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Assam conservationists oppose move to construct more highlands in Kaziranga (India)

By Conservation
Utpal Parashar, The Hindustan Times | April 26, 2020

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Four prominent conservationists in Assam have opposed the move to construct more highlands in the state’s Kaziranga National Park as a means to give shelter to wild animals during floods.

On Friday, union minister for environment, forest and climate change Prakash Javadekar had a video conference with Assam forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya to discuss ways to mitigate the loss of wildlife during the annual floods in Kaziranga and other protected areas of the state.

“Directed that more highlands maybe made for wild animals, to take shelter at the time of floods,” the union minister wrote on his Facebook page. He also asked Assam officials to ensure wild animals are not killed due to accidental hits by vehicles.

Original photo as published by The Hindustan Times. Kaziranga gets flooded every year forcing the animals in the national park to move towards hills in Karbi Anglong district.(PTI Photo)

In a statement issued on Sunday, Anupam Sarma, Team Leader of Brahmaputra Landscape, WWF India, Bibhab Talukdar, founder of Aaranyak, Rathin Barman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India and Kaushik Barua of Assam Elephant Foundation cited 10 reasons why the move was not a good one.

Spread over 430 sq km, Kaziranga is the biggest habitat of the one-horned rhinos in the world. But every year during floods nearly 80% to 90% of the park gets inundated forcing animals to cross the national highway located nearby and head to the hills of Karbi Anglong district.

In an attempt to protect animals, artificial highlands to allow wild animals to take shelter during floods were constructed inside the park. At present there are 144 highlands inside Kaziranga.

Nearly 200 animals including 18 rhinos were killed in the park during floods last year. But though the floods bring devastation, it also helps regenerate the grasslands inside the park, which are crucial for survival of rhinos and several other species.

In their statement the conservationists said construction of more highlands might change Kaziranga into a drier habitat and in the long run it might not remain suitable for rhino, swamp deer, wild buffalo etc.

“In every flood, the highland will erode naturally and deposit extra silt in the wetlands and water channels will eventually dry out. This will cause more damage to Kaziranga’s already fragile eco-system,” the statement read.

“Change of vegetation is likely to compel the animals to stray out of the park’s boundary, especially during dry seasons. This will bring more threat to the animals, especially the rhino,” it added.

The conservationists said that the new highlands may affect prey-predator reflex as it will affect visibility, might introduce invasive plant species in the park and may reduce grasslands for rhinos and other herbivores to graze on.

“It will be more beneficial if more emphasis is given to grasslands management, restoration of wetlands and anti-erosion matters rather than making highlands,” said the statement.

The conservationists suggested undisturbed animal movement in the identified animal corridors in Kaziranga and construction of an elevated highway to allow the wild animals to move to the Karbi Anglong hills during floods.

Baby rhino rescued in Assam’s Kaziranga, massive hunt on to reunite calf with mother (India)

By Conservation, Rescue and rehab
Kaushik Deka, India Today | April 21, 2020

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A massive search is on in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) to trace the mother of a one-month-old rhino male calf, who was rescued by forest guards on Sunday.

The calf was spotted by villagers at Deopani area, near the National Highway 37 outside the boundary of the Bagori range of the national park around noon on April 19, following which they alerted forest guards.

As the mother has still not been traced, the calf has now been kept at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), run by the Wildlife Trust of India. The centre is located near the national park.

Original photo as published by India Today. The rhino calf spotted by villagers outside the boundary of the Bagori range of the Kaziranga National Park on April 19. (Photo:Twitter/@kaziranga_)

Every year, the CWRC handles several baby rhinos and elephants rescued during annual floods that submerge the national park. “It’s a very rare phenomenon for rhino. The mother generally doesn’t leave her calf unattended because rhino mothers are very protective. Park guards carried out a massive search for 48 hours. It’s unusual that the mother has not come looking for the calf,” says Rathin Barman, Joint Director, Wildlife Trust of India.

Some wildlife experts, however, say mothers may move away from the baby to protect it from injuries when an adult male in heat approaches her.

