Acting on a tip-off, police in Nepal arrested Ramjas Banjara with a tiger’s hide and 47 tiger bones on May 4, 2015.
Further investigation uncovered that Banjara, an Indian national, was involved in the trafficking of tiger body parts in Nepal and that he was wanted in India for wildlife crimes.
Prosecutors secured a conviction against him under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1973, and argued in the Bardiya District Court for the maximum punishment and penalties provided under the law – five to 15 years in prison, a fine ranging from Rs500,000 to Rs1 million (US$4,293-$8,586), or both.
Banjara confessed that he had bought the tiger’s hide for Rs15,000 ($128) from an unidentified person. Forensic tests of the skin and bones proved that they were from a Bengal tiger, an endangered species found only on the Indian subcontinent.
The Bardiya District Court sentenced him to five years in prison in 2016 – the minimum punishment for the crime. Public prosecutors then appealed the sentence, but the Nepalgunj High Court upheld the verdict in 2017. Nepal’s law does not allow further appeal if both courts have issued the same verdict in a case with imprisonment of less than 10 years.
By May 2020, Banjara had been released after serving his full prison term, the High Court’s information officer Munna Singh Chetri recently confirmed. Police have no information of his whereabouts since.
“There was no point in arresting Banjara again after he completed his time in prison for we did not have other cases against him," said Birendra Johari, an officer in the wildlife division of the Nepal Police's Central Investigation Bureau (CIB).
"However, we know that there are several cases against him in India,” added Johari, who feared that Banjara might resume wildlife trafficking in Nepal if he was not arrested in India.
Banjara’s case is just one example of how wildlife crime offenders tend to get slapped with lenient punishments, say conservationists, despite the fact that Nepal’s laws are stringent compared to those of neighbouring countries.
The pattern has encouraged criminals to resume trafficking after they are released from prison, said Ramprit Yadav, the former chief conservation officer of Chitwan National Park.
“The laws are tough, but kingpins have managed to walk free through the courts, while the poor who have worked as carriers and cannot afford to defend themselves in the courts are at the receiving end. They remain in jail while kingpins tend to form new criminal groups and restart wildlife trafficking,” Yadav said.
An assessment of current wildlife crimes indicates that the poachers’ modus operandi and the weapons they use for killing wild animals remain unchanged, and that they have resumed their crimes, Yadav added.
After zero poaching incidents involving rhinos for three and half years, for example, at least 16 one-horned rhinos have been found dead since October 2020. A government investigation has confirmed that four of them were killed by poachers.
Krishna Prasad Bhurtel, a member of Parliament in Bagmati province and a former chairperson of the Chitwan National Park buffer zone management committee, blamed judges for not being serious about wildlife conservation when issuing verdicts on wildlife crime.
“The stringent legal provisions are meaningless if offenders are slapped with minimum punishments irrespective of the gravity of the crimes they have committed,” said Bhurtel.
“Notorious poachers and sharp shooters were serving time in jail in the past few years, but they may have been used in wildlife trafficking again after they were released with minimum sentences,” said Bhurtel.
Kumar Paudel, a scientific researcher on wildlife crimes, said big-time traffickers are able to influence politicians and the courts to lessen their punishment or walk free.
As part of a research project titled Conservation enforcement: Insights from people incarcerated for wildlife crimes in Nepal, Paudel visited several prisons across the country and interviewed inmates. He found that 75% of those convicted were from indigenous communities.
“There are loopholes in the laws. Kingpins are rarely arrested, and in cases where they are arrested they manage to walk free,” Paudel noted.
This was the case with Lodu Dime, a resident of Kathmandu and a high-profile trafficker convicted of illegally trading tiger parts.
On January 12, 2013, a vehicle heading from Kathmandu to the Rasuwa border with China was stopped with five whole tiger skins, 512 pieces of tiger bones and 122 tiger jaws. Police arrested the vehicle’s owner, Suk Bahadur Tamang, and driver Nakul Tamang.
It was widely reported that the case involved an illegal wildlife crime kingpin.
Suk Bahadur Tamang admitted that he was the courier and that the goods belonged to Lodu Dime, who had paid him Rs100,000 ($858) for transportation.
