The People vs. Ali Roshan | Sunday Observer

The People vs. Ali Roshan

‘An elephant never forgets’ they say. A remarkable conjuction of elephant and human memory that occurred in the middle of a glittering perahera in 2015 has contributed to the ongoing prosecution in our first ever ‘elephant trafficking’ case that will hopefully bring to book the most notorious of suspect gansters. Animal rights activists are watching with fingers crossed the progress of the Colombo High Court trial-at-bar against accused ‘Ali’ Roshan in the hope that the trial will help bring justice to all the elephants illegally captured or bought and sold or gifted for religious patronage.

It was the flamboyant, hugely popular, annual perahera of the Devinuwara Sri Vishnu Devalaya in 2015, watched by thousands of devotees as well as tourists in the ancient site of pilgrimage at Sri Lanka’s southernmost point. As the procession wended its way through the streets with the festive night resounding to the chant of “Sadhu, Sadhu…”, suddenly, Matara Rani, a famous cow elephant in the perahera,paused in her stately stride and turned towards a Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) officer who was standing nearby on protective duty. In an instant, both man and pachyderm recognised each other.

Ali Roshan (Right)

Matara Rani was a baby elephant who had been nourished at Eth Athuru Sevana of Udawalawa, the dedicated elephant care unit run by the DWC next to one of Sri Lanka’s biggest and most visited elephant parks. After being treated for years, Rani was released to the nearby thick jungle, her home and natural habitat. But she clearly never forgot the Wildlife Officers who cared for her.

As the gratified Wild Life Officer later reported to animal rights activists, it was Matara Rani who recognised the Officer first and greeted him fondly. It was then that experienced Officer realised that the gorgeously caparisoned elephant was the same baby elephant who grew up in his care to be later released to her free adult life in the wilds. In shock, the Officer had then realised that Matara Rani’s ‘free adult life’ had been all too momentary, because she was now standing before him, captured and tamed in to a life of serving her human captors.

And so that moment of fond mutual recognition triggered yet another line of inquiry adding to the many already launched into the thriving illegal elephant capture and trading rackets in the country. The fate of Matara Rani, discovered in the possession of private owners and provided with much piety to unsuspecting prestigious religious institutions is another poignant episode in the increasingly miserable life of this country’s elephant population.

The Sri Lankan elephant has been revered throughout much of Sri Lankan human history as Human’s friend who contributed to economic life and human transport, religious and other festive events, and even human warfare. But with modernity, the Sri Lankan elephant first had to suffer mass hunting by European colonial marauders and, most recently, illegal commercial enslavement and even hunting for ivory.

To tackle the country’s first ever elephant trafficking case, Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya last week appointed a special Trial-At-Bar to hear the case of Ali Roshan based on the request made by Attorney General’s department.

In this case, Samarappulige Niraj Roshan alias Ali Roshan and seven officers of the Wildlife Department including an assistant Director (legal) have been accused of altering the elephant registration book at the Department of Wildlife Conservation and smuggling five elephants without valid licenses.

Reportedly, the Attorney General has already prepared indictments under 33 counts against all 8 accused, for unlawful possession of five elephants and tuskers(valued at Rs.30 million) between June 5, 2012 and August 31, 2015.

Information on an elaborate elephant trafficking racket first came to light during an audit inquiry made by the Auditor General’s department in 2013. The audit inquiry had questioned the Department of Wildlife Conservation regarding 22 baby elephants possessed by various people violating the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. Even though certain names of the illegal owners of these elephants were made public, to date no one significant has been punished for this grave offence.

“In 2013, I received information about Elephant racketeering taking place in various parts of the country. Ali Roshan was the main suspect who was behind this. We found that they have registered baby elephants captured from the jungle, using fraudulent documents” former Additional Auditor General Lalith Ambanwala, the key officer who was engaged in the investigation with regard to the elephant trafficking, told the Sunday Observer.

He added, “We cross checked all the information in the relevant entries in the elephant registry. We even inquired from Grama Niladhari Officers and Divisional Secretaries about relevant cases where we found that their signatures were forged”.

