Monthly Archives

March 2020

Coronavirus shutdown gives Nepal’s nature a respite

By Conservation, Land conservation, Reintroducation, Rescue and rehab
The Nepali Times| March 24, 2020

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While humans all over the planet are being challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has given nature everywhere a respite.

Carbon emissions have dipped, there is almost no carbon monoxide in the air over large parts of India and China because vehicles are off the roads, NOx and sulphur dioxide concentrations in the air have dropped. The concentration of particulate matter like soot given off by industries and diesel trucks have also decreased, improving air quality over Asia’s most-polluted cities.

Here in Nepal, Mt Everest and Himalayan peaks have got a much-needed respite after the government cancelled all expeditions and treks from the mountains for the spring climbing season. There has been an international uproar last year after photos of a traffic jam on the summit ridge of Mt Everest went viral. Garbage and corpses on the mountain have gotten a lot of media attention.

Original image from The Nepali Times: Chitlang, Makwanpur. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

The sunny spring sky in Kathmandu was brilliantly clear on Tuesday, the first day of a week-long nationwide lockdown. With no traffic, and flights all grounded, there is no noise pollution in the street or the sky.

But the happiest must be wild animals in Nepal’s national parks, including those popular with tourists like Chitwan, Bardia, Langtang and Shivapuri-Nagarjun, where visitors have not been allowed since Sunday.

After the government closed schools and offices last week, Kathmandu’s residents had started arriving at Shivapuri and Chitwan by the busloads for picnics during weekend, prompting park officials to close entry on Monday.

“We had to close the parks because there was an increase in visitor numbers, but with the announcement of the nationwide lockdown from Tuesday, visitors will not be coming anyway,” said chief of Bardia National park Ananath Baral.

On Sunday, there were more than 400 visitors — about four times the daily average — at Shivapuri-Nagarjun, the national park on Kathmandu Valley’s northern and western rim.

Conservationists say the drop in human activity will be a relief to the park’s wildlife, since any extra noise can disturb their habitat and movement. Naturalist Mukesh Chalise recalls how there was an increase in wildlife in Langtang National Park after trekkers stopped coming due to the 2015 earthquake.

“It used to be difficult to see resident fauna and birds, now there are herds and flocks of them out in the open in Langtang,” Chalise says.

Due to its terrain and topographic range, Nepal has some of the richest biodiversity in a country with such a small area. There are 876 species of birds, 185 species of mammals and 651 species of butterflies in Nepal, some of them are only found here and nowhere else. National parks and protected areas cover 27% of Nepal’s area.

There has been a big increase in park visitors in the past few years. Nepal’s national parks and conservation areas registered 510,000 foreign visitors five years ago, and this grew to 701,000 last year.  There is no count of the number of Nepali visitors, and if this is added it would take the numbers to nearly 1.5 million per year.

There has also been little attempt to regulate the entry of sightseeing vehicles into national parks. In Chitwan alone, the national park issued 35 jeep permits every day for jungle safari into the core area. Bardia issued 22 jeep permits per day, with each vehicle carrying 10-14 visitors. Besides this, both Chitwan and Bardia also issue dozens of elephant safari permits.

All this has now come to a halt, and has eliminated human disturbance. Chalise says this will allow wild animals and birds to be left alone for a while which will be good for nature to rebound.

“We had already started seeing rhinos interacting more and more with humans, and acting tame. It is very dangerous for the rhino to lose its fear of humans because this may expose them to poachers,” adds Chalise, who says there should be a permanent ban on human entry into national parks. Tourists should be allowed only into the buffer zone.

Sindhu Dhungana at the Ministry of Forests and Environment, however, says that if local people do not see any advantage of eco-tourism they may not help in conservation, and visitors should be allowed but in a regulated numbers.

“The main criteria should be how much human activity is disturbing wildlife, and if it is serious numbers should be regulated,” Dhungana explains.

Lessening human entry into national parks will also prevent the spread of human diseases like tuberculosis to rhinos and elephants, and also stop viruses from wild animals infecting humans.

Chalise also warns that the nationals parks should be vigilant about increased activity of poachers taking advantage of the national shutdown to hunt wild animals either for meat or tusks, horns and pelts.

For 33 years this forest guard has faced bullets and floods for Kaziranga’s animals

By Antipoaching, Conservation
The Better India| March 23, 2020

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Having grown up in Assam, a mandatory annual trip to the Kaziranga National Wildlife Park is a shared experience of most Assamese families. I still remember my first trip. I was excited and in awe to see the beautiful deers, the majestic elephants hiding behind the tall grasses and the iconic one-horned rhino.

