As countries in South Asia went into lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, criminals in the illegal wildlife trade took advantage. With authorities focussed on enforcing lockdown restrictions, poachers felt less likely to be caught.
As a result, authorities in India, Pakistan and Nepal said there was a surge in illegal hunting, including of endangered animals and rare birds. To make matters worse, the economic consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown also saw people who had lost their livelihoods turn to poaching to support themselves.
The trend follows what has already been confirmed in Southeast Asia, Africa, Brazil and Colombia: that poaching and deforestation increased since Covid-19 restrictions went into effect around the world.
Joseph Walston, the head of conservation of the Wildlife Conservation Society noted that, “In places like Southeast Asia, there’s this huge urban-to-rural migration where people have lost their jobs in the cities overnight. They’re now having to depend on poaching, logging or other activities that are degrading nature because they have no other option.”
This is just as true in South Asia. In India, an increase in reported poaching may be only the tip of the iceberg, say conservationists. In Pakistan, officials report a record number of cases registered for illegal hunting in the March to April period. In Nepal, one of the most worrying cases of poaching has surfaced in recent years. Bangladesh is the only country that has reported a decrease in poaching incidents, though conservationists remain concerned about the threat to wildlife.
While these countries have battled the illegal wildlife trade for many years, the recent lockdown has shown that the black market are well entrenched.
In the Northern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the lockdown period from March 22 to May 12 saw a rise in incidents of hunting and poaching. “From March 20 to April 30, we have made a record registration of 600 cases of illegal hunting and poaching,” said Muhammad Niaz, the divisional wildlife officer in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In regular months, he said, the total cases are between 150 to 200.
Most of the cases involved the smuggling of captured birds and animals to supply markets in the major cities, some of which were open to allow essential items. “In Dera Ismail Khan district alone, my team booked 220 hunters and poachers who were operating close to the river Indus,” said Khan Malook, the local district wildlife officer.
The biggest case was the smuggling of 65 demoiselle cranes on March 24 from DI Khan to Peshawar. The cranes were found tied up with their heads covered with cloth in an ambulance, whose operators pretended they were shifting a body, Malook said.
Sharifuddin, the Chief Conservator of forests and wildlife of Balochistan province, said that smuggling cases had increased in KP because the province is a key resting point for migratory birds flying back to Siberia from India along the Indus Flyway .
Poaching is a lucrative business and people have taken advantage of the lack of activity at the wildlife department during the lockdown, said Muhammad Sohaib, a bird seller in Peshawar. Sohaib admitted there had been an increase in the supply of birds by poachers during this time.
There is big money in hunting birds. Poachers selling cranes and other rare species can easily earn hundreds of thousands of rupees on a monthly basis. A crane can fetch anywhere from PKR 7,000 to PKR 2 million. “The price of rare wild species on the open market is drawing people towards this illegal practice, threatening already endangered wild species,” Sohaib said.
Wildlife officials believe that there has been a surge in the clandestine wildlife trade because people have had to look for other sources of income, including poaching, during the lockdown, which has put a stop to commercial activity. Not only professional poachers, but ordinary people have moved into the illegal trade as authorities have been distracted.
Idle youngsters bragging on social media by uploading pictures of hunted wild species also caused an increase in hunting during this time of enforced leisure, wildlife department officials told The Third Pole.
In Nepal, major incidents involving endangered species have raised suspicions about an increase in poaching as the country went into lockdown. Officials say that a host of issues such as loss of livelihoods, restrictions on movement and a lull in tourism may have encouraged poachers to take advantage of the situation.
On April 25, the bodies of six musk deer were found inside Sagarmatha National Park, below Mount Everest, a month after the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. Park officials said it was “one of the worst cases of poaching” in recent years.
“When we reached the site where the bodies were found, we saw that the deer were trapped and killed. The pod on one male deer had been removed,” said Bhumiraj Upadhyaya, chief conservation officer at the Sagarmatha National Park.
