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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

'Safe passage' for wildlife traffickers

May 24, 2008

By Navin Singh Khadka
BBC Nepali Service
May 21, 2008

For many years, Nepal has been widely regarded as a conservation success.

But now it is emerging as an international transit point for illegal
wildlife goods, particularly those being moved between India and China.

Sandwiched between the two Asian giants, Nepal has devoted nearly 20%
of its land to national parks and protected areas that have conserved
endangered animal and plant species.

But outside such preserved areas, highways and mountain trails are
increasingly becoming transit routes for wildlife traffickers,
conservationists and officials say.
 From the people involved in trafficking we have come to know that
such products are often sent to Bangkok, Hong Kong and China -- Dhan
Bahadur Thapa

"The amount of wildlife goods seized in the recent past really tells
us that Nepal is indeed a transit point," says Prasanna Yonjan of
Wildlife Conservation Nepal, an organisation that has helped
authorities catch many traffickers and poachers.

"We know Nepal is a conduit for the international market,
particularly the Orient. Most of the goods seized here are not
products from Nepal but from down south, particularly India,
Bangladesh and perhaps also from Bhutan."

The superintendent of police, Devendra Subedi, who heads the crime
branch in the capital, Kathmandu, says illegal wildlife trafficking
has become a part of organised crime.

"There are several layers involved, and the people in it are found to
be [involved] in other crimes like drug trafficking as well," he explains.

So much so that even the country's forest minister Matrika Prasad
Yadav is well aware of the happenings. A former Maoist rebel leader,
he even went on to say that several government agencies are involved
in the trafficking network.

"One example is the smuggling of red sandalwood that comes in from
India and is smuggled out to China," he said in an interview for the
BBC's One Planet programme.

"I have documentary proof that even my own ministry, before I took
over, allowed such smuggling by calling the red sandalwood 'common wood'.

"Later when my ministry, and the finance and home ministries, opened
checkpoints on highways, my staff were harrassed and threatened by
the people of the other two ministries.

"When tonnes and tonnes of red sandalwood can be smuggled in and out,
you can imagine what could be happening with things much smaller in size."

But others point out that, as a former Maoist rebel, the minister has
a track record of tough talk about other political parties.

GOODS SEIZURES

Material that is much smaller in size, such as rhino horns, elephant
tusks, and skin and bone from tigers and leopards, has been seized by
authorities at different locations around the country, suggesting
that they are indeed smuggled in and out.

In southern Nepal, just outside Chitwan National Park which has
conserved endangered species like tigers and rhinos, is a government
storage facility used for such seizures.

Hundreds of tiger and leopard pelts, their bones and claws, nearly 60
pairs of elephant tusks, more than 100 rhino horns and 50 sacks of
shatoosh - the wool of the endangered Tibetan chiru antelope - are stored here.

Big cats have been poached for their pelt and bones

The chief of the storage depot, Dhan Bahadur Thapa, said that every
month at least three such products are seized from different places
in the country.

"From the people involved in trafficking, we have come to know that
such products are often sent to Bangkok, Hong Kong and China with the
help of international smugglers," he said.

In most cases, the illegal wildlife goods were seized by chance, as
there is no particular crackdown operation on traffickers.

One such seizure took place in Langtang to the north of Kathmandu in
2005. By pure chance, an army patrolling team came across nearly 240
leopard and tiger pelts being transported to Tibet.

Bhim KC, an official in the country's wildlife department,
investigated the case and found that four of the five persons
involved were Nepalese and one Tibetan.

"The Tibetan said he was only a porter carrying those illegal goods
for another Tibetan who, he said, was an influential businessman in
Tibet and Nepal," the government official explained.

Nepalgunj, a town in western Nepal bordering India, has been
blacklisted by conservationists as one of the hotbeds of
international smugglers.

The more than 1,800km-long border between Nepal and India is open,
and Nepalese and Indians do not need passports to cross.

Regular patrol

The district police office in Nepalgunj arrested five people on
charges of trafficking tiger and leopard skins and bones in the last
five years.

"These people were arrested from areas where we have our regular
patrolling," said deputy superintendent of police Ram Govinda Pariyar.

"But, unfortunately, the border between Nepal and India is open and
smugglers can come in from anywhere."

Wildlife officials have noticed that traffickers are indeed taking
undue advantage of the open border.

"With the help of our informers, we have repeatedly confirmed that
Nepalgunj is the trading centre of illegal wildlife, and this place
also sees tiger bones from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh of India,"
said Ramesh Thapa, the assistant warden of Bardiya National Park
which is near the border.

Ropes and pulleys are used to smuggle goods across the border

Conservationists say poaching has completely wiped out tigers in
Siraska National Park in the Indian state of Rajasthan. A recent
study showed that the total tiger population in India has declined
from about 3,000 a few years ago to about 1,500 today.

A joint report from the UK's Environment Investigation Agency and the
Wildlife Protection Society of India found that all tiger and most
leopard skins reached Tibet and other Chinese provinces from India via Nepal.

"Most traders in Tibet, and Linxia and Gansu provinces, claimed to
have connections in India and Nepal," stated the report of an
investigation carried out between 2004 and 2006.

Conservationists and wildlife officials say illegal wildlife goods
arriving from India were previously transported to trans-Himalayan
regions such as Dolpa and Mugu before being smuggled out to Tibet
through mountain trails.

Today, they say the regular route used by smugglers is the highway
which ends in Kathmandu. From there, the goods are transported to Tibet.

"This route is much more convenient, because you can drive with the
consignments all the way to the Nepal-China border," says Mr Thapa.

To find out how such illegal goods could be smuggled out through the
regulated border, I travelled the Arniko highway that links Kathmandu
with Tibet.

During the entire journey of nearly 100km, there was just one
checkpoint. Police officials there said traffickers often used
unregulated mountain trails to smuggle such prohibited goods across the border.

ROPES AND PULLEYS

At the border point, known as Tatopani, customs and police officials
refused to make any official comment.

But, requesting anonymity, some customs field staff told the BBC that
at night, smugglers fix ropes at both sides of a rivulet that
separates the Nepal-Tibet border. Then, with the help of a pulley,
they smuggle items in and out.

WWF-Nepal's office in Kathmandu said it too had learnt about the rope
and pulley idea.

"We have been trying to [raise] all these things with the Chinese
side, but it has not been an easy experience trying to work
together," said WWF official Diwakar Chapagain.

Just outside the Tatopani customs office, I saw for myself two
impounded trucks with illegal cargoes of red sandalwood.

The vehicles had double-sided number plates. One side had a Chinese
diplomatic number while the other carried a Nepalese registration.

The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu did not respond to a request for an interview.

Nepal's forest minister Matrika Prasad Yadav, whose Communist Party
of Nepal (Maoist) has just won a major election, said his party will
take action once it reaches office.

"If we come to power, all those who have been arrested as wildlife
traders but who are actually only porters and the lowest strata in
this trade will be released, and the real traders in the upper
echelon will be arrested," he told the BBC before the polls.

There are allegations from conservation groups that the Maoists used
illegal wildlife products to fund the insurgency, an allegation the
former rebels reject.

The Maoists might like to take action against wildlife traffickers,
but political and economic issues are likely to be more pressing
factors as they try to lead a new coalition government.

You can listen to One Planet, or download it as a podcast, by
visiting the BBC World Service's One Planet website. This edition
should be available from approximately noon GMT Thursday
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