What I did not realise at the time is how precious and endangered these species are. Kaziranga contains about 71 per cent of the world’s wild population of the one-horned rhino which is also the most commonly poached animal in the state.

Dimbeswar Das received the Earth Heroes award last year for his efforts in protecting the animals for 33 years!

At the helm of the conservation activities is the Frontline Forest Staff in Kaziranga. And you would be surprised to know that a 54-year-old man has dedicated 33 years of his life in ensuring these animal’s safety.

Meet Dimbeswar Das who has put himself in danger, fought poachers, bullets for years and continues to work tirelessly even now.

Original image as supplied by The Better India: For 33 Years This Forest Guard Has Faced Bullets & Floods For Kaziranga’s Animals

“I started working in the forest in 1987 when I was only 21-years-old. I don’t know where all the time has passed,” smiles Dimbeswar who was only promoted to the rank of a forest guard last year after serving the animals and the forest for over 30 years!

The Forest guard was given the Earth Heroes Award in November last year by The Royal Bank of Scotland. The award recognises individuals and institutions who put in tremendous efforts in preserving and protecting our ecosystems. His nomination was sent by senior forest officials who deemed him the perfect candidate for this award.

“I cannot believe I got this award and I am very grateful to my superiors for selecting me. The thing about this job is, I love every aspect of it. So, whatever work is given to me, I happily do it,” says Dimbeswar humbly.

Farmer to a Protector of Kaziranga

Dimbeswar grew up in a family of six siblings, with him being the oldest in a village called the Japori Pathar, adjacent to Kaziranga. His father was a farmer and cultivated rice, mustard, and vegetables on a 4-acre land while his mother was a homemaker.

Dimbeswar only studied until the age of 13 after which he started lending a hand in his father’s farm. “We weren’t financially doing too well at the time and being the oldest of six siblings, I had to take up the responsibility,” he recalls.

Dimbeswar’s willingness to take responsibility and responsiveness to the call of duty is something that has helped him throughout his career.

“In 1987, poaching in Kaziranga had become a huge menace and the Forest department needed more people on the ground to protect the animals,” says Dimbeswar.

This was the time when The Assam Forest Protection Force Act, 1986 also came into existence for better protection and security of the forests, the wildlife and the forest produce in Assam’s jungles.

Dimbeswar was soon recruited after a physical test. Another motivation for him to take up the job was because his father had just passed away and he took up the job to support his family. He joined as a ‘casual worker’, which wasn’t a permanent position at the time, along with over 80 other people.

During the training, Dimbeswar learnt how to utilise all his senses and remain vigilant, how to quietly walk around the forest and how to operate a rifle in case of danger. “I learnt how to clean the guns and rifles, how to keep it well oiled and how to load it,” he says.

Once he started his job, his day would begin at 4 am and he would push off for his patrolling duties by 7 am and in intervals would venture out for patrolling at least four times a day.

Dangers Inside the Dense Forests

After working as a casual worker for two years, Dimbeswar officially joined the ranks two years later as a ‘boatman’. The duties of the boatman are the same as that of a casual worker but the dangers in the forest were immense.

Kaziranga is home to the great Indian rhinoceros, a native species found only in India. Being the only spot for these species, The Kaziranga National Park became a hot spot for poachers.

“A lot of these poachers would be local while some of them belonged to the neighbouring states. There have been so many encounters that I have even lost count of them,” he says.

Upon catching them, these poachers are questioned about their activities. “There is a very high demand for the rhino’s horn. We found out that these would be illegally smuggled through Myanmar and sold in the international black market for its medicinal properties,” informs Dimbeswar.

What Dimbeswar is saying is true. Rhinoceros horn is sought after in the Chinese and the Vietnamese black markets for medicinal properties, as jewelry, as gifts and for something as petty as display figures to convey one’s wealth.

Between 2008 to 2013, Dimbeswar informs that poaching in Kaziranga had reached an all-time high. Dimbeswar also adds that during the monsoons when the forest is prone to flooding, it serves an opportunity for poachers because the area is difficult to patrol at that time.

“To deal with that, I along with other officials in the forest started to recruit young boys as informants to keep their ear to the ground. They have been very helpful in managing the poaching problems as they would tell us if any new person has entered Kaziranga’s premises, where they’re from and what they do. That helped us catch a lot of poachers,” he says.