Spread across 430 square kilometres, the national park in Kaziranga, is the biggest habitat of one-horned rhinos in the world. It is home to more than 2,400 rhinos.

The one-horned rhino is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The KNP often makes headlines for regular instances of poaching. The KNP authorities have, however, ruled out the possibility that the mother could have been killed by poachers. “The mother stays near the calf. So we would have found the carcass if she had been killed,” a park official said.

In January, P Sivakumar, the director of Assam’s Kaziranga National Park claimed that the number of rhinos poached in the park in 2019 was the lowest in 10 years. Three rhinos were killed under the park limits in 2019, a sharp decline from 12 in 2016.

COVID-19 / How China’s vaccine hunt will further impact India’s Northeast

By Antipoaching

Rajeev Bhattacharyya, Moneycontrol | April 3, 2020

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Apart from the threat of direct transmission of COVID-19, there could be another danger to India’s Northeast from the deadly virus. China’s search for an antidote could boost poaching and the illicit trade of wildlife from the frontier region.

On March 25, the National Geographic published an article giving details about a recent policy unveiled by the Chinese government which prescribes using Tan Re Quing, an injection containing bear bile, for the treatment of COVID-19 cases. The item features in a long list of recommended coronavirus treatments published on March 4 by China’s National Health Commission. Bile, secreted by the liver, contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid or ursodiol and has long been used to treat bronchitis and respiratory infections by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

The article also quotes Professor Clifford Steer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, in the United States, as saying that illegal bile from wild bears is produced in China and is also imported from wild and captive bears in Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea. Another traditional medicine mentioned in the list for use against COVID-19 is Angong Niuhuang Wan used to treat fever and other diseases. It traditionally contains rhino horn, which is a banned item from global trade and under Chinese law.

Original photo as published by Money Control

Poaching of both the Asiatic Black Bear and the one-horned rhino is rampant in the Northeast. While the former is hunted in Arunachal Pradesh, the latter is mostly killed in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park. However, while rhino poaching has plummeted in Assam over the last two years, the current trend on Asiatic Black Bear in Arunachal Pradesh is unknown since the killings always remain under wraps in the inaccessible mountains. Undeniably, China has been the destination of both the bear bile and the rhino horn from different regions in India’s Northeast.

A research conducted by senior journalist Mrinal Talukdar on rhino poaching in Assam revealed that the item is smuggled out though a long and meandering track to the markets in China’s south western province of Yunnan. A kingpin named Lampu at Koale (or Chikha) across the border in Myanmar receives the consignment after payment of a reasonable amount to the suppliers.

From these centres, the rhino horn is ferried in the northeast direction of Myanmar to Mongla in Shan State through Mandalay, where another group of buyers would purchase the item to be taken to China. Finally, when the horn reaches Kunming or Gunjum at Yunnan, which has emerged as the hub of rhino horn in the entire region, the price for a gram is about $200-250 or Rs 1.3 crore for a kilogramme.

Trade in bear bile is less organised, which takes place in a vast swathe of Arunachal Pradesh and is smuggled out to China along the LAC.

In 2016, the author had interacted with a few local hunters at Daporjio and Limeking in Upper Subansiri district during a trek to the army outpost at Tame Chung Chung, located about 20 km from LAC on the road leading to Taksing. They admitted to poaching a variety of wild animals, including the Asiatic Black Bear and Musk Deer, besides occasionally engaging in the hunt for the caterpillar fungus.

These items are sold at a high price to locals across the border who are linked to traders in the mainland. Outposts manned by the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) are separated by wide distances in the hilly border which makes the task of keeping a tab on the movement of people extremely difficult.

Programmes on wildlife conservation are now being regularly conducted in the affected districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Wildlife organisations, such as the Wildlife Trust of India and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have also been conducting sensitisation programmes at regular intervals on the Asiatic Black Bear. There is no other option since resources are extremely scarce in the hill state for an effective strategy to combat poaching which is also an established custom.

