Nepal’s tiger conservation ‘too successful’?

Photo: WWF
  • The decomposed body of an adult tiger was found in Banke’s Gokul Community Forest in May. It was difficult to say how it died, but four missing canines gave a clue.
  • Last September, a tiger was found dead inside Bardia National Park, and it looked like it had been hurt in a territorial fight with another tiger.
  • Three years ago in Bardia, a tiger had been electrocuted in a fence set up by villagers to prevent predators from killing livestock.  
  • Two tigers have been killed in the past two years after being hit by speeding trucks on a highway that cuts through Bardia. 
  • A tiger drowned in 2018 in an irrigation canal that also goes through the park, bringing the total number of tigers lost in Bardia to six. 

Nepal’s tiger conservation efforts in the past decades appear to have been too successful. Overcrowding within national parks is driving tigers out of sanctuaries in search of territory, leading to increasing contact with humans. 

With fewer ranger patrols during the Covid-19 lockdown, there has also been a worrying increase in poaching of wild animals inside parks, including tigers. Former guerrillas from Nepal’s Maoist conflict who have not surrendered their arms are also found to be involved. 

In March, a wounded tiger was found dead near the Indian border in Suklaphanta National Park with a wire trap embedded deep into its neck.  

Since 2015, the Wildlife Crime Division of Nepal Police’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) has apprehended smugglers and seized 37 tiger pelts and other body parts (31 new and six old). Although most of them are believed to be from Indian tigers being trafficked via Nepal to China, some of them could be tigers from Nepal. 

Earlier this year, two poachers, Chakra Bahadur Bista, 34 and Ganesh Tiwari, 24 of Surkhet district were arrested within the Bardia park premises when they shot at Nepal Army soldiers on patrol.

They had set up a tent 6km northwest of the park where officials found three loaded guns, 17 rounds of ammunition, slingshots, nets and sickles. The two are awaiting trial. 

“Tigers are known to prey on livestock here. Villages must have poised the carcass anticipating the tiger to return to feed on its kill and fearing an attack on humans in the process,” says Ramesh Budathoki of the Division Forest Office in Banke. 

Unlike Chitwan National Park, where there are relatively fewer cases of tiger-human contact, Banke and Bardia districts in Nepal’s western plains have reported an increasing number of tiger attacks, and a spike in retaliation killings of the cats. 

"Poaching is still rare, but tigers are being killed in electrified fences and traps by villagers trying to prevent tiger attacks,” says Asim Thapa of Bardia National Park. “Nonetheless this is a setback in our conservation efforts.”

Nepal is the first tiger range country to attain the international target of doubling the number of its tigers by 2022. A census three years ago counted 235 tigers in parks across the country, up from 121 in 2009. But Nepal may now be a victim of its own success -- overcrowding in protected areas and a decrease in prey density means the tigers are venturing out of the forests for food and coming into contact with humans.  

Wildlife poachers have also used pandemic-induced lockdowns to actively smuggle endangered animals. Collectively, they are undermining Nepal's success in tiger conservation

“Whether it’s a case of wildlife smuggling or locals poisoning the tiger, it adds challenges all the same in our efforts to protect the endangered species,” says the head of National Nature Conservation Fund Bardia Rabin Kadaria. 

In July 2020, the Regional Investigation Bureau of Lumbini Province posed as buyers to arrest three poachers who were in possession of tiger pelts and 10kgs of bones.

Based on their statements, the Division Forest Office Banke filed a case against them in the district court. It emerged that Prakash Lamichhane with his brother Manoj had shot one of the tigers in the Banke National Park on 2 April 2020. Manoj confessed to skinning the tiger right after the kill, and implicated seven others.

The crime came into light only three months later when one of the culprits, Nawaraj Ghartimagar, was jailed in another wildlife crime. The CIB then analysed his cellphone call details and found out that he was in touch with Surjit Ramja Budha. 

The CIB had earlier arrested Budha in 2020 from a hotel in Tulsipur with Um Bahadur Rana and Ramit Sunar for trading in tiger pelts. Rana and Sunar are former Maoist guerrillas and have confessed to killing a tiger in Banke. 

