Trap gun: A growing threat to human and animal life in Sri Lanka

by Vidya Abhayagunawardena

(January 10, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A six year old girl was killed by a trap gun in front of her father in, Galagamuwa in Kurunegala district in early December, (Lankadeepa December 3rd 2010). The incident happened when the father was preparing the trap gun with his daughter looking on and it accidentally exploded. This was the latest death reported in the media related to the trap gun menace in Sri Lanka.

The same month a police sergeant was seriously injured with a trap gun when the teams of police officers were conducting a raid on an illicit liquor (kasippu) den in Hataraliyada in Kandy district, (Daily Mirror 20th December & The Island 23rd December of 2010).

Those are just few incidents, which were officially reported to the government authorities and media, but there are many incidents related to trap guns in Sri Lanka which are not being reported due to various reasons. For instance, most of the time victim are family members, relatives or friends. Sometime people hire trap gun setters to prepare and lay the trap gun in their intended land and subsequently becomes victims themselves. Under such circumstances some of trap gun related incidents are not reported and many victims usually seek medical care in their own homes. Each year people get killed, permanently get disabled, injured due the trap gun and it has become an increasing threat not only for humans but also for wild animals in Sri Lanka. Victims of the trap gun include children, women, farmers, police officers, homeguards and Wildlife Department officials.

History and the evolution of the trap gun

Historically, people used different types of traps, but not the trap guns to catch animals and protect their agricultural lands and crops from wild animals. Those traps were usually made out from rope or iron wires. The trap caused minimal harm for humans compared to today’s modified trap gun which can kill or disable a person on the spot.

The trap gun is not a sophisticated weapon. To prepare a trap gun is less costly and does not require sophisticated technology. It only needs a metal pipe, metal pallets and explosives which easily can be found from firecrackers, explosive remnants of war (ERW) or readily available explosive chemicals. The trap gun has a feature that is similar to most landmines: both are activated by the victim. Victim activated devices can never be used exclusively for only the intended target. The trap gun is hardly visible to the naked eye, and its trigger line (maru wela) camouflaged in the jungle. In this background innocent humans and wild animals are at risk. It is the indiscriminate nature of those devices that make victim-activated landmines and the tarp gun so dangerous and vicious.

The Law

In Sri Lanka the Firearms Ordinance of No. 33 of 1916, has no specific definition for the trap gun. The Firearms Ordinance for small arms and light weapons provides the legal framework for civilian licensing, importation, sale, transfer, manufacture, repair and possession of all firearms. The Ordinance has stipulated “gun” as: ‘Any barreled weapon of any description from which any shot, pellet or other missile can be discharged with sufficient force to penetrate not less than eight strawboards, each of three sixty fourth of an inch thickness placed one half of an inch apart, the first such strawboard being at a distance of fifty feet from the muzzle of the weapon’. Within this Ordinance comes the practical explanation of a gun, “the shooter pulls the trigger for the chosen intended target”. The trap gun does not fall into this category. Under these circumstances prosecution for the manufacture of trap gun is minimal. Article 17th of the Firearms Ordinance states, “No person shall manufacture any gun without a license from the license authority”. Under this ordinance the trap gun falls into the illicit small arm category. Under these circumstances the manufacturer, possession and assembly of trap guns are illegal.

Why people use trap gun

According to the law, possess a license fire arm; a farmer needs to have a minimum of five acres of cultivated land. Small farmers with less than five acres or those who cultivate someone’s land are left vulnerable and not entitled to have a licensed fire arm. Then they basically fall into using the illicit trap gun to protect their livelihoods. This problem is particular in some districts such as Polonaruwa, Anuradhapura, Matale, Ampara, Kurunegala, Monaragala, Badulla and Ratnapura.

Today Sri Lanka’s agriculture-based rural economies relies on illicit trap gun to protect crop and livestock from wild elephants, boar, deer, porcupines and leopards also for poaching purpose. This is an unacceptable and the cruel way of protecting crops from wild animals. Most of the time, in the name of protecting agricultural land people use trap gun to kill wild animal for economic purposes for meat, to get animal skin and body parts such as tusks. For some people this has become a lucrative business activity as there is a huge demand for those products in the market. Today people also use trap guns for other purposes for illicit economic activities such as ganja and cannabis lands, moonshine production sites, gem mining, illicit logging, illegal timber industry in the jungle etc. With this background trap guns are used in all parts of the country and it will become an threat for human life and animal life in Sri Lanka.

Socio, economic and environmental cost

From ancient time people maintained friendly relations with the forest or the jungle for their day-to-day living activities such as to find firewood, wild herb for ayurvedic medicine, food, chena cultivation, and hunting. But those survival activities did not substantially harm the ecological balance or destroy the environment. Activities also carried out without any commercial purposes compared to today’s reason for use of the trap gun.

Sri Lanka’s total population today is a little over twenty million; out of which seventeen million are rural poor with their daily life depending up on agriculture based economic activities. Most of the trap gun related incidents reported are from the rural agricultural sector in Sri Lanka. Trap guns are for crop protection and poaching. The use of the trap gun for protecting farming is not the solution, and also if there is death or injury, huge social and economic costs have to be borne by the victim’s family and society.

