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Nepal violates civil rights to save rhinos

Chitwan, NEPAL: In this photograph from 2006, forest workers look at a dead rhinoceros at the Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. (AFP/Getty Images) 

Nepal has achieved landmark success in reversing the decline of its endangered rhino population, but to do so it has run roughshod over the civil rights of the poor people living on the fringes of its national parks, writes the Economist.

The latest census showed that the numbers of Indian one-horned rhinoceros (rhinoceros unicornis) in Nepal rose by almost a quarter to 534 rhinos since 2008, the magazine writes. But it's not just better administration associated with the end of the civil war that accounts for the jump. Here's the dope:

[T]here is a dark side to the tale, too. To protect the endangered creatures, the chief warden at Chitwan has quasi-judicial powers, including the authority to convict and jail alleged poachers for up to 15 years. According to Krishna Bhakta Pokharel, a lawyer in the nearby town of Bharatpur, suspects are held for up to 25 days at undisclosed locations and can be remanded for up to two years before their final hearing. Until recently, the dates of such hearings were not announced in advance, nor were defence lawyers necessarily present. In Bharatpur jail 105 people are in custody for poaching, many serving long sentences for minor offences such as providing food to poachers. Even the chief jailer admits that many of his prisoners are associated with poaching only in marginal ways.

Witnesses are sometimes treated as suspects. A local farmer claimed he was held for 25 days, then bailed out for a large sum of money, after finding a dead rhino in his fields. Last year two women and a 12-year-old girl were shot dead by soldiers at Bardia National Park, which has a small rhino population. They were later declared to have been poachers, and the park authorities were accused of conspiring to intimidate their families. The rhinos need protection and seem to be getting it. But such heavy-handed law enforcement undermines support for conservation among locals and does little to curb the professional poachers who do the most damage.