Dimbeswar’s strong resistance against poachers, however, put him and his family in a lot of danger.

“There was one time we had caught a rhino poacher a few years back and had detained him for questioning. Somehow, he managed to escape. Because he recognised my name and my face, not only was I threatened but even my family was subjected to this. To ensure their safety, I had to live away from them for long periods but I utilised that time in my service,” he says.

Over the years, settlements around the forests have increased. This immediately gave rise to instances of man-animal conflict and the frontline staff to manage these situations. Dimbeswar recalls an incident that took place in 2004.

“A mother tiger ventured into the fields of one of the neighbouring villages in search of her cubs. She attacked an elephant and the mahout. We had to manage the situation by ensuring that we don’t hurt the animal while also keeping in mind the safety of the villagers,” he recalls.

Finally, they were able to tranquilize the tiger and after being checked by the vets, she was released into the jungle again.

A Man You Can Count On

Last year, when the forest officials had to send one name from Kaziranga as an entry for the Earth Heroes Award, only one name came to their minds. It was none other than Dimbeswar Das for his contribution to preserving wildlife in the national park for over 30 years of dedicated service.

Bastav Borkotoky, a Forester in the Frontline services, has been working closely with Dimbeswar since 2016 when he joined the ranks. He was also one of the people who deliberated and nominated Dimbeswar for the Award. In fact, the 31-year-old accompanied Dimbeswar all the way to Delhi for the Award ceremony.

“Kaziranga was my first posting and when I first joined, everyone knew who Dimbeswar Das was. He knows the forest roads well as if he’s mapped it all in his mind. He has served the forests staying away from his family and has even received threats to his life from poachers,” he informs.

Despite all this, Bastav adds that Dimbeswar Das is one person everyone in the frontline services can count upon. “Be it arriving on a speedboat with a vet for the animals, to distributing food among the staff, to even showing up immediately if someone’s been injured, he is there,” he says.

After working in the forest for 33 years, Dimbeswar really feels like he has forged a bond with the animals there.

“One thing I have learnt after so many years is that animals know your intent. One must just let them be and they won’t harm you unless they themselves feel threatened,” he says.

Always watching animals from a distance, Dimbeswar would always turn up for them when they are in need. “During the floods, a lot of animals need to be rescued. Since I served as a boatman for so many years, I turn up with a vet on the speedboat as soon as possible,” says Dimbeswar.

But, Dimeswar says that had it not been for his family, he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he has.

“My wife has been a source of support for me since we got married in 1992. I am not someone who takes a lot of vacations or even goes back home frequently, but through it all, she has stood by me,” he says.

Dimbeswar has three children and all of them are married. In fact, he is even a grandfather with four grandchildren. So, in the six years of his service that remains, what is it that he wants to achieve?

“This isn’t an easy job but I have loved every bit of it. I want to plant more trees in and around the forest area so as to prevent it from diminishing so that the animals who live here never lose their home,” he says signing off.



COVID-19 prompts closure of Indonesian parks, and a chance to evaluate

By Antipoaching, Conservation
Mongabay| March 23, 2020

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JAKARTA: Indonesian authorities have ordered a temporary closure of dozens of national parks and conservation sites to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that has killed thousands of people worldwide.

Effective March 19, 56 conservation zones nationwide are closed to visitors indefinitely, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. In a statement, it said more sites, including zoos, could be added to the list depending on the situation. Affected sites include tourist favorites such as Mount Leuser and Way Kambas in Sumatra, Komodo in East Nusa Tenggara, and Mount Rinjani in West Nusa Tenggara.

“Besides being aimed at preventing COVID-19 from spreading further, this closure is an opportunity for these areas to rest and breathe,” Nanang Prihadi, the director for environmental service use at the environment ministry, told Mongabay in a text message. “For the operators, this [time] can be used to clean up, fix and maintain the facilities and the areas.”

Indonesia has reported 369 positive cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and 32 deaths as of March 20. Among other measures the government has taken to curb the spread of the disease is a prohibition on flights from countries hit hard by the pandemic, and a suspension of the visa-on-arrival policy.

Original image from Mongabay: A Sumatran rhino with a caretaker at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park. Image by Rahmadi Rahmad/Mongabay Indonesia.

Park authorities say they will maintain their protection and monitoring of the conservation sites even in the absence of visitors.

