In the foothills of the Himalayas, a war is being waged. Soldiers armed with M16 assault rifles patrol the grasslands and forests while surveillance drones buzz overhead. Yet their fight is not against another army, it is to save the tiger from extinction and the enemy is the poacher.
The Observer accompanied a group of soldiers and rangers on a search mission along the Karnali River in Nepal’s Bardia National Park. Crocodiles lolled in the shallows, while the screeches of monkeys and birds punctuated the heavy, still air. The pugmarks — pawprints — of an adult tiger were visible in the mud on the bank. A poacher staking out this spot for a couple of days would have a chance of catching one of the cats, as they often return to familiar watering holes.
It is estimated there are 3,200 tigers left worldwide — 95 percent less than a century ago — and the booming wildlife trade is the biggest threat to their survival. Increasing affluence in Asia has caused prices for skins and the body parts used in traditional Chinese medicines to soar.
International gangs pay Nepalese handsomely to kill tigers and rhinoceroses. The skin and bones are handed to middlemen who pass easily through the porous border to India, where the major dealers are based. For many in a country where the average income is 150 Nepalese rupees (US$1.60) a day, rewards of about US$7,600 per skin and US$2,600 per kilogram of bones outweigh the risks of being caught and jailed for up to 15 years.
Poachers kill tigers either with homemade guns fashioned from wood and piping, which fire bullets of crushed glass and gunpowder, or by laying down poisoned bait.
“It is hard to know if a tiger has been poached, because nothing is left behind. Each part of the animal has a sale value — eyeballs for drinks, the penis for soup to boost virility, its teeth for jewelry and its bones for good luck charms. Stuffed tiger cubs and rugs made from skins are also seen as status symbols,” said Diwakar Chapagain, the WWF Nepal’s coordinator for wildlife trade monitoring.
Anti-poaching work has its dangers. Ramesh Thapa, assistant warden at Bardia, has been targeted.
“I got phone calls with death threats and then a middleman came to warn me that a hitman had been hired to kill me — the man knew me so he told me. I moved my wife and daughter from a village to Kathmandu because I was so worried. I live in the park and go everywhere in a group now,” he said.
The Nepalese police’s criminal investigation bureau established a wildlife unit only two years ago. Superintendent Pravin Pokharel, 38, led the 11-strong unit responsible for activity outside the nine vast national parks until August last year. He believes that 15 percent to 20 percent of Nepalese wildlife crime is detected.
“We have informants who tell us someone is dealing tiger skin or rhino horn. We go undercover as buyers and get evidence using spy recorders and video and we go through phone records. One year ago a dealer tried to sell an undercover officer a jute bag of bones from a whole tiger,” he said.
“During my time we arrested 100 people, mostly small-time dealers. The big dealers are based in India. They use local tribespeople to kill to order,” he said, adding that most of the plunder goes to China.
“The price is increasing all the time. Two days ago, two people with one rhino horn were asking 6 million Nepalese rupees in Chitwan. That would fetch 8 million rupees in Kathmandu and that would be multiplied in China,” he added.