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Scientific team completes part of ongoing study on gene pool of 700 Lankan elephants



by Ifham Nizam

An eight-member scientific team has completed a comprehensive part of an ongoing study on the gene pool of 700 Sri Lankan elephants.

Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Agricultural Biotechnology Centre (AgBC) of the University of Peradeniya, are conducting a research on DNA analysis of wild elephants in Sri Lanka funded by the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP).

The scientific team comprises Ranjan Marasinghe, R. M. R. Nilanthi Rajapakse, H.A. Bhagya Hathurusinghe, Chandana Sooriyabandara, Dr. C. H. W. M. R. Bhagya Chandrasekara, Nuwan Jayawardana, M. Madawika Kodagoda, Dr. R. C. Rajapakse and Prof. Pradeepa. C. G. Bandaranayake.

“The study will clearly indicate the differences of the Sri Lankan elephant as a sub species. Our molecular methodology is based on using elephant dung, and the test is similar to the Covid-19 PCR test”, Researcher R. M. R. Nilanthi Rajapakse told The Sunday Island.

“We have already sequenced and assembled the genome of the Sri Lanka Wild Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), the type subspecies of the Asian elephant. Comparative genomics work continues with available Asian and African elephant genomic data with the objective of identifying specific set of markers for the identification of Sri Lankan elephants”, the team said.

The first part of the research focused on 100 elephants, and it has now increased to 700 with continued focus on elephants in the forest patches etc., they remarked.

The project aims to examine the within-species genetic structure of the wild elephant across its range to better understand how genetically distinctive regional populations are and deviations of Sri Lankan elephants with those of other countries and how that might affect its conservation.

Conservation and management of elephants in Sri Lanka has become an important issue given the escalation of the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) and international trade of wild elephants.

The Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, is an umbrella species in tropical forests. Wild elephants play important roles in maintaining forest dynamics such as opening animal trails in the forests, creating open gaps that facilitate seed and acting as a seed disperser for large-seed fruit species. The conservation status of the Asian elephant has been recognized as an endangered species since 1986. Wild Asian elephants are currently distributed mainly in the South and Southeast Asia.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, anthropogenic disturbance, illegal poaching and HEC have been considered as significant threats to the Asian elephants, resulting in population decline and fragmentation. These threats resulted in skewed sex ratio and disruption of social organization.

Acquiring information of wild populations is important for effective conservation and management of wild elephants.

Wild elephants in Sri Lanka is estimated to be between 5,000 and 6,000, according to the last survey conducted by the DWC in 2011. This is a relative high number considering the small size of the country (65,610 sq. km) and the human population of over 21 million.

For management of elephants in the wild, monitoring the changes in the structure and composition of the populations would be far more useful than estimating elephant numbers.

Therefore, genetic methods will be useful for management and conservation plan such as individual and sex identification, population size estimation, population sex ratio, genetic diversity, relatedness among individuals in a population, gene flow among populations, detection of bottleneck event, phylogeography of particular species, detection of hybridization, providing evidence of illegal wildlife poaching, including being a tool for genetic management of a population and long-term monitoring of the managed population.

It provides genetic information of the populations that could not be obtained from field data collection alone. Genetic methods, on the other hand, provide reliable information on population structure and facilitate investigation of genetic effects on small and fragmented populations. Advance genetic methods also provide better estimations on population size with reasonable cost and time.

Further, tracking of ivory poaching would also be possible if a reference genetic database of the natural populations is available.

Molecular genetics studies on elephants’ date back to 1990s. Micro satellite markers have been the preferred choice and have played a major role in ecological, evolutionary and conservation research on elephants over the past 20 years.

However, technical constraints especially related to the specificity of traditionally developed micro satellite markers have brought to question their application, specifically when degraded samples are utilized for analysis. Therefore, the team analyzed the specificity of 24 sets of micro satellite markers frequently used for elephant molecular work.

“First, we optimized the DNA extraction protocol for elephant dung which can even be used for samples reach the lab within a week’s time because all previous studies depended on fresh dung samples collected less than 24 h time”, the team said.

“Comparative wet lab analysis was done with blood and dung DNA in parallel with in silico work. Our data suggest cross-amplification of unspecific products when field-collected dung samples are utilized in assays. The necessity of Asian elephant specific set of micro satellites and or better molecular techniques are highlighted”, the team pointed out.

The necessity of insilico analysis for testing specificity of SSRs is highlighted for other wild animals, for example, leopards. Nevertheless, the current study suggests that the analysis should extend beyond the human genome especially when dung DNA is used as starting materials. Therefore, the specificity of primers is a critical factor deciding the success of traditional SSR based methods adopted for such analysis.

Based on their study, no primer set out of 24 tested SSRs could be recommended for future work when the elephant dung is used as the starting material. If blood samples are drawn carefully with no human or other contamination, those with no multiple hits in the elephant genome, for example, EMU06 and EMU07 could still be used. As such, results of the previous studies done with elephant dung would be questionable with the evidence gathered from current findings.

“Nevertheless, no one could challenge the past since the revolutionary technologies pawed the path for the success of current studies. However, our results suggest the necessity of revisiting available methods. Alternatively, more specific,” the team stressed.

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People to get fuel price shock soon



The Cabinet sub-committee on the cost of living had decided to increase fuel prices, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila told the media yesterday (11) in Colombo. He said that the date of the price hikes  would be revealed soon.

The Minister said that if they announced the date, it would lead to long lines at filling stations and it would have disastrous consequences during the pandemic.

“We know that things are hard for everyone, that is why we didn’t increase fuel prices for 21 months. But the government can no longer bear the losses. The oil prices in the world market have been increasing. By the end of 2020, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had accumulated a loss of RS. 331 billion. Each year we spend three billion dollars to import oil,” he said.