“[This closure] shouldn’t mean that people will be able to steal from the park as they wish,” Subakir, the head of Way Kambas National Park, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “If anyone tries to encroach, we will capture them.”

Subakir said the rangers and staff at Way Kambas would continue working as normal, including attending to the park’s seven captive Sumatran rhinos and 69 Sumatran elephants. “But I’ve told them to keep their distance from each other and eat nutritious food. And if they feel unwell, they must immediately check with the doctor,” he said.

Subakir said the closure would likely impact the park’s revenues. Tourist receipts at Way Kambas topped 1 billion rupiah ($63,000) in 2019, but could fall to half that amount this year, Subakir said. He added that small local businesses around the park offering accommodation and meals to tourists would also be hit. “Everything related to tourism is going to be automatically disrupted,” he said.

Conservationists, meanwhile, have welcomed the closure order, saying it will reduce the risk of infection among rangers and staff. They also say it’s an opportunity for park operators to evaluate the impacts of tourism to the ecosystem in these areas.

“This can be a chance to understand if these zones have implemented actual ecotourism or merely nature-based tourism which is just a form of mass tourism with the focus on nature,” Darmawan Liswanto, a scientific adviser to the Titian Lestari Foundation, which advocates for environmental sustainability, told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Darmawan said mass tourism activities in some conservation zones have led to problems such as waste accumulation. “When the COVID-19 outbreak is over, I hope they won’t return to nature-based mass tourism as usual,” he said.

He also commended the park agencies’ commitment to protecting the areas amid the shutdown by continuing to carry out patrols, saying “I don’t think poachers are taking a break.”

Four suspected poachers arrested at Kruger National Park

By Antipoaching, Conservation
Times Live| March 23, 2020

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Four suspected poachers were arrested inside the Kruger National Park on Saturday.

“The four were arrested along the Pretoriuskop and Skukuza road. A heavy calibre rifle, ammunition and poaching equipment were confiscated,” Kruger National Parks spokesperson Ike Phaahla said.

He said the arrests were carried out by ranger, protection and air wing services with support from private concession colleagues.

“Further investigations are ongoing,” Phaahla said.

Original image from Times Live: Four suspected suspected poachers were arrested in the Kruger National Park on Saturday. Image: Henk Kruger

The four arrests bring to 11 the number of suspected poachers who have been arrested at the national park in a number of incidents since the start of the year. Seven suspected poachers were arrested in three separate incidents in January.

The ministry of environment, forestry and fisheries in February also released a report which noted a decline in the incidents of rhino poaching.

In 2018, 769 rhino were killed for their horn in SA. During 2019, rhino poaching continued to decline, with 594 rhino poached nationally during the year.

The department said this decline could be attributed to a combination of measures, including improved capabilities to react to poaching incidents and improved information collection and sharing among law enforcement authorities.


Trump Taps Former Attorney Of Trophy Hunting Group For Key Wildlife Job

By Conservation, Law & legislation
The Huffington Post| March 23, 2020

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The Trump administration has hired Anna Seidman, formerly a longtime lawyer at the trophy hunting advocacy group Safari Club International, to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s international affairs program.

A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson confirmed Seidman’s appointment in a statement to HuffPost on Friday, calling her “an effective, innovative leader with 20 years of legal and policy experience, including expertise in international environment and natural resource management.”

The Safari Club has close ties to the administration ― its political action committee donated $11,000 to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign ― and is one of several groups that successfully lobbied Trump’s Interior Department to roll back prohibitions on importing the trophies of lions and elephants killed for sport in certain African countries.

Seidman was Safari Club’s top litigator for two decades and most recently served as director of its legal advocacy and international affairs arm, according to the organization’s website. In that role, she led several lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies, including challenging a 2015 Obama-era regulation that prohibited aggressive predator control tactics in national preserves and refuges in Alaska.

Original image of video from Huffington Post

Seidman left Safari Club last year, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Founded in 1972 and based in Washington, SCI is an advocacy group with more than 50,000 members that focuses on “protecting hunters’ rights and promoting wildlife conservation.” It has been criticized for giving out awards — with names like “Grand Slam African 29,” “African Big Five” and “Bears of the World” — to hunters who kill exotic and sometimes threatened species, including elephants, rhinos and polar bears.

SCI’s sister organization, Safari Club International Foundation, is a former client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s. Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for oil, gas and other special interests before joining the Trump administration.

