Exclusive: Elephant Ivory, Gun Seized From Poachers In Undercover Operation
In a major sting operation, Nepali authorities seized nearly 13 kilograms of ivory from a group of poachers in Tintapke in Makwanpur district, Thursday night, August 17. An undercover team of police from the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) in coordination with the local police administration confiscated two elephant tusks along with a loaded 9mm calibre gun from the site located between Padampokhari and Bastipur of the district, less than 89 km away from Kathmandu. The remote village is about a two hour walk from the highway, and in the immediate vicinity of Parsa Wildlife Reserve and Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and Valmiki National Park in India.
A Fist Fight In The Night
In the quiet of the village night, the tense setup was in play. While all the details are yet to emerge, what we know so far is that the group of four poachers had arrived for a meeting with two potential buyers, who were actually undercover agents tracking down illegal wildlife trade. The meeting was an outcome of several months of work. The poachers, hoping to make the sale and entice their buyers to ask for more, had brought with them a large set of tusks. During the meeting, the poachers even boasted they were tracking a sick elephant in Nepal and could poach it if more ivory was needed.
Sometime after 9:15PM, things took a wrong turn and the meeting broke out into a fist fight between the two parties. The poachers had most likely realised it was a sting operation. At one point, each side drew a gun against the other, though no shots were reported to have been fired. The officers at the scene were outnumbered, so the poachers managed to escape.
“Two of the four members of the poacher group have been identified as locals from Padampokhari,” Meera Chaudhary, spokesperson for CIB, told Onward Nepal. “Two others remain unidentified and currently, all four remain at large.”
The local police administration told Onward Nepal it was investigating, and planned to release its statement about the incident soon.
“We have been in touch with this network, as part of our sting operation for over three months,” said a member of the investigation team who has requested for anonymity. The poachers taking advantage of the recent floods in the country, when the majority of security personnel are diverted to post-disaster response and relief operation, may have decided to actively trade their products, the police suspect. Sub-Inspector Birendra Johari, led the investigation team from CIB.
Nepali Elephants Poached?
Earlier this year, Onward Nepal extensively reported on how poachers used the cover of a stormy night in Chitwan National Park to shoot down a rhino and make off with its horn. It was a grim end to Nepal’s otherwise celebrated ‘Zero Rhino Poaching’ years.
If the elephant tusks recovered from the operation last night are proven to be Nepali, it would be a major blow to the country’s conservation efforts. This raises serious questions about the scale of poaching that may be going on in Nepal, a country has in recent years, enjoyed international limelight as a wildlife conservation success story.
According to Sub-Inspector Johari, and as evinced by the photograph of the scene from last night, the seized ivories look fresh.
In The Elephant Migratory Route:
Padampokhari, of which two of the poachers are residents, is a buffer zone of Parsa Wildlife Reserve. It is a part of the traditional migratory route taken by elephants that travel between India and Nepal.
Hari Bhadra Acharya, Chief Conservation Officer, told Onward Nepal that there have been no reports of elephant poaching in the Reserve. The only death in the area was that of an elephant calf that died naturally in 2016.
Global Transit Hub
Nepal has long been a global transit hub for smuggling. In the last decade, its role as a wildlife trading hotspot has been noted nationally as well as internationally. To understand Nepal’s role as an international trafficking hub, one only needs to look at the consistency of smuggling crimes that take place in the country’s capital itself.
“While Nepal itself has become a transit hub for international smuggling rings, Kathmandu’s role as a transit point has also become active,” Gagan Thapa, a Member of Parliament representing Kathmandu -4 had written in his election manifesto in 2013. “We have seen this in the smuggling of Red Sandalwood to Red Panda. Proliferating smuggling syndicates also has direct national and financial security implications for us.”
As undercover agents in Makwanpur were working to meet the poachers in Tintapke; CIB officers in Kathmandu were working on a separate case that led to the arrest of wildlife parts traders with 1.1 kg pangolin scales.
Last month, Onward Nepal reported how Kathmandu has also become a hub for Red Panda skin trade.
The Secretariat of South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) was established in Nepal mainly due to regional sensitivities and Nepal’s role in the international smuggling of wildlife parts.
Growing Local Demand:
Traditionally, wildlife parts exiting Nepal are largely understood to be simply transiting from India to China. But a resurgent demand for Elephant parts in India is threatening the pachyderms in South Asia.
“The current poaching hotspots are similar to what they were about two decades ago, in the elephant habitats of the Western Ghats, spanning the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as in Orissa and Assam. There is clear evidence of increase in poaching of elephants in the last few years,” Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj, the Head of TRAFFIC India, had said in March 2016.
“At least four major raids had been conducted in the past 6-8 months in several states, including Maharashtra and Kerala, which yielded about 13 kg of the contraband,” journalist Rishab Banerji had written in the India Times, last August. At the time, the article reported, the Indian Ministry for Environment and Forests had confirmed the poaching of 85 elephants for ivory between 2013 and 2016 in India.
Last year, Nepal Police had arrested an Indian wildlife parts trader in Nepal with 800 pieces of elephant tail in Hetauda. This is the capital of Makwanpur district where last night’s incident also took place.
There are other kinds of local demands being created that further threaten elephants in Asia. A new elephant poaching crisis has emerged in Myanmar as demand for elephant “skin cure fad” grows. According to WWF, over 100 elephants have been killed for their skin since 2013 and the demand continues to increase.
Wildlife Parts Burnt, Except Ivory
On 22nd May 2017, coinciding with International Biodiversity Day, Nepal burnt its second stockpile of wildlife parts. This took place at the headquarter of the Chitwan National Park in Kasara. The first stockpile was torched 20 years ago.
More than 4,800 wildlife parts were set on fire on Monday. The parts belonged to 48 species of wildlife. However, seized elephant ivory products were not part of the inventory that was burnt.
Diwakar Chapagain, Wildlife Trade Expert
This seizure should sound the alarm about poacher networks being active in the country, and that elephant trade must be taken seriously by concerned authorities.
An Alarming Case
The Tintapke seizure could be the largest ivory haul in the country in recent history, experts say. Unlike Tiger and Rhinos, where Nepal’s role as a transit hub has been well established, there has been no known record of elephant poaching and its trade in Nepal.
As per data compiled by the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), there have only been seven seizures of elephant parts in Nepal between 1989 and 2010. Those seven seizures spread over two decades were of elephant tail hairs, tusk, and bones.
It is still unclear if the tusks belonged to elephants poached in Nepal or were brought in from India. According to Krishna Acharya, Director General at the Department of Forests, the tusks may either have belonged to dead/poached elephants in Nepal, stored stock, or to elephants poached in India.
It is estimated that there are currently more than 200 wild elephants in Nepal.