Gammanpila said that the main sources of income for the country had been affected due to the pandemic and foreign investments and tourism had stopped and a large number of Lankans working abroad had returned, decreasing remittances.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Office on May 20 said that a ministerial subcommittee discussed the sharp increase in crude oil prices compared to 2019 and 2020.

The PM chaired the meeting in the Committee Room 8 in Parliament. The Cabinet subcommittee discussed ways and means of addressing the problems caused by the crude price hike.

The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. (RK)

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HRC asks IGP to explain how he intended to stop deaths of suspects in police custody



Report called by June 13

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Human Rights Commission has sought an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as regards continuing deaths in police custody.

In a letter dated June 8, 2021, HRC Chairman Dr. Jagath Balasuriya has raised the recent deaths in police custody with the focus on two incidents involving Panadura and Batticaloa police.

HRC Acting Director Research and Monitoring Nihal Chandrasiri told The Island that the June 8 dated letter was the latest missive addressed to the IGP regarding this particular issue since the formation of the new HRC following the last general election in August 2020.

Chandrasiri made available to The Island, a copy of Dr. Balasuriya’s letter addressed to IGP Wickremaratne.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in late Dec 2020 named former lawmaker Balasuriya as the Chairman of the HRC comprising· Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara, Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan and H.K. Navaratne Weraduwa.

Chandrasiri said that the HRC first took up deaths in police custody in the wake of the killing of Dinithi Melan alias Uru Juwa, who had been arrested by the Nawagamuwa police, and Dharmakeerthi Tharaka Perera Wijesekara alias Kosgoda Tharaka in the second week of May 2021.

Civil society activist attorney-at-law Senaka Perera told The Island that continuing deaths in police custody should be examined against the backdrop of a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivered that the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in police custody violated the right to life, in spite of the absence of an explicit right to life clause  in the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

According to Dr. Balasuriya’s letter, reportage of the deaths of Chandana Vidushan and Ali Khan in the custody of the Batticaloa police and Panadura (North) police, respectively, prompted the HRC to take up the matter with the IGP. Declaring that the HRC has initiated an inquiry in terms of Section 14 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya said that inquiries revealed both victims suffered cruel and inhuman treatment in the hands of the police, leading to their deaths?.

Expressing serious concern over what he called the absence of safety and security of those in police custody, Dr. Balasuriya has pointed out to the IGP relevant sections of the Constitution, in addition to Supreme Court rulings in respect of such matters and two letters dated Oct 21, 2020 and  March 17, 2021 that dealt with the issue at hand.

Asserting that continuing deaths in police custody resulted in deterioration of public confidence in law and order, such incidents underscored the threat to what he called public freedom. Having reminded the IGP that the HRC intervened in terms of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya has requested the IGP to submit a report to him of measures he intended to introduce to prevent deaths in police custody by or before June 13.

In the wake of several killings in police custody, Romesh de Silva, PC, recently moved the Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted heroin dealer Gampola Vidanalage Samantha Kumara alias Wele Suda held at maximum security Boossa prison. President’s Counsel successfully argued against the police taking Wele Suda into their custody.  

President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris has appeared in the Court of Appeal on behalf of Janith Madushankar alias Podi Lassi. Having brought to the notice of justices, Sobitha Rajakaruna and Dhammika Ranepola, the most recent killings in police custody of ‘Uru Juwa’ and ‘Kosgoda Tharaka,’ Peiris sought the court’s intervention to ensure his client’s safety and security.

The lawyer has requested that the court direct the IGP to transfer his client from the custody of the CID to another unit.



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Health trade union alliance claims their strike a success



By Rathindra Kuruwita

Senior health officials including doctors benefited from the current health crisis, Health Services Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA) President Saman Rathnapriya said yesterday commenting on the trade union action resorted to by a number of health sector unions, excluding the GMOA.

Rathnapriya maintained that the strike was a success and non-health sector unions  too had supported them because what he called unfair increases in allowances received by doctors affected the entire state sector. The allowance given to doctors had been increased by 78%, from Rs. 41,220 to Rs. 78,120, however other categories had not received any increase in their allowances, he said.

“Our union action was a success, but we are not happy we had to do this. Nurses and other staffers have not received any increase in their allowances although they too are contributing greatly in the fight against COVID-19. The Health Ministry is unnecessarily creating issues by giving a colossal allowance increase to the doctors,” Rathnapriya said.

College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President Ravi Kumudesh said that the doctors held top positions in the Health Ministry and for many years they had been ignoring the salaries and allowances of other employees.

“They not only mistreat us but create new issues, testing our patience. Throughout this pandemic you can see this. They get all the perks and have even their family members vaccinated. They are taking advantage of the fact that we are exercising patience in view of the pandemic,” Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh added that the union action had not affected the anti-COVID-19 programme, cancer, maternity and paediatric hospitals, etc.

“We are not doing this to inconvenience the people. We are trying to ensure that the Health Ministry does not create additional problems,” he said

President of All Ceylon Management Service Officer’s Union, Udeni Dissanayake said that they too supported the trade union action because the actions of the GMOA would have an adverse impact on the entire state sector.

Doctors had received certain perks in recent years, and they had contributed to salary anomalies and inequality of remuneration across the board, he said.

“Doctors were treated with great respect in our culture, and this is being eroded by the actions of the GMOA. They have been receiving allowances increased and after a while those of similar standing in other sectors, too, ensure that they get hikes, but those in the lower grades do not see any increase. Although we are not a health sector union, we fully support this action for two reasons. One is that the cause is just and the other is that the impact of the allowance hike given solely  to the doctors will soon be felt by us,” Dissanayake said.

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