Despite the misgivings of conservationists and non-governmental organisations, Nepal is about to embark upon the commercial farming of wild animals, including a number of endangered species.

Decades after Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act banned the buying or selling of wild animals in the country, an amendment to the Act was passed by parliament in 2017 to allow the farming of wild animals for commercial purposes. Then in 2019, the Ministry of Forests and Environment published a list of wild animals that could be farmed under the new policy, which included several endangered deer species; 12 birds; all reptiles except pythons; and frogs and toads.

The new policy was met with controversy, with conservationists and even officials in Nepal’s wildlife department questioning how it could be adequately monitored to prevent illegal trade – a petition to repeal the policy gained almost 10,000 signatures. Meanwhile, some conservationists suggested that if done properly, wildlife farming could reduce pressure on wild animal populations affected by poaching.

In early 2020, Nepal was finalising criteria for issuing wildlife farming permits, including around obtaining animals from the wild to start captive populations, when the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the process. Now, three years later, the government is again ramping up its efforts to launch wildlife farming.

To find out more about the policy and what it means for Nepal’s wild animals, The Third Pole spoke with Maheshwar Dhakal, director-general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation – the government agency in charge of formulating the wildlife farming policy, as well as overseeing and regulating its implementation.

Maheshwar Dhakal, director-general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Credit: Ramesh Bhushal via The Third Pole.

How close is the government to finalising a criteria document that will allow wildlife farming businesses to start up in Nepal?

We are now finalising the criteria. The criteria document prepared by the Ministry of Forests and Environment has received approval from the Ministry of Finance and has been forwarded to the Ministry of Law. Once it’s back, we will submit it to the cabinet for endorsement. We should be able to accept applications from parties interested in wildlife farming soon.

Why does Nepal want to move into wildlife farming now?

It is necessity that has forced us to move into this policy. All policies evolve with time and wildlife policy is no exception. There are three main reasons: demand for farming from the private sector and communities; willingness within the conservation sector to go into farming; and an increasing interest from the political sphere in economic opportunities from the wildlife sector.

It’s valid for any nation to explore ways to gain economic benefits. Nepal doesn’t boast gold mines or oil wells. We have forests, wildlife, water resources and human resources. So, we should think about harnessing benefits from these. We believe that if some animals are farmed legally and used for economic benefits, mostly meat production, it will eventually help conservation rather than harm.

Your list of species that can be farmed includes endangered Himalayan musk deer and hog deer, as well as several threatened bird and reptile species. How were animals selected? Do you think other endangered species like tigers and rhinos will be on the list in the future?

This policy was initiated before I became head [of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation] eight months ago. But having worked in this department previously for over five years as an ecologist, I am familiar with the plan. As far as I have been informed, there wasn’t a scientific study carried out before selecting species. The selection was based on demand for meat production in the market; the species’ protection status; and discussion among stakeholders within government agencies and concerned interest groups outside the government.

We have selected some species and once those animals are provided for farming, we will know what works well and what doesn’t. We can make necessary changes thereafter too. It’s a kind of hit-and-trial method, or learning by doing.

It’s not true that consultations were not done. In Nepal, people think consultation means talking directly with an individual. If it’s someone else with whom the matter was discussed, then [they] don’t think it is a consultation. It is not possible to reach out to all individuals or groups. We haven’t sent the document for final endorsement and there is ample space to make changes, if need be, so any feedback and suggestions are welcome.

‘If we could farm Himalayan musk deer, why not tigers in future?’ is a valid question. Farming tigers or rhinos is not beyond possibility, and if the government thinks that it’s worth it then it can decide in the future. But there is a fundamental difference between Himalayan musk deer and tiger or rhino farms. Musk deer farming doesn’t threaten an individual: musk can be extracted without killing the animal. But if you farm tigers or rhinos, you have to kill the animal and sell its body parts to gain the economic benefits.

A Himalayan musk deer in this photograph taken in Uttarakhand. Credit: Dibyendu Ash, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The government is being criticised for the new policy, and it seems that very little preparation has been done. Do you see any challenges ahead?

Obviously, there are challenges ahead. It’s a new venture and we don’t know what the results will be. One challenge is to identify targeted beneficiaries of this business. Our objective is to help reduce poverty and gain economic benefits, but we can’t give animals to individual farmers as that would be nearly impossible to monitor and regulate. In that case, we should focus on commercial farming by companies with capacity to invest so that large-scale production is possible. But we will be criticised for benefiting a small portion of the population that already has resources. Communities and individuals won’t have that opportunity [to benefit economically] despite wildlife being a public property, where communities have played a significant role in the conservation of those animals. However, to get it started we should be more specific, and I am personally in favour of large-scale farming. We will decide about it but it’s a view that is divided among government officials.

If we go into large-scale farming then we don’t have to worry much as the government will take less responsibility (financially and operationally) for managing farms, because selected companies will be responsible. Our role would be just monitoring them, which we can do with a bit of investment in human and financial resources. We will provide seed animals and [investing companies will bear the cost of capturing and transporting those animals].

In terms of preparation, we can’t construct a jail now on the assumption that illegal activities will happen in the future. We already have a mechanism that works in different parts of the country when it comes to wildlife conservation. The only thing we need is to work a bit and make sure we have a mechanism to look over wildlife farming in addition to wildlife conservation, and we are capable of doing this.

The Third Pole has heard that Chinese companies have approached the government with an intention to farm animals including Himalayan musk deer. Have you been contacted regarding this?

Not at all. It’s been eight months [since I became director-general], and I haven’t met any company representatives from China that are interested in wildlife farming. Also, I have not received any calls from them regarding the matter. But even if they do, it’s normal for companies across the globe to show interest. Be it be Chinese, Indian, American, or European, I don’t see any wrongdoing in approaching the government or showing interest. Once we finalise our legal documents, they may come, but it’s in our hands to decide who to give a licence to.

Nepal has a strong international reputation on wildlife conservation, and the sector receives significant international financial support. With a wildlife farming policy in place, do you foresee any negative implications for this support?

We are not the first country in the world to have a wildlife farming policy. There are several examples of wildlife farming across the globe. There are both failures and successes. But in general, there are two schools of thought: [the first says that] wildlife consumption leads to more crime. If you allow any animal to be farmed, consumers will access the products which will eventually increase demand and ultimately put pressure on wild populations, resulting in more poaching to meet the demand. But there is another school of thought which is equally valid. It has been argued that if you allow some animals to be farmed and provide them for human consumption then it will reduce poaching as demand is met via legal production. So, it’s a mix of things and there is no one right answer.

Our responsibility is to make sure that no species goes extinct from the wild because of our policy. But it’s my department’s role to make sure that we facilitate a process that will eventually benefit the country and its people. If wildlife farming has that potential, why not go for it? We are a sovereign state and can formulate our policies on our own. Of course, the policy should also respect international laws and treaties that we are part of, but I don’t think there would be any resistance from international communities in this matter as we are not going against conservation of any species.

This article was first published on The Third Pole.