Trap gun victims appear to accept the injuries passively and often do not seek proper medical attention. There is no record about the incident with relevant authorities such as police and in hospitals. Sometime injuries lead to death but that does not seem to discourage them in their use of this weapon again and continued to practice it. Trap gun victims in the remote areas i.e in jungle, increase their risk of death due to the victim having to travel long distances to get medical attention. Many of the trap gun related cases lead to amputation. According to the Administrative Reports of the Inspector General of Police Sri Lanka, 80 deaths were recorded in related to trap gun from 2003 to 2007 period.

The government has to spend a lot of money for trap gun related patients for long stays at hospital and for medicine. This occurs of the victim needs extra medical attention such as surgery, prosthetic and rehabilitation. According to Dr. D.H. Widyaratne the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) Anurdhapura, “every year over 200 trap gun injured patients have been admitted to the Anuradhapura hospital. An injured person has to stay at least five to twenty days in the hospital and the cost of medical care and other hospital expenses for a patient of trap gun injuries is around Rs. 250,000 to 500,000. The government has to bear the cost”. He further emphasized the inhuman side of the trap gun setter. “Once the trap gun is put in the place, the setter is always alert until the trap gets gun lights as soon as the trap gun blows, trap gun setter reaches the place where the trap gun is placed, and if the victim is a human, he leaves the place immediately avoid identification. Then the victim has to suffer with the injury till some one finds the victim and takes him or her to hospital. If the time is delayed to reach to the hospital the victim’s life is in danger” he said. There are also socio economic ramifications for the affected person’s family. If the bread winner of the family dies or is disabled permanently, the family has to face many socio economic problems.

Due to population increases, demands for land in development, agricultural and living activities are always escalating. This has lead to extensive habitat destruction of wildlife. Sri Lanka is now experiencing human and wildlife animal conflict in alarming proportions. The on going human elephant conflict has claimed many human and elephant lives in Sri Lanka. Up to September 2010 (nine months periods) there have been 73 human and 173 elephant deaths reported according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation. In a joint publication of Saferworld and SASANET in 2008 on “Trap guns in Sri Lanka” – a Wild Life officer from Anuradhapura noted: “I have personally witnessed many occasions in my career [when] many elephants have been killed due to trap gun injuries […] The damage to the front leg makes [an] elephant immobile [so] it dies of hunger, thirst and infected wounds.” When the forest, jungle or agricultural lands are installed with trap guns, those lands are not safe places for animals. There are some endangered species like leopards in the forest in Sri Lanka and they can be easily targeted by the trap gun and also tuskers, elephants, wild boar and other wild animal live in danger due to - this illicit trap gun.

Broader approach needed.

Sri Lanka needs to ban the use of trap gun in the first place. Once the trap gun is banned it will easy for prosecute the perpetrators. Sri Lanka needs to amend the law of The Firearms Ordinance No. 33 of 1916. To have a licensed firearm, a farmer needs to have a minimum of five acre crop land or above. This law can be relaxed and the government could consider granting fire arms licenses to farmers of small land holdings without having resort to illicit trap guns. Current existing laws need to be used effectively until this happens. The Police needs to be more responsible in this matter. An awareness campaign is much needed for affected communities highlighting the impact of trap guns. This can be carried out with the concerned authorities to enhance the safety and economic viability of affected communities.

Poor farmers’ crops and livelihoods need to be protected from wild animals; otherwise their economic life will be severely affected. Most of the agricultural farming in rural Sri Lanka is not insured and any losses have to be borne by the farmer. The government and other concerned parties need to look into this matter seriously to protect farming activity from wild animals and protect their lives too. A new insurance scheme for farmers can be a prudent approach.

Putting up electric fences with uninterrupted power supply is only a one solution. And parallel to this need to find suitable solution for communities to find non-timber products from the forest. Otherwise electric fence becomes a barrier for rural community to engage with the forest. Putting up new National Parks and conservation areas as well as policing wildlife corridors can minimize human elephant conflict to a greater extent. The Department of Wild Life should take this as a national issue. The authorities and concerned people need to encourage farmers in non- harming (human, animal & environment) methods of traditional ways of protecting crops at night, especially from wild elephants, by making loud noises, firecrackers and using other environmental friendly methods.

Ongoing development and economic growth should be trickling down throughout the economy and it should benefit rural youth in particular to find employment opportunities, start self employment, quality vocational training and overall to overcome poverty. Then only can youth avoid work in illegal gem mining, illicit liquor sites in jungles, illegal timber industry in the jungle, illicit logging and cannabis cultivation. This will benefit humans and animals and them free from life threatening trap guns and preserve the environment for coming generations in Sri Lanka.

Vidya Abhayagunawardena, independent researcher in socio economic development and campaigner for “Sri Lanka campaign to ban lanadmines ". His previous work and research assistances expanding into, local governance, peace and conflict resolution, gender, youth & development, language rights, election monitoring, media advocacy, event management, private public partnerships (PPP), archival research and in publications.

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