On 22 March, Qiu Guorong, 40, and Que Labao, 34, had just flown into Kathmandu from Kinshasa when they were intercepted at the airport. The Red Channel x-ray found they were carrying 162kg of pangolin scales.
This was the largest ever seizure of pangolin scales in Nepal, and the first haul of an African species in Nepal, which has always been a transit point for pangolins and other wildlife from India to China.
The Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of the Nepal Police learned that the Chinese nationals were travelling with the package from Congo and were to be received by a Bangladeshi man in Kathmandu, where they had booked a hotel room for three nights before planning to fly to Shanghai.
The phones of the smugglers revealed they were part of a WeChat group of Chinese wildlife smugglers. The pair said they were taking the scales to treat people afflicted with cancer due to excessive smoking in China. Both Qiu and Que are being held in Nakkhu Jail, awaiting trial. A Nepali, a Bangladeshi and another Chinese national who were helping the pair are on the run.
“This is a distinct case of international organised crime but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Our investigation shows that pangolins in recent times have become the most poached wildlife in Nepal,” said Birendra Johari of the CIB wildlife branch.
Last week, Shyam Bahadur Tamang, 27, and Bishal Tamang, 17, of Kavre were arrested in Bhaktapur with 380g of pangolin scales. After they were arrested, the pair said they came across a dead pangolin in their home village and were trying to find a buyer in Kathmandu. They are in detention for a mandatory 45-day investigation.
In the last seven years, the CIB has arrested 64 people in 63 pangolin operations. A total of 226kg of scales, 8 pangolin skins, 4 live pangolins and 1 carcass have been seized. Both species of the mammal found in Nepal, Chinese and Indian pangolins, are listed as protected animals and anyone responsible for killing, poaching, transporting, selling or buying the scaly anteater is punishable with a Rs1 million fine and/or up to 15 years in jail.
New trans-Himalayan roads have also made it easier for wildlife smugglers transporting contraband from India to China via Nepal. Besides Rasuwagadi, Olangchungola in Taplejung, Kimathanka in Sankhuwasaba, Ilam in eastern Nepal, Tinkar Pass in Darchula and Hilsa in Humla are new smuggling routes.
Lack of awareness about pangolins and their endangered status also hinder conservation. People hunt and kill pangolins and try to sell their body parts not knowing it is illegal, and get arrested.
Some indigenous communities eat pangolin meat for its supposed health benefits, and farmers kill the mammal if they see one because they believe it to be inauspicious, when in fact pangolins help them control pests.
“We know so little about pangolins and yet they are already on the brink of extinction,” said Shashank Sharma of the Zoological Society of London in Nepal.
“Training law enforcement, ducation, and better patrolling at borders are needed to protect pangolins.”
Scales of justice
Although pangolin smuggling is lucrative that it attracts organised gangs, not all those involved are hardened criminals.
As Bishnu Adhikari, 24, came out from behind bars at Kathmandu’s Central Jail, his eyes are downcast and he looks subdued. The tall, unshaven young man sits on a narrow concrete bench in a rare media interview.
“My friend came to me with the package and suggested we go together to sell it, and split the money. I knew it was pangolin scales but didn’t know that punishment was so harsh if we were caught. I was doing it for money, anyone would – it is difficult raising a family.”
Adhikari lived with his mother, wife and daughter in Nuwakot district. He dropped out of school and had been supporting his family from carpentry. They were caught at a police checkpoint in Tokha, but his friend managed to escape. The district court sentenced Adhikari to five years in prison, but he is hoping to get out on bail.
“I will go back to my village, back to carpentry, use my skills to support my family,” said Adhikari.
After Adhikari was taken back to his cell, we meet Bikash Chhetri, 17, from Dolakha district who is also accused of pangolin smuggling.
People hunt and kill pangolins and try to sell their body parts not knowing it is illegal, and get arrested.
With his shy pimpled face, it is clear Chhetri is no hardened criminal. It is difficult to hear his soft voice over the buzz of relatives nearby seeking visitors’ passes at the Central Jail.
Chhetri was in Grade 11 when he was arrested last year. He was travelling on a motorcycle with college friends to visit his brother-in-law. They were intercepted in Teku, and officers from the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) uncovered pangolin scales in his friend’s bag. Two of his friends who were also caught have been released.
“I knew smuggling pangolins was illegal but I didn’t know he was carrying it,” said Chhetri who is also serving a five-year sentence. “I would never imagine going through my friend’s belongings, I trusted him. I don’t know if I can afford bail, but I hope the state will look after me and consider my situation.”
Names have been changed to protect the identity of the inmates.