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Elephant calves that were taken from the wild. Sajeewa Chamikara

By Malaka Rodrigo

UDAWALAWE, Sri Lanka — Environmental activists in Sri Lanka have slammed a court order releasing endangered elephants into the custody of individuals suspected of involvement in their illegal capture and trade.

Thirty-eight captive Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus) were taken into the custody of the state in 2015 following an investigation that uncovered a trafficking racket targeting baby elephants born in the wild. On Sept. 6 this year, however, acting on a request from the Attorney General's Department, a court has ordered 14 of the elephants to be released back to their keepers — the same people they were confiscated from six years ago on trafficking suspicions and who remain under investigation.

"Illegal catching of elephant calves from the wild is the most hideous wildlife crime in Sri Lanka, and we are extremely concerned about how things are unfolding," said environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana. He added there was a lot of ambiguity surrounding the circumstances in which the elephants were released.

The owners retook possession of the elephants the day after the court order, which the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a leading NGO, has now filed a case against.

An elephant calf that was abducted.

A recent study identifies 55 cases of elephant abductions in Sri Lanka. This calf found in 2009 in the southern town of Balangoda died a few days later. Sajeewa Chamikara

'Regularizing Theft'

Activists see this latest development in the case as part of wider moves by those in power to effectively whitewash the provenance of captive elephants in Sri Lanka, where taking the animals from the wild has been illegal since 1980.

The AG's request for the elephants to be returned to the owners followed the issuance of a government gazette on Aug. 19 that effectively loosened the requirements for keeping captive elephants. Under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), possession of an elephant requires a license issued by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). But the gazette introduced provisions allowing elephants kept without a license to be registered without this paperwork.

"Bringing in a regulation to register those elephants without proper registration during the pendency of a court case being heard is a move to regularize theft," Gunawardana told Mongabay.

Sujeewa, a 15-year-old elephant who was taken from the wild when she was 3 years old.

Sujeewa, shown here in 2012, was taken from the wild when she was about 3 years old. She is now 15 years old and has recently given birth. Sajeewa Chamikara

Beasts of Burden and Status

In Sri Lanka, captive elephants have been an integral part of cultural events for centuries, and are today a popular tourist attraction, including in elephant safaris, where visitors ride on the endangered species.

Up until 1980, the government allowed elephants to be caught from the wild. Since then, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage (PEO), which also runs a successful captive-breeding program, has become the main source for Sri Lanka's demand for captive elephants.

Today, there are 210 elephants in captivity in Sri Lanka. Of these, 102 are in state-owned facilities, and the rest are held by private keepers, including high-profile individuals and Buddhist clergy.

Private owners generally keep elephants for one of two reasons: for work, or for status. Elephants under the former category are trained to participate in cultural events, tourist activities, and are even used for logging activities. Those in the latter category are kept as a symbol of prestige and class. In both cases, the demand for captive elephants clearly exists, and it's this that drives the abduction of baby elephants from the wild, conservationists say.

This map shows the locations from where 38 captive elephants were confiscated in 2015 after they were found to have been illegally removed from the wild by traffickers. Supun Lahiru Prakash

Baby Elephants Out of the Blue

Signs that an organized elephant-trafficking racket was at work emerged after 2008, as calves started to appear at various cultural events. Sri Lanka didn't have a breeding program among the privately held elephants, and there were no records of elephant births within this population, so environmentalists began suspecting something wasn't right.

At the same time, isolated incidents of illegally kept baby elephants began being reported from different parts of the country. A covert year-long investigation by a group of environmentalists, including Sajeewa Chamikara, resulted in the publication of a list of 23 elephant calves suspected to have been illegally taken from the wild in 2013. A study analyzing the period from 2008 to 2018 revealed 55 instances of baby elephants being snatched from the wild.

"Even under proper facilities, there are mortalities of nearly 40% of orphaned baby elephants, so in the process of illegally acquiring elephants, minimum facilities would result in a much higher mortality rate, indicating that victims of this ongoing wildlife crime being much higher in number," said Supun Lahiru Prakash, lead author of the study.

Elephant herds, especially the mother elephant, are very protective of calves. This suggests it's highly likely that the traffickers kill the mother elephant to get the calf, Chamikara told Mongabay.

