Rare Sea Shells in Sri Lanka Likely to be Wiped out Through Illegal Export Trade

By Risidra Mendis

The international demand for rare seashells, from Sri Lanka has resulted in a well-organized illegal export trade.

Seashells though protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), face the threat of being wiped out due to this ongoing illegal export trade.

Rare Sri Lankan seashells are openly advertised on websites irrespective of the illegality of selling them. According to reliable sources, the kingpins behind this illegal operation are Sri Lankans who are professionals in identifying seashells right down to their sub species.

But despite the ongoing racket of illegally exporting seashells from Sri Lanka, the Bio Diversity and Protection Unit (BPU) of the Sri Lanka Customs was able to apprehend a large consignment of seashells some years ago when an attempt was made to smuggle them out of the country.

Kalika Perera who is believed to be a seashell trader was caught, when he attempted to smuggle out a large consignment of seashells concealed in his luggage by the Sri Lanka Customs.

According to reliable sources, He failed to produce a permit which is required by the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWLC) when a large consignment of rare varieties of seashells is to be taken out of the country. Customs officials after having held an inquiry into the incident seized the seashells.

Perera it is learnt was charged by the relevant authorities in 1998 for his failure to produce a permit from the DWLC. Smugglers nabbed

Meanwhile, in 2010 the Sri Lanka Navy was able to nab two smugglers with conch shells in their possession in the seas of Thalaimannar, North West of Sri Lanka. They were attempting to smuggle out 22 sacks of conch shells weighing approximately 489 kilograms. The smugglers along with the items were handed over to the Thalaimannar Police for further investigations and legal action at the time.

The Queen conch, also known as the Pink conch is protected under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Conchs were over-fished in many countries and it is illegal to carry large quantities and export large quantities without permission. However, there is a huge demand for conch meat and shells in the international market.

It is also learnt that many South American, West Indian and Asian countries have suspended trade in conch shells in an attempt to protect the species. Yet, conch meat and shells are still exported under false descriptions to avoid detection by customs officials.

Meanwhile, Speaking to Ceylon Today Ocean Resources Conservation Association, Marine Naturalist, Prasanna Weerakkody said that it was hard to find seashells on the beaches of Sri Lanka and warned of extinction.

“Some marine shells and molluscs are protected under the FFPO of the DWLC. Sri Lanka has a very rich marine fauna and equivalent number of land snails under water. The country also has more than a 1000 species of shells recorded,” Weerakkody explained.

He explained that many of the seashells found in the country are Molluscs and land snails are a sub group of these, adding that seashells can be divided into varieties such as the Gastropods that include spiral shells, land and marine snails included.

“The Bivalvia variety on the other hand is two shells connected together. Oysters and muscles come under this category. In Sri Lanka, a variety of seashells can be found on some beaches and most shells are very colourful which is why they are popular among collectors. Among the popular groups of shells are the Cowries, Cone, Murex, Conch shell, Olive shell and the Harp shell, among others,” Weerakkody said.

Some species ont protected

He further stated that many people don’t understand that every seashell is a live animal and that the shell of this animal can be compared to a human skeleton. “The Bivalve seashell for example, if shut tight, is alive and has an animal inside. If the shell is found open on the beach, then it is a dead shell. But very few of these seashells are protected in the country. Only one species of Bivalve and species of Gastropods are protected under the FFPO. Shells protected under the FFPO cannot be picked off the beaches even if they are dead shells,” Weerakkody added.

It is a known fact that most seashells are subject to exploitation, if they are not protected by the FFPO. But it has being revealed that some seashells found in the wild are rarer than those included in the FFPO such as the Nautilus and Paper nautilus seashells. However, these shells have not been included in the FFPO list,” Weerakkody explained.

The Horned Helmut shell on the other hand is protected under the FFPO, but this seashell is exploited to a great extent by traders who use them for souvenirs.

“Some varieties of seashells are very much in demand in the export market as they are used to make traditional bangles to be worn in marriage ceremonies. Divers are hired by collectors to gather shells on a mass scale for export. Divers are known to completely clear an area of all the seashells before moving on to another area. In some cases, an area upto 150- feet is cleared when collecting seashells. These shells are also collected and sold as ornaments to be used in fish tanks in the aquarium trade. This kind of demand for seashells can cause serious ecological repercussions,” Weerakkody said.

According to the marine naturalists in the South, seashells are collected and sold to foreigners. However, due to ignorance some people may collect seashells that are still alive. This happens when shells are collected to sell on a commercial scale. A seashell when taken out of the water is cleaned well by the collectors. During the process of cleaning the animal inside the shell dies. However, some collectors don’t realize that they have killed the animal inside the shell while cleaning it as they are only interested in meeting the demands of their customers,” Weerakkody said.

Underwater beauty

Some seashells that are found at the bottom of the sea get caught in fishing nets and the animal inside the shell dies. Fishermen have no use for these seashells and throw them away when the catch is brought to shore. It is difficult to prevent seashells from getting caught in fishing nets. However, all this can impact the seashell population in the country,” Weerakkody said. He added that the beauty of a seashell can be seen only when it is alive and underwater. “I would advise people not to pick seashells even if they are dead ones. But if you do want to collect seashells, make sure they are dead before picking them off the beaches,” the marine naturalist explained. According to him, these dead seashells are used by Hermit crabs. “If you look inside a dead seashell you may see this small animal with eight legs. Before picking a dead seashell, check if there is a small animal inside as you could harm this creature if you pick up the shell,” Weerakkody said.

Stressing on the need to protect the remaining seashells in the country, Weerakkody says, it is about time the relevant authorities took measures to ensure the few remaining locations where seashells can still be found in a variety of colours and sizes are saved for future generations. courtesy: Ceylon Today