By Risidra Mendis
Environmentalists are protesting over a decision allegedly taken by the President to release a confiscated consignment of rare birds back to the importer.
According to reliable sources it is alleged the birds were released back to importer Hiran Jayasekera yesterday afternoon, on a directive by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The birds were detected by the Bio-Diversity Unit (BPU) of the Sri Lanka Customs on 2 February, when an attempt was made to smuggle them into the country by importer Jayasekera.
The importer failed to produce an import permit for most of the birds and the Customs confiscated the consignment and imposed a fine on the accused.
According to Section 163 of the Customs Ordinance goods once forfeited by the Customs, can only be released back to the importer by the Finance Minister, who is the President.
A Customs official told Ceylon Today once the birds are confiscated, they become State property, under the Customs Ordinance.
When detected by the Customs Department there were 121 birds. One had already died at the airport. The remaining birds were sent to the Dehiwela Zoo on 10 February.
The bird species included hybrid blue and yellow macaws, sulphur crested cockatoos, Moroccan cockatoos, pinches, a variety of parrots, several small exotic varieties of duck and a pair of swans.
“The blue and yellow Macaw, indigenous to South America is sold at around Rs 1.2 million, while prices of other exotic birds range between Rs 100,000 and Rs 1 million. The bird consignments had come from Bangkok, but the birds had originated from South America, Australia or New Zealand,” the Custom official explained.
“The market value of the birds was around Rs 13.6 million, but the declared value was just US $ 1130 (around Rs 120,000). We fined Jayasekera Rs 450,000. This is a very rare case where on a tip-off this man was nabbed at Customs,” the Customs official said.
However, on 12 April, former Zoo Director Bashwara Gunaratne was severely criticized by zoo officials and environmentalists when he requested Customs Director General, Dr. Neville Gunewardene, to release the confiscated birds back to the importer.
Gunaratne had informed the Customs they cannot keep these rare birds due to a lack of space and because the costs to maintain them was very high.
But, reliable sources said Dr. Gunewardene had sent a letter to the zoo director a few days ago, stating that as the importer was charged under section 163 of the Customs Ordinance and the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) the birds cannot be released to Jayasekera.
“The inquiry also revealed that Jayasekera is the importer and Ajith Gallage the sponsor, and these two have engaged in the racket for some time, even though they had escaped detection on previous occasions.
Meanwhile, Environment Lawyer Jagath Gunewardene said under Section 37 of the FFPO, if birds are illegally brought into the country, they can be charged by the Customs and as part of the Customs law, adding that since Jayasekera had not made an appeal for the birds after he was fined by the Customs, he is not entitled to have them back. If the zoo cannot keep these birds the director can request the Customs to give them to another state organization,” Gunewardene added.