Illegal Red Panda Trade in Nepal Despite No Clear Market
As warm autumn weather set in and the annual Dashain festival season’s hustle and bustle took over Kathmandu’s markets last October, a tip-off helped a team from Nepal Police arrest two persons from Jadibuti in Kathmandu who had with them two sets of endangered Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) skins. The arrestees, Narendra Lal Shrestha and Aryan Shrestha, were in their early 20s and from a remote village in neighbouring Sindupalchok district. The two were found with the wildlife contraband in a rented room in Jadibuti.
During the investigation, Narendra told police that he committed the crime after reading in newspapers that Red Panda skin was being sold in the market for as much as Rs. 200,000 (approximately USD 2,000) in Kathmandu.
“Red Pandas used to come near my house. So I set up a trap and one red panda was easily caught in it,” he told the police during his interrogation.
Pravin Pokharel, Chief of CIB Wildlife Crime Unit
They killed the Red Pandas and brought their skins to Kathmandu after reading news of its cash value here. But we discovered they actually did not have any idea about its trade link.
According to Birendra Johari, Sub-Inspector with the Wildlife Crime Unit at the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of the Nepal Police, the duo appeared to not have had a clear plan of action in the three months prior to their arrest.
“If they had known who the buyers were, they would not have roamed the city for three months with the skins, looking for a trader in the city,” he told Onward Nepal.
This case serves as an important example of an underlying trend in Nepal. Between 2013 and March 2017, police have arrested 70 people and confiscated 52 Red Panda skins in Kathmandu valley alone.
‘Negative awareness’ about the monetary value of the animal’s skin trade mentioned in the media, or spoken about in one’s social circle, is attracting locals to poach Red Panda for their skin in Nepal, the CIB said. “They are chasing rumours,” a police official told us.
Red Panda Trade Link Still Unknown
On Tuesday, Onward Nepal broke the news with an exclusive story of Ian Baker’s detention in Greece on Nepal government’s wildlife crime charges against him. Part of the wildlife products that Nepal Police confiscated from Baker’s residence in Nepal in May 2008 included at least two Red Panda pelts along with tiger skin rugs and other wildlife parts. The high profile case that began 9 years ago remains highly contested.
Unlike the endangered Tiger and Rhino with a well-known illegal wildlife trade network, every incident involving the Red Panda is still a mystery to police personnel like Johari, who have been directly involved in seizures of nearly 10 Red Panda skins within the last two years.
“Almost everyone arrested in Red Panda parts trade are clueless about where or with whom their skins end up, or what purpose the skin is sought after for,” Johari explained to Onward Nepal. “We are yet to find the trade route, link to its demand in the market, and the big traders involved in it.”
Indeed, both national and international investigations have identified how Tiger and Rhino parts are smuggled by networks from Nepal to China, and used for various purposes. However, there is no known link for Red Panda skin trade identified so far.
The first recorded case of Red Panda skin seizure in Kathmandu was on July 15, 2010. The ‘unknown’ trade link for the panda came to light only after the growing number of seizures over recent years. Last year alone, 21 skins were seized and 32 people arrested in different parts of Kathmandu Valley.
Red Pandas Face Other Threats
Increased poaching is not the only deadly threat that the Red Panda faces in Nepal. Fragmentation of their habitats due to increased anthropogenic activities like livestock grazing, fodder collection, commercial logging of timber, and excessive extraction of bamboo is a real crisis for the species.
A research conducted in Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, the country’s only hunting reserve in Nepal and a major Red Panda habitat, found that the panda’s presence was positively associated with bamboo grass. The grass accounts for more than 80 percent of their diet.
“The key conclusion of our paper is that although livestock grazing and bamboo collection are small-scale subsistence activities in the temperate forests of mid-hill Nepal, they can have severe negative impacts on the distribution pattern of the globally endangered Red Panda, if not regulated well,” said Gopal Khanal, one of the authors of the article published in PLOS ONE journal on July 14, 2017.
Red Panda, locally known as Habre is an extremely elusive arboreal mammal found at an altitude of 2500 to 4000 metres above sea level. The panda is spread across 36 mid-hill and mountainous districts in Nepal. An estimated 10,000 mature Red Pandas are believed to be roaming in the wild in China, India, Bhutan and Myanmar. Nepal is home to around 200 Red Pandas.
Damber Bista, Conservation Manager with the Red Panda Network, agrees with CIB’s statement that negative awareness is fuelling the panda’s poaching in remote villages.
“Illegal wildlife trade is run in a hierarchy model linking various levels of people involved in poaching, transporting, and selling in the market. The majority of the people arrested with Red Panda skin are those from villages without knowledge of any trade link or market,” Bista told Onward Nepal.
We found mention of Red Panda skins being used as good luck charms, and also tail hats by brides and grooms in marriages in Sichuan and Yunan provinces in China, Bista added.
When Red Panda Network followed up with TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring network, about this last year, it was found that the use of Red Panda skins had not been reported in China for the past 7-8 years.
In Nepal, except for the occasional use of hides by shamans for religious purposes, no other use has been found for Red Panda skin.
“We are surprised by the increased seizure of Red Panda skins in the absence of any known alternate market for its use,” Bista shared.