As assistant director of FWS’s international affairs program, Seidman will lead a team responsible for implementing international conservation treaties and protecting at-risk wildlife populations and their habitats around the globe. She replaces Eric Alvarez, who has served as acting chief for two years.

SCI did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Thursday.

SCI has been a major supporter of the Trump administration and its pro-hunting agenda. And under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the department made quick work of fulfilling trophy hunting groups’ wish list, as HuffPost previously reported.

In late 2017, the Interior Department came under fire when it lifted Obama-era bans on importing elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia ― a decision first made public by Safari Club. Facing public backlash, Trump suspended the department’s decision and condemned big-game trophy hunting as a “horror show.” A day later, SCI sent out a “call to arms,” in which the group encouraged hunters to complain to Trump and Zinke and blasted “hysterical anti-hunters and news media outlets.”

FWS subsequently issued a memo in March 2018 indicating it would consider permits to import trophies taken from elephants, lions and bontebok, a species of antelope, hunted in several African countries on a “case-by-case” basis.

Later that year, Steven Chancellor, an Indiana coal executive who raised more than $1 million for Trump’s 2016 campaign and was then a member of the Department of the Interior’s advisory hunting council, obtained permits to import the heads and hides of at least three male lions from Africa.

Safari Club has been part of the revolving door at Trump’s Interior. Last July, Ben Cassidy, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, left a high-ranking Interior post to to become Safari Club’s new director of government affairs.

His departure from the Trump administration came less than three months he got wrapped up in a formal Interior Department ethics investigation.

22 rhinos die in nine months in Nepal

By Conservation
Khabarhub| March 23, 2020

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CHITWAN: The incidents of natural death of rhinos have increased at Chitwan National Park (CNP) in recent times.

As many as 22 rhinos have died due to natural reasons from mid-July 2019 to this date.

Assistant Conservation Officer of the National Park Prakash Uprety said that the carcass of a rhino was found at Temple Tiger zone in western belt on last Tuesday.

Likewise, two rhinos were found dead in the national forest and national park areas recently.

Original image by Khabarhub: A dead rhino. Incidents of natural death of rhinos have increased at CNP.

Authorities said that the main reasons behind the rhino deaths in the CNP are aging, in-fighting, food poisoning, stuck in water pits and gorge and husbandry.

The CNP had last year earlier formed a committee to study the deaths of the one-horned.

Rhinos, meanwhile, have not been killed for smuggling purposes for the past few years.

In the last fiscal year, some 43 rhinos died due to natural reasons. Similarly, 26 rhinos died in the fiscal 2074/75 and 25 in the fiscal 2073/74.

According to Uprety, there are 605 rhinos at CNP as per the latest count.

Rhino poaching and the inside job (Namibia)

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Illegal trade, namibia
Namibian| March 23, 2020

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The term ‘poacher’ is often used for anyone involved in wildlife crime. In reality, wildlife crime functions through a complex web of criminals, where the poachers – the people carrying out the illegal killing of an animal to initiate the trade in its parts – are at the lowest level.

Poachers are often rural community members with good “bush skills”. They need to find and kill an intended target, and get the products to a dealer. But bush skills are no longer enough to poach rhinos. The huge increase in rhino poaching in recent years has led to the pachyderms receiving specialised protection.

This includes establishing anti-poaching units, putting up electric fencing, surveillance cameras and other technologies and activities. To avoid all of this security, find and kill a rhino, and get the horns to a dealer is no longer easy. It requires inside information – the “inside job”.

Bribes are a central component of inside jobs. People are bribed to provide inside information, to look the other way, or to remove obstacles so that criminal activity becomes easier.

Original photo by Namibian: Two white rhinos spotted in the Namibian wild. Photo: Nampa

While poaching is often carried out by rural community members, wheeling and dealing business people tend to get involved in nefarious activities that include trafficking illegal wildlife products. They usually have access to significant amounts of cash, which they use to ‘smooth the path’ of crime.

Paying or receiving bribes is against the law, punishable with severe penalties. Any actions of aiding and abetting criminals are equally serious. In several cases over the past year, arrested suspects have attempted to bribe law-enforcement officers. Yet the officers immediately reported the incidents and the charge of attempted bribery was added to the wildlife-crime charges.

Inside jobs in wildlife crime can occur anywhere. People use privileged knowledge or positions of power to commit offences at all levels of the crime chain. It might be an employee of a protected area, perhaps even the security personnel tasked with safeguarding the rhinos.

