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Sri Lanka is fortunate enough to count amongst its wildlife, the rather exquisite bird of prey, the White bellied sea eagle. With a blindingly bright white feathered head, breast, under-wing coverts and tail, few who see this bird fail to be impressed by its striking beauty.

Acts of cruelty

A photo of a white bellied sea eagle being tortured was posted and circulated on social media, which then attracted widespread media coverage in Sri Lanka. The bird appeared to have been mutilated, with its claws cut off and skinned alive by a group of 5 men who seemed to be enjoying themselves and even smiling as they looked on. The public uproar  caused by the image exerted pressure on the relevant authorities to act swiftly to catch the culprits, and the Wildlife Department worked together with the local police to identify and apprehend those involved.

In addition to the inherent cruelty of the act, the white bellied sea eagle is considered an endangered and protected species in Sri Lanka. Thus Section 31 of the Flora and Fauna Ordinance act makes it a criminal offence to deliberately kill or sell the animal.

Investigating the incident

Initial investigations revealed that the incident had occurred  close to the Pabagala Bridge in the Habaraduwa police area. Further investigations by the authorities led to the identification of 8 suspects in the Galle area, and the alarming discovery that the men in the photo engaged in this sort of appalling acts as a hobby.  Two of the suspects were arrested and they confessed to the police that they had caught the eagle in the forest and attempted to cook and eat it – although they had not actually eaten the bird upon finding a snake in the eagle’s stomach.

News reports reveal that the two arrested suspects were produced before the Galle Additional Magistrate at the end of March. The attorney at law representing the suspects stated that the suspects were not present in the photo and that they had nothing to do with the inhumane act. The court issued an order that all the suspects in the photograph be apprehended and brought before courts, and the case is still underway. It is hoped that the perpetrators will be punished accordingly.

How effective are the existing laws?

The Cruelty to Animals Ordinance and the Fauna & Flora Protection Act both provide for very inadequate punishments, with fines not exceeding a few hundred rupees for acts as mentioned above. Thus when one thinks of the minimum deterrence imposed by such meagre punishments, it is unlikely that similar cases of animal cruelty will be taken seriously unless accompanied by public uproar. In order to address similar issues from recurring, there is need for change in law on cruelty to animals, and the laws existing on the matter to be implemented in a robust and efficient manner.

Section 2(1) (a)  of the Cruelty to Animals Ordinance provides that any person who shall “cruelly beat, ill-treat…abuse, or torture or cause or procure to be cruelly beaten, ill-treated..abused , or tortured any animal” shall be guilty of an offence. The punishment imposed is a  fine of up to 100 rupees and/or imprisonment up to 3 months. Section 4  of the Ordinance acknowledges the graver offence of killing animals with unnecessary cruelty : “If any person kills any animal in an unnecessarily cruel manner he shall be punished”.

In addition to this Section 30 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Act  provides that :

“Any person who in any area outside a National Reserve or a Sanctuary

(a) Knowingly kills, wounds, or takes any bird or

(c) Uses any boat or any lime, snare, net, trap or other instrument for the purpose of killing or taking any bird

(d) or has in his possession or under his control any bird ( or the bird’s skin, feathers, eggs) recently killed or taken,

shall be guilty of an offence”. The punishment prescribed by Section 30 is a  fine of up to Rs 250 and/or imprisonment of up to 2 months.

In order to address issues of cruelty to animals in Sri Lanka, it is necessary that that exist are upheld in an effective and efficient manner, while archaic law such as the Cruelty to Animals Ordinance of 1907 is amended, and a new Animal Welfare Bill is enacted.