Despite being the first tiger range country to claim last year that it has met the target of doubling its big cat population, a new report shows that Nepal remains an important corridor for trafficking of tiger parts from South Asia to China.
More worryingly, there is evidence that ringleaders of smuggling networks who have been caught in Nepal smuggling tiger skin, teeth and other organs to China have either used political connections to get light sentences, or have jumped nominal bail.
On 25 June, Nepal’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) finally arrested in Kathmandu the notorious wildlife smuggler Kunjok Lama, who had been in the crosshairs of police in India and Nepal for two decades.
His name was mentioned by traffickers arrested in every major seizure of tiger and other wildlife contraband in Nepal and India in recent years and investigation agencies in both countries as well as Interpol had been on the lookout for him.
One of the biggest hauls 15 years ago in Rasuwa yielded five tiger pelts, 36 leopard skin and 113kg of tiger bones. The Nepal Army arrested five smugglers who were trying to take the contraband to the Chinese border concealed in a cargo truck, and handed them over to the Langtang National Park.
The seizure made international headlines and was cited in The Handbook on Wildlife Enforcement in India as the most important haul of endangered species in South Asia. The accused were sentenced to seven years in jail and fined Rs100,000 each. All were released 2012 after completing their jail time. All five mentioned the name Kunjok Lama (aka Kunjok Tsering Tamang) as being the ringleader of the smuggling operation.
Kunjok Lama’s name had also popped up in successive seizures in India of wildlife contraband in Ghaziabad near New Delhi in 1999, in Uttar Pradesh state in 2000 and in Madhya Pradesh in 2008. He was named by those caught as the main ringleader in smuggling operations, and India’s Central Investigation Bureau and Wildlife Investigation Bureau had named Kunjok Lama as being behind the smuggling of at least 600 tiger pelts over the years.
He had since then been in the Interpol dragnet for the past 20 years until his arrest in Kathmandu last month.
Originally from Namkha village of Nepal’s Humla district, Kunjok Lama has now challenged the Rasuwa District Court’s decision to keep him in custody at the Patan High Court, saying he has been framed and should be freed. In his appeal, Lama says he is illiterate and could not have signed the confession documents, and that he is not the person implicated by traffickers caught in Rasuwa in 2005 — even though police have mobile records from those caught which link Lama directly to the smuggling operation.
On 14 July, Judge Rajan Prasad Bhattarai of the Patan High Court wrote to the Rasuwa District Court asking for the files on the case. According to sources, the Patan High Court could call a hearing in the case within a day or two of the documents arriving, and decide whether Kunjok Lama should be kept in detention or not.
“If he is released on bail, even if the court ultimately decides he is guilty, he will disappear,” predicts a police source in the CIB’s Wildlife Pillar in Kathmandu. “And unless he is put on a travel blacklist, he will go abroad just like other smugglers we have caught before.”
Indeed, Lama has travelled extensively on ‘business’ in and out of Kathmandu even after he was implicated in the 2005 raid, and immigration records show he has been to the United States twice since then.