Voiceless victims : Wider implications of poaching

Over the last few weeks, people from every walk of life have been busy discussing constituent assembly elections, new Nepal, future leadership and governance structures. But even as the political atmosphere heats up, other sectors of national import are not being given due attention. The contradiction between ongoing talks about democracy, welcomed as a source of progress and hope for the great majority of Nepalis, and subsequent decline in concern and commitment about other important areas of national life like wildlife conservation is indeed shocking.

One-horned rhinos and Royal Bengal tigers are regarded among the most beautiful animals on the planet. They are endemic to our Tarai region and in the areas surrounding Mt Everest. In Chitwan National Park alone, there are 408 one-horned rhinos, while the estimated population of tigers in the country stands at anywhere between 120-130. Besides their value as endangered animals, rhinos and tigers are vital in maintaining natural ecosystems. Tigers are crucial members of the food web which is a simple process of eating and being eaten. This relationship is what makes our environment stable — the predator and prey population are maintained primarily due to hundreds of thousands of such interlinked relationships. The survival of human beings, by virtue of their top position in the food pyramid, will be endangered if the foundation formed by these wildlife collapses.

In current times, the biggest threat to the survival of rhinos and tigers is poaching. Rhino is poached for its horn and hooves whereas tiger is poached for every part of its body —skin, bones and meat. That means one can detect a poached rhino as its huge body is abandoned but you probably would not even get a trace of a killed tiger. Various figures are bandied around rhino horn, tiger skin and bones. But broadly speaking, a rhino horn in local market sells for $3,000 whereas in the international market the price can go up $1,50,000. Similarly, tiger skin goes for $5,000-8,000 a kg in local market; the international market price can only be speculated: anywhere between $2,00,000-$3,00,000.

Trading in these endangered animals is illegal both by Nepali and international laws; however illegal trade of parts and derivatives of rhinos and tigers is on the increase. Seizures of rhino horns, tiger bones and skin have been reported from Kathamandu, Nepalganj, Narayanghat, Dhunche, Dhangari, Darchula, Mahendra Nagar and Birganj. There are several other places and routes within Nepal, such as Darchula and Tatopani, where illegal trade has been reported. In 2007, five pieces of tiger skins, 314 pieces of tiger bones, three pieces of rhino horns and several pieces of leopard skins were seized in Kathmandu. Several other seizures, which were still smaller in scale, could not make the headlines. The increased frequency of seizures indicates that Nepal is becoming a trade and transit hub for illegal wildlife trade.

Could poaching have been the upshot of troubled times, i.e. the armed conflict? Any black and white answer is difficult but a tentative answer is “No”. Poaching did not increase during the conflict period. But in 2006, immediately after the resolution of armed conflict with peace process gaining momentum, 20 rhinos were poached within a period of six months in Chitwan National Park and surrounding areas. During this time both the community-led and enforcement officials’ anti-poaching patrol and intelligence systems were much better managed than during the conflict period.

One community-based anti-poaching operation unit told us at the time: “The rise in poaching is due to diversion of people’s attention to peace process — an opportune time for poachers to hunt down these vulnerable animals”. Another anti-poaching unit reported: “Locals are involved in poaching just to maintain their subsistence level. They have been turned into brigands by smugglers, middlemen and international traders who are the ones who reap colossal benefits by trading poached wildlife parts”.

The end of war does not guarantee that hunting guns will fall silent. Isn’t it amazing that, in the past, guns were raised to liberate those who could not speak, but now they are being used against those who do not even have voice. If poaching is not stopped, the whole process of consolidation of democracy in Nepal might be derailed. Evidence from war-torn countries like Kenya and Cambodia suggest that violent conflicts are not only triggered by poverty and social inequity but also wanton exploitation of natural resources, including wildlife.

At a time when politicians are selling beatific dreams about the prospects of New Nepal, brutality against voiceless rhinos and tigers might pass under the radar of the society. But in the long run, the sound of guns will get louder unless those responsible for protecting Nepal’s treasure trove pull up their socks on time.

Dr Thapa is with WWF Nepal