Conservationists are taking the fight to a new wave of poachers. Joe Ellison goes on patrol in Nepal
The tip-off was fresh. Some 12 hours earlier, and 100 miles west, two men had been caught trying to smuggle five full-size tiger skins and 53kg of bones hidden in rice bags across the border. And so as dawn broke across Kathmandu on the morning of 12 January 2013, a heavily armed Nepalese police unit smashed through an apartment door to lay bare a poaching den.
They found animal skins rolled up like carpets, ivory, 118 canine teeth, piles of cash in different currencies, and – perhaps oddest of all – five human skulls. The chief suspect, however, a Nepalese-Chinese middle man whose job it had been to orchestrate the trafficking of these items from the former nation to the latter, had already fled. He won’t be the last. Middle men like this in Kathmandu are all just fragments of a much larger network which the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimates is worth £12bn per year. A figure that now makes the illegal wildlife trade the fourth most lucrative criminal industry after narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeiting. The IFAW says global seizures of illegal ivory stood at 34 tonnes last year – up 50 per cent from 2011 – and as recently as May the UN warned of a sharp rise in poaching worldwide. Nepal is the country at the heart of this crisis.
When King George V visited Nepal for a hunting trip in 1911, his party killed 39 tigers alone, which, by a rough tally, would account for one-third of the country’s tiger population today. In little more than a century, thanks in large to poaching, the number of tigers in the wild has fallen from 100,000 to around just 3,200, according to the WWF. It’s staggering to imagine, but at this rate tigers could be extinct worldwide within a generation.
Having struggled to nullify poachers for so long, Nepalese authorities are now fighting fire with fire. On top of bolstering the frontline with some serious military manpower (owing to a government act passed in 2010), the country has also allowed WWF and, oddly enough, cat food brand Whiskas (who have teamed up to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2020) to provide conservationists with the means to outsmart and outgun the poachers.
Outside the national parks, the responsibility of combating poachers falls solely on the shoulders of local villagers. On a visit to Khata Corridor, a route on the southern border to India, I’m met by Bhadai Tharu, a local who commands an anti-poaching group. Quite a surprising role for a man who once lost an eye to a tiger.
Removing his shades, he’s not shy about showing off the scars. Nine years have passed since the attack – other injuries sustained meant he also needed part of a rib removed – yet he now devotes his life to protecting the creature that nearly took it.
Sunglasses back on, he introduces me to his team of more than 30 helpers who then form a circle around some foliage. Entering the ring, Tharu takes a wooden stick and rakes a pile of leaves by his feet. There’s a loud snapping sound, the crowd jump back and a bear-trap springs shut from beneath the leaves, its metal jaws buried in Tharu’s stick. Everyone counts their toes.
It’s a reminder that, these days, of course, the killing isn’t performed by well-heeled holidaying royalty. It’s committed by poor tribesmen, exploited by urban middlemen keen not to get their own hands dirty. “Poachers have to know the habitat, that’s why the gangsters who usually launder money and trade drugs decide to hire tribe people,” says Diwakar Chapagain, wildlife trade control co-coordinator for WWF Nepal. One of the biggest ethnic groups linked to poaching in Nepal is the Chepang, ancestors of Mongolians and experts in killing, according to Chapagain: “The main occupation of many of these people is tiger killing and a lot of the time they favour homemade guns.”
Arriving at a gun amnesty in the village of Telpani in the Babai Valley, I am shown 236 similar homemade rifles, fashioned out of metal pipes, glass and gunpowder. Not that a well-placed bullet is the only method of execution favoured by poachers. “They can stalk the same tiger for days,” adds Chapagain, “normally in the hope of capturing it with a trap close to its water source. They then beat it to death with sticks.”
Hoping to see some of the new hardware that could end these barbaric techniques, I travel high up in the hills to a camp where eight WWF volunteers are collecting data for a tiger census – part of the new ‘Mist’ (Monitoring Information System Technology) database. Then I’m driven to the edge of the jungle to witness the launch of drones equipped with GPS mapping and real-time video.
Sopping from the midday heat in the country’s rugged Terai Arc region, my next experience sees me on patrol with Captain Santosh Khatri and his Nepalese Army unit inside the Bardia National Park. Hacking his way through thick jungle, one hand wrapped around the trigger guard of his M16, the other gripping his machete, Khatri comes to an abrupt stop when his radio splutters. “Two poachers on a motorcycle carrying a rhino horn have just been captured in another of the parks,” he translates. Danger is never far away.
This speedy communication, the drones, the firepower; it’s all thanks to the recent increase in military presence around the national parks. With 13 different barracks spread over 374 square miles, 1,000 Nepalese soldiers are based in this park alone – a costly programme for a nation where the average annual wage is roughly £60. But then this is tiger land, and the black market demand is fierce.
“The majority of illegal wildlife trafficking goes to China,” explains Pravin Pokharel, deputy superintendent for Nepal police who formally directed the force’s wildlife unit to the tune of 36 operations and 100 arrests. “Even those gangsters in India who abuse this country will eventually try to smuggle the goods to China.”
Traditional beliefs in China afford tiger parts mystical powers, hence their continued use in herbal medicines claiming to cure everything from erectile dysfunction to cancer. These mythical perceptions aren’t showing any signs of abating, and such is the burgeoning wealth of the superpower’s upper classes, demand is exploding.
While Nepal’s recent heavy-handed attitude to poaching has seen some early success, the falling rate of animal killing is serving to fuel demand further in places such as China, which creates a different conflict entirely, one in which animal poachers are ready to aim at another target.
Back at Bardia National Park, I meet one such target, Ramesh Thapa, the acting chief warden at the park: “An old friend recently told me that gangsters had offered him 500,000 Indian rupees [£5,000] to kill me. They didn’t know we knew each other. I’ve had increasing death threats from poachers over the past two years – some who come to visit and some who call from India, telling me they’ll hurt me and my family if I don’t stop my anti-poaching work. Our house is on the Indian border so I’ve had to move my wife and child hundreds of miles away to Kathmandu.”
The battle between poachers and those who are trying to protect the endangered tigers rumbles on, and if any individual embodies the personal sacrifice of the good guy more than any other, it’s the scarred, determined Thapa: “The poachers are just waiting for the right time. If they sense a weakness, they’ll attack. We must always be alert.”
(Image of tiger: Adrian Steirn; other images: Gary Van Wyk)