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Bhutan takes greats pains to conserve its rich biodiversity, evidenced by the fact that 70% of the country’s total land area remains under forest cover. But these efforts are now being undermined by a growing illegal wildlife and timber trade.

Reported cases of illegal wildlife smuggling have increased in Bhutan over the past decade; involving tigers, leopards, bears, musk deer, wild boars, porcupine, python and pheasants.

188 cases of illegal wildlife smuggling were reported between 1992 and 2007, according to the Forest Protection and Surveillance Unit (FPSU) under the Department of Forest and Park Services (DoFPS). The number of cases drastically increased in just two years; 114 cases of wildlife crimes were recorded between 2008 and 2010 alone.

The booming wildlife trade has been attributed to dire economic conditions in Bhutan; people are lured by the opportunity to earn fast cash and supplement their meager income. The country’s porous border with neigbouring India and China provides smugglers with easy access to international markets.

Earlier this year, forest officials apprehended three poachers carrying parts of musk deer and monal pheasant, both endangered species. The three poachers admitted that were smuggling wildlife for financial gain.

Most wildlife parts are smuggled out of Bhutan to India as well as China. However, increasingly individuals are using Bhutan as a corridor to smuggle wildlife parts from India to China. In 2005, two people were arrested in India’s West Bengal state for possessing leopard skins, sambar antlers and the molar teeth of an elephant. These smugglers had planned to hand over the animal parts to counterparts in Bhutan who would later sell it in China.

In August 2011, a man from Paro, in western Bhutan, was detained by officials from the Jigme Dorji National Park for carrying the skin and bones of a leopard. The man had reportedly brought the parts for US$90 from Jaigaon, a border town in India and was on his way to sell them in Phangri, a town on the China-Bhutan border, where the parts would fetch about US$1,800.

The same year a man was caught trying to smuggle hides of leopard, clouded leopard and pangolin (a scaly anteater) in West Bengal. He later admitted that the hides were to be smuggled to Bhutan through the neighbouring Indian town of Jaigaon and then further up north into China. In recent years, rhino horns and elephant tusks have also been smuggled along this route. In one case, a man from Nganglam in Pemagatshel was caught selling a rhino horn weighing 850 grams to an Indian businessman for about US$ 55,000.

In February 2011, FPSU staff bust an elephant tusk smuggling racket in Umling, a town in southern Bhutan. The team seized 20 men and two elephant tusks weighing 57 kilograms, just as the deal was taking place. The fifteen Indians among the group subsequently fled across the border while the Bhutanese middlemen were detained. The current market price for ivory in China range from $750-$7000 a kilogram depending on the quality.

One of the challenges Bhutan faces in tackling wildlife smuggling is the lack of staff to patrol protected areas, said the Conservation Director of WWF-Bhutan, Vijay Moktan. For example, Royal Manas National Park covers an area of 1,057 square kilometers but there are only 70 enforcement staff to guard the parks and look out for poachers. “Each individual has to cover around 15 square kilometers of the park which is very difficult,” Moktan said. This provides poachers with the opportunity to come across the border and steal tigers and other threatened species.

Illegal logging and timber smuggling is also a growing problem in southern Bhutan. According to the Indian Divisional Forest Office near the Royal Manas National Park over 121 people were arrested returning from Bhutan with smuggled timber during 2011. Forest officials in West Bengal seized more than 37 truckloads and 231 hand-carts of timber from Bhutan within one month in the same year. The local office says it picks up at least one case of smuggled timber from Bhutan every day.

The problem of timber smuggling is raised at every Border District Coordination meeting between Bhutan and Indian, held twice a year. But officials have failed to stem the flow of timber. The manager of the Royal Manas Park, Tenzin Wangchuk, said smugglers enter Bhutan through so many different entry points it was difficult for the team to control.

Indian and Bhutanese authorities have been collaborating to prevent both timber and wildlife smuggling. Bhutan’s Department of Forest and Park Services and India’s International Fund for Animal Welfare and Wildlife Trust run workshops to help train officials on how to prevent this kind of illegal activity. The workshops aim to provide participants with the necessary information, knowledge, skills and motivation to combat illegal trade in wildlife species and to ensure effective enforcement of national and international regulations.

At the workshop, director of the Department of Forest and Park Service, Karma Dukpa, said there was need for greater cross-border cooperation between India and Bhutan to counter wildlife crime in the region: “a country with a rich biodiversity such as Bhutan has to ensure that the increasing demand for wildlife products from other countries does not become a serious threat to the existence of wildlife in Bhutan,” he said.

Dawa T Wangchuk is a journalist based in Thimphu

Image by Gilmoth

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