Sunday, August 6, 2017

Time in prison...

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Since last July, many people have called me to enquire where I have been. Upon listening to my response, many have been horrified and flooded me with rapid fire questions: What happened? How did it happen? When will you be free? What’s the actual story?
In fact, my answer to their question has been quite surprising, and anyone would panic after hearing it: I have been spending a lot of time in prison.

More precisely, I have been visiting prisons around Nepal, meeting with people who have been arrested for participating in illegal wildlife trade (IWT). My research, in collaboration with Jacob Phelps and Gary Potter at Lancaster University, aims to understand trends in IWT arrests, and the motives behind people’s participation in illegal trade.


To date, I have interviewed 116 prisoners across 7 different prisons throughout Nepal.  Nepal has been increasingly assertive in enforcing its wildlife laws, particularly focusing the conservation of charismatic species such as tigers and rhinoceros. Some evidence suggests that it is also succeeding, celebrate zero poaching of rhinos in Chitwan National Park since 2011. And, now enforcement focus is expanding to tigers and elephants too. All these efforts, however, have also resulted in growing prison population of people arrested for their involvement in IWT.

This took me across Nepal, to prisons with the largest populations of IWT prisoners, chosen based on the existing arrest records, and in consultation with Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), and Department of Prison Management (DPM).

Conducting research in prison is itself a challenge. It was not easy to convince DNPWC and DPM to give consent to conduct this research. In fact, it took several of visits, follow-ups and clarifications to each level of officers. After the permission from central level was granted, we also needed approval from the Jailer of each prison. In most of the cases, the jailers were not ready to allow us in prison, as they were not convinced that research could be done in a prison setting. At last, overcoming all these complications finally we made into the prison to start our work. This was in addition to all of the research ethics reviews we conducted via Lancaster University.

Prisons and prisoners weren't new to me, as I had already visited some of them during my MSc thesis and other research. But, this time, I interviewed prisoners for hours, which I never one before. I was excited and nervous too because my first challenge was to win their trust. I had to explain the project, gain their consent, and make them feel comfortable talking with me about their involvement in IWT activities and their journey, from their personal life to jail.

The interviews focused on collecting information about the wildlife harvesters and traders’ background, socioeconomic status, peer group, knowledge of regulations, and motives for participating in trade. Also, we explored the impacts of those activities, and resulting prison sentences, on their family life and livelihoods. Furthermore, we tried to understand the association between their roles and motivations, species traded in last five years, and current offence, including the source, route as well as the destination of the wildlife parts.

Initially, I thought that many prisoners will not be ready to talk with me and that even if they did talk, that they would not reveal their real stories. So, I started with very informal chats with the respondents, like talking about my upbringing, education, and the motive behind this research; along with explaining our structured Participant Information Sheet that formed part of our ethics protocol. The approach really worked, and I listened to many hours of interesting stories, many depicting a bitter, real picture of their participation in IWT, arrest and life in prison.

It will take some time to come up with the final results, but some of our initial findings have already surprised us, and we have had to reject some of our initial hypotheses about roles, motives and relationships within IWT.  We are currently working on data analysis, with hopes that our results will help make for more effective and equitable enforcement-based responses to IWT.

(I have written this blog after spending a year interviewing IWT prisoners in Nepal and it was originally published in Tropical Environmental Change and Policy Lab)

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Announcement: The Nepal Interdisciplinary Conservation Research Support Programme

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Call for expressions of interest:
The Nepal Interdisciplinary Conservation Research Support Programme

Nepal is a least-developed country that hosts some of the world's most charismatic endangered species. Nepal is also making remarkable progress in conservation, including through the efforts of a growing community of early-career researchers.  In particular, there is new interest in social and interdisciplinary science approaches to addressing complex socio-ecological conservation challenges on-the-ground. However, many researchers struggle to adopt these approaches due, in part, to a lack of familiarity and experience with related methods, design, cross-disciplinary work and, significantly, difficulties in bridging the academe-practice gap.  Moreover, many early-career researchers struggle to envision viable careers in the conservation, particularly because relevant in-country support and opportunities for international travel and study remain limited.

In response, youth-led conservation group, Greenhood Nepal, in collaboration with the Tropical Environmental Change and Policy Lab at Lancaster Environment Centre, is launching a new program to support early-career Nepalese conservation researchers, including advanced Bachelors students, post-graduate students and young professionals. It connects emerging conservationists with the domestic and international support they need to design robust research projects that help deliver conservation outcomes and further their professional goals.  It recognizes that strong support networks and quality mentorship are critical to building meaningful careers, increasing retention rates in conservation, and strengthening conservation research and practice. 

