Notorious Rhino Poacher From Nepal Now an International Fugitive: INTERPOL Red Notice Issued

Rhinos, one with a radio monitoring collar and one without, in Chitwan National Park. CMDN is also engaged in a DNS study of rhinos in Nepal.

Rhinos in Chitwan National Park. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

December 9. On this day in 2006, as security forces in Nepal arrested 13 poachers in the country, the notorious Rhino poacher Raj Kumar Praja probably thought he wouldn’t be one of them. After all, he had escaped the law thrice before. When arrested, he confessed to being involved in the poaching of three rhinos. That year, 19 rhinos had been poached in the country’s oldest national park, Chitwan. Of that, 13 were poached between August and December.

Fast forward to 2013, and on the eve of his arrest Raj Kumar Praja has transitioned from being a wanted prisoner to an international fugitive.

“At the request of Nepal, INTERPOL has issued a Red Notice, or international wanted persons alert, for Rajkumar Praja wanted for rhino poaching and trading internationally in rhino horns,” a new release by the INTERPOL Environment Protection Unit announced two days ago, on December 6. The news release further reads:

“The 30-year-old Nepalese national is wanted to serve a sentence of 15 years for poaching rhinos in the Chitwan National Park, and the Red Notice comes after law enforcement officials in Nepal dismantled a network of 13 poachers earlier this year.”

A screenshot of INTERPOL's Red Corner Notice of Raj Kumar Praja.

A screenshot of INTERPOL’s Red Notice of Raj Kumar Praja.

Government Amnesty to Poachers:

In August 2006 a Cabinet decision granted amnesty to 12 poachers who were serving a jail-term of 15 years, but had completed only three and a half years of it!

In a news report by Sundar Khanal (Republica national daily, April 2011), Jagganath Singh, Chitwan National Park conservation officer, is quoted as saying this:

“The amnesty was followed by more deaths of rhinos here.”

Amongst those who received Amnesty? A poacher employed by Raj Kumar Praja, and responsible for 15 rhino poaching. The April 2011 Republica article continued:

“Over a month ago, Kajiman Praja, most wanted for reportedly killing 15 rhinos at CNP in the last three years, was arrested together with his family members. Investigative officials have found that Raj Kumar Praja, who employed Kajiman´s family in rhino-poaching, has been at large and is reportedly hiding in Singapore.”  

"My Horn Is Not Medicine." A fresh mural being painted on the walls of a business establishment in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. All Photos: Kashish Das Shrestha

“My Horn Is Not Medicine.” A fresh mural being painted on the walls of a business establishment in Chitwan National Park in spring this year. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

A Poacher’s Story of “Rags to Riches”

In February 2011 Nepal’s Central  Investigation Bureau, with other law enforcement agencies, made a breakthrough by arresting Kajiman Praja. He had killed 15 rhinos, of which six were killed in less than a year from the time of his arrest! Republica daily had written this at the time:

“Praja´s is a rags to riches story. He would employ his wives and two other female members of his family for rhino poaching and has so far earned at least Rs 15 million by selling rhino horns.”

The Kathmandu Post also reported on the Kajiman arrest. The english national daily wrote:

“Police said Praja, a poor guy from the backward Chepang community, has become a millionaire through the trade in wildlife.Praja continued to remain on the most wanted list of Nepal Police for the past six years until the police tracked him down along with his two wives—Sanu Maya, 19, and Dil Maya, 30—and two associates from a Syanja guest house.”

How and why this poacher was pardoned by the Nepali government within a few months of his arrest may be explained by who his employer was: Rajkumar Praja.

Poacher and the Politician:

Photos of Rajkumar, and him being kissed by a woman (Photos via INTERPOL).

Photos of Rajkumar, and him being kissed by a woman (Photos via INTERPOL).

In November 2010, the Chitwan National Park’s monthly bulletin reported: “From the month of Kartik, the very sensitive areas prone to rhino poaching has been further strengthen from the point of view of safety and also extra sweeping/camping operations deployed considering poaching events.”

