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  • Minister comes a cropper as monkey scandal is exposed

If you want an ideal specimen that typifies incompetent, lackadaisical, ignorant and reckless ministerial behaviour, one of those Mahadanamuttha types, who, without a thorough grasp of the subject, and without a holistic vision and approach, comes up with instant quick fire solutions to the country’s problems, look no further than SLPP Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, the man in charge of the nation’s most important economic sector: Agriculture.

In a pre-Avurudhu shocker, Minister Amaraweera announced his outlandish plan to send 100,000 toque monkeys to China as his brilliant idea to rid the country’s suddenly discovered monkey pestilence. These toque monkeys, endemic to Lanka and commonly known as ‘rilaw’, were to be caught, crated and freighted apparently to China’s zoological gardens.

Referring to some Agricultural Ministry committee report that had singled out the monkey as the animal causing the most crop damage, the Minister stressed the need to eradicate this menace and the sudden Chinese zoological offer seemed heaven sent to get the monkey off our back.  It would be, as the old maxim held, killing two monkeys with one stone. Chinese zoos would be delighted to have them and Lankan farmers glad to be rid of them. Bravo.

TORTURE WITHOUT END: Were the monkeys really meant to sate the underground “wet market” demand for monkey brain to be eaten while the monkey is still alive on the dining table

Even though no financial details were revealed by Amaraweera, there would certainly be rich pickings to be made from the tradeoff.  Lanka was now in the monkey business to earn hard dollars for livestock. And this 100,000 monkey shipment was just for starters, the first order in a series that held all the promise of becoming Lanka’s biggest dollar spinner in the future, bigger than the export of human labour to the Middle East which brings roughly 8 billion dollars in a good year.

It was too good to be true. But was it a sudden bonanza, a bolt of luck from the blues?

The spade work to receive this manna from China seems to have been done two months ago. February became the open season to kill a variety of animals, including monkeys that had arbitrarily been removed, on the strength of an ad hoc committee report, from the protected list earlier in the month.

Minister Amaraweera visited Boralanda in February and was videoed telling a group of people: ‘Anyone can kill them now. Nowhere in the world is there a solution than to kill them., we must control such animal populace. All that remains is to provide the necessary facilities for the farmers. ‘A cheering man in the crowd tells the Minister: ‘Give us the okay, sir, and we will leave not one ‘rilawa’ left’.

Hitherto, the nation had been confronted only with the elephant-human conflict. Suddenly the people found an elephantine problem existed with the monkey, created largely by man destroying much of the original forest cover of the toque monkey. As a result it is still classified as endangered on the Red List of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

On April 12, the day after Amaraweera’s public announcement of the Agricultural Ministry’s ‘monkey business’, the effort to demonise the common ‘rilaw’ went into overdrive. Quoting excerpts from the report, it listed the damage done to the coconut industry. It said that in the first six months of 2022 the number of coconuts destroyed by monkeys and squirrels were 92 million while in the last six months of the same year the number of coconuts destroyed had risen to 200 million.

No insight has been forwarded as to the basis of calculating the number of nuts destroyed nor any explanation offered whether other factors — apart from monkeys and squirrels, for instance, under-fertilization, disease, re-planting programmes — also contributed to this dramatic rise.

Or was the loss largely due to farmers’ exaggerating the damage to evade the taxman by putting the blame on monkeys?

A field — as any responsible farmer knows — left unguarded or left unprotected without preventive measures taken, is fair game for neighbouring wild life to forage. The age old answer has, of course, been to take preventive measures but why go to such bother and expense in the new age when killing has become the easy solution?

But no matter, by the end of the week the Agricultural Ministry had succeeded in its black propaganda exercise to turn the Lankan monkey into Public Enemy Number One.

And today, public opinion seems to be inclined to hold the view that, next to former President Gota and his SLPP Ministers — of whom Amaraweera was one — with their overnight ‘carbonic fertiliser only’ disastrous policy, the toque monkeys come a close second as the culprits responsible for the ruination of the country’s once fertile fields, and have expressed no qualms in urging their riddance from these island shores.

AMARAWEERA: Gets his comeuppance

But where to, and to what purpose? True, Amaraweera has, as he reiterated this Monday, said that ‘a group of Chinese representatives had submitted a request to the Agriculture Ministry to provide Sri Lankan Toque monkeys to Zoological Gardens in China.

But has he checked with the Chinese Embassy on the credentials of these unknown Chinese representatives? Checked with the Embassy whether the Chinese Government had authorised the import of 100,000 monkeys from Lanka for their zoos? Even asked our Foreign Ministry whether it would be against diplomatic protocol to send 100,000 monkeys without prior sanction from the sensitive Chinese Government?  Apparently not.

Had there been nothing to excite his curiosity as to why China would suddenly want 100,000 of our monkeys? Or had he naively believed that the monkeys were wanted for Chinese zoos for conservation purposes and left it at that?

Was he even remotely aware that monkeys were eaten in China, that monkey brain was a prized delicacy in China, tasting best when eaten whilst the monkey was still alive on the dining table?

This was, after all, no big secret, hidden behind the bamboo curtain.

In 2004, the Chinese celebrated the astrological year of the Monkey. That year the Chinese Embassy in Nepal issued a press release explaining the significance of the year and the special place the monkey occupied in Chinese paintings, literature, in language and in the Chinese heart. It did not fail either to vividly describe the special reserved place the monkey occupied in the Chinese stomach.

The statement said:  ‘Eating the brains of live monkeys was also a famous Chinese culinary delight, which has since become very rare. Live monkeys were tied up and their skulls were sliced open so that the brain could be eaten when very fresh. Chefs would then sprinkle some soup, herbs or oil on the brain, making it a most delicious and nutritious dish. ’The practice has now been banned by the Chinese government for its cruelty and to protect wild animals.’

