Nepali park officials tortured a man to death. Then, the government and the World Wide Fund for Nature rewarded them.Over the years, there have been several reported incidents of forest rangers and army soldiers engaging in abuse and torture of members of indigenous groups who live around the protected areas.
On the evening of June 3, 2006, Shikharam Chaudhary was returning home after spending the afternoon in the paddy field with his wife when he was arrested by rangers from Chitwan National Park and driven to their detention centre in Kasara.
The rangers had received a tip from a suspected poacher that Shikharam, a resident of Divyanagar village, had information about a rhino horn. Under Nepali law, park rangers can arrest anyone suspected of being involved in crimes without a warrant—not just against protected wild animals, but also relatively minor infractions such as entering the park without a permit.
A week later, a group of rangers hastily dropped off an unconscious Shikharam at a local hospital in Bharatpur in the middle of the night. Two days later, he was pronounced dead.
The park’s official narrative was that the 55-year-old simply fell ill and fainted during the course of interrogation, and that he died while undergoing treatment. Park officials denied any wrongdoing and claimed Shikharam was already in a frail condition when he was arrested.
But their account was challenged by Shikharam’s wife, Hira, and seven witnesses who testified that Shikharam was brutally beaten and tortured by park officials night after night at the detention centre.
“When I met my husband he was sobbing and telling me that they beat him mercilessly and put salt water in his nose and mouth. He showed me wounds on his legs, back and arms that had turned blue,” his wife told investigators in 2006. Later, in an interview with a human rights group, Hira said Shikharam “begged me to take him out of custody as soon as possible, telling me while crying that he was scared they would kill him if I did not take him away.”
While Nepal’s anti-poaching efforts have led to significant gains and earned the country much admiration internationally, the cost at which these results have been obtained has often been overlooked, both by the government and conservation organisations.
Shikharam’s 2006 death may be an extreme case, but it’s not an isolated incident. Over the years, there have been several reported incidents of forest rangers and army soldiers—conservation agents tasked with protecting the country’s national parks and wildlife—engaging in abuse and torture of members of indigenous groups who live around the protected areas.
It is not a situation unique to Nepal. In national parks across the world, members of tribal groups, the original inhabitants of the land, have been subject to harassment, abuse and torture at the hands of conservation authorities, all in the name of protecting nature and wildlife.
What’s worrisome is the complicity displayed by the leading conservation organisation, the World Wide Fund for Nature—formerly the World Wildlife Fund and known globally by its abbreviation—which continues to support and work with officials accused of torture, all while concealing evidence of human rights violations against some of the most vulnerable communities of people.
Despite WWF’s claim that it does not tolerate any brutality by its partners, a year-long investigation by BuzzFeed News, which The Kathmandu Post partnered with on its reporting in Nepal, shows the global organisation has continued to fund, equip, train and support violent forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people.
Established in 1961 in Switzerland, WWF today has field offices in over 40 countries. Staffers in the charity’s in-country field offices are supposed to report any allegations of brutality back to its headquarters in Gland, Switzerland. But our investigation shows WWF staffers around the world have themselves been involved in questionable practices and continued to partner and advocate for those guilty of abuse and torture.
WWF staff in Nepal lobbied for the release of park officials charged with Shikharam’s murder, later hiring one of the main accused and awarding the second. In India, the office signed off on the controversial “kill the unwanted” policy proposal at a park where rangers went on to kill dozens of people. In Cameroon, WWF worked with the Battalion d’Intervention Rapide, a special forces unit accused of killing unarmed civilians. In Central African Republic, WWF staff was involved in facilitating an arms deal.
Following Shikharam’s death, his fellow inmates told police they had witnessed multiple guards—some with “alcohol on their breath”—repeatedly beating him throughout the week. They also said Shikharam complained about, and showed other inmates, his bruises and injuries. Many of them also claimed they were beaten by the same guards.
