'Our Goal is Zero Panda Poaching': Q&A with Frontliners of our Campaign to Stop the Illegal Red Panda Trade
Anti-poaching efforts in Nepal are experiencing an unforeseen and unprecedented setback: the Covid-19 pandemic.
Its ripple effects are aggravating poverty and weakening enforcement of illegal trade laws among the communities living in red panda range.
To make matters worse, misinformation on the value of red panda pelts and demand for this endangered species among the trade market has become rampant, sparking a surge in red panda poaching that has significant implications for Himalayan, and even global, biodiversity,
Red Panda Network (RPN) is countering these threats by ramping up awareness campaigns, anti-poaching networks and patrollings, and sustainable livelihood programs. Our goal is no panda poaching in eastern Nepal's Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) corridor!
To help elucidate this evolving and complicated situation, we asked Ram Chandra Khatiwada, the Under Secretary of Wildlife Crime Control Section at Nepal’s Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation and Sonam Tashi Lama, RPN’s Program Coordinator, some questions to shed some light on the illegal red panda trade and RPN’s collaborative commitment to stopping it. Here are their answers:
Ram Chandra Khatiwada (left) and Sonam Tashi Lama (right).
RPN: What is the current status of red panda poaching and trade in Nepal?
Ram: Despite nationwide educational campaigns, the cases of illicit poaching and trade of endangered wild animals are still rampant in the country. In fact, unfortunately, we have lately encountered some severe cases of red panda poaching and trafficking.
The organized criminal syndicates operate at transnational scales and Nepal has become a transit hub and source for smuggling wildlife parts to other countries, mainly India and China.
The misconception of red pandas having high economic value is creating demand in the illegal trade market and presenting greater challenges to species conservation. Overall, current anti-poaching efforts are not able to match the illegal red panda trade industry.
RPN: What is causing the rise in red panda poaching?
Ram: Red panda habitats are fragmented into isolated patches that are in close proximity to human settlement where people have easy access to forest resources and wildlife. This has made red pandas vulnerable to poaching — a threat exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sustainable livelihood and awareness opportunities are limited and poverty is prevalent in rural parts of the country. Illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative business that has emerged as a short-cut to quick income. These marginalized community members are often lured to commit wildlife crimes with promises of high financial returns; local people are involved in the majority of red panda poaching cases.
Sonam: Currently, it is quite difficult to pinpoint the exact cause for the rise in red panda poaching without conducting a formal study. But, in general, poverty and unemployment is always associated with poaching and the illegal red panda trade. The people involved in illegal wildlife trade (IWT) are below the poverty line; unemployment, especially among the youth, is a critical driver of poaching.
Our database suggests that almost 50% of culprits in the illegal trade of red panda pelts are under the age of 40. We found that the frontline actors of IWT are often illiterate youth from families of lower socioeconomic status. Local youth are attracted to wildlife crime to escape poverty and scarce employment opportunities with what they see as quick and easy money. This is compounded by rapidly changing economic behavior of the community (e.g. some people are turning wealthy very fast), family responsibility in the local culture, as well as the economic costs of the pandemic.
Covid-19 restrictions have limited the movement and presence of law enforcement agencies, and suspended their anti-poaching patrols and surveillance programs, which gives poachers free rein to roam and hunt. To top it all off, misinformation on red panda pelts having monetary value is creating a fake market and demand.
RPN: How is misinformation contributing to poaching?
Ram: Combating IWT demands accurate and accessible information to bridge the knowledge gap. We need to circulate messages that emphasize the ecological value of red pandas and other wildlife as well as the drivers and consequences of illegal poaching. However, it is unfortunate that mainstream media focuses more on misleading information that suggests there is a high monetary value of red pandas and their body parts in the international IWT market. This, along with inaccurate content on social media, has far-reaching repercussions: Misinformation stimulates the IWT industry by encouraging and misguiding people to poach and smuggle wildlife parts.
Sonam: Our colleague, Damber Bista, conducted the most comprehensive report on the illegal trade of red panda pelts in Nepal. The study indicates the limited ethnozoological value of red panda body parts and lack of clear market or demand for red panda trade, suggesting a fake market — with almost no buyers — that is based on rumors.