The Support Programme also creates new opportunities for international researchers interested in conservation in Nepal with potential to expand to the wider geographic region.  The purpose of the collaboration is to provide resources for international post-graduate study or formal collaboration, and informal exchange of ideas and opportunities.  We hope this will enhance collaborative, mutually-beneficial research and field-work, joint proposals, international travel and policy engagement.   The Support Programme seeks to emulate versions of that experience for other researchers in Nepal and internationally.

Domestic conservation research platform
A Kathmandu-based platform will enable peer-to-peer support among early-career interdisciplinary conservation researchers in Nepal.  It provides opportunities to share information and experiences related to research projects, policy engagement, funding, scholarships, etc., via activities such as:
·       Journal reading club and “lab meetings” to serve as an opportunity for critical discussions and networking;
·       Talks by peers, to share information, and practise giving and receiving feedback on presentations;
·       Information-sharing via the Greenhood Nepal website, and
·       Invited speaker series featuring national and international conservation researchers.
·       Joint exploration for new funding schemes and scholarship opportunities
International mentor scheme
Early-career researchers will have opportunities to pair with international experts who can provide academic and professional guidance through long-term, meaningful, exchanges.  This is likely to include support on issues such as research design, grant writing, project planning, data analysis, manuscript preparation, policy engagement, networking opportunities, international networking, etc. 

Matching among the participants will be facilitated by the initiative, but is subject to the needs, time and interest of the individuals, with no predetermined expectations.  The frequency of the meetings is to be agreed upon by the participants and subject to individual needs, but relationships should be “active”. Participants will discuss how best they can work together, and should have sufficient time and interest to engage regularly, whether in-person, via web chats, or email.  Mentoring relationships can last for as long as the pair wishes, continuing even after original goals are met, with an aim to creating long-term networks, mutually productive collaborations and professional associations.

How to participate
Early career conservationists in Nepal should be passionate about developing new research in the social/interdisciplinary environmental sciences that addresses a current conservation problem. There are no age restrictions to participation, but members should be up committed to active membership, including participation in meetings and reading groups, for at least 1 year.  They should have field experience in conservation research, and most will hold a Bachelors, Masters or Ph.D. qualification in natural or social science. The group is coordinated by Kumar Paudel via Greenhood Nepal (kmrpdl@gmail.com). Please send a resume, reference letter from a recent supervisor, and a letter of motivation that includes a brief statement about your research interests and the social/interdisciplinary environmental challenge you are working to address.
Deadline for inaugural group: Monday, 28 August, 2017.

International mentors can come from any country or institution, and have experience in applied conservation research in interdisciplinary/social social sciences, usually with a Masters or Ph.D. qualification.  It provides an exciting opportunity to support junior colleagues in Nepal, develop new networks, engage domestic policy, and access to field sites and in-country experts. Mentors are coordinated by Jacob Phelps via the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University (jacob.phelps@gmail.com). Prospective mentors should send an expression of interest, including a few sentences about your experience and interests (e.g., methods, countries, taxa, specific conservation challenges, etc.), availability, and any details about the type of mentorship relationship you would like to develop.



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Friday, February 17, 2017

On the brink

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As we approach the World Pangolin Day on February 18th, I recall a recent visit to a village called Namdu, which lies 30 km east of Charikot, Dolakha on the way to Jiri. The village is home to the Baiteshwor Higher Secondary School. It is surrounded by 30-40 scattered houses on the left of Lamosanghu-Jiri road.

On our visit to the place we showed a picture of a wild animal to students of that school and asked if they have ever seen such species. Some of us may not have seen it for real, but not those students. The students were familiar with the small mammal because they have seen it in their villages. Interestingly, they also knew how it behaves.

Namdu was the fourth village we went searching for the species. But not a single one could be located. But just an hour was enough for us to collect rich information about the species in Namdu.

It was the end of June, just a few days after the monsoon started The foot trails were slippery. Excited by the response of those students, we didn’t stop to explore the forest and farms around the village. Hundreds of burrows and other signs were discovered. Sadly, none were recent ones. In fact, burrows are the most reliable signs that indicate those species live somewhere nearby. On our three-day stay, not a single fresh burrow or any other signs of the species students of Baiteshwor Higher Secondary School were familiar with was found. 

The animal and signs we were searching for related to none other than world’s most trafficked mammal, pangolin. And we were there for a national survey and to monitor the trade of that critically endangered species.

