Scorpions in the carry-on luggage | Sunday Observer

Scorpions in the carry-on luggage

On January 13, a venomous surprise awaited officers of the Sri Lanka Customs at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) hidden within the carry-on luggage of a Chinese national. The 30-year-old unidentified man had been scheduled to fly to the city of Guangzhou in Southern China when he was stopped by officials following a screening of his checked-in luggage.

The officers rummaging through the bags discovered 200 live scorpions carefully packed in seven plastic containers ready to be smuggled over to China, according to Sri Lanka Customs Spokesman, Sunil Jayaratne. It was one of the significant foiled attempts at wildlife trafficking by a foreigner in Sri Lanka since the beginning of 2020. It is also the most number of scorpions nabbed prior to being exported illegally.

According to customs officials, following the discovery during questioning, the man had admitted illegally transporting animals from various countries back to China for breeding and selling purposes. Authorities also suspect the man may have wanted to extract venom from the scorpions. Scorpions are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine while practitioners claim it can help relieve pain in muscles and nerves,

Jayarathna said the man had collected the scorpions from several areas in Sri Lanka. He had gathered information from locals, especially three-wheeler drivers and travelled across the country in search of the arachnids. Sri Lanka is home to 18 species of scorpions. However, it is unclear as to which type of species the man had in his possession.

However, despite being nabbed by the authorities, the Chinese man merely had the scorpions taken away from him and slapped with a paltry fine of Rs 100,000 before being allowed to return to China.

The consequences, seemingly lenient, have raised eyebrows among members of the public. With Sri Lanka struggling to combat wildlife trafficking and valuable wildlife species often appearing on the internet for sale after being smuggled out, wildlife enthusiasts have called for strict penalties and higher fines.

Explaining the legal scenario of this particular incident environmentalist and Attorney-at-Law Jagath Gunawardena noted that none of the scorpions found in Sri Lanka is protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance or any other law. However, he also noted that it is remarkable that, in fact, all the wildlife found in this country, even the scorpions, which are not expressly protected, are to some extent protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.

“Therefore in this incident, the individual has attempted to export scorpions without an obtaining permit which contravenes section 40 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance,” he said.

It is illegal to export live scorpions overseas without a permit, according to Sri Lanka’s Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, and violators can face fines or jail time. However, the laws haven’t stopped wildlife trafficking in the country,

“Further, this section shall be effective in cases where the animal is a protected animal or not,” he added. According to Gunawardena, this section also accords a special power to the Department of Customs to execute their duties when combatting wildlife offences.

That is, the offences under Section 40 of the Act are considered offences of the Customs Ordinance and may be punished for further offences under the Act. “This is an additional boost to the Sri Lanka Customs Department to combat wildlife trafficking,” he said.

The leading environmentalist also voiced his disappointment at the handling of this particular case. “I am unhappy about the whole situation,” he said. According to Gunawardena a Rs.100,000 fine means the offender had only been fined Rs. 200 per Scorpion he had tried to smuggle out illegally. “However, according to the Act he could have been fined a maximum of Rs 10,000 per scorpion,” he pointed out.

According to Gunawardena, this was a landmark case as this was the largest haul of scorpions found on a smuggler in Sri Lanka. “Therefore, they should have imposed the maximum penalty on him as a deterrent,” he said.

Gunawardena also noted how the smuggler had admitted he had help from locals to secure the scorpions. “Having help locally points to the fact that this is a network,” he said. “Therefore, instead of being in a hurry to release the man allowing him to return, authorities should have kept him in custody for a longer period for questioning. They could have obtained details on the local network to uproot it completely from the country and prevent a repeat of this incident,” he said.