A district court in Rasuwa has finally found a notorious wildlife trafficker guilty, nearly a year after he was arrested in Kathmandu.
Kunjok Lama, originally from Humla, had been named in numerous seizures of China-bound Indian tiger pelts in Nepal, and was on Interpol’s most-wanted list. He was arrested in Baudha on 25 June 2020 after being on the run for over 15 years.
Smugglers caught with five tiger pelts, 36 leopard skins and 113kg of tiger bones in 2005 by soldiers guarding Langtang National Park named Lama as the mastermind of the smuggling ring transporting the contraband to the Chinese border.
Kunjok Lama (alias Kunjok Tsiring Tamang) was sentenced in absentia, but was finally caught by the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) on a tip-off from Langtang National Park last year. He had been handed over to the district jail in Dhunche.
On Tuesday a Rasuwa District Court bench headed by Rajendra Nepal finally found him guilty, although his punishment has not been determined yet. The court’s spokesperson Muna Adhikari said Lama will now have to appear before another court sitting next week to hear his sentence.
That seizure in 2005 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 in 2012 after completing their jail time. All five mentioned the name Kunjok Lama as being the ringleader of the smuggling operation.
Kunjok Lama’s name kept popping up also in successive seizures in India of wildlife contraband in Ghaziabad near New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh and 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.
Investigators believe Lama is a partner in crime with another notorious trafficker, Lodu Dimey. Both used the same routes via Nepal to smuggle Indian tiger, rhino and other wildlife parts to China. Dimey had been named in another big seizure in Rasuwa in 2005.
Police tracked down Dimey to a house in Bauddha and seized cash, a stash of wildlife contraband as well as four human skulls bound for Tibet. But he remained at large while his name cropped up in various other seizures in India’s Madhya Pradesh. He was finally caught and extradited to Nepal in 2017.
However, Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered his release for a paltry Rs45,000 fine, and he has since disappeared. CIB sources believe Kunjok Lama can ultimately lead them to Dimey as well.
Nepal was the first tiger range country in 2019 to meet an international target of doubling its big cat population ahead of the 2022 deadline, but numerous reports have shown that country’s location makes it a popular corridor for trafficking of tiger parts from India to China.
However, those arrested have used Nepal’s loopholes and corruption in the legal system to buy their freedom. Ringleaders of networks smuggling tiger skin, teeth and other organs to China have either used political connections to get light sentences, or have jumped nominal bail in Nepal. Often, the smugglers get back to their illegal activities.
CIB sources said Kunjok’s other Indian accomplice is Jay Tamang, and he is believed to be in hiding in Nepal. Tamang is also on Interpol’s wanted list, and had been arrested in 2015 in Madhya Pradesh. He is at large after a district court in Sohagpur released him on bail. Investigators found that Kunjok and Tamang had called each other numerous times on their mobile phones.
The Chief Wildlife Warden of Bhopal in India’s Madhya Pradesh wrote to the CIB last year that his Special Task Force had found evidence that Kunjok’s three accomplices named Sitar, Dharkey and Tashi, had been involved in smuggling and had issued warrants for their arrest. Interpol has also issued a red corner notice against them.
Kunjok Lama’s home town is Namkha in Humla and he had been living in Kathmandu. Ever since his arrest, Lama’s lawyers have been trying to get all three levels of Nepal’s court system to rule in his favour.
He had argued that the ‘Kunjok Lama’ named in the 2005 seizure was not him, that he was illiterate and could not have written any of the incriminating documents, and accused the CIB of trying to frame him. Lawyers had filed a writ of habeas corpus, and said he should be released pending his court hearing.
Even after 2005, Lama had been to the United States twice, and many times to India, according to Nepal Immigration Department records.