But even if a calf survives such an encounter, it's still not out of danger. The Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in southern Sri Lanka takes in and cares for orphaned calves, rehabilitating them so that they can eventually be released back into the wild. Upon release, they're still vulnerable to traffickers, and researchers are now studying whether these elephants too are being targeted for kidnap.

Captive elephants are an integral part of Sri Lanka's cultural events and are regularly used in Buddhist religious processions to carry caskets bearing relics. Dilsiri Welikala

'Elephant Mafia'

Politicians, high-ranking officials, wildlife officers, and even trained veterinary surgeons are linked to the elephant trafficking racket, which has the blessings of top leaders, says Rukshan Jayawardene, a conservationist.

As all captive elephants must be registered with the DWC, the elephant registry is a starting point to investigate the trafficking racket. But in 2015, this elephant registry went missing for several weeks. When it reappeared, some of the entries had been destroyed or amended — evidence, conservationists say, of the influence wielded by this "elephant mafia." Given half a chance, they will do this again, Jayawardene said.

After the 2015 investigation that led to the state seizing the 38 elephants, there was considerable pressure on the DWC to get the elephants released back to their keepers.

Sumith Pilapitiya, who was the director-general of the DWC for a short period in 2016, said the country's top leaders wanted him to request a court order for the release of the animals from DWC custody.

"As the head of the national agency dedicated to wildlife conservation, it was not my responsibility to ensure adequate elephants are available at various cultural events," he told Mongabay. "My job was to conserve wildlife and ensure baby elephants were not illegally captured from the wild. I flatly refused to pursue the suggested path."

These elephants, now juveniles, have lived in isolation for more than six years, with minimum human intervention to improve the chances of a successful return to the wild. If the traffickers have their way and the elephants are instead returned to captivity, the outcome would be devastating, says Panchali Panapitiya of the advocacy group Rally for Animal Rights & Environment (RARE). Having grown "wilder" in isolation, getting them back into a state of docility will require the use of brutal tactics to crush their spirit and "retrain" them, she said.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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Marek Stefunko / EyeEm / Getty Images

  • On Friday, Facebook announced it would crack down on the illegal sales of protected Amazon rainforest land via its platform, according to a blog post by the company.
  • The move comes after a BBC investigation found that the company's Marketplace product was being used to broker sales of protected lands, including Indigenous territories and national forest reserves.
  • Experts raised doubts about the effectiveness of Facebook's approach since the social media company doesn't require users to specify the coordinates of the land they are selling.
  • "If they don't make it mandatory for sellers to provide the location of the area on sale, any attempt at blocking them will be flawed," Brenda Brito, a Brazilian lawyer and scientist told BBC News. "They may have the best database in the world, but if they don't have some geo-location reference, it won't work."

On Friday, embattled social media giant Facebook announced it would crack down on the illegal sales of protected Amazon rainforest land via its platform, according to a blog post by the company.

The move comes after a BBC investigation found that the company's Marketplace product was being used to broker sales of protected lands, including Indigenous territories and national forest reserves. The revelations provoked an inquiry by Brazil's Supreme Court, but Facebook said at the time that it wouldn't take independent action on its own over the issue.

An ad placed on an internet site in June 2016 for the sale of 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) in Jacareacanga in Pará state. The property is located 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the TransAmazon Highway. The asking price is R$12,000,000 ($180,000). The owner says he will accept another property or a car in part payment. Image reproduced from the internet. Facebook didn't state what prompted its change of heart, but the blog post stated the company is committed to sustainability.

"We're committed to sustainability and to protecting land in ecological conservation areas," said the post. "We are updating our commerce policies to explicitly prohibit the buying or selling of land of any type in ecological conservation areas on our commerce products across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp."

Facebook said it "will now review listings on Facebook Marketplace against an international organization's authoritative database of protected areas to identify listings that may violate this new policy." According to a report from BBC News, that database is the one run by the U.N. Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), which catalogues protected areas.

But experts immediately raised doubts about the effectiveness of Facebook's approach since the social media company doesn't require users to specify the coordinates of the land they are selling.

"If they don't make it mandatory for sellers to provide the location of the area on sale, any attempt at blocking them will be flawed," Brenda Brito, a Brazilian lawyer and scientist told BBC News. "They may have the best database in the world, but if they don't have some geo-location reference, it won't work."

A Facebook ad for the sale of an Amazon property. The property, located on public land, covers 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres), of which 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) have been cleared and sown with grass. It is located 90 kilometers (66 miles) from Altamira in Pará state. The asking price is R$60,000,000 (US$10,500,000), although the owner says he will accept offers. The ad admits that the owner doesn't have title for the land. Image reproduced from the Internet.