The scaly ant-eater is the most trafficked mammal in the world according to some estimates. Its hard scales, meat and even blood are highly priced in Nepal, China and other south East Asian countries. Pangolin is also believed to have a mythical medicinal value. Namdu is also haunted by the same myth-led market demand.

Namdu is only one of hundreds of villages in Nepal which hosts pangolins. People are aware that pangolin is a protected species in Nepal and its trade is a punishable crime.But, interestingly, no one has been arrested by enforcement agencies in the region for poaching and trading pangolin and its body parts.

Despite knowing that pangolin is a protected species, local people were actively involved in its harvest and trade. We were also told that, a few years ago, Namdu was regularly visited by middle-men who would stay for days to collect pangolins. This only stopped when not a single pangolin was left in the village. 

When pangolin senses any danger, it rolls and covers itself with its scales so that even dangerous wild animals can do no harm. Still, they could not save themselves from greedy humans.

This indicates that it’s not only a limited public conservation concern; it’s all about incentives. Pangolins are ant-eaters. So they have their own ecological value for obvious reason. IUCN red-list and CITES Appendix has no meaning to the villagers. They are only concerned about what they gain if they conserve pangolins. We do not have convincing answers to the communities neither does the government or any conservation agency.

Two species of pangolins—critically endangered Chinese pangolin and endangered Indian pangolin—are found in Nepal. Both species are protected in Nepal and upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES in 2016. However, they are facing severe threats due to poaching, increased trade and habitat destructions.

Nepal is making excellent progress in curbing poaching of flag species inside Chitwan National Park and has been celebrating many zero poaching years for rhinos. At the same time many villages are approaching zero pangolin. The national survey shows 43 districts are homes to pangolins and mostly outside protected areas. This was the first survey in Nepal and pangolins are declining in all districts. 

Conservation is not only about rhinos and tigers inside protected areas. Large numbers of little known endangered species are found in national and community forests, which do not come under protected areas. These areas are mostly human dominated landscapes where traditional conservation concept does not work. We may have been experts in formulating policies and mobilizing military to conserve wildlife in protected areas. So conservation of endangered species outside protected areas is a mounting challenge which may not be easy to deal with. The only way is to involving local community; however this itself is another perplexing part.

Namdu is only a representative village. Pangolins are disappearing from most places in Nepal. If this continues pangolins will be extinct from Nepal within our time. We are not only losing a critically endangered species but also hope for generations to come.


(I wrote this op-ed after my research trip to Dolakha and It was originally published in Republica Daily)


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Sunday, September 25, 2016

पहुँचवालका पञ्जा

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बन्यजन्तु अपराध र संलग्न व्यक्ती सम्बन्धी अध्ययनको क्रममा २ वर्षअघि सिन्धुपाल्चोकको चौतारा कारागारमा साढे सात बर्षे जेल जीवन बिताइरहेका एक कैदीलाई भेटेको थिएं । उनी बाघको नङ्ग्रा सहित पक्राउ भएर सजाय काटिरहेका थिए ।

साउनको अन्तिम हप्ता पूर्व प्रधानमन्त्री किर्तिनिधि विष्टको अन्तर्वार्ता कान्तिपुर टिभीको ‘सुमनसँग’ कार्यक्रममा हेर्ने मौका पाएँ । विष्टको जीवन, इतिहास, सत्ता, शासन अनुभवदेखि नीति–नियमका फेहरिस्त सुनियो । त्यसमा मेरो भन्नु केही छैन । तर अन्तरवार्तामा बैठक कक्षको पृष्ठभूमिमा सिङ्गो बाघको शरीर झुन्डिरहेको थियो ।

न त अन्र्तवार्ताकारले त्यसको हेक्का गरे न त विष्ठले नै त्यसरी राख्न हुने/नहुनेबारे सोचे । सोचुन पनि किन, भुतपुर्व नै भए पनि उनीहरु एउटा शासकको घरमा थिए ।

मैले भने दुई बर्षअघि चौतारा कारागारमा भेटेको ती कैदीलाई सम्झिरहें । अपराध ठूलो सानो हुँदैन र अपराधका भागिदार ती कैदी त थिए नै । तर कानुन ठूला–साना सबैका लागि समान हुन्छ भन्ने हाम्रो साधारण बुझाईमाथि प्रहार भने थियो त्यो ।
अन्तरवार्ताकारले आफ्नो ट्वीटरमा उक्त अन्र्तवार्ताको तस्बिर पोष्ट गरेर कार्यक्रम हेर्न अनुरोध गरेका थिए । यसले सामाजिक सञ्जालमा उक्त तस्बिरबारे टिप्पणी शुरु भयो । संरक्षणकर्मीहरुले उक्त तस्बिरमा स्पष्ट देखिने आखेटोपहार संरक्षित तथा दुर्लव वन्यजन्तु बाघको रहेकोे ठहर गरे । यसले मलाई पनि कानुन केलाउन बाध्य बनायो । उक्त तस्विर र कार्यक्रमले गलत सन्देश दिने भएकाले टेलिभिजन कार्यक्रम तत्काल रोकी अनुसन्धान अगाडी बढाउन नेपाल प्रहरी समक्ष उजुरी गरें ।