These hunters and poachers belong to the low income groups and a demand from across the border for a supposed treatment for COVID-19 cases could spur them to engage more in the illicit trade. The state and central government must take cognisance of this development and step up awareness programmes. The Asiatic Black Bear and one-horned rhino must not be victims of COVID-19 and China’s demands.

Strayed rhino from Manas National Park raises questions on poaching attempt (State of Assam, India)

By Antipoaching, Conservation
Northeast Now News | February 24, 2020

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Wildlife activists are worried that poachers are probably again on the prowl in Manas National Park “to kill” the newly re-introduced one-horned rhinos.

Sources said a group of poachers had fired at a male rhino recently in Manas National Park.

The injured rhino on Saturday morning strayed out from the core area of the wild habitat and moved towards the west.

On Monday, the rhino was detected at Dholadonda village near Kuklong in Lower Assam’s Chirang district.

Original photo as published by Northeast Now News: Injured rhino being surrounded by local villagers.

Thousands of villagers assembled around a marshy open land to ensure that the rhino does not get to enter the area of human habitation of the village.

Photos available with Northeast Now showed that the rhino had an injury (suspected to be caused by a bullet) on the right shoulder, and was bleeding.

Forest guards rushed to the spot and tried to push back the rhino to the core area of Manas National Park.

Sources said the injured rhino was probably scared of the poachers, and crossed two rivers – Beki and Hakuwa, to reach Dholadonda village.

The incident of suspected bullet injury has created a major issue on the security of rhinos and other endangered species in Manas National Park.

Manas National Park was once home to more than 180 rhinos. But the entire population was wiped out during the ethnic unrest between 1988 and 2001.

Later the Assam government, in collaboration with Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), re-introduced orphaned rhino calves in Manas National Park between the years 2006 and 2014.

The initiative was supported by a number of organizations, including the US Fish and Wildlife Services, Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and WADWT.

The programme aims to increase the population of the greater one-horned rhino by 3000 in new and potential areas throughout Assam by 2020.

As part of IRV-2020 rhino population range expansion strategy, 18 rhinos were translocated from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park to Manas National Park between 2008 and 2012.

For a viable and stable population of a greater one-horned rhino at Manas National Park, it is essential to maintain a minimum of 40 rhinos with a sex ratio of 3:1.

The remaining rhinos required in different phases of the project will be brought from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park.

 

For India’s flood-hit rhinos, refuge depends increasingly on humans

By Conservation, Rescue and rehab

Manon Verchot, Mongabay | October 10, 2019

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When the flood waters began to rise in India’s Kaziranga National Park in July, five greater one-horned rhino calves found themselves separated from their mothers and stranded in deep water.

Wildlife rescuers usually try to reunite calves with their mothers. But during the peak of the floods, with most of the park submerged under water and with hundreds of animals needing rescue, they often fail.

“Looking for a mother during floods is near to impossible,” says Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

The five lost calves were brought to a rescue center run by the WTI, the Assam Forest Department and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They will stay in the center until they are two-and-a-half years old, according to Barman, who also heads the center. They will be hand-reared by a team of carers on human infant formula. It will be years before they’re re-released into the wild — if at all.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: Two of the baby rhinos rescued in the 2019 floods in Kaziranga National Park. Image courtesy Wildlife Trust of India.

Kaziranga is famous for having the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), with more than 2,400 individuals out of the estimated 3,500 globally. It’s also known for its annual floods during the monsoon season.

“Kaziranga is a flood plain ecosystem and we need floods,” Barman says. “If tomorrow God decides there will be no floods in Kaziranga, then there will be no Kaziranga.”

The park usually has multiple cycles of flooding between June and October, as rainwaters swell the Brahmaputra River, causing it to spill over. But this natural phenomenon is becoming a lot worse, in part because of unnatural factors around the park.

In recent decades, the floodwaters have reached record levels, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of animals. The highest recorded flood in Kaziranga was in 1998, and the park has started regularly seeing major inundations.

“This year was again a big flood,” Barman says. “Last year we didn’t have floods, but in ’16-’17 we had big floods, so almost three years consecutively we’re getting big floods in Kaziranga.”