The bulletin  also noted with no exception that Raj Kumar Praja, who had been arrested on 9 December 2006, had escaped. His sentence had been set at 15-years in prison and a fine of Rs.100,000 (approx. $1000 in current exchange rate). How does Raj Kumar escape and remain on the run, and have his poaching employees freed legitimately while reportedly living in Singapore?

Earlier this year, at an environment reporting workshop I was conducting and moderating, guest speaker Megh Bahadur Pandey, Chief Enforcement Coordinator of South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) as well as Director General of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, noted how poachers often go free because of the political patronage they enjoy.

A snippet of Chitwan National Park's November 2010 bulletin showing a list of sentenced criminals who had escaped, including Raj Kumar Praja.

A snippet of Chitwan National Park’s November 2010 bulletin showing a list of sentenced criminals who had escaped, including Raj Kumar Praja.

South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN)

Tiger skin confiscated by the Nepal Police. Photo: WWF Nepal/Diwakar Chapagain

Tiger skin confiscated by the Nepal Police. Nepal has emerged as a major regional transit hub for smuggling. Photo: WWF Nepal/Diwakar Chapagain

“Smugglers don’t care what they are smuggling, they just want to smuggle,” Megh Bahadur Pandey, Chief Enforcement Coordinator of South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN) had explained earlier this year. “They will trade in wildlife parts, and human smuggling at the same time. And they use technology far advanced than the ones we use, they are better equipped.”

This is why a network such as SAWEN becomes important not just for Nepal, but in global crime fighting as a whole. Some policymakers have noted SAWEN’s importance too. In his Kathmandu Manifesto, published as part of his election manifesto, Gagan Thapa has used SAWEN as an example of important regional Secretariats based in Nepal.  He won the November 19 elections in a landslide victory and has been elected a Member of the Parliament. Here is what he has written on SAWEN:

“One critical and relatively new secretariat is South Asian Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN). While Nepal itself has become a transit hub for international smuggling rings, Kathmandu’s role as a transit point has also become active. We haveseen this in the smuggling of Red Sandalwood to Red Panda. It has been established in Nepal and abroad that groups engaging in illegal trade of wildlife or flora and fauna are often tied to and engaged with the smuggling of other kinds, includinghuman trafficking. Proliferating smuggling syndicates also has direct national and financial security implications for us.

As an MP who called for many hearings through the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Means, as well worked extensively on issues related to forestand conservation, and smuggling, I want to make sure we strengthen Secretariats likeSAWEN so that both Kathmandu and Nepal are able to effectively fight backenvironment crimes and other illegal trades as much as possible. Our work and role in these Secretariats give us the unique opportunity to work on, and for, local-global issues with leadership. We must take that lead and build on it.”

The nexus of poachers and criminals and politics is well established in Nepal. One hopes that the pace of reversing that culture becomes ever more pro-active and urgent with the newly elected Parliament, and its Committee on Natural Resources and Means, coming into place soon .

For now, the international hunt for Rajkumar Praja is on. Hopefully, with SAWEN and INTERPOL on the case, the hunt will end soon but its ending leave behind an enduring warning to current and would-be  wildlife criminals in Nepal and the region.

Related Read:

Screenshot of the BBC news report quoted below.

Screenshot of the BBC news report quoted below.

From the BBC: Nepal arrests 14 over rhino poaching:

“Nepal’s protected forests were estimated by a census in 2011 to be home to more than 500 rhinos, most of them in Chitwan National Park, about 120km (75 miles) south-west of the capital Kathmandu.

Nepal faced a serious problem of rhino poaching about 10 years ago when the country was affected by civil war between government forces and Maoist rebels. In 2002, about 37 rhinos were killed by poachers, triggering grave concern over the future of one-horned rhinos. Their population dropped from an estimated 612 in 2000 to less than 375 in 2005.

But numbers have increased to more than 500 after a series of anti-poaching measures were taken by the authorities.”