enter the black market and that by handing them over to a third party, the government would violate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the global wildlife trade.

Sri Lanka now joins Gabon, the Philippines, the U.S., China, France, Chad, Belgium, Hong Kong, Kenya, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Thailand, who have all destroyed stockpiles of ivory in the last four years.

The ceremony included two minutes of silence, followed by words from Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickremea Perera, Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake and CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon.

At today's ceremony, Scanlon said:

I would like to express my most sincere thanks to H.E. President Maithripala Sirisena for inviting me to witness the destruction of 359 pieces of confiscated African elephant ivory weighing 1,529 kilograms here in Colombo today.

Over the past 24 months we have seen countries within Africa, East and South East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America destroy stockpiles of illegally traded elephant ivory that has been seized and confiscated.

Today’s event is the first destruction of confiscated ivory in South Asia and it is the first time that such an event has included a religious ceremony to honor the elephants that were killed, which makes it a truly unique and remarkable event.

The Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero performed a transfer of merits, "a Buddhist ritual often done for departed relatives to honor them and help them reach a better place in their next life," National Geographic explained.

“Buddhism and other religions don’t tolerate killing and cruelty to elephants,” Minister Perera said. “We believe in rebirth, even of elephants or household pets. It’s traditional to conduct religious rights for dead humans as well as animals."

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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