Nepal's unequal wildlife laws
I was watching a talk show. The host was grilling the celebrated Panchyat-era figure former Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista about his political experiences. But my attention was solely fixed on the tiger pelt hanging on the wall behind.
The episode was shot at Bista’s living room and for a researcher who had recently visited several prisons across the country to interview people jailed in wildlife crimes, it was a bitter reminder of the impartiality in the way the Nepali state treats citizens.
Under Nepal’s laws, wildlife crime also entails transport and collection of contraband, not just peaching. But regulatory authorities have been blatantly ignoring this. Pelts of tigers and leopards have become showpieces for the rich and powerful to flaunt, and are openly exhibited in public spaces.
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Following that tv interview in August 2016, we took to social media urging an investigation into the tiger pelt and how it came to be in an ex-prime minister’s possession. We also filed a complaint through Hello Sarkar, but the agency that is always quick to reply on every matter stayed mum on this.
Sometime later, during a visit to the head office of Citizens Bank in Kamaladi, I saw a stuffed tiger head hanging on the wall. Thereafter I found more places in Kathmandu where wildlife parts are openly displayed, flouting the law.
A leading weekly paper in 2012 named a select few families in Kathmandu that had tiger, bear, wild ass, leopard and deer parts in ancestral property settlements.
It is clear for everyone to see that there are rampant wildlife parts in private uses in Nepal. But why does the law apply only to the poor while those in the positions of power openly display them? Why are some wildlife crimes punished while others are ignored?
I was born in Barabise of Sindhupalchok district bordering Tibet. From a young age, I knew about crossborder smuggling of wildlife parts from Nepal to China. Many locals in the region and even some of my classmates made money from smugglers transporting red sandalwood across the border up north.
When I came to Kathmandu in 2006 for higher studies, I got to learn more about this illegal trade. I also found out that Nepal has some of the strictest penalties for the crime in the world, and yet is among the countries with the highest wildlife crime rates.
This means our legal system does not discourage criminals, there is rampant impunity and existing laws are applied unfairly and without transparence. This is a clear lack of legal bias: while small-time criminals are prosecuted, ringleaders even when arrested find loopholes in a corrupt judicial system.
Regulatory bodies do not even have a record of how many wildlife crime prisoners are in Nepal and which prisons they are held in. I had to call every prison across the country to collect this data. In 2016, there were 384 inmates, most of them from indigenous communities.
Some of the prisoners were not even aware of why they were arrested in the first place. Others told me they were taken into custody when they had gone to collect fodder in the forest. I found inmates who ended up in jail because they were trying to make an extra Rs500. But there were also those who were part of international wildlife trafficking syndicates.
From the centre to local governments, there are many wildlife crime and poaching control groups at work in Nepal. Some 8,000 Nepal Army soldiers are deployed to guard national parks across the country and the Nepal Police even has a separate branch for wildlife crime.
And yet Nepal is a flourishing hub for wildlife trade. Contraband from Africa and Asia are transported to China and beyond across the Himalaya. The country’s location is no help – it is situated between India, which is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world with a 1,300km open border, and China that is the world’s largest wildlife market.
According to the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1972, no one is allowed to use, sell or distribute wildlife without permission in Nepal. But even before it was issued, the law stipulated that those in the possession of wildlife parts must get a permit within 35 days by disclosing their source.
But no such permit has ever been issued according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Department of Forest and Soil Conservation. I reported the illegal wildlife parts in use in Kathmandu with evidence and lobbied for them to be brought under the purview of the law. But I was warned to keep quiet, with authorities even threatening to end my career. I chased them for two years but with no other progress and alternative, I went to court.
Being a wildlife specialist, legal matters are not my forte. I also realised just learning about ecology is not enough to save wildlife in Nepal. So, I joined Nepal Law Campus where I met advocate Padma Bahadur Shrestha, who specialises in environmental law.
He helped me prepare the writ and in May 2018 we went to the Supreme Court with our petition. The staff at the registration read the writ and laughed. The head of the branch said it was an important case but refused to register it. It got registered the second day because there was no basis not to, and the date for the hearing was fixed for the very next day.
The judge on the bench was Cholendra SJB Rana. I could hear advocates say, “Most of the wildlife parts are in the Rana family. How do you expect the judge to give a verdict?”
After reading the writ, judge Rana smiled and said, "Immediate order may be difficult to implement, so I have given a show cause order to the government with priority."
For the last three years, I am following up on the Supreme Court. The authories who did not respond to my report have sent written answers to the court. From the office of the prime minister to the forest department, they have all come up with varying excuses.
The Ministry of Forests and Environemnt requested the writ petition to be dismissed claiming that the wildlife parts currently in the display, private or otherwise may have received permits. But responsible departments say they have never issued any permits. This means all the wildlife parts that are in private possession is illegal.
The Supreme Court had fixed 19 December this week for the hearing of our petition. But it has now been postponed to 17 April 2022 due to a public holiday that coincided with the day.
If the order is issued as per our demand, the government will be obliged to keep a record of the historic wildlife parts in private use across the country, then give a permit if there is a legal basis or confiscate and take action if found illegal.
This will also shine a light on culprits and bring them under the purview of law while helping to curb the crime that is taking place under the guise of ancestral trophy hunting. Ignoring this aspect of wildlife crime will only boost the morale of criminals and add to the existing challenges of conservation.
Wildlife trafficking is not a local but an international problem, and as such needs cross-border collaboration between countries. Nepal’s legal capacity is also important for the conservation of wildlife in South Asia and the world.
Translated from the Nepali original in the Himal monthly.
Kumar Paudel is an MPhil graduate from the University of Cambridge and is co-founder of Greenhood Nepal based in Kathmandu.