On the night he was taken to the hospital, multiple inmates from Kasara said they heard Shikharam scream, wail and cry until he fell unconscious. Maniram Mahato, one of the witnesses, said he saw Shikharam “being thrashed against a bench and on the floor and when he fainted while they were beating him, four people lifted him and took him to the detention room.” Another inmate testified he heard guards say “the oldie has stopped breathing.”
Their testimonies were substantiated by the autopsy, which determined the cause of death to be “excessive pressure applied on the back and left side of the chest which made him unable to breathe.” The report also found “clear indication of physical violence”, noting he had blue marks and bruises on his lower back, several other bruises and “healing injuries” on his head, limbs, and chest. He had seven broken ribs and his entire left lung was black due to injury.
Following the report’s release, Shikharam’s brother, Mangaram, filed a complaint with the police against three park officials: Chief Warden Tika Ram Adhikari, Assistant Warden Kamal Jung Kunwar and Ranger Ritesh Basnet. Kunwar was the head of the Anti-Poaching Operations Unit at the time. Basnet, then 24, was the investigating officer. It was his first time overseeing an investigation.
The trio was charged with homicide and the district court issued an order for the three to be held in remand until the case reached its judgement. The defendants’ appeal of the court order was rejected by the Appellate Court in Hetauda.
In their statements to investigators, all three denied having any role in Shikharam’s death and claimed the farmer had died from natural causes.
In his deposition, Adhikari, the chief warden, feigned ignorance, claiming he had no knowledge about any kind of torture inflicted upon Shikharam, and said he only saw Shikharam once, when he was first brought in to his office after the arrest. Adhikari told investigators he had approved a 15-day investigation and never saw Shikharam again.
Kunwar, the assistant warden, said in his testimony that he had been deployed to another district for a separate case for much of the time that Shikharam was held in Kasara. He then shifted the blame on the ranger, his junior. “It was his duty to perform a physical checkup of the detainee,” Kunwar said, referring to Basnet, the investigating officer.
Basnet professed innocence in his statement, saying he had been occupied with other cases, so he could not launch the investigation into Shikha-ram. He, however, admitted he had failed to perform a medical examination on Shikharam, as required by law.
“I did not beat him,” Basnet told investigators. “My duty is to prepare accusation letters. I did not beat him.”
But multiple witnesses and sources who spoke to the Post told a different story.
Chitwan-based activist Chabilal Neupane, who has written extensively about human rights abuses in the park, said the chief warden had been made aware of Shikharam’s deteriorating health condition days before his death.
In an interview with the Post, Neupane said that he, along with a group of activists and journalists, had visited Shikharam in detention and saw that his body was “completely swollen.”
“We asked the chief warden to stop torturing him and requested that Shikharam be taken to a hospital for treatment, but he just shrugged off our request,” said Neupane. “He told us it was necessary to put pressure on detainees during the investigation process.”
Shikharam’s wife, Hira, told the Post her husband suffered from no ailments and was in good health when he was picked up by the rangers. She said Shikharam even named Kunwar, the assistant warden, as one of his torturers when she went to visit him at the detention centre.
“His mouth was so swollen, he couldn’t eat the food I had brought for him,” she recalled.
Despite mounting evidence against the accused, the case was ultimately dismissed by the government in March 2007.
While Shikharam’s death had outraged the local Tharu community and led to a series of demonstrations demanding a fair investigation, the consequent arrests of Chief Warden Tikaram Adhikari, Assistant Warden Kamal Jung Kunwar, and Ranger Ritesh Basnet set another series of protests in motion.
Park employees, conservationists and buffer zone committee members took to the streets, opposing the arrests of their colleagues who, they believed, were being wrongly prosecuted. During one such demonstration, park employees used the park’s elephants to block the Prithvi Highway.
“We didn’t have the support of the people, so we used what we had: animals,” said Basudev Dhungana, president of one of Chitwan National Park’s Buffer Zone User Committees, in an interview with the Post in December.
Behind closed doors, various interest groups had been lobbying the government and pressuring Shikharam’s family into dropping the case.