सामाजिक सञ्जालमा आएको प्रश्नहरुको जवाफमा भदौ ५ गते हेलो सरकारले यस्तो आखेटोपहारको संरक्षणका लागि संस्कृती मन्त्रालयलाई पत्र लेखिसकेको बतायो । वन्यजन्तु अपराधको मुद्दा कुन विभाग वा मन्त्रालय अन्तर्गत र्पछ भन्ने साधारण जानकारीसम्म हेलो सरकारका पदाधिकारीले लगाउन सकेनन् । जसले हावादारीकै भरमा प्रधानमन्त्री कार्यालयको यो निकाय पनि चलेको छ भन्ने स्पष्ट देखाउँछ । साथै दुर्लव वन्यजन्तु संरक्षण सम्बन्धी ऐन र नियमबारे सरकारका जिम्मेवार अधिकारी नै सचेत नरहेको अवस्थामा साधारण नागरिकसँग जिम्मेवारीको आशा कसरी गर्ने ?

पुनः ६, भदौमा हेलो सरकारले सच्चाउँदै पत्र नं. ३८२७२ मार्फत वन मन्त्रालयलाई पत्र लेखिएको जानकारी उसको ट्विटरमार्फत दियो । तर महिनादिन बितिसक्दा समेत कुनै कारवाही अगाडि बढेको छैन ।

वन्यजन्तु धावाका चक्र

पहिलेपहिले राजखलक र उनका भारदार हरुले मनोरञ्जनको लागी निष्फिक्री विभिन्न वन्यजन्तुहरुको शिकारमा जान्थे । १९०३ सालमा राणाहरुले हालको चितवन राष्ट्रिय निकुञ्ज रहेको क्षेत्रलाई शिकार क्षेत्रको रुपमा नै घोषणा गरेका थिए । वि।सं। १९६७।६८ ताका बेलायती राजा जर्ज पाँचौं लगायतले सयौं बाघ र गैंडा मारे । राष्ट्रिय निकुञ्ज तथा वन्यजन्तु संरक्षण ऐन २०२९ लागु नहुँदासम्म महेन्द्र मृग कुञ्जको नाममा वन्यजन्तुहरुको शिकार र आखेटोपहार संकलन यथावत थियो । शिकारबाट ल्याइएका आखेटोपहार बहादुरी प्रर्दशन गर्न उनीहरुले घर र कार्यकक्षमा सजाएर राखिन्थे । राजदरबारभित्रै शिकार अड्डा थियो जसले शिकार अनुमती, वन्यजन्तुका आखेटोपहारहरु राख्ने र अरुलाई उपहार दिनेजस्ता काम गथ्र्यो ।

अहिले विभिन्न व्यक्तिका घरमा रहेका संरक्षित वन्यजन्तुहरुको आखेटोपहार कि त ती समयमा संकलन गरिएका वा चोरी शिकार तथा अबैध किनबेच गरी राखिएका हुन् ।

जेसुकै होस्, राष्ट्रिय निकुञ्ज तथा वन्यजन्तु संरक्षण ऐन २०२९ को दफा १८ मा निस्सा ९अनुमति० नभैैैै आखेटोपहार राख्न नपाइने र यदि उक्त ऐन लागु हुनु अगावै आखेटोपहार प्राप्त गरेको भए तोकिएको म्यादभित्र त्यस्तो आखेटोपहार तोकिएको अधिकारीसमक्ष पेश गरी तोकिए बमोजिमको निस्सा लिईराख्नु पर्ने भन्ने स्पष्ट उल्लेख गरेको छ । साथै, निस्सा प्राप्त नगरी राखिएको आखेटोपहार नेपाल सरकारले कुनै पनि बेला जफत गर्न सक्ने ब्यवस्था छ । यस ऐनमा नै काठमाण्डौँ उपत्यका भित्रको जिल्लाहरुको लागी उक्त निस्सा दिने अधिकारी राष्ट्रिय निकुञ्ज तथा वन्यजन्तु संरक्षण बिभागको प्रमुखलाई तोकिएको छ ।

