As countries in South Asia locked down to curb the spread of coronavirus, criminals in the illegal wildlife trade took advantage. With authorities focused on enforcing lockdown restrictions, poachers felt less likely to be caught.
Authorities in India, Pakistan and Nepal reported a surge in illegal hunting, including of endangered animals and rare birds. People who had lost their livelihoods also turned to poaching to support themselves.
The trend follows what has already been confirmed in Southeast Asia, Africa, Brazil and Colombia: poaching and deforestation has increased since Covid-19 restrictions went into effect.
Joseph Walston, head of conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told the BBC: “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 a northern region of Pakistan, poaching cases tripled in March and April. Six musk deer bodies were found in a Nepalese national park below Mount Everest. The killings of desert antelope, leopard and rhino may only be the tip of the iceberg in India. Bangladesh is the only country that has reported a decrease in poaching incidents, though conservationists remain concerned.
These countries have been battling the illegal wildlife trade for many years. The recent lockdown has shown just how entrenched the black market is.
Trafficking triples in parts of Pakistan
In the northern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), there was a spike in hunting and poaching during the lockdown period 22 March to 12 May.
“From 20 March to 30 April, we have made a record registration of 600 cases of illegal hunting and poaching,” said Muhammad Niaz, the divisional wildlife officer in KP’s wildlife department. In regular months, he said, the total is 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 24 March from D.I. 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 coronavirus lockdown period, 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 (US$44) to 2 million (US$12,500).
“The price of rare wild species on the open market is drawing people towards this illegal practice, threatening already endangered wild species,” Sohaib warned.
Wildlife officials believe the surge in the clandestine wildlife trade is due to people needing 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 said.
Endangered species killed in Nepal
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 25 April, 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 say 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, also known as pods, can fetch thousands of rupees. They’re 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.
The Everest region would be brimming with people with the advent of spring. But this year, with the lockdown, it’s easier for poachers to set up traps.
Another incident in southern Nepal’s Parsa National Park saw poachers exchange fire with patrolling soldiers. A poacher was killed and a soldier injured, 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.
Endangered species in India
As India went into lockdown, there was a spike in poaching registered in many parts of the country. From wild birds in cages, to animals caught for bushmeat, to prized commodities in the international illegal wildlife trade.
In Odisha, four men were apprehended on 10 May 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 say 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 – 50kg 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 temporary jobs for the forest department.
Bangladesh reports zero poaching
In contrast, 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 Amir Hosain Chowdhury, chief conservator of forests.
According to WCCU 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.
This article was first published on our sister site The Third Pole.