“People came to us, asking us to drop the case,” said Mangaram, the victim’s brother. “I said, ‘why should I take back my complaint? We want the culprits to serve their full sentence’.”
Hira told the Post that park officials had also contacted her, asking to settle the case amicably.
“Let bygones be bygones,” she recalled the officials telling her.
The organisation leading the campaign to quash the case, multiple activists told the Post, was WWF, the leading wildlife conservation organisation, which cites its mission as “to conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.”
WWF has a long-standing relationship with the park. It started a rhino conservation programme in the Chitwan Valley, which eventually paved the way for the creation of Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s first, in 1973.
“They [WWF Nepal] kept trying to convince us that the three [rangers] were innocent,” said Shiva Narayan Chaudhary, president of the Nepal Indigenous Development Society, who attended several meetings held between the two parties. “They kept saying things like ‘they are government officials, they have done no wrong’.”
The section manager of the Terai Arc Landscape, a WWF-supported programme, at the time was Purna Bahadur Kunwar, who is related to one of the officials charged with murder. Kunwar is now the field coordinator for WWF’s Chitwan Annapurna Landscape project.
“He would say, ‘Let’s not politicise the issue, it was an accident, who will be there to take care of animals?”’ said Birendra Mahato, the chairperson of the Tharu Cultural Museum and Research Center.
When the Post reached out to Kunwar via telephone to inform him about the allegations, he said he “could not clearly recall the incident in question.”
“I don’t know much about it, as it was an issue related to the park,” Kunwar said, before asking the Post reporter to email him the remaining queries.
He never responded to the email.
Multiple activists who spoke to the Post said WWF representatives had urged them to convince Shikharam’s family to drop the complaint, even promising donations to their programmes if they agreed.
In an interview with the Post, Nanda Lal Mahato, the lawyer who represented the victim’s family, said his clients were determined to see justice served and refused to budge from their position.
“Ultimately, WWF was able to get through to the government, and the government made a decision on their behalf,” said Mahato.
On March 4, 2007, nearly nine months after Shikharam’s death, the Cabinet, under then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, announced its decision to dismiss the case. WWF Nepal welcomed the government’s decision in a glowing press release which mentioned that several conservation organisations had been upset about the charges and “had been lobbying with major political parties and the government for their release.”
The statement characterised the victim, Shikharam, as a suspected poacher and illegal wildlife trader— even though there was no evidence against him—and the officials accused of torturing him as those with a proven track record in conservation.
“WWF welcomes the government’s decision,” Anil Manandhar, country representative for WWF Nepal, declared in the statement. “I have every confidence that this move will renew the motivation of park staff and other conservationists to save Nepal’s rhinos and root out illegal wildlife trade. WWF will always be there to support this endeavour in any way we can.”
A team of independent human rights activists later investigated the incident and their report—which was published in a 2013 book—declared that Shikharam had died because of “inhuman, cruel and degrading” torture “at the hand of Park authorities.”
The report condemned the lack of due process for suspects and blamed the broad powers given to Nepal’s anti-poaching forces for Shikharam’s death.
A deputy protection officer for the park even admitted to torturing suspects in his interview with investigators. “Some types of torture are inflicted to obtain confessions as the killing of rhino is a very serious case,” Meghnath Kafle told investigators.
While Kafle refuted allegations that Shikharam had been tortured, he said it is impossible to carry out an investigation without pressure, interrogation and moral beating. “For us, protection of rhino is more important than thinking about what happened,” he said, according to the report.
Five months after Shikharam’s death, another detainee died inside the Kasara detention centre. On November 11, 2006, Lal Bahadur Tamang was found hanging inside a toilet on the premises of the headquarters of Chitwan National Park. Park officials quickly labelled the 52-year-old’s death a suicide. His family was not convinced and demanded an investigation. The case was settled after the family was offered compensation.
Despite the report’s findings and confessions by park officials about engaging in torture, WWF has continued to support and reward Chitwan’s forest rangers. The officials accused in Shikharam’s death would go on to have illustrious careers in conservation.