In 2017, around 400 animals died, including more than 30 rhinos. By comparison, only seven rhinos were killed by poachers between 2017 and 2018, according to Kaziranga National Park records.

This year, around 200 animals have died during floods so far, including more than a dozen rhinos, according to park officials. They attribute this year’s relatively low death toll to improved management methods in the area. But it’s hard to say if the numbers will continue to improve.

Communities report the floods are gradually getting worse — and harder to predict.

“This time, 80 to 90 percent of the park was inundated,” says Rohini Ballab Saikia, divisional forest officer of Kaziranga National Park. “And this was the third-highest flood we ever had in Kaziranga, as per our records. During this period, the peak flood season was for about seven to 10 days.”

Though the waters have mostly receded, some areas in and around the park were still flooded when Mongabay visited in September.

No Safe Passage

Historically, animals facing floods in the park could easily flee to the higher ground of the nearby Karbi Anglong hills. Now, their passage is blocked by a highway and a growing number of hotels and resorts.

It’s a dangerous route to safety. Thousands of vehicles use the highway every day. And while park authorities limit vehicle speeds in areas where animals cross, especially during the floods, many animals are still hit by vehicles. This year more than a dozen animals, including hog deer and sambar deer, reportedly died along the highway during the floods.

It’s not just the highway making it difficult for animals to reach higher ground. The tourism industry is increasingly blocking animals’ paths along both sides of the national highway. Resorts are building walls around their premises, some of which encroach upon known animal corridors. Even though greater one-horned rhinos are fairly strong swimmers, the floods are often too severe for them to survive.

The resorts don’t just block animals when waters rise. Residents say construction has increased sedimentation in the river. A report from UNESCO also found that embankments around the Brahmaputra River were making the situation in Assam worse.

“The deforestation and flood control methods, such as the construction of embankments, have also altered the riverine ecosystem,” the study found. “This has resulted in the river becoming heavily silted. In Upper Assam the river bed has been raised to such an extent that only a few days of rain can result in major floods.”

Residents like Manoj Gogoi, a wildlife rescuer, have also observed flooding on the other side of the highway near the Karbi Anglong hills. “If it rains heavily in Karbi Anglong, it floods on that side of the road, which was not previously seen,” he adds in Assamese.

According to Gogoi, there hasn’t been proper planning for drainage in the area, and water is being blocked. “Unless we clear the animal corridor, we are in deep trouble,” he says.

An Artificial Solution?

As construction along the outside of the park continues, park officials are looking inside the park for solutions to protect animals. In the last few years, they’ve built dozens of artificial highlands within the park to give animals somewhere to go when the water rises. But these artificial highlands have been very controversial.

Environmentalists say the priority should be maintaining safe passage to natural highlands, rather than constructing artificial ones in the park. Experts have also raised concerns that highland construction in the park could add to the problem of siltation in the river.

Environmentalists also point out that animals can’t survive for long on the man-made highlands, especially since there is no food supply on the elevated mounds of earth. “No matter how many man-made highlands they make, it cannot be as useful as the natural highlands,” Gogoi says.

Still, Gogoi attributes the comparatively few animal deaths during the floods this year to the recent installation of another 33 artificial highlands. Viral photos showed dozens of rhinos taking shelter on the highlands during the July floods.

Saikia, Kaziranga’s divisional forest officer, agrees the highlands played an instrumental role in saving rhinos and other animals this year.

“While the construction of these highlands was going on, there were two schools of thought,” he says. “There was one that it was not good to intervene so much into a wildlife area. However, we went with the construction of the highlands because we had reasons for it.”

According to Saikia, the artificial highlands were constructed after a team of experts evaluated the landscape. Gaps were left in between to avoid blocking water, and each highland was constructed with careful attention to the direction the water flows.

For Saikia, the conditions outside the Kaziranga National Park are reason enough to build the artificial highlands inside.

“If, suppose, we had given safe passage to the animals to move towards the Karbi Anglong hills without human intervention, then we wouldn’t need to intervene so much inside the park,” he says.

