The Lanka Independent learns dirty tricks may have been afoot as a young and highly connected government minister allegedly used his influence to avoid criminal charges after being found with a leopard skin in his residence.
Duminda Dissanayake, Minister of Youth Affairs and Skills Development is the son of the Chief Minister of the North Central Province Berty Premalal Dissanayake and the son in law of Prime Minister D.M.Jayaratne. Last month Dissanayake was found in possession of a leopard skin during a raid by wild life officials on his luxury residence at Havelock road.
In a country that is unbelievably politicised and where impunity reigns supreme such connections would give Dissanayake a lot of wriggle room and he seemed to have taken full advantage of it.
The Sri Lankan leopard is an endangered species and a strictly protected animal under the law. In a country that has seen a lot of ugly in the recent past its wildlife is one of the more beauteous aspects. But the leopard population is declining due to numerous threats including poaching for trade and human-leopard conflicts.
Sri Lanka’s wildlife including its leopard is a huge tourist attraction and there is an irony for a government minister in a
government that now eschews accountability in favour of development and tourism, a minister in a government that professes Buddhist values and yet thinks nothing of the killing of an endangered animal so that he could allegedly use the skin as a rug to be trampled on.
It’s a crime
While Sri Lanka has laws in place to deal with illegal poaching and killing of some animals it is unlikely that in the present environment of impunity any of these laws would be worth the paper they are written on. But for what it is worth a person can be charged under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance for being in possession of or for having a part of a strictly protected animal.
According to section 30 of the Ordinance, to keep in one’s possession a protected or a strictly protected animal or a part of it is a non-bailable offence.
Swept under the leopard skin rug
The saga that is now being swept under the rug (or should we say leopard skin rug) unfolded when a team from the Forest Protection and Law Enforcement Unit of the Wild Life Conservation Department (WLCD) raided a luxury house at Havelock Town, Colombo 5 on tip off.
This house was later found to be the residence of Youth Affairs and Skills Development Minister Duminda Dissanayake the son of the Chief Minister North Central Province Berty Premalal Dissanayake and the son-in-law of Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne.
“When the WLCD team was conducting the raid, Director General Chandrawansa Pathiraja had intervened and orders have been given to abandon the investigation which has irked the flying squad team,” a highly placed WLCD official on the basis of anonymity told the Lanka Independent.
According to the sources, an anonymous caller has given details about a leopard skin that had been seen drying out in a
balcony at Havelock Town. Upon reaching the address given, the WLCD flying squad led by its acting Deputy Director Upali Padmasiri has entered the house for investigation.
“According to the flying squad unit, it had been relatively easy for them to carry out the raid as there was only a caretaker at the house. As a result without any hindrance, the caretaker has allowed the wild life officers to inspect the house where they have found the leopard skin,” the sources added.
According to the sources the caretaker has understood the gravity of allowing the ‘visitors’ in only when the team has started questioning him.
“We later found out that this caretaker has mistaken the wildlife officials for Public Health Inspectors (PHI). Assuming our officials were PHIs that had come to inspect the neighborhood for dengue breeding sites during the dengue prevention week that was announced by the Health Ministry from June 20-26, the caretaker has allowed them in without questioning them,” the source said.
Minister takes speedy action
However speedy action to prevent further investigations being carried out was taken when the caretaker had informed Minister Duminda Dissanayake about the raid, according to the sources.
Meanwhile this website reliably learns that Minister Dissanayake has threatened his adjoining neighbours who live in high rise buildings and those he felt had a perfect vantage point to see into his own balcony and back yard, for informing the wildlife department.
“Since he knew that it was his neighbours that would have informed the wild life department after seeing the leopard skin in the balcony he (Dissanayake) has threatened the neighbours who were living in high-rise buildings that have a clear view of his balcony,” alleged the sources.
Neighbours get scolded for sneaking
Meanwhile the sources confirmed to Lanka Independent that they are investigating whether the skin allegedly found at the minister’s residence was that of a mother leopard whose cubs have been found in the Thabbowa jungles in Puttalam district a few weeks ago.
“Three leopard cubs were handed over to range officer Pathiraja by the Chairman of the Karuwalagaswewa Pradeshiya Sabha in the north Western Province on July 1. They were handed over to the National Zoological Gardens the very next day by Dr. Chandana Jayasinghe,” the sources further said.
However the WLCD has initiated an investigation to find out as to how these people have found the three cubs and as to what has happened to the mother leopard.
Three orphaned cubs found
“Such small cubs could not have survived long without the mother’s milk. So when they were handed over to us the range officers have immediately sent a team to the jungle where the cubs were said to be have been found to look for the mother leopard. However they have failed to trace the mother nor have they found a carcass one WLCD source said.