After his stint in Chitwan, Adhikari, the chief warden, served as the chief of Bardia National Park. In 2014, he was appointed director general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. He is now retired.
Basnet, the primary accused, was hired by WWF to work as a programme officer in its Wildlife Trade and Monitoring unit. He left the organisation in 2015.
Kunwar served as chief warden of two national parks: Chitwan and Shivapuri before he was transferred to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, where he currently heads the Wildlife Crime Control Section.
In interviews with the Post this past week, all three denied playing any role in Shikharam’s death and said the autopsy had been fabricated.
“He was mentally ill,” said Adhikari. “His death was caused by his illness.”
Basnet, in an email response to the Post’s queries, wrote he regretted Shikharam’s death, but maintained his innocence, writing: “I was innocent. I had done no wrong.”
Kunwar kept directing the Post reporter to his book, Four years for the rhino—a memoir of his time in Chitwan—saying he had presented his side of the story in it. He told the Post he stood by everything he had written in his book.
In the 2009 book, Kunwar admits to torturing suspects and described one of his favourite torture techniques: waterboarding.
“This method was useful in obtaining information. But I would always be careful not to suffocate the person I was interrogating,” Kunwar writes in a section, describing how he first picked up the technique from observing an Army official use it during an interrogation of a suspected poacher.
When the Post questioned him about his tactics, he replied, “It was not torture, it was interrogation.”
Five years later, Kunwar, representing Chitwan National Park, was awarded by WWF for “playing an instrumental role in achieving zero poaching for the second year in a row.”
In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Dominic O’Neil, WWF’s chief operating officer, said rangers accused of atrocities should not be allowed to continue fighting poaching.
“They should not be doing that job,” said O’Neil. “If they had done whatever the case is, they should be in jail, that’s the position.”
Nearly a year before Shikharam Chaudhary’s arrest, a team of rangers had picked up his eldest son, Bhagirath, from the family home in a similar manner. Bhagirath, along with three friends from his village, was suspected of killing a rhinoceros and hiding its horn, a highly prized possession which can fetch up to $60,000 per kg on the black market, according to some estimates.
In August 2005, Bhagirath, along with his friends, Madan Mahato and Kopuwa Mahato, was arrested and taken to the detention centre in Kasara, where they were held for over a month before being transferred to Bharatpur jail.
Their fourth friend, Maniram Mahato, who had run off to India fearing arrest, was captured by police nine months later from Narayanghat. According to multiple sources, park officials had convinced Maniram’s family to call him back saying they would help settle his case for Rs 50,000.
According to court documents, Maniram Mahato, under interrogation, told park officials that Bhagirath’s father, Shikharam, may have information about where the rhino horn was buried.
Mahato had initially told park officials he had buried the horn under a rosewood tree in Shikharam’s backyard and that Shikharam had provided the shovel. When the rangers dug up Shikharam’s backyard, they did not find the horn. That’s when, according to court documents, they arrested him and continued to beat him night after night.
Those who served time in the detention centre with Shikharam say even after being repeatedly tortured, Shikharam refused to admit to any wrongdoing.
“Why are you doing this to me, I am just a simple farmer,” witnesses heard him tell rangers when he was being tortured.
Both Maniram and Bhagirath denied implicating Shikharam. They told the Post they were tortured in custody and not allowed to read their own statements before signing the documents.
“They would give me electric shocks, put water into my nose and kick me with their boots,” said Maniram, a key witness. “After some time, I couldn’t feel my skin at all.”
Bhagirath, Maniram and their friend Kopuwa eventually spent 10 years in jail in connection with the crime. Another man, Madan, was cleared of charges after he decided to file a compensation claim against the park for breaking his leg during the interrogation process.
Family members and neighbours admit Bhagirath may have been involved in poaching, but say Shikharam was completely innocent and had no part to play in his son’s illegal activities.