At higher levels, it might be a police officer, a customs official or other government employee, or a community leader who uses a position of influence and trust to enable rhino killing, or the trafficking of rhino horns out of the country.

The most high-profile case in recent months of an inside job was the arrest (in January 2020) of a senior police officer from Oshakati, who used his status as a cover for his activities as a wildlife-crime kingpin. He coordinated rhino poaching in Etosha National Park, as well as the sale of the horns to international dealers. Several other government officials have been arrested in relation to rhino poaching in Etosha.

During a recent visit to the park, police inspector general Sebastian Ndeitunga, expressed the sentiment that it is a disgrace to the integrity of our security forces that civil servants have been arrested in connection with rhino poaching.

The transparency with which internal transgressions are being addressed by the government is commendable. People in positions of trust obviously have a heightened responsibility, yet no sector of society is immune to temptation. How infringements are dealt with is important. This is where public trust is tested.

The recent arrests have shown that in Namibia, security forces and other government officials are not above the law. Investigators carry out their work without bias. Suspects are being arrested, charged and prosecuted, irrespective of their status.

Wildlife crime cases involving government staff usually receive heightened public attention. This may lead to the impression that a large percentage of wildlife crimes are carried out by civil servants. Of the 91 suspects arrested on charges related to rhino poaching or trafficking during 2019, only six were government officials.

Three of these had direct links to the location being targeted, or used their position to facilitate the crime. Yet these numbers represent only a tiny fraction of the thousands of people involved in the protection of Namibia’s rhino. The vast majority are dedicated, trustworthy women and men, who rarely receive recognition for their work, but are quickly cast in a bad light if anything goes wrong.

Importantly, inside information is a two-way street. Technological advances, including excellent surveillance and forensics techniques, are enabling an entirely new level of law enforcement. Combined with information provided by the public, this is allowing law enforcement officials to be a step ahead of the poachers in many cases.

During 2019, 91 suspects in 27 cases were arrested on charges related to rhino poaching or trafficking. Of these, 59 suspects in 15 cases were arrested before they could kill a rhino – and charged with conspiracy to poach. More than half of the rhino cases involving arrests were pre-emptive arrest cases.

Under Namibian law, conspiracy to poach is treated with the same seriousness as when the actual crime is committed.

The pre-emptive arrests have saved dozens of rhinos. They must be seen as one of the most significant successes in Namibia’s battle against wildlife crime. They show that when legal systems function effectively and the public is on the side of the law, the power of the inside job is reversed.

Helge Denker is a Namibian-born writer, artist and naturalist. He has worked in various sectors within the Namibian tourism and environmental spheres for the past three decades, and has published numerous articles on the country’s conservation issues.

Vietnam considers wildlife trade ban in response to coronavirus pandemic

By Conservation, Illegal trade, Law & legislation
Mongabay| March 23, 2020

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HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM: As the coronavirus pandemic continues its deadly onslaught around the world, the Vietnamese government has moved to ban the wildlife trade.

Amid scientific theories that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) began at a market in Wuhan, China, that sold live wild animals and animal parts, a group of conservation organizations sent an open letter to Vietnam’s prime minister on Feb. 16.

The organizations, based both within Vietnam and abroad, called on Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to “take strong and sustainable actions to halt all illegal wildlife trade and consumption in Vietnam.”

“The emergence of COVID-19, with initial evidence of a link between virus host and transmitters from wildlife, pushed us to bring it to the attention of policymakers to address the risk, as well as the need to protect wild animals,” Trinh Le Nguyen, executive director of People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature), a Hanoi-based conservation organization that signed the letter, said in an email. “In addition, we call on the government to enforce wildlife protection laws and eliminate the illegal trade and consumption.”

Original photo from: A pangolin in Vietnam. Pangolins are widely traded for meat and use in traditional medicine. There is some evidence that the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic may have originated in pangolins, but the matter is not yet settled scientifically. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Prime Minister Phuc responded on March 6 by tasking the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) with formulating directives to ban the trade and consumption of wildlife and submit them to the government for review by April 1. MARD did not respond to request for comment.

In late February, the Chinese government permanently banned the wildlife trade and the consumption of all non-aquatic wild animals, including those raised in captivity. This followed a ban on wild animal markets nationwide, a reaction to the outbreak. However, according to the New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, China’s ban only covers products intended to be eaten, not those destined for other uses, such as traditional medicine or fur.

