Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A call for the wildlife

This week, environment ministers and conservationists from dozens of countries, including Nepal, will be meeting in London to discuss illegal wildlife trade (IWT) and strategies to protect the world’s endangered species from the threat of extinction.
Countries will make pledges to reduce wildlife trade, with a strong focus on tropical and developing countries, including Nepal, and on the need for stronger enforcement and greater sanctions in order to protect imperiled biodiversity.
These are legitimate aims, and yet I wonder to what extent industrialized countries will take pause to reflect on their own contemporary and historic roles in IWT, or on the enforcement and sanctions against people perpetrating IWT in their own countries. There is a need for a candid discussion about the variation among, and fairness of the different ways in which countries are being pushed to tackle IWT.
Last December, I was in the University of Oxford working on a data base of wildlife seizures in Nepal and sharing my research based on interviews with people arrested for IWT in Nepal. My respondents included people imprisoned up to 15 years for participating in illegal poaching and trade of species such as elephant, tiger, rhinos and pangolin. At the same time, a man was arrested in London with a huge amount of ivory and leopard derivatives. I was surprised that he had served only 18 months of sentence. 
Interestingly, those ivory and wildlife parts were not from the UK or for the UK market, but in transit. A recent research by London-based Environmental Investigation Agency revealed that the UK is the largest ivory supplier after the US to China and Hong Kong. Countries in West Europe and the Far East form the third largest chunk of IWT products buyers. So, while many iconic species affected by IWT are from developing countries in Asia and Africa, a number of other countries are deeply implicated as trader and consumers.
Crime and punishment 
The ways in which IWT is enforced and punished, however, is very different. Fines and prison sentences for IWT are actually very low in many countries. However, there is a growing push to increase patrols, prison sentences and fines for IWT in many countries. For example, Nepal has one of the stiff sanctions for wildlife crime and now new CITES Act (2016) has increased punishment provisions. Already, there are some countries and national parks where park rangers are empowered to shoot people in the name of protecting the wildlife. For example, Kaziranga National Park authorities in India shot 65 suspected poachers between 2010 and 2016.
In contrast, sanctions are significantly lower for elite traders and consumers, including in developed countries like the UK (as in above case) who actually drive the poaching and IWT throughout the world. In 2015, realizing the gravity of IWT as a global crime, Obama administration had initiated Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to combat the IWT worldwide.
It is estimated that of the 70 percent of the world’s illegal wildlife trade, the US is emerging as the biggest consumer and the buyer for wildlife derived trafficking.
Countries in the global north are investing a huge amount of money and resources to combat the IWT. Recently, the British government announced £44.5 million boosts for anti-wildlife trafficking projects. The UK has also sent members of the British army to Gabon in the west of Africa and Malawi in east Africa to help park rangers hunt down poachers.
Despite these shared efforts to stop IWT, they still seem to be resulting in a two-tier system of conservation enforcement: People in parts of Africa and Asia, often residents of poor rural areas, who are involved in the harvest of wildlife, face severe punishments if they are detected.  However, the intermediaries and consumers, often in countries such as the US, China and Europe, face very different implications. 
Sanctions are strict in available sources countries but significantly lower in transit and high demand nations. It looks like developed countries such as the US, the UK and EU are more focused on certain fines but that only may not create enough deterrent effect to curb IWT. The reasons are simple: Fines are very low, income is high and incentives for IWT huge. 
It is understandable that different countries approach IWT and related sanctions in different ways. However, every human being—British or Bengali, Nepali or Norwegian—is equal, as are the implications of their imprisonment for IWT.
Combating IWT
There is a need for a candid discussion about conservation enforcement, and the ways these vary in source, transit and consumer countries. This is all the more important given the economic differences and inequalities among actors. 
The horrible business of wildlife trade, multibillion-dollar business, threatens to eradicate life from the earth. A recent World Wildlife Fund study revealed that 52 percent of wildlife population around the world disappeared since 1970s with overhunting being a major driver of decline. For some species, the study found, the IWT is now the primary threat, thanks to soaring demand for certain wildlife and animal-derived products. 
Moving forward, it makes sense for sanctions to ensure they deter future perpetrators. Judicial systems around the world should ensure that wildlife crimes, from harvest, trafficking and consumption, are met with strict sentences. Importantly, sentences should be more proportionate, but fair across jurisdictions. This includes sanctioning the environmental criminals who are earning billions in profits from IWT, many of whom are in transit and consumer countries.
Developed countries are making vital investments into conservation research, field-based conservation and strengthened policies to protect iconic species and habitat, but they must also consider matters of equity, and look back to themselves and their own existing legislations and sentences that are enough to deter people to participate in IWT. However, this is not the time for the pot to call the kettle black. What we need is genuine global commitment and coordinated actions to save the iconic endangered species from extinction, in ways that are also fair across countries. Wildlife trade knows no bounds: a tiger killed in Nepal may be traded to India or China, or intermediary countries like the UK or the US, en route to, Dubai. 
This week’s London Conference (October 11-12) presents an opportunity for new discussions about solutions to IWT. This should include issues of stringent, but fair and equivalent penalties for traders, consumers and poachers involved in IWT should be highlighted, irrespective of nation.
This was originally published in Republica Daily
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Monday, July 23, 2018