Community Relations

The forest department says it’s working with the police, local communities, tourism agencies and NGOs to prepare for the flooding every year. But the relationship between local communities and the park hasn’t always been good.

For decades, Kaziranga National Park has expanded, and in the process hundreds of villagers have been displaced. Since 1984, there have been six additions to the national park.

“Our grandparents would talk about how they were living inside Kaziranga — the present boundary of Kaziranga — and they talk about how they were herded off from there,” says Pranab Doley, an indigenous activist from Kaziranga. “Like, a sahib came with a horse and they said, ‘You have to go out because we have to protect the rhinos,’ and it’s historically documented that the hunting of rhinos was not a regular practice of the communities here.”

Even now, there is talk of expanding the park to cover the animal corridors that lead to the Karbi Anglong hills. There are concerns that this potential expansion could displace more communities.

Construction around the park has also made the flooding worse for nearby communities.

“The more elevated we make our houses, the more flooding is taking place day by day,” says Kulendra Deka, a farmer from Difolupothar Rongalu village, in Assamese.

Doley says he feels communities should be part of the decision-making process for development around the park. He says communities have historical knowledge of how to deal with the floods, but that the government won’t listen.

“Every year we have to shout, scream, suffer this trauma of losing again and again,” he says. “It’s a constant process of only losing. So we’ve become only relief seekers. One month, to three months in a year we’ll go to relief camps and we’ll be herded like cattle. And there we have to wait for someone to give us rice, dal, or some torn clothes — like charity. This is not what people want.”

Still, some community members say their relationship with the government, especially the forest department has gotten better.

“Earlier there was a gap between the local community and the department,” says Gogoi, the wildlife rescuer. “And slowly the gap is reducing. I don’t blame the forest department, everyone is to be blamed.”

Gogoi’s animal rescue efforts means he works regularly with government bodies involved in the conservation of Kaziranga National Park. Both he and the forest department are involved in efforts to educate communities about animal rescues and floods. These days, many of the alerts about stranded animals come directly from communities themselves. More villagers know to call the forest department if they see a deer or rhino in trouble.

With the rapid development outside the park boundaries, rescue efforts are intensifying, and it’s difficult to know how bad it’s going to be from one year to the next.

For the five rhino calves rescued this year, it could take around four years before they’re released. First they’ll be hand-reared for a few years, then they’ll be sent to a pre-release enclosure for a year or two, where they’ll adapt to reduced human contact and finding their own food and water. Some may even be sent to the Assam State Zoo as part of the zoo’s rhino-breeding program.

In the meantime, Kaziranga is still recovering from this year’s floods.

“Because it’s an annually flooded park, all our infrastructures are every year damaged,” Saikia says. “So we need to rebuild everything.”

Trafficked to extinction: India, Nepal, Hong Kong

By Antipoaching, Conservation
Rappler | October 1, 2019

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Here in the remote jungles of India’s Manipur State bordering Myanmar, the pace of life can often feel languid. The forests have grown back where British and invading Japanese troops once engaged in hand-to-hand combat in World War II.

Amidst the lush hills is Churachandpur, a typical border town where shops – selling cheap Chinese clothing and other hardware – spill out onto the monsoon-drenched streets. But the outward calm hides a lively underground economy run by wildlife traffickers and arms smugglers.

“There is hardly anything that you cannot get in Churachandpur,” said a field officer from the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) who requested to remain anonymous, “from rhino horns to pangolin scales, or geckos to arms and ammunition.”

Churachandpur’s notorious reputation stems from its location on the border with Myanmar, but most of the wildlife ends up in China.

India shares a porous 1,600-kilometer border with Myanmar. Not surprisingly, these states are common routes for illegal trafficking networks involving wildlife smuggling, drug syndicates, and the occasional militants.

“Sometimes, drugs are also traded with animal parts. Drugs are pushed in through these routes to the Indian side with the help of militant outfits that frequent these routes,” a retired Manipur police official told us.