Though the Chinese Government has recognised its cruelty and banned the practice, would it not have provided Amaraweera, had he made sufficient inquiry, with ample food for thought to wonder whether Chinese haute cuisine’s specialty of eating monkey brain while the animal is still alive, though officially banned, still flourishes in the notorious underground wet markets in China, even as ‘kassipu’, though banned in Lanka, still thrives in the backstreets of the country. But he never asked, and thus never got the answers he should have got.

Was Amaraweera aware that with the outbreak of COVID and with the Wuhan bat branded the arch villain, the Chinese Government on January 26th 2020 placed a temporary ban on the sale and transport of live wild animals, including monkeys, that were usually sold at Wuhan and other food markets?

The following month, China made the ban permanent. It outlawed all trade in wild animals, including monkeys, destined for consumption. Such bans naturally create a lucrative underground trade, even as bootleg whiskey was in America’s Prohibition days, even as narcotic drugs are today.

Had the Minister been aware, wouldn’t he have discerned a possible nexus between a sudden mysterious demand for 100,000 Lankan monkeys and an underground demand for live monkey brain? Would he have paused even to consider the possibility that something was amiss in the request to supply 100,000 monkeys to ostensibly populate zoological gardens in China?

Shouldn’t he have wondered why the request had come to him direct when it should have been made to the Wildlife Ministry’s zoos, since Lanka’s laws only permit the transfer of wild animals from Lanka’s zoos to other foreign zoos?

Environmentalist Dr. Jagath Gunawardena told the media, ‘the existing legal provisions only allow animal export for conservation purposes or as part of an exchange programme with a zoological garden. The export of animals for meat or scientific study is completely illegal under these provisions.’

China’s 2020 February ban on animal trade also applied to exporting monkeys to American labs. Until the ban, China had been the main exporter of monkeys to US labs, supplying roughly 80 percent of the total required. The sudden freeze by China placed US labs in a quandary, with claims made it had stunted scientific research.

According to a report published in China’s Global Times in February 2021, the best laboratory monkeys are around two years old and are bred by Chinese companies. Most of these monkeys have actually been purchased by international companies and exported to the US. The report quoted the value of a laboratory monkeys at approximately USD 9600 each.

Shouldn’t all this have alerted Amaraweera to the possibility that the dubious Chinese animal breeding company’s request for 100,000 toque monkeys for Chinese zoos may be just a cover for an underground trade to supply live monkey brains for China’s affluent set or to supply US labs to experiment upon, with the shipment even rerouted mid sea to transshipment ports. Or both.

Amaraweera’s willingness to take at face value whatever the unknown Chinese representatives say to be the purpose of wanting our monkeys, is indeed surprising.

Without thoroughly checking on the party’s credentials, without seeking assurances from the Chinese Embassy that it is all above board, without proper study and adequate research, without giving an ear to warnings from local environmentalists, Amaraweera has embraced this controversial Chinese monkey project in blind faith and made it his own crusade.

And, despite the laws of the country forbidding its performance, he had, in the arrogance of ministerial power, shrugged them aside as mere skittles that can be easily knocked down to oblige the Chinese request.

And on Wednesday evening, he came a cropper.

In a statement issued on April 19, the Chinese Embassy officially denounced the supposed monkey project and said China had no knowledge or involvement with any request for 100,000 monkeys for its zoological gardens.

The Embassy had checked with the relevant authorities in Beijing and said:

‘The Chinese National Forestry and Grassland Administration, the main government department supervising and managing the import and export of wild animals and plants, clearly clarified that it is not aware of the request and has not received such application from any side.’

Furthermore the statement noted China’s scrupulous adherence to wildlife protection.

It said: ‘“The Embassy would like to further stress that as a contracting party of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), China has already adopted its Wildlife Protection Law in 1988 with several amendments afterwards. The Chinese government always attaches great importance to wildlife protection and actively fulfill international obligations, which makes China one of top countries in the world in terms of wildlife protection legislation and law enforcement.’

Amaraweera and his ministerial team had, with their reckless monkey antics, dragged China’s name unnecessarily into the environmental mire. The Embassy statement reflected China’s obvious displeasure.

The following day, the Agriculture Ministry issued a statement. Funnily, it made no apology to China for the aspersions cast or for the hurt caused. It made no reference to China’s denial of any involvement in the monkey scandal at all. Instead the Ministry’s secretary Gunadasa Samarasinghe reiterated that China had made a request to import 100,000 monkeys from Lanka. He confirmed the ministry was going ahead with the project and said, ‘the ministry is hoping to take the best decision when sending the toque monkeys to China.’

What exactly are Amaraweera and his ministry’s game? When the Chinese Government had debunked the existence of any such request and had categorically denied knowledge and involvement, and stated its unwavering commitment to uphold international wildlife protection laws, what on earth made Amaraweera and his ministry ignore China’s denial and insist it will be sending 100,000 monkeys to China?

Mahathama Gandhi once said: The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

Whatever greatness this nation may have possessed in the past, now lies entombed beneath the crumbling ruins found in the ancient cities of the island. As for its moral progress, its decline to the nadir is evident by Amaraweera’s cavalier attitude and callous unconcern toward the nation’s wildlife.

By his shameless willingness to export 100,000 monkeys to a spurious animal breeding company in China, without due diligence as to whether he would be sending them to a fate worse than death — even to be eaten alive — has blackened the collective image of the Lankan people in international eyes, depicted the people as a primitive tribe, bereft of ethics and morality, untouched by religious sensitivities and devoid of civilised decencies, willing to do anything — however inhumane, cruel or barbaric — for the all redeeming sake of earning an almighty dollar, even if soaked in blood and pain.

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