Echo of Young Voices in Conservation

Eight years ago, a 19-year-old boy and his 9 colleagues tried to enter the Singh Durbar, a palace complex in the centre of Kathmandu, housing most of the ministries and high-level offices of the Government of Nepal. The young group was outraged by massive ongoing poaching of One-horned rhinos, and the silence of the government on corruption cases related to the rhino investigations. They wanted to meet the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means, which is responsible for conservation-related issues in the parliament. I was privileged to lead that team eight years ago; the National Youth Alliance for Rhino Conservation which formed as a youth wing of Team for Nature and Wildlife.
NYARC submitting Letter of Memorandum to Chair of Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means, Shanta Chaudhary, 16 July 2010.
Our main aim was to bring attention to the poaching of one-horned rhinos and to educate, inspire and engage youth in raising their voices on rhino conservation. At that time, we lacked both the capacity and resources to organize ‘big’ events with concerned stakeholders. Even if we managed to organize via fundraising, we were skeptical that the authorities would listen to us as university freshers, with nothing but willpower. Instead, we tried a simple yet innovative approach, including writing letters to the editors of the major national dailies, visiting various colleges and universities, and organising rallies.
After doing so for a few months, people started to listen to us and we were able to organise events at the Nepal Bar Association and the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists. We also succeeded in holding a series of meetings with the chair of Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means: Shanta Chaudhary and Attorney General Dr. Yubaraj Sangroula. Most importantly, we filed a case in the Supreme Court demanding investigations on the corruption issues, and stiff penalties for poacher and trader. The small movement of university students tremendously contributed to sensitize the concerned stakeholders to act, achieving the zero poaching of the rhinos in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
Rhino poaching was one of the many conservation challenges that Nepal was facing. After realizing the gravity of youth-led action during the rhino conservation movement, we formed a science-driven non-profit organization called Greenhood Nepal in order to lead effective human dimensions of nature conservation, including through public education, policy engagement, capacity-building and civic action across Nepal.
The first batch of Conservation School, 2012, Sindhupalchok, Nepal
One of our ongoing impactful initiatives is scaling up pangolin conservation in Nepal. In this program, we organize an annual roundtable on pangolin inviting government, enforcement, researchers, and other conservation agencies to discuss the recent status and challenges of pangolin. We share all the information by using #NepalPangolin. The first ever roundtable 2015 concluded by recommending a national survey and conservation action plan for pangolin. The roundtable turned out very effective as it brings the community to the government on the same table. Consequently, both national survey and conservation action plan for pangolins seen on the table during roundtable 2017. Currently, we are conducting cutting-edge research, training new conservation community to understand the complex conservation problems that Nepal is facing. At the same time, we are educating the general public to policy makers via Conservation School and policy events & media outreach respectively. Conservation School aware and empowers frontliner communities to conserve endangered species and their habitat. We also provide intelligence and training to the enforcement agencies to curb the poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

Roundtable on pangolin, 2015.
When we started none of us had a university degree in conservation, we lacked financial resources as well as any support. It was very difficult to convince people that conservation of endangered species was important when they had other priorities just to fulfil their basic needs. Yet, we did not lose our hope and continuing the range of conservation initiatives. After all, the world cannot afford to ruin the system that governs and supports our own life system.
This was originally published in Conservation Optimism. 
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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Illegal wildlife trade & Nepal’s Ex-Prime Minister Petition to the Supreme Court of Nepal



Illegal wildlife trade & Nepal’s Ex-Prime Minister
Petition to the Supreme Court of Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal
16 May, 2018

A unique petition, involving a tiger pelt and Nepal’s Ex-Prime Minister, was submitted to Nepal’s honorable Supreme Court today (074-WO-0807).
Conservationist and Co-Founder of Greenhood Nepal, Kumar Paudel, brought the petition following a chance viewing of something unexpected on national television.
He explained that, “As part of my current research, I have interviewed more than 150 people serving criminal sentences for illegally trading of wildlife in Nepal. Coincidentally, I was watching a national broadcast of an interview with our former Prime Minister, Kritinidhi Bista.  I was shocked to see that he was prominently displaying a tiger pelt as decorative item in his home.”
Though the law prohibits the ornamental use of endangered species, such as the tiger, the illegal harvest, trade and use of protected wildlife remains a problem across Nepal. It is a punishable crime, with high fines and prison sentences, and hundreds of people have been arrested and imprisoned across Nepal.

(Ex PM Kritinidhi Bista giving an interview to a National Television at his home, Kathmandu, Nepal, September 2016. Source: Tweet of the interviewer Suman Kharel)
Mr. Paudel stated, “The law should not discriminate, even if it involves high ranking government officials. This is especially important because I have already met many other people who have been arrested and prosecuted for the same acts.”
He also expressed concerns that, by featuring protected wildlife parts on national television, the ex-Prime Minister was endorsing the illegal use of protected wildlife, further threatening imperiled species.
To dig deeper, Mr. Paudel reviewed the prevailing rules and regulations, and identified a provision that allows for the use of wildlife parts with a special permission from Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and/or District Forest Office. When the Department confirmed that no such consent had been given, he reached out to the concerned authorities to request legal action, initially on 12 September, 2016, followed multiple enquiries. Mr. Paudel then identified 3 other public instances where the government had failed to prosecute high-profile individuals for crimes related to wildlife trade.
Two years on, there has not been any progress.
This compelled Mr. Paudel to bring this petition to the Supreme Court, a case against a number of government departments that demands them to act on these prominent, yet overlooked cases of illegal wildlife use.
Mr. Paudel stated, “I feel it is a moral obligation to raise my voice by issuing this petition. I believe that, by turning a deaf ear, the system condones wildlife crime, indicates biased application of the law and demonstrates a lack of unaccountability.” 
Knocking on the door of the Supreme Court, Mr. Paudel feels, is the only remaining option to help protect Nepal’s wildlife.
For more information, please contact

Kumar Paudel
Kathmandu, Nepal
Phone: +977-9851127608
Twitter: @kmrpaudel

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Time in prison...

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

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, 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 (kmrpaudel@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, 04 Septmeber, 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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