The gravity of the issue was driven home with the discovery that some of the very wildlife officers who are in charge of the protection of wild animals are also key players in the racket.

“There are hundreds of agencies to take care of human related issues. But there is only one agency for wildlife protection. If any WDC officer is involved in elephant trafficking it is a such a despicable act against the mandate of the DWC which is to conserve wild animals,” former Director General of DWC, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya told the Sunday Observer.

He said: “I am not trying to say that these DWC officers who are suspects in the case are guilty or not guilty. It is not mine ….But the judiciary’s job. But I am deeply worried. Even if DWC officers have political pressure or any other influence, they can never justify such an act”.

In 2015, soon after the present government came to power, the elephant trafficking case was brought before the judiciary. Accordingly, in March 2015, Ali Roshan and other suspects, were arrested and produced before the Colombo chief magistrate.

During the trial, State Counsel Dileepa Peiris who appeared on behalf of the Attorney General, informed the courts that the main suspect, Ali Roshan has been involved in Elephant trafficking for almost 15 years. Meanwhile, the police informed the courts that out of 359 tamed elephants added to the wildlife elephant registration book, details of 17 elephants has been altered using a correction fluid (Tippex). The CID also informed the courts that they had evidence of Ali Roshan’s role in smuggling 39 baby elephants. Ali Roshan was then bailed out after a couple of weeks of legal proceedings.

Ali Roshan and other suspects were again arrested in September last year based on similar charges. However, they were released again on strict bail conditions on October 26, 2018. This time it was in connection with the possession of four elephants.

While Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka occupied the office of Minister of Wildlife, he recognised the importance of taking action against Ali Roshan and decided to file the case in the Permanent High Court-at-Bar. However, frustratingly, the Permanent High Court-at-Bar withdrew the case as it did not fall under their jurisdiction. The permanent High Court-at-Bar has been established to hear large scale financial fraud and bribery cases.

“The case was dismissed and we suspect that the authorities soft-pedalled it deliberately. Because if the case was taken up, key officers on DWC will be found guilty” General Secretary of the Wildlife Conservation Forum, Nayanaka Ranwella told the Sunday Observer.

According to this wildlife enthusiast, elephant trafficking were only isolated incidents during 1990s but the illegal trade had accelerated after 2005. “These traffickers had captured about 80 elephants. Later, about 30 of them had died due to lack of feeding milk and other reasons. Some baby elephants had been tied with iron chains which had damaged their young bones and they had died,” Nayanaka recalled.

According to the information Nayanaka possesses, people who are ready and able to illegally capture baby elephants used to get paid around Rs 10,000 per creature in the early period. Earning from such illegal capture had increased up to Rs one million once the trafficking had expanded into an illegal racket. By the 2000s, elephant trafficking had become a lucrative business for some individuals. In some prosecution cases, the value of an elephant has been quoted as Rs. 20 million.

“For instance, the baby elephant owned by Wasana Bakery of Horana had been sold to them for Rs 14 million. Former MP Sajin de Vas Gunawardena had gifted Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka thera an elephant bought for around Rs. 10 million. These traffickers have clearly robbed a national asset belonging to the citizens of this country,” Nayanaka said.

The Wildlife Conservation Forum believes that the illegal capture of baby elephants and possession of them domestically had also created a number of serious ecological problems, some with long term permanent negative effects on the survival of our elephant population. “These people had captured elephants with good quality genes. Removing them from their natural habitat and keeping them isolated, prevents the breed of the next generation of elephants with quality genes. Elephants with weak genes are those left in jungles and this affects the breeding of the Elephant population of the country on a massive scale. Also we assume that elephant herds in jungles are in deep shock over the loss of baby elephants. Sometimes these traffickers had killed mother elephants in order to capture the baby. This entire issue has created a repulsive picture about Sri Lanka within the international community,” Nayanaka pointed out.

The case will be taken up before a bench constituting High Court Justices Wikum Kaluarachchi, Dhammika Ganepola and Madduma Patabendige.