Even if intentions are good, it can be harmful when community members living in red panda range spread inaccurate information. As conservationists, we must be mindful of the messages we share regarding red panda in local communities. This goes for the media as well. Rather than emphasizing the value of the pelts confiscated from poachers or traffickers, it would be more beneficial if the news focused on refuting misinformation, sharing the importance of red panda conservation, and highlighting the harms and risks of IWT.
RPN: You say the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating the threat of poaching for red pandas. How so?
Ram: The outbreak of Covid-19 has had significant repercussions on a global scale. In the rural communities of Nepal, the pandemic has engendered reverse migration and loss of economic opportunities, attracting local communities to IWT as a source of income. Local people now have more access to forest areas, resources and wildlife because of pandemic-related restrictions among regulatory and enforcement agencies.
Sonam: Nepal is a country with limited resources that has managed to create a conservation model for tigers and rhinos. Despite these achievements, IWT remains and is likely increasing due to economic and enforcement limitations related to the pandemic. The economic turmoil is real — as people continue to return to villages after losing their jobs in cities and neighboring countries, they may resort to IWT to escape extreme poverty. Red pandas are among the wildlife vulnerable to poaching.
RPN has been closely monitoring data on illegal red panda pelt trade in Nepal. In 2019, 12 pelts were reportedly confiscated; in 2020, 10 pelts were confiscated. However, the curve began to trend upward in 2021 with 27 red panda pelts confiscated through August — a number that is twice as many as what was reported in the two previous years. The statistics also show that no poaching event occurred from March to July, 2020 and April to June, 2021 when Nepal was in a nationwide lockdown. Soon after restrictions eased in 2020, the cases increased in the months of October, November and December with reports of 5 red panda pelt confiscations. The situation continued to get worse in 2021.
Three poachers arrested with red panda hides in Banke, Nepal.
RPN: Are there any cases of red panda poaching in Nepal’s protected areas during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Ram: There are no recorded cases of red panda poaching and trafficking from protected areas. This is thanks to effective coordination and competency among stakeholders, law enforcement, and anti-poaching networks. However, the remote location, limited awareness among local communities, and inadequate human resources are still hindering anti-poaching initiatives to conserve red pandas in Nepal.
RPN: What are we doing to stop red panda poaching?
Sonam: Our goal is zero panda poaching. This means the No Panda Poaching campaign is to achieve zero events of red panda poaching and illegal trade of its pelts in Nepal’s PIT corridor throughout the year. We have outlined three criteria to measure the success of our efforts:
- No reports of red panda snares and traps during our habitat monitoring and patrolling.
- No confiscations of red panda pelts by Nepal Police and Division Forest Offices.
- No arrests (in any part of Nepal) for smuggling red panda pelts.
The criteria seems basic but the effort that goes behind the campaign is massive and multi-tiered, involving collaboration on local and regional levels from communities on the ground to authorities in Division Forest Offices, Nepal Police, and other stakeholders.
Despite the nationwide lockdowns caused by the pandemic, Forest Guardians have been in the field, safely (their anti-poaching units are adhering to all Covid-19 safety protocols) patrolling their Community Forests. We have deployed camera traps in strategic locations, primarily to monitor red pandas and other wildlife but the cameras have also unexpedentaly been an effective way to document illegal activities in the forests.
We organized a workshop for the Border Outpost Police (BOP) in the PIT corridor, educating them on the urgent need for red panda conservation while also providing insight into the illegal red panda supply chain and measures to disrupt it. The workshops spurred a collaboration with the Armed Police Force (AFPs) in anti-poaching patrolling.
We have been producing PSAs and short awareness films in Nepali language, addressing misinformation regarding red panda’s pelt trade. Our celebrity ambassador, Dayahang Rai, has been a big part of our outreach and has helped us extend our conservation message to a wider audience. We will continue to build momentum with more educational videos and posters.
Our plans also include organizing workshops for at least 1,000 security forces, providing logistic and technical support to Division Forest Offices (DFO) and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) in Nepal’s red panda range (and DFOs of Kathmandu valley) as well as develop a field guide on the identification of red panda pelts (to help reduce misidentification of their pelts with pelts of Giant flying squirrel which happened in twice in Nepal this year).
Ram: The WCCB is a critical piece to national efforts to stop IWT. It is a network of enforcement agencies that works at local and national levels, including more than twenty districts in Nepal. Each district has a Division Forest Office that raises awareness on the risk of illicit wildlife poaching and trade as well as conducts anti-poaching patrolling in vulnerable areas and transit hubs. WCCB works to strengthen local grassroots efforts — while enforcing laws that protect wildlife — to combat illegal poaching, trafficking, and trade of endangered species.