The militants in India’s northeast are also a source of arms and ammunition for smugglers in the region, we were told. “The buyers normally come to Churachandpur or Dimapur in Nagaland,” said an undercover wildlife agent. He is part of a special investigation team set up by the state government in 2008 to stop rhino poaching.

Not too long ago, rhino horns and tiger parts were most heavily trafficked through these routes, but increased global attention has reduced demand in China. Now, pangolins and other wildlife have taken their place, investigators said.

“This network first smuggled rhino horns, but it has diversified into pangolins, geckos, and other wildlife,” said the agent, who has conducted regular sting operations.

“We have in recent times been able to stop the poaching of one-horned rhinos and smuggling of its horns,” said a WCCB spokesperson. “But we have noticed a sudden rise in seizures of pangolins from the region.”

“The recent increase in rescues indicates that there is a racket in smuggling out pangolins,” said Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India and head of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation Conservation (CWRC).

But the numbers of captured animals are still small. WCCB officers have confiscated 10 live pangolins in the past 3 years from northeast Indian states. The Assam State Zoo is caring for pangolins rescued from traffickers between January 2007 and July 2019.

Original photo as published by Rappler: A rescued pangolin at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation near Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India. © Dauharu Baro / Wildlife Trust of India / International Fund for Animal Welfare

An additional 10 pangolins were also recently rescued from traffickers, who abandoned them to evade a dragnet operation by law enforcement agencies. In August, the CWRC found a dead pangolin in an abandoned bag at a bus stop in Upper Assam.

India, while not a consumer of pangolins, is a source country for Indian and Chinese pangolin subspecies. Farmers, traditional snake-charming communities like the Sapera, and the semi-nomadic Bawariyasin often sell the animals to the middlemen for up to 70,000 rupees, a local fortune that equals roughly US$1,000, the wildlife officers said.

The pangolins are then taken to Manipur State and smuggled across the border to Myanmar, and on to China, the officers said.

Pangolins are not the only Indian native animal facing massive threats to their survival. The tree-dwelling tokay gecko – erroneously believed to be a cure for cancer and HIV/AIDS, and said to fetch prices of up to one million rupees – is also being smuggled into China via the same routes.

“Even though the animals have protection status, rhinos and tigers get all the attention,” said the Assam-based conservation activist Baibhav Talukder. “The punishment for poaching of rhinos and pangolins are similar, but our law enforcement agencies weren’t as concerned about pangolins until recently.”

“Wildlife trafficking should be seen as a national security threat and not merely the smuggling of animals,” he said.

Nepal: A New Trafficking Hub?

In March, two men aged 40 and 34 were intercepted at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu carrying 162 kilograms of pangolin scales in their check-in luggage. The pair had picked up the scales in the Democratic Republic of Congo, transited in Istanbul, then attempted to transit again in Nepal on their way to Shanghai. They are now at the Nakkhu Jail on the outskirts of Kathmandu, where they are awaiting trial.

Their arrest was a watershed moment: It was the largest recorded seizure of pangolin scales in Nepal and the first haul from an African pangolin species. It led police to worry that Nepal has become a new transit point for pangolins heading to China.

Information extracted from their mobile phones revealed that they were communicating with Chinese wildlife smugglers via WeChat, a Chinese messaging and payment app. Investigations identified a Nepali, a Bangladeshi, and a Chinese accomplice. The 3 are still at large.

“This is a distinct case of international organized crime, but it is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Birendra Johari of the Nepali police’s Central Investigation Bureau. “Our investigations show that pangolins in recent times have become the most poached wildlife in Nepal.”

Although Nepal lies on the traditional wildlife smuggling route between India and China, it has so far avoided the large-scale seizures seen in places like Singapore, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. The bulk of arrests to date involve small amounts of locally poached pangolins with no apparent connections to larger syndicates.

However, experts say they are concerned that this is changing. One reason is improving infrastructure.

