Petitioner Kumar Paudel together with environmental law specialist and advocate Padam Bahadur Shrestha filed a writ petition demanding private possession of protected wildlife parts be prohibited. After five years of waiting and dozens of trials, the petitioners finally achieved a favourable outcome from the Supreme Court.
On May 30, the court issued a verdict that called for a crackdown on the private possession of wildlife parts, specifically targeting the wealthy. While the verdict has been widely celebrated, the implementation of these decisions still requires addressing certain problems, which may take some time to take effect.
According to Shrestha, it will take a year for activists to witness the regulations and impact resulting from their petition. Having said that Shrestha stresses that this is the time to act rather than folding one’s hands and waiting.
A golden opportunity
“Possession of wildlife parts has been regarded as a source of pride, symbolising bravery and a luxurious lifestyle. These items were even handed down as inheritances, thus perpetuating a culture of private possession,” says Shrestha. However, a significant shift occurred with the implementation of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act in 1973.
As affluent families having wildlife parts was common before 1973, Shrestha says people in possession of illegal wildlife parts need not be afraid of the court’s verdict. He says this is an opportunity for them to step forward and be responsible citizens and be part of an important initiative.
“The court is giving people an opportunity to legalise their possession. After due process, the court will give out a public notice for these individuals to come forward and declare possession within six months,” says Shrestha. “This means that anyone in possession of the wildlife animal parts now will not be penalised for possession. So, they can responsibly step forward and declare if they have any. This applies to those who had the wildlife animal parts from before 1973.”
“With modern technology, it is rather easy to date the parts and know when it died. So, those who meet the criteria can breathe easy and come forward.”
The petitioners wanted the court to punish all who possessed wildlife parts and keep it under government control. But the court went beyond and was considerate, he adds.
“The court took into consideration that people might have possession of wildlife parts before the act was implemented. It also wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to those who may currently be unaware of the two previous notices,” says Shrestha. “The verdict also includes provisions to facilitate those who possess wildlife animal parts for ritualistic purposes.”
Those who come forward have two options. People can register the wildlife animal parts they own and either chose to keep them or hand them over to authorities for safekeeping.
Follow the law
Advocate Shrestha says that one has enough time to carefully assess and review their possessions along with gathering details on how they got hold of it. He says people have enough time to do this as the court is going to take some time to give its final verdict.
“Typically, this process can take around five or six months, as it involves thorough research of international practices and careful consideration of all the implications involved,” he says.
He also believes there will be amendments made to the act after which an official notice specifying the six-month period will be issued.
“The entire process, including the implementation of the decision, is expected to take up to a year. This timeframe allows sufficient time for individuals, both within and outside the country, to comply with the new regulation,” says Shrestha adding penalties will be levied only on those who fail to comply with the new regulations.
Shrestha also highlights that around two years after the act was implemented, the government issued the first six-month period for individuals possessing such items to register them. But no one came forward to comply with the registration requirement.
“The following year, the government provided a second chance for individuals to come forward, but once again, no one took the opportunity to do so,” says Shrestha.
The new verdict now gives individuals a third and final chance to declare their possessions without facing legal penalties or being considered as engaging in criminal activities.
The Supreme Court has clearly stated that there will not be a fourth notice, underscoring the urgency of the situation. This is why activists remain hopeful that individuals who possess wildlife parts will step forward before the conclusion of the six-month period, knowing they will not be penalised for actions committed before the enactment of the relevant laws.
After the six-month period ends though, Shrestha informs that all the wildlife animal parts in private possession will be deemed illegal and the individuals will be liable to face any legal punishments as per the law.
Need of the hour
Nepal brought the Act into action in 1973, but prior to these legal measures, hunting activities were common and not at all illegal, particularly among VIPs who took advantage of their status. Wildlife hunting was rampant and unrestricted, particularly in the 50s and 60s, as there were no limitations on the species that could be targeted.
When petitioner Kumar Paudel saw a tiger pelt being displayed as a decorative item in the house of former Prime Minister Kriti Nidhi Bista in an interview with Suman Kharel, it piqued his interest, which led to the discovery of other private possessions.
Driven by his concerns, he decided to file a case specifically addressing the issue of possessing wildlife parts.
The case involving Bista and the lack of legal penalties imposed on him highlighted a significant disparity between the consequences faced by ordinary citizens who have no influence, as opposed to influential figures. This was also backed by research he conducted.
“Within the country’s jails, a startling reality unfolded where there were many inmates serving sentences related to possession of wildlife parts. And this made me realise the absence of clear precedents that caused confusion about who should be held accountable,” says Paudel.
In May 2018, the initial trial took place with Judge Cholendra Rana presiding over the proceedings. During the trial, it came to light that several individuals with the surname Rana had some level of involvement in the matter, leading to speculation about the possibility of filing additional cases. However, the judge reassured the public that the legal process would be expedited.
The illegal wildlife parts, being concealed behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy, further contributed to the complexities of the situation. On top of that, all evidence remained hidden and safeguarded under the guise of owner privacy.
“When the defendants received a show cause notice from the national park, they realised they had not registered their possessions nor made them public. Consequently, they may face penalties as stipulated by the law. Even the Home Ministry distanced itself from the issue, stating that it fell outside its jurisdiction, while the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers clarified that the ban remained in effect, but it could not influence the penalisation process unless it violated the law.”
But that further solidified their case and underlined the need for a public litigation case.
This verdict marks a significant milestone in Nepal’s battle against illegal wildlife possession, establishing a precedent for accountability and the protection of the country’s biodiversity. Many believe that it serves as a testament to the effectiveness of the law and the unwavering commitment of individuals working towards safeguarding the rights of deceased animals.
Stakeholders are pleased that the verdict recognises the issue of private possession of wildlife animal parts. However, it is important to note that the ruling is limited to addressing the possession of animal parts acquired before 1973.
Working in this case, Paudel says, has highlighted the need for proper handling and disposal of confiscated wildlife parts too, to ensure transparency and prevent any potential loopholes in the enforcement process. For the next step, Paudel says he is doing his homework to address the persistent issue of the burial or destruction of seized wildlife parts.