CID support sought
According to him, since the WLCD knew there would have been foul play, he had made a request to the Puttalam Magistrate to obtain Criminal Investigation Department’s (CID) support to carry out further investigations
“Since our officials could not even find the carcass of the mother leopard, we now suspect that these men may have kidnapped the cubs and would have killed the mother leopard. That was why we requested the Puttalam Magistrate to hand over the case to the CID which would help us a great deal in our own investigations and ease our work,” he said.
Meanwhile when asked as to how and where the three leopard cubs were found, Neil, the Chairman of Karuwalagaswewa Pradeshiya Sabha in the North Western Province, told Lanka Independent that the cubs were handed over to him by some villagers.
“Since I am the Chairman Karuwalagaswewa Pradeshiya Sabha, some villagers whom I have not met earlier said that they have found these three cubs when they went to the jungle in search of bees honey. I immediately spoke to the WLCD officials in the province and handed them over to them on July 1,” Neil said.
When asked whether he knew where the mother leopard was, he said he knew nothing about it.
“I only knew about the three leopard cubs but not about their mother,” he claimed.
When Lanka Independent questioned Youths Affairs and Skills Development Minister Duminda Dissanayake as to how he got a leopard skin, Minister Dissanayake denied allegations leveled against him.
“All these accusations are to sling mud at me. I have neither kept a leopard skin in my possession nor have I had any hand in such racket,” he added.
When asked how he could deny having a leopard skin in his house when there were several eye witnesses to the fact that a raid took place and he was also found guilty, Dissanayake directed this journalist to get the story from these so called eye witnesses if we cannot trust him.
“If so get the story from the eye witnesses,” he said.
Keeping a part of a strictly protected animal is a grave offence- Attorney-at-law Jagath Gunawardena
According to Attorney-at-law specializing in Environmental laws Jagath Gunawardena, section 30 of Fauna and Flora ordinance says that it is an offence to kill or keep an animal or any part of an animal which is either protected or strictly protected.
“Since the leopard is a strictly protected animal it is an offence to keep a leopard in one’s custody or ownership. The offence is cognizable and non-bailable,” said Gunawardena.
Gunawardena further said that the leopards are sub species that is endemic to Sri Lanka and is threatened specie.
Acting Director General Ratnayake
Meanwhile acting Director General WLCD, H.D Ratnayake when contacted told Lanka Independent he was not aware of such a raid carried out by his officials. “I am acting in this post in the absence of DG Chandrawansa Pathiraja. Hence I cannot comment on this,” Ratnayake said.
When asked as to the number of leopard in Sri Lanka Ratnayake said that estimated numbers would be around 900.”When we do the survey we cannot count the number of cubs to the final total as we do not know if they will survive or not, he explained. Ratnayake said that WLCD is planning to do a survey on leopards once the ongoing elephant survey is concluded.
“To do a leopard survey would not be an easy task. This has to be done region wise as they live in many regions including Yala, Kumana, Wilpattu, Wasgamuwa, Maduruoya and Somawathiya national park and in the Horton Plains where we could find well built healthy leopards because of the climate” he added.
Meanwhile a leading environmentalist on the basis of anonymity confirmed to the Lanka Independent that the raid had indeed been carried out by the Assistant Director Forest Protection and Law Enforcement Unit of the WLCD, Upali Padmasiri.
“We have learnt that 8 officers had gone for the raid including the Assistant Director but they have had to abandon the investigation mid way due to the intervention of a higher WLCD officer” he added.
Amidst accusations stating the actions of the Wildlife Department clearly shows that it has become politicized, Director General WLCD Pathiraja rejected these allegations and told Lanka Independent he at no point prevented the flying squad team from carrying out the investigation and said that necessary action would be taken after concluding the investigation.
It should be pointed out that while his assurance that necessary action will be taken confirmed that there had indeed been a raid, the Director General declined to give further information in regard to this raid.
Dilan Peiris accuses
Meanwhile Zoologist Dilan Peiris accused the WLCD of not taking action against Minister Duminda Dissanayake for keeping a part of a strictly protected animal in his custody.
According to Peiris, the Director General of the WLCD Chandrawansa Pathiraja was responsible for preventing the flying squad unit from further investigations.
“When the flying squad officers were carrying out their duties it was the Director General that has intervened to stop the investigation. He has told his officers that Minister Dissanayake has assured him he would send the leopard skin to the WLCD but so far neither has the Minister sent the skin nor have the WLCD officers been allowed to conduct an independent investigation.
If the head of the department can be influenced by politicians and defend them rather than do his job what is the use of having such a Director General?” asked Peiris.
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