June 19, 2010
It was disclosed this week that poachers killed 28 rhinos in Nepal in the last 11 months. The most recent headcount (in 2008) put the endangered species population at 435, nearly one-fifth of the entire world population still living in the wild.
Although rhino horn has no medicinal effects on humans, superstitions about rhino horn persist in East Asia, where rhino horn is unfortunately believed to be a "remedy" for various ailments, such as fever and pain, as well as an aphrodisiac. The cultural myths surrounding rhino horn are why rhinos are slaughtered illegally - and why wild rhino populations in Asia (and Africa) are at risk of extinction.
China the main market for Rhino Horn
Multiple sources from law enforcement and rhino conservation groups indicate that the "new
wealth" in China is responsible for funding international organized poaching cartels to kill rhinos. Vietnam also has a thriving illegal market in rhino horn and other endangered species products.
In addition, heavy funding (USD $130 million) of the traditional medicine industry by the Chinese government in 2007 is believed to be one of the catalysts for the current crisis. Despite being a CITES signatory, Chinese pharmaceutical companies continue to manufacture so-called "medicines" derived from illegal rhino horn.
Although Yemen was once a major player in the illegal rhino horn market, the demand has dropped sharply in recent years. Yemenis have traditionally coveted rhino horn as an ornamental dagger handle.
Nepal’s Prime Minister Meets with Experts to Reverse Slaughter
Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and Forest Minister Deepak Bohara summoned conservation officials and the chiefs of police and army on June 13, ordering them to come up with a strategy to halt the killings.
Current protective measures are as follows: The government is responsible for protecting the rhinos; the forests are declared conservation areas; security forces are tasked with guarding them. So what has gummed up the works? Increased political turmoil in Nepal has meant the security force’s sizable redeployment to urban areas.
"Stopping the poaching is a major challenge for us. There is always an increase in poaching of wildlife in the conservation area when there is political problems," said Department of Forest and Wildlife Conservation official Megh Bahadur Pandey.
"The trouble is that there are insufficient resources for the park," said Diwakar Chapagain, a wildlife protection officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Nepal who took part in Sunday's emergency meeting that was attended by police and army commanders. "It is a big area and there are not enough security personnel to cover it all. It is also very hard during the monsoon season – there is a lot of mud."
Officials said the recent rhino deaths occurred in Chitwan National Park, in the Terai district of southern Nepal. Chitwan is guarded by soldiers, who sometimes go on patrol on the backs of elephants, but, again, some have been redeployed in recent weeks amid ongoing protests in many of Nepal's cities.
Nepal’s Troubled South Pushed Police to their Limit
Unfortunately, the rhino slaughter is just the most recent example of what happens when Nepal’s security forces are spread too thinly in the southern districts. Incidents like this are a regular occurrence in Nepal's porous borderlands, systematically exploited for illicit activities. In addition to rhino poaching, the south is used to supply a thriving black market in contraband electronic goods, clothes and detergents, which is coordinated by criminal groups. On a larger scale, counterfeit Indian currency rings have also exploited the border. Allegedly run by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, such discoveries refuel Indian suspicions about Pakistani efforts to radicalize Nepal's Muslim population and transit terrorists through the Terai into India.
And then there are political groups. Ever since Nepal ended its civil war in 2006, the country has struggled to appease a rising number of identity-based political movements advocating regional, ethnic or caste concerns.
According to a recent report published by The Guardian:
An estimated 200 groups advocating Madhesi grievances now operate in the Terai alone, the vast majority of which use the 'Madhesi franchise' as a cover for extortion and murder motivated by personal vendettas rather than genuine political ambition. Institutional corruption has also prevented progress. Senior politicians from all political parties are frequently accused of using criminal or armed gangs to exert pressure in local power struggles in exchange for police protection. Outside Kathmandu, the media remains scared to report such allegations in fear of vicious reprisals.
In June 2009, the government launched the Special Security Plan (SSP), which boosted the number of deployed Armed Police Force (APF) in the Terai. Given the falling number of violent incidents in the region, the plan appeared to have had some success countering the influence of armed groups.
Yet corruption, shoddy implementation and rank public relations have hampered the plan's efficacy. Firstly, the SSP is poorly advertised and local people often have no idea why increased numbers of heavily armed policeman are patrolling their villages. Secondly, the plan was solely devised to address armed political groups, leaving the police to develop ad hoc strategies to tackle other border security problems.
Obviously, clamping down on the black market and illegal trafficking of goods over the border should be a major government objective. But that is a tall order for a constituent assembly that can’t even manage to write a constitution in two years, as mandated by the Nepali voters. All political parties in Nepal – power-drunk on party ambitions -- must shoulder some of the blame for the increased slaughter of rhinos.
And then there is China. Recent reports indicate that Chinese tourism in Nepal is rapidly on the upswing while Western tourism is languishing. Maybe there should be new tours designed specifically for Han adventure-seekers: Take them to Chitwan and show them the baby rhinos that have been butchered – an illegal travesty that their Beijing government apparently endorses.
To view an 8-minute documentary on rhino poaching in Nepal CLICK HERE