Facebook is reeling this week after revelations by whistleblower France Haugen, a former product manager on the civic integrity team at Facebook, that the company aided and abetted the spread of misinformation across its platforms, knowingly facilitated illegal activities, and put profit over the well-being of its users.

But even before the latest disclosures, Facebook had been under fire from environmental organizations and news outlets for blocking and restricting distribution of coverage and reporting on climate change and other environmental issues.

Full disclosure: Facebook removed or blocked distribution of at least 117 Mongabay posts between July 1, 2020 and October 7, 2021. The majority of these were reinstated when Mongabay when through the company's manual appeals process.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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By Maxwell Radwin

An increase in the number of licenses for Brazilian beef exporters is a worrying sign that illegal deforestation could rise in some of the most vulnerable parts of the Amazon, according to a new report by the non-profit environmental investigations outfit Earthsight.

The organization said some slaughterhouses were granted new sanitary permits in states containing Brazil's worst illegal deforestation. The permits allow the slaughterhouses to export beef to the United States if they meet certain sanitary regulations yet disregards whether cattle are sourced from illegally cleared land.

"As beef exports from Amazon states grow," the report said, "and more slaughterhouses in the region receive sanitary permits to sell to the American market, it is urgent that U.S. importers are mandated to monitor their supply chains for environmental abuses."

The U.S. banned beef imports from Brazil in 2018 but reversed the measure in February 2020. Since then, exports to the U.S. have been climbing to pre-ban levels as the Department of Agriculture approves more permits for slaughterhouses.

The report highlighted one facility in the municipality of Chupinguaia, in Rondônia state, where deforestation rates have risen from 435 km2 (168 mi2) to over 1,000 km2 (368 mi2) over the last decade, much of it due to cattle ranching, the report said. The facility is owned by Marfrig, one of the largest beef producers in the world.

Last year, Mongabay reported that Marfrig was associated with illegal deforestation in the Amazon yet received financial backing from Blackrock, one of the world's largest asset managers.

Earthsight's report also highlighted the Vale Grande facility in Mato Grosso, another state in the Amazon that has historically struggled with deforestation. The Vale Grande facility received its sanitary permit in December 2020.

There are 34 facilities licensed for export to the U.S., Earthsight noted, and almost 20% of them are located in the Amazon.

"Our argument is that it's very hard for U.S. importers to monitor this beef to make sure it's not linked to illegal deforestation or other illegal practices," said Rubens Carvalho, one of the authors of the Earthsight report. He added that because places like Rondônia are so complex, it is extremely risky to purchase from there at all.

Currently, environmental regulations require that slaughterhouses track the activity of any cattle ranchers acting as direct suppliers. However, slaughterhouses also have indirect suppliers – cattle ranchers that sell to other cattle ranchers – and it is much more difficult to ensure they haven't participated in the illegal clearing of land.

Adding to the concern is the recent decision by Rondônia lawmakers to rush a bill through the state legislature that reduces the Jaci Paraná Extractive Reserve by 171,000 hectares (422,550 acres). The report points out that almost half of the lawmakers in Rondônia's congress are connected to the cattle ranching industry.

Employees at Marfrig pose for a photo.

Employees at Marfrig pose for a photo after hearing news of their slaughterhouse's new sanitary license. Via Marfrig Facebook page

There is hope that a bill in the U.S. Congress will implement more robust import regulations for the international cattle industry. However, the inherent difficulties involved in monitoring indirect suppliers could call into question the effectiveness of the regulations.

"Laws that impose conditions or prohibit the sale of beef from areas that are illegally deforested are generally a good thing," said Adriana Abdenur of Plataforma CIPÓ, a climate, governance and peacebuilding think tank in Latin America. "Obviously, they're not sufficient because we know, for instance, that there is a lot of 'cattle washing' going on in the Amazon."

Abdenur added that regulations would only be effective in conjunction with greater transparency by Brazilian companies and Brazilian and US law enforcement collaboration.

Earthsight, for its part, called on lawmakers to ensure that the legislation is ambitious in its scope, with truly dissuasive penalties:
"(Importers) must be required to demonstrate that their goods are clean, rather than U.S. authorities being expected to prove beyond doubt that a specific shipment is dirty."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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