Wildlife Contraband Finds an Easy Route through Nepal

By Deepak Gajurel

KATHMANDU, Nepal, January 21, 2000 (ENS) - Nepal has become a safe haven for wildlife contraband, although the government of Nepal is sensitive to conservation issues and is working to protect wildlife and natural resources. Illegal trade in bones, horns, hides, musks and other organs extracted from endangered animals like the Royal Bengal tiger, elephant, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope, musk deer, spotted and snow leopards and the critically endangered python has often been reported in Nepal.

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Tiger bones and pills made from them in a South Korean shop (Photo courtesy World Wide Fund for Nature)
A newly released investigative study on illegal trade in wildlife organs in and through Nepal has found that in most cases, Nepali territory acts as a "safe passage", or gate way to ferret out the contraband to and from China's Tibetan Autonomous region in the north, and India in the west, south and east. Occurrences of such illegal trade have been reported even the capital city, the report "CITES Compliance in Nepal" says.

A joint study by British biologist Collin Pringley, British lawyer Chris Murgatroyd and Mangal Man Shakya, general secretary of Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) has uncovered clues to the modus-operandi of the trade in wildlife parts.

"Nepal's open border with India, lack of proper legislation, and coordination between the concerned authorities continue to hinder the task of combating illegal trade in endangered and threatened species like tiger, leopards and rhinos in the country, states the report released here at a symposium on CITES compliance in Nepal. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is the treaty that prohibits cross-border trade in species placed on its endangered list.

Huge amounts of wildlife organs are transported to China and India from and through Nepal, the report says. "Nepal's open borders with India through the east, south and west made it very difficult to investigate into the magnitude of the illegal trade."

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Poachers with the bodies of endangered Tibetan antelope, skinned for their fine, soft fur used to make shahtoosh shawls that sell for thousands of dollars in the fashion capitals of the world. (Photo by Dr. George Schaller courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society )
The report also blamed geographical intricacy and inaccessibility along the Tibet-Nepal border as a contributing factor aiding trans-Himalayan trade in wildlife organs.

The key entry points of wildlife contraband being transported to and from India are: Eastern Nepal's Kakarbhitta and Biratnagar region;, central Nepal's Birganj area; the western region's Bhairahawa and Nepalganj; and far-western Nepal's Dhangadi and Mahendranagar areas.

The researchers claimed to have found evidences of shatoosh - the wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope - and musk trade through Kodari, the only road link to Tibet autonomous region of China, and other remote passes across the Himalayas. Musk, used in perfumes and cosmetics, is taken from a gland of the male musk deer. Shahtoosh is woven into expensive ring-shawls, so-called because they are so fine that an entire shawl can be pulled through a finger ring.

In addition, mid-western Nepal's frontier Humla area, which lies on the way to Tibet's Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarobar has been traced by the study team as a smuggling prone zone.

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Tiger bones and skin in Madhya Pradesh, India (Photo courtesy Wildlife Protection Society of India)
Two years ago, officials confiscated a postal-pack containing 130 kilograms (286 pounds) of tiger bones in Humla. The contraband was thought to be on its way to Tibet or China, where demand for traditional Chinese medicines made out of tiger bones is very high.

Tribhuwan International Airport in the capital Kathmandu, the country's only international airport, remains a key entry point for wildlife parts and contraband. The researchers reported, "We found hides of python, tiger paws, and so-called elephant bones in Kathmandu's prime tourist areas."

One of the researchers, who visited the market in guise of a tourist was "even assured to be supplied with bear bile, musk deer's musk, and snow-leopard skin, if required."

The study was conducted at Royal Shukla Phanta, Koshi Tappu and Parsa Wildlife Reserves and in the Royal Chitwan and Royal Bardia National parks.

While mentioning the need for appropriate legal provisions to combat illegal trade in wildlife, the report points out the lack of proper coordination among the government agencies. "There is a need to form a central authority for monitoring such illegal trades by "promptly" introducing legislation," the report suggests.

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Rhinos in Chitwan National Park, Nepal (Photo courtesy Nepal Conservation Research and Training Center)
Nepal's parliament has yet to endorse such legislation. A draft law has been prepared, but it has not ben promulgated by the parliament, informs Dr. Tritha Man Maskey, director general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Nepal signed the CITES treaty in 1975. As a signatory to this international agreement, Nepal has an obligation to strictly curb and combat illegal trade in endangered species.

According to the provisions of the CITES convention, a signatory country has to make efforts to regulate borders prone to such trades. Also, the Convention requires the nations to convict those involved in such trades, confiscate the contraband and return it to country of origin.