“They took him away for his son’s mistakes and beat him to death,” said Mangaram. “Why should a father be punished for his son’s actions?”
Globally, Nepal is viewed as a success story in combating poaching, and its conservation efforts have been much lauded in recent years.
Last year, the country celebrated another year of zero poaching of one-horned rhinos—one of its flagship species—making it the fifth time Nepal achieved the feat since 2011. The tiger population has also nearly doubled from 120 in 2009 to 235 in 2018. Close to a quarter of the country’s area is now under “protected” status.
But the celebrations mask the reality on the ground. A recent report found the number of rhino deaths in Chitwan had spiked since 2014. However, contrary to the WWF’s assessment, which calls poaching the most urgent threat to the survival of one-horned rhinos, the report shows that a majority of the animals died from natural causes. If current rates continue, the country is set to lose its highest-ever number of rhinos in a year, surpassing the tally of the decade-long armed struggle, when poaching was rampant, the report states.
What’s largely been left out of this narrative of Nepal’s success in conservation is the adverse impact it has had on the lives of the indigenous people who live in the areas surrounding the conservation zones. A majority of them were uprooted from their homes as a direct result of their ancestral lands being designated a national park.
When the country’s first national park was created in Chitwan, the Tharu people, who had been living in the area for centuries, were forced to relocate outside the park’s boundaries. Their access to the forest, the community’s primary source of survival, was swiftly restricted and their activities began to be strictly monitored.
Over the years, the Tharus and other indigenous groups living around the park have also been subject to abuse and torture at the hands of park authorities and Nepal Army soldiers who jointly patrol the park.
Villagers have reported being verbally and physically harassed, having their goods confiscated on false charges, and being handed severe punishments for minor infractions.
A 2010 UN report documented six murders committed by army personnel patrolling national parks around Nepal. In one incident, soldiers shot and killed two indigenous women and a 12-year-old girl while they were gathering tree bark inside Bardia National Park. The Nepal Army accused them of being poachers and claimed they had fired shots in retaliation.
The UN report found that the army had “played an active role in obstructing criminal accountability,” by falsifying and destroying evidence and pressuring the families of the victims to withdraw criminal complaints. The report also said that with each murder, the parks falsely claimed the victims were poachers.
On May 12, 2012, in a separate incident, a Nepal Army soldier patrolling the Belsar buffer zone community forest in Chitwan, beat up a local woman so badly that her knee cap was permanently damaged. The woman, who said she had been cutting grass in the forest with some girls from her village, accused the soldier of trying to rape her.
“He began to hit my knees with a bamboo stick. He struck three times on my knee and then twice on my back. I fell to the ground. After I fell down, he stomped on my chest. He then hit my chest with a stick and punched me. I lost consciousness then,” the woman later recounted her ordeal in a book.
The Nepal Army paid her Rs 5,000 as compensation, and she was told to hush up, she told the Post in an interview.
That same year, the battalion that the soldier involved in the incident belonged to received an award from WWF for “playing a crucial role in achieving Zero Poaching Year for rhinos in Nepal.”
While the World Wide Fund for Nature claims it does not support informants, internal documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, shows the NGO regularly doled out rewards for informants, and provided a variety of field gear, including khukuris for rangers.
A former WWF employee told the Post how he was once ordered to buy expensive North Face jackets, which can cost upwards of Rs 20,000 per piece, for senior Army officials who were visiting Chitwan National Park. The employee said he replaced the North Face logo with WWF’s emblem before gifting them to the Army.
The same person said he had also bought 20 mountain bikes, each costing around Rs 60,000, emblazoned the organisation’s logo on them, and gifted the bikes to community-based Anti-Poaching Units.
“I just did what I was told to do,” said the former employee who only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
Lobbying for the release of Shikharam’s alleged killers is not the only time the WWF has turned a blind eye to its partners’ involvement in torture and brutal behaviour against indigenous peoples.