"Wherever a tiger is killed, it is a matter of great concern because these are endangered species. Earlier we used to nab poachers smuggling tigers from India, but there has been a worrying rise in tigers killed in Nepal’s parks also," says ecologist Haribhadra Acharya with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Nepal is on the traditional route for wildlife trafficking from India to China but most of the smugglers arrested are lowly traders transporting the contraband across the border. The big fish are usually never caught.

Leaders of organised crime often go unpunished or use legal loopholes and judicial corruption to escape. However, the prosecution and sentence of the notorious smuggler Konjuk Lama earlier last month by a Nepali court has set a precedent.

The CIB suspects the involvement of Indian smugglers behind the recent deaths of tigers in western Nepal. An illegal trader named Fariyad ‘Lambu’ of Sampurnanagar in India’s Bihar state is known to be active in national parks along the Nepal border. 

Fariyad has time and again escaped the CIB and has been named in several seizures in Nepal. He is also accused in four cases on trial in Kailali and Kanchanpur district courts.  

“Two tigers were shot dead. But smugglers also use poison and traps so we shouldn’t stop the investigation assuming that the locals killed them in retaliation,” says a CIB official.

Recent tiger sightings at 2,500m and 3,165m in Dadeldhura and Ilam mean that tiger protection should not be restricted to national parks. The sightings at such high altitudes could be an effect of climate change, and tigers seeking territory outside crowded parks. 

Says Dil Bahadur Purja, warden of Shuklaphanta National Park: "We are regularly coordinating with national parks in India on joint patrols against transboundary poachers.”


Crime and punishment

A High Court in Hetauda recently ordered the release of three people charged with hunting and selling rhinoceros horns from animals killed in Chitwan National Park.

Justices Raj Kumar Wan and Hari Pratap KC ordered the release of Kailash Ale Magar, Som Bahadur Gurung and Mekh Bahadur Nepali on bail of Rs500,000, stating that the accused denied any involvement even though all three confessed to their crimes during CIB investigation. 

Chitwan National park had marked zero rhino poaching for nearly four years, until last August when a rhino was found killed. Since then there have been four additional kills, all of them during the Covid-19 lockdown last year.

An adult rhino was found shot dead in Bandarjhula area on 2 September, but with its horns and hooves intact. This was the first poaching incident of a rhino since 2017. 

On 4 November, two more rhinos were found dead, an adult female and a three-year-old baby in the Narayani River. This was followed by another kill on 6 November when a hornless skeleton of the animal was recovered from Chitwan National Park. 

The news of these poaching incidents shocked Nepal's conservationists, who had been proud of the zero-poaching record  Even more discouraging has been that the smugglers use political clout or judicial corruption to get themselves released.  

A case in point is the arrest of 14 people in February from across the country involved in the poaching incidents during the lockdown.  

Jit Bahadur Kumal alias Rana, his wife Indra Kumal, Hari Magar, Hari Tharu, his wife Vishnu Mayalu, Shiv Narayan Mahato, Birman Singh Praja and Shuk Bahadur Gurung alias Ashok Kale were arrested for selling rhino horns to two traders in Humla for transport across the border to China.

Six members of another group from Mugu active in smuggling rhino horns to Tibet were also detained: Mekh Bahadur Nepali, Som Bahadur Gurung, Durga Harijan Sarki, Kailash Ale, Yongdan Tamang and Nanche Tamang.

The Chitwan National Park then filed cases against them in the District Court where judge Gayatri Prasad Regmi remanded them in custody for trial on charges of poaching, assisting with hunting and transport of the horns. 

But Regmi also ordered their release on bail. Karma Tamang, considered to be the main trader, however, is on the run.

The district court remanded Nange Tamang, Yonden Tamang and Ram Kumar Shrestha alias Kavi to Rs500,000 bail on 9 March. Similarly, on 23 April, Gyan Bahadur Rumba alias Jwala and Sudip Giri were released on bail.

Yonden is also the main accused in a sandalwood case pending in the Patan High Court. The police had seized 73 kg of red sandalwood from his residence in Kathmandu on 28 August 2019. 

The Hetauda bench of the Patan High Court also ordered the release of three more middlemen implicated in the poaching. Of them, one had earlier served two years for gold smuggling from China. Jit Bahadur Kumal, considered the main hunter, had been sentenced twice before for 15 years, also for killing rhinos. Another poacher, Birman Singh Praja, was in jail for four years. His parents are also serving their 15-year sentence for killing rhinos.

The court released them all on bail.

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