“We would expect [Vietnam’s MARD] to look at reviewing policy around how wildlife is dealt with, both in terms of the international- and national-level trade, both illegal and legal,” said Benjamin Rawson, conservation and program development director at the NGO WWF Vietnam, a signatory to the NGO letter. “Our hope is that it includes directives around how you deal with wildlife as a food item, because that’s where a lot of the risks are in the supply chain, from hunters all the way to consumers.”

Wild animal meat, while not widely served in Vietnam’s major cities, is relatively easy to find throughout the country and remains common in more rural areas. It is difficult to assess the size of the wildlife market in Vietnam, illegal or legal. The illegal trade involves high-value species like tigers, rhinos and elephants, while most smaller species are unregulated. The supply is a mix of wild-caught animals, such as pangolins and leopard cats, and animals raised on farms, such as civets and moon bears.

Birds are particularly sought-after. According to a February 2020 report (PDF) from the international NGO TRAFFIC, in April 2016 a three-day survey in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s two biggest urban areas, found 8,047 birds from 115 species for sale, 99% of which were native to the country and 90% of which had no legal protection. The report also found numerous advertisements for bear parts and products on e-commerce sites that broke national laws.

Rawson said he is encouraged by the government’s decision to act on the trade, especially amid the wide-ranging social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam. The multi-billion dollar tourism industry has been wiped out, with the major markets of China, South Korea and Europe either completely cut off or heavily restricted, while the huge manufacturing industry faces supply chain disruptions and the likelihood of reduced demand.

There have been no reported deaths from COVID-19 in Vietnam as of this writing. But there have been 75 confirmed infections, many among foreign tourists, and the number appears set to increase. “Essentially, we have this COVID-19 outbreak, we have stock markets in freefall, general fear in the populace, a public health crisis, and it’s really a result of people wanting to eat wildlife,” Rawson said. “So if we really want to address this seriously, we have to get to the bottom of this demand.”

Addressing wildlife trade and consumption will do nothing to staunch the current COVID-19 pandemic, but the hope is that it will prevent a global disaster of this kind from happening again.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to Vietnam’s role as a consumer and an international hub of high-value species such as rhinos, elephants and pangolins, and awareness of the need to preserve these species has improved, especially among young Vietnamese.

“Demand in Vietnam, China and other countries is certainly driving the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa,” Rawson said, “but what is often overlooked is the biodiversity crisis that’s happening in the forests of Vietnam and surrounding countries, where wildlife is being snared indiscriminately for consumption.”

How to End the Trade

Enforcement in relation to every step of the trade will be key, Rawson said. “That means tightening up the investigative work, arrests and prosecutions in the illegal wildlife trade, and the farming of wild animals is another key area that needs to be looked at very closely to mitigate future risk,” he said.

WWF has been working on this within Vietnam by supporting enforcement agencies within protected areas like national parks.

“But of course, it has to go beyond just the boundaries of protected areas,” Rawson added. “The key is addressing the drivers that cause people to go in and hunt wildlife. There’s money to be made by wildlife traders, so we do investigative work around identifying those traders and supporting local courts to make prosecutions [and] to understand wildlife-related laws and the severity of some of these infractions.”

Awareness-raising on the consumer end will also be crucial, as some people believe that wild animal meat is safer than farm-raised meat.

“It’s an important moment in time to try and change those cultural perceptions,” Rawson said. “There’s no regulation, no cold-chain storage for wild meat, and there are reservoirs of disease in wild animal populations. And the conservation community is moving quickly to take advantage of the outbreak to tell people that this is not a safe option, either for personal or public health.”

Nguyen, of PanNature, said he expects to coordinate closely with MARD and other government agencies to formulate a ban. However, he said the agency had not yet reached out, and no further details of what the ban might include are available yet.

The NGOs’ letter recommends identifying restaurants that illegally sell wild meat and shutting them down, closing markets where wildlife is illegally sold, requiring e-commerce platforms and social media to remove advertisements of illegal wildlife products and creating strong regulations on raising wildlife in captivity, among other measures.

Following the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-2003 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak of 2012, both of which were caused by coronaviruses linked to animals, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the dangers of trading in and consuming wildlife.

“The current crisis is a direct result of demand for wildlife products, usually illegal, and we really need to address the supply and demand of wildlife meat if we’re going to avoid future catastrophe,” Rawson said. “We’ve had several, and these sorts of things are a matter of when, not if, and while they may be rare, the impacts are significant. It has to be a high-level policy issue, and it’s starting to become one, which is very encouraging.”