Anti-poaching network in Nepal consisting of police/security forces, Forest Guardians and other local stakeholders.
Armed Police Forces during awareness and capacity-building training in Nepal.
RPN: What are we doing to combat misinformation?
Sonam: RPN is working to eliminate the local, inaccurate perspective that there is a market for red panda pelts through public awareness and education campaigns. The pandemic has interrupted our ability to conduct in-person outreach events so we are leaning on digital media for now.
We are producing a PSA (Public Service Announcement) and continue to release other short informational videos that convey the importance of red pandas to communities and ecosystem as well as the risk of red panda poaching — emphasizing how red panda pelts have no market value and no cultural, medicinal, and religious significance. Our collaboration with RPN conservation ambassador, Dayahang Rai, continues to bolster our international reach.
We plan on organizing awareness workshops for the government of Nepal frontliners: Nepal Police, Armed Police Force, and officials from the DFOs. Posters and billboards with conservation messages from Dayahang Rai will be another way we counter misinformation.
RPN: Dayahang Rai is a very successful, internationally-loved celebrity. What is it like to work with Dayahang and what kind of impact is it having for red panda conservation?
Sonam: IRPD 2021 marked the one-year anniversary of the partnership between conservation ambassador Dayahang Rai and RPN. It is delightful to work in such close collaboration with him and his involvement has indeed helped us conserve red pandas. I am always intrigued by his humbleness and willingness to contribute to wildlife conservation in artistic ways, coming up with concepts that augment our social reach.
We have plans to engage Dayahang in the field — including an in-person outreach campaign — with local communities in our project areas but the Covid-19 pandemic has impeded this possibility for now. In the meantime, we will continue to raise red panda awareness through digital media, leveraging Dayahang’s substantial and demographically diverse followers. A PSA we released that features Dayahang has reached more than 500,000 viewers on Facebook.
For the people living in the remote villages of Nepal, Dayahang’s involvement has been a catalyst for education and resistance to the misinformation that says red panda pelts have monetary value and market demand. We continue to receive positive feedback from local people who tell us about Dayahang’s impact in rural Nepal. We are hopeful that our collaborative efforts will continue to cause a shift among communities away from IWT,
Celebrity ambassador, Dayahang Rai (left), and RPN Program Coordinator, Sonam Tashi Lama (right).
RPN: How do alternative income and sustainable livelihood programs help mitigate the threat of poaching?
Sonam: Economic opportunities are scarce in Nepal’s high-mountain red panda habitat but RPN's community-based programs are providing sustainable livelihoods for communities while also fostering environmental stewardship. Community-based conservation requires time to build trust and understanding among local people as well as knowledge of the region’s wildlife and terrain.
The Forest Guardian program is an example of an effective sustainable livelihood and alternative income program. Today, we have a team of more than 100 Forest Guardians in Nepal who conduct habitat monitoring and community outreach. They receive revenue for their work as well as other benefits to their family including red panda conservation scholarships for their children and improved cooking stoves (ICS) that help preserve forests and the health of Forest Guardians and their families. We continue to see the situation improve for people and pandas and there are some inspiring stories: A father and son who both work as Forest Guardians in Taplejung district — a generational commitment towards red panda conservation — and livestock herders who live in close proximity to red pandas and are dedicated to protecting them.
RPN Forest Guardians during vegetation survey in red panda habitat in Nepal.
RPN continues to collaborate with livestock herders, providing them with portable tents, ICS; upgrading their semi-permanent sheds with woven bamboo mats, and providing a supply of clean drinking water pipes which have enhanced the quality of life for these important stakeholders. Ecotourism is another suitable example of how people have been benefiting from red panda conservation. We were successfully running ecotrips before the pandemic where local families in the PIT region operated homestays, providing sustainable income for them and other local businesses. Other professions such as nature guides, red panda trackers, and porters are also employed during ecotrips.
Local household who received a fuel-efficient, metal stove from RPN and community partners.
RPN: How can anyone support the No Panda Poaching campaign?
Anyone living anywhere in the world can be a part of the No Panda Poaching campaign. Social media is a great outlet to share why you think wild red pandas need to remain alive and wild. Please be sure to include the campaign hashtags: #NoPandaPoaching #NoPandaPets.