The reopening of the Tatopani-Kodari border crossing with China earlier this year after it was destroyed during the 2015 earthquake, the increasing use of the Rasuwa-Kerung border crossing, and the prospect of a new trans-Himalayan railway line could all make Nepal a more attractive transit point for traffickers. Police in the Dolakha district, bordering China, also speak of rising demand that has led to the near disappearance of the animal.

“Nepal is already a signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which could increase market access and trafficking of wildlife,” said Kumar Paudel of Greenhood Nepal, a conservancy group, adding that pangolins from Africa, India, and Bangladesh were already being intercepted in Nepal en route to China.

Just 5 months before the arrest in Kathmandu, there was an almost identical case, in which two Chinese nationals were arrested smuggling suitcases full of pangolin scales from Congo.

Except this arrest was made, not in Nepal, but in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong: Two Imprisoned Smugglers Describe Their Trade

Hong Kong has been a hotspot for shipping pangolin scales since 2014, with tons of container shipments seized from Africa, and smaller seizures by speedboat and individual smugglers arriving by air.

Although Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) still plays an important role in the territory – there are more than 7,100 licensed TCM medicines traders here – local dealers we met undercover told us that they were not interested in large amounts of scales because the local demand was just too small.

“The risks (of selling scales) compared to the profits are too high. It’s not worth it,” a shop owner told us, “this business is better in the mainland.”

At the Lo Wu Correctional Institution, a prison, we found two small-time traffickers who were willing to discuss their actions.

The two Chinese women are serving time for attempting to smuggle some 110 kilograms of pangolin scales in 4 suitcases from Hong Kong International Airport to Macau by ferry, en route from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

One of them, aged 41, told us about her humble origins in China, her time in Congo, her plans to travel home to China and her arrest at the Hong Kong ferry terminal in August this year. Both are from the Guangxi region in southern China and asked not to be identified to speak more freely.

They said that a man they called Li Guangsheng had invited them to Congo to invest in beauty parlors last year. Li ran a construction business in Kinshasa, the capital, they said. “I was told that there are a lot of Chinese there and business was good,” one of the inmates said.

Li hosted and provided for them during their one-month stay in Kinshasa from October to November last year, they said. Then Li supposedly asked them to take 4 suitcases to Macau, the gambling hub.

They flew from Kinshasa to Hong Kong through Casablanca, in Morocco, and Doha, a circuitous route they said was cheaper than a direct flight.

Their statements could not be verified, nor could contact information for Li be found.

The two women were caught at Hong Kong airport during a routine customs X-ray check. Their suitcases contained the scales of 302 pangolins, at a total weight of 110 kilograms, wrapped in tin foil bags. Prosecutors later estimated that the scales could be worth as much as $71,000.

When we visited them in pre-trial custody before their sentencing, both women claimed that they did not know what they had been transporting. “We thought it was dried seafood,” one of them said.

They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 16 months in prison for importing a protected wildlife product without a license.

The court heard the pair’s case after new legislation passed in November 2018, increasing penalties for pangolin trafficking. Now, the crime is punishable with a fine of up to 10 million Hong Kong dollars, or roughly $1.3 million, and up to 10 years in prison.

During a visit after their sentencing, one of the two inmates changed her story. She said that she knowingly trafficked pangolins, but said that they did not expect to be jailed.

Li told them about the scales, she said. “He said if we got caught, he would pay the fine and we would be fine,” she said. “We trusted him.”

“I heard that someone bringing ivory for him was arrested in Hong Kong before,” the inmate said, “but that the person was released after paying a fine.”

Their case is not the only one. In mid-November last year, a man from China’s Fujian Province was sentenced to 20 months in prison for smuggling 48 kilograms of pangolin scales from the Democratic Republic of Congo via Ethiopia to Hong Kong.

The two women are still serving time, spending their days washing dishes and cleaning floors at a prison kitchen. As soon as they are released, they plan to return home to Guangxi. “We will be sent to the border and then take high-speed trains to go home,” said one, with a wry smile.

This is part of The Pangolin Reports’ “Trafficked to Extinction,” a global report investigating the illegal wildlife trade of pangolins across Asia, Africa and Europe.