Hawks officer murder: Two men taken in for questioning (South Africa)

By Conservation, Illegal trade, Law & legislation
Media 24| March 23, 2020

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Two men, who were stopped on the side of the N4 near Belfast due to car trouble, have been taken in for questioning in connection with the murder of a senior Hawks detective, says Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi.

“We have a specialist task team investigating the matter. Depending on the information we gather from them during questioning, we will decide if they will be officially charged,” said Mulaudzi.

Lieutenant Colonel Leroy Bruwer, 49, was shot and killed on Tuesday while travelling to work in Nelspruit. His car was riddled with bullets, believed to have been fired from an automatic weapon.

Bruwer, a decorated officer, was the lead investigator in numerous high-profile cases in Mpumalanga.

Original image from Media 24: Lieutenant Colonel Leroy Bruwer was killed on Tuesday while on his wat to work in Nelspruit.

On Wednesday, Mpumalanga police issued an alert to track a VW Golf and a Ford Mustang which might have been involved in the crime.

Officials with knowledge of the investigation said this followed a tip-off that the Mustang might have been carrying a blue rifle bag, which contained the weapon used in the shooting.

Later in the day, police found two men parked in a grey Ford Mustang on the side of the N4 between Ngodwana and Belfast. The car had a flat wheel.

Sources said, upon searching the vehicle, no weapons or a rifle bag was found. The K9-unit was also called in to search the car.

Official documentation seen by News24 shows the vehicle is registered under the name of a man linked to a case Bruwer was investigating. It’s unclear if this man is one of the two people taken in for questioning. The two men are currently being kept at two separate locations.


Vietnam scores poorly in protecting animals: study

By Conservation, Illegal trade
VN Express| March 23, 2020

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An index created by international animal welfare charity World Animal Protection ranks 50 countries and territories around the world from A (being the best) to G based on their animal welfare policies and legislation.

It considers 10 indicators grouped into four goals that address key animal welfare issues found around the world: recognition of animal sentience and prohibition of animal suffering, presence of animal welfare legislation, establishment of supportive government bodies, and support for international animal welfare standards.

Vietnam attained an ‘F’ along with countries such as Myanmar, Egypt, Morocco, and Belarus.

Among 13 Asian countries in the index, Vietnam and Myanmar ranked far behind India and Malaysia (C), Thailand and the Philippines (D) and China, Indonesia and Japan (E).

Original image as posted by VN Express: A moon bear is held in an iron cage in Tien Giang Province before activists came to rescue in June 2018. Photo courtesy of Animals Asia.

It said Vietnam failed to protect farming, draught and recreation animals with the government’s commitment to animal protection still being poor.

“Animal welfare legislation in Vietnam is characterized by a prioritization of human health and consumption. This has resulted in limited protections for animals in the country.”

Though some species are purportedly protected and cruel practices such as bear bile farming are banned, the report said these problems are ongoing.

Vietnam banned commercial bear bile extraction in 2005, but more than a decade later it remains a problem.

The country is home to the Asian black bear and sun bear, both listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The extraction of bile from living bears is illegal in parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, where it has been used for long as a remedy in traditional Chinese medicine.

“While livestock are protected from ‘ill-treatment’ there are no details as to what ill-treatment constitutes and there are no supplementary guidelines or regulations to govern the care, rearing, transport, and slaughter of different species.”

The government is strongly urged to amend the Law on Animal Health (2015) and the Law on Animal Husbandry (2018) to ensure that clear and stringent animal welfare protections are included and there are stricter measures to combat animal trafficking

Vietnam has banned the trade in rhino horns, ivory and pangolin scales, but not effectively prevented their trafficking and consumption.

Ivory products and rhino horns are prized in the country for decorative purposes or use in traditional medicine. Many believe rhino horn could cure cancer and pangolin scales could be used to treat asthma and migraine and stimulate milk production in breast-feeding women.

Weak law enforcement in Vietnam has allowed a black market to flourish, making the country a major transit point for elephant tusks, rhino horns and pangolin scales en route mainly to China.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to “soon” draft a directive to ban these activities and submit it to the government no later than April 1.

It follows a call by 14 conservation organizations on the government to “identify and close markets and other locations where illegal wildlife is on sale” to prevent Covid-19. Vietnam has so far recorded 76 cases.

Sweden, the U.K. and Austria are rated the highest in the index with adequate policies and laws to protect animals. They scored a ‘B’, with no countries in the reporting getting ‘A’.