The Himalayan musk deer, more commonly known as Kasturi in South Asia, is one of the most endangered species in the region. Scent glands from male musk deer can fetch thousands of rupees, and are used to make perfume and traditional medicine.
Dawa Nuru Sherpa, a resident of Khumbu on the foothills of Everest, wrote on his Facebook page that a dead golden eagle was also found inside a trap in the same area. More wire traps were also found.
Another incident in Southern Nepal’s Parsa National Park saw poachers exchange fire with patrolling soldiers. One soldier was hit, while a poacher died on the spot, said Bishnu Shrestha, information officer at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Officials managed to arrest one of the poachers, who worked as a painter in Kathmandu, and had returned home after the lockdown because of a lack of work, said Amir Maharjan, the park’s chief conservation officer.
Conservation officials have stepped up security efforts in the wake of these incidents. “All our offices have opened even as the government has not listed us under essential services,” Shrestha said.
Most of Nepal’s national parks see an influx of tourists during spring season. But the protected areas are currently deserted, and that has encouraged poachers to kill wild animals, said Upadhyaya. “The Everest region would be brimming with people with the advent of spring,” he said. “But this year, with the lockdown, it’s easier for [poachers] to set up traps.”
Numerous minor incidents related to wildlife poaching and illegal logging have also been recorded in the country since the lockdown, said Shrestha. At Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s most popular conservation area, an elephant and three crocodiles have been reported killed.
As India went into lockdown, there was a rise in poaching registered in many parts of India: From wild birds in cages, to animals caught for bushmeat, to prized commodities in the international illegal poaching trade.
In Odisha, four men were apprehended on May 10 with a leopard skin in Simlipal tiger reserve. On the same day, officials found a rhino killed by poachers in Kaziranga national park and tiger reserve in the northeast state of Assam. Conservationists said the Indian rhino will not survive without constant vigilance, because its horn is highly valued in trade.
A sharp rise in poaching has come to light in Rajasthan, including several cases of the endangered chinkara, a desert antelope which has been pushed back from a larger range and is now predominantly found in Rajasthan.
Conservationists say this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Sumit Dookia, who studies desert ecology and works on community conservation said, “From our estimates, at least 55 cases of poaching were reported [in Western Rajasthan]. The animals poached include chinkara, black buck, spiny-tailed lizard, desert hare, peafowl, monitor lizards and grey francolin.”
Meanwhile, in Karnataka’s Bandipur tiger reserve, a poaching ring was discovered — 50 kg of chital deer meat was seized and nine people arrested. This was among a string of poaching incidents. Some of the accused used to work in forest department in temporary jobs.
In contrast to the rest of the region, wildlife officials in Bangladesh say poaching has been kept under tight control during the lockdown period. “We have had no cases of poaching to date after the pandemic arrived in Bangladesh. Despite lockdown, our Wildlife Crime Control Unit is working relentlessly. Since transportation is prohibited, controlling poaching wildlife is now possible,” said Mihir Kumar Doe, Conservator of Forests, Wildlife & Nature Conservation Circle.
“Bangladesh does not have its own market for wildlife species rather it is used as a route...But wildlife poaching is going down in Bangladesh during the pandemic,” said Md Amir Hosain Chowdhury, Chief Conservator of Forests.
According to the Wildlife Crime Control Unit, there were 438 cases of wildlife trafficking recorded between 2013 and the end of 2019, with only 107 cases in 2019.
But others say that the illegal trade continues. Some local species – such as deer, pangolin, lizard turtles and native birds – are still being poached and smuggled out of the country, said Shahriar Caesar Rahman, Chief Executive Officer, Creative Conservation Alliance.
“Now that the law enforcement is busy [with the] coronavirus issue, smugglers have opportunities to increase trading through illegal land ports. Many communities in hill areas are now getting involved with poaching or killing wild animals for their livelihood. It is alarming,” he said.
Reporting for this story was done by Adeel Saeed in Pakistan, Neha Sinha in India, A R Joshi in Nepal and Nazmun Naher Shishir in Bangladesh. It first appeared on The Third Pole.