उक्त विभागमा भने निस्सा जारी गरिएको कुनै पनि आखेटोपहारबारे लगत छ/छैन कसैलाई थाहा छैन ।  निस्सा नभई अहिले प्रयोगमा भएका सम्पूर्ण आखेटोपहार गैरकानुनी र संलग्नहरु वन्यजन्तु अपराधका दोषी हुन् ।

मौन प्रशासन

दुर्लभ वन्यजन्तुको आखेटोपहार धेरैजसो पहुँचवाल व्यक्तिको घरमा छन् । सायद ती आफूलाई कानुनभन्दा माथि रहेको सोच्छन् या त उनीहरुमा पुरानै व्यावस्थाको धङधङी छ । सिटिजन्स् बैंकको प्रधान कार्यालय, कमलादीको तेश्रो तल्लामा समेत शानको साथ बाघको टाउको राखिएको छ । एउटा प्राइभेट बैंकमा दुर्लभ संरक्षित वन्यजन्तु बाघको टाउको कसरी आइपुग्यो र किन राखीयो भन्ने प्रश्न जो कोही जिम्मेवार नागरिकले खोज्न झक्झक्याउनु पर्छ र कानुनले त्यसमा सहजीकरण गर्नुपर्छ ।
विशेषगरी नेपाल प्रहरी, सेना, मन्त्री, पुर्व पञ्च र प्रधानमन्त्रीहरु धेरैको घरमा यी र यस्ता गैर कानुनी आखेटोपहार रहेको र यसको खानतालसी सुरु गर्दा माथिल्लो तहको व्यक्तिको बढी दवाव आउने गरेको कारण प्रहरी मौन बस्ने गरेको आम मानिसको बुझाई छ ।


झट्ट हेर्दा बन्यजन्तु चोरी शिकार तथा अबैध किनबेच जैविक विविधता संरक्षणको प्रमुख चुनौतिको रुपमा देखिए तापनि, यो अपराधिक गतीविधि संकटापन्न बन्यजन्तुको सङ्ख्यासँग मात्र भने सिमित छैन । हातहतियार, लागुऔषध, अबैध सुन, मानव तस्करी र काला धनसँग सम्बन्धित अपराधहरु पनि यी सँगै जोडिने गरेका छन् । गत बर्ष बायोलोजीकल कन्जरभेसन नामक जर्नलमा प्रकाशित लियो र केल्भिनको सोधले यी तथ्यलाई थप पुष्टि गरेको छ । यसरी, संरक्षित बन्यजन्तु तथा आखेटोपहारको व्यक्तिगत प्रयोग तथा प्रर्दशनमा ऐन नियम बिर्सीएर सरकारले आँखा चिम्लनु भनेको अपराधिक गतिविधिलाई प्रसय दिनु नै हो।

अबको बाटो

पहुँचवाल व्यक्तिको प्रयोगमा रहेका संकटापन्न बन्यजन्तुहरुको आखेटोपहार र संलग्नलाई कानुनी दायरामा नल्याई, विभिन्न ठाउँबाट सोही प्रकृतीका कृयाकलापमा संलग्न साधारण व्यक्तिहरु मात्र पक्रनु र कारवाही गर्नु वास्तविक अवस्थाको ठूलो चित्रलाई नजरअन्दार गर्नु सिवाय केही हुँदैन ।

०२९ सालयता पटकपटक स्रोत खुलाई निस्सा लिन आउनको लागि सुचना जारी गर्दा समेत एकाध बाहेक अरु आएनन् । पक्कै पूर्वप्रम विष्ठ पनि गएनछन् । जसको कारण अरु केही नभई कानुन र यस अनुसारका दण्ड सजायँसँग डराउनेसँग बन्यजन्तुका आखेटोपहार नहुनु र हुनेहरुलाई कानुन र कारवाहिको डर नहुनु नै मुख्य हो । सम्बन्धित विभागले तत्काल केहि पहुँचवाला पन्जाधारीलाई कानुनको दायरामा ल्याउने हो भने, बाँकीे आफैले कानुनी बाटो खोज्ने पक्का छ । संचारको व्यापक सञ्जाल खडा भइसकेको अहिलेको अवस्थामा एकपटक पुनः कानुनको व्यावस्थालाई सबैमाझ थाहा दिन सकेमा मानिसहरु त्यसलाई पछ्याउँथे कि । नत्र व्यक्तीगत प्रयोगमा त्यसरी आखेटोपहार राख्नेहरु पनि वन्यजन्तु अपराधका बरोबर दोषी हुन् ।

(This was also published in Nepal Magazine)

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