Police raided Dime’s house in Kathmandu and confiscated wildlife parts, goods made of animal parts, eight passports and cash in several international currencies. By that time Dime had absconded.
Prosecutors then filed a case against the three men at the Nuwakot District Forest Office. On June 27, 2013, the district forest officer handed Dime a fine of Rs100,000 ($858) in absentia after finding that he was not involved in the trafficking of the wildlife parts in the vehicle but was guilty of storing them at his home in Kathmandu.
The driver was ordered to pay a fine of Rs100,000 ($858) and the vehicle owner was sentenced to imprisonment of nine years and a fine of Rs60,000 ($515) – far higher than Dime’s sentence.
The government attorney's office filed an appeal at the Patan High Court challenging the verdict. On February 24, 2018, the high court sentenced Dime in absentia to five years in prison, citing the gravity of the offence and the role Dime had played in the crime.
All the while, Dime remained at large, until in May 2018 he was brought back to Nepal after being arrested in India with the help of Indian police.
In July 2018, he got an order from the Supreme Court enabling him to appeal the high court's sentence and to stay out of jail on bail pending its decision. At the time this story was published, the Supreme Court still has not started hearing Dime’s appeal.
According to a police officer at the CIB wildlife division, however, Dime has fled back to India as his bail conditions did not restrict his movement. In contrast, the vehicle owner, who admitted to transporting the wildlife contraband, is still in prison serving out his nine-year sentence.
Gravity of the offense
While Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 provides for a prison term of up to 15 years, depending on the gravity of the offense, India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972 sets a maximum penalty of seven years, or a fine of Rs25,000 ($343), or both.
Bhutan’s Forest and Nature Conservation Act 1995 prescribes a maximum of five years in prison, and Bangladesh allows for two to seven years in prison for first offenders, with fines ranging from 100,000 ($1,179) to 1-million ($1,1795) Bangladeshi Taka.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Raj Kumar Rai, chief at the CIB’s wildlife division, said the release of wildlife traffickers after serving short prison sentences in Nepal in recent years has posed a challenge.
“Many other criminals are found to continue the same criminal activities after serving a jail term,” he said.
The chief conservation officer of Chitwan National Park, Ananath Baral, said the judges do not seem to have understood the gravity of wildlife crime and the importance of protecting endangered species.
“Some judges seemingly think that killing a baby buffalo and a one-horned rhino involves similar offenses. They are of the view that they should not send anyone to jail for simply killing an animal,” Baral said.
“National Parks itself used to hear trials involving wildlife offenses and give offenders maximum penalties," he said. "But the courts are hearing wildlife offenses nowadays and have issued penalties at the lower range. This has had an adverse effect in the conservation sector.”
Quasi-judicial bodies, such as National Parks, Hunting Reserves, office of protected areas and district forest offices used to investigate, prosecute and conduct trials relating to wildlife crimes before the new Constitution endorsed in September 2015 entrusted cases that involve offenses punishable with more than one year in prison to the district courts.
District courts applied minimum punishments, and the high courts and supreme court later followed suit. This has become a new trend in court cases involving wildlife, said Baral.
The Chitwan District Court, where judges have heard most of the wildlife crime cases, denied this argument. One judge on that court, who asked not to be named said, “Almost all those charge-sheeted [accused] were convicted and jailed previously, but now we issue verdicts on those offenses keeping in mind that accused people’s human rights are not violated.
“We look into the matter of whether the offender has been involved in a planned way and also evaluate his/her roles behind the crime while deciding a sentence,” the judge said.
Tufan Neupane is a special correspondent with Himalkhabar magazine and writes on transitional justice, human rights, judiciary, wildlife crime, and the environment. This investigation was sponsored by #WildEye Asia and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published on Oxpeckers and has been edited here for length and clarity.
Journalists interested in tracking these and other cases, can check out the #WildEye Asia tool and download a consolidated data set of court cases analyzed for this investigation in our Get the Data section.
Banner image: Ramjas Banjara: convicted tiger trafficking kingpin, back at large after serving the minimum five-year sentence in jail / Photo courtesy of CIB