In 2017, a BBC report exposed how India’s Kaziranga National Park’s adoption of a hardline anti-poaching strategy had led to the deaths of many innocent villagers. The strategy states among other things, “anyone unauthorized found within the reserve must obey or be killed.”
While WWF downplayed its involvement with the park, BuzzFeed News found that its employees, including the chief executive of its India office, had peer reviewed the proposal and signed off on it without raising any red flags.
In the Central African Republic, WWF arranged for the purchase of AK-47s from the country’s notoriously brutal army. One WWF staffer told BuzzFeed News that he taught rangers how to safely handle AK-47s and to conduct defensive combat tactics. WWF also worked with the Seleka, the Muslim rebel group that seized power in the country’s capital in 2013 and has been accused by Human Rights Watch of killing hundreds of civilians. In exchange for them not continuing to poach elephants, the organisation provided Seleka rebels with food and supplies.
“Human rights abuses are totally unacceptable and can never be justified in the name of conservation,” O’Neil, the organisation’s chief operating officer, said in a statement. WWF has launched an “independent review” into the findings of the story, he said.
In Yogitol, a village that borders Chitwan National Park on its east side and is populated mainly by Kumals, an indigenous group traditionally involved in pottery making and agriculture, nearly every household has a story to tell about how they have been harassed by park authorities, wronged by the government, and ignored by conservation agencies.
On May 16, 2016, Man Bahadur Kumal, along with seven other fishermen from the village, had gone to the river at Golaghat to fish. The group, which had fishing permits, was spreading their handwoven nets in the river when they were jumped by a group of soldiers.
“Without saying a word, they started beating us,” said Kumal, now 66. “They kicked us with their boots, struck us with bamboo sticks, beat us for several hours.”
Kumal said his right eardrum was damaged in the incident and he lost his hearing for a month. After locals protested against the incident, the Nepal Army agreed to cover his medical expenses.
“The extent of torture may have gone down but till date, people are being wrongly accused, arrested and abused,” said Neupane, the Chitwan-based activist.
According to activists, these officials are never held accountable by the state or the conservation agency when they abuse their power. The problem, they say, lies in the law that bestows a wide range of powers on one individual.
In 2006, when Shikharam was detained and subsequently killed, the warden of a national park enjoyed immense power: reserving the right to arrest any suspect without a warrant, signing off on holding a suspect in custody for an indefinite period, hearing and issuing judgements on cases, and sentencing suspects for up to 15 years in jail.
The power accorded by the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 was problematic, legal advocates say, because it authorised a government officer with no legal expertise and considerable conflict of interest to pass judgement.
“This is somebody who has had no legal training,” said Nanda Lal Mahato, an attorney who previously served as a judge for the Appellate Court and represented Shikharam’s family in 2006, in regards to the quasi-judicial authority given to the warden.
In his book, Four years for Rhino, Kunwar, the former assistant warden of Chitwan National Park, admits the chief warden would accompany them during missions to arrest suspected poachers.
“Whether or not it was right for the chief warden himself to be part of the mission to arrest criminals is debatable,” he writes in the book. “However, it was certainly not unethical for him to accompany us as the chief warden and not as a judge.”
The fifth amendment of the conservation Act, which was passed in 2017, curtailed the power of the chief warden to some extent. Cases are now heard at the district court, suspects have to be presented in front of an adjudicating authority within 24 hours of arrest, and suspects can be held in detention for a maximum of up to 45 days after seeking permission from the court.
Despite these positive changes, activists say the warden still enjoys considerable clout because the park is still responsible for conducting investigations related to violations of rules under the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act. Park rangers still have the right to arrest anybody without a warrant.
“On paper, the warden is required to get permission from a judge to extend the remand of a suspect,” said Neupane. “But in reality, the chief warden is pretty much the decision maker.”
Although the conservation Act guarantees the right of indigenous groups to engage in their traditional profession, locals who live near protected areas say they have not been allowed to do so.
“When we go to authorities to request them to give us fishing permits, they mock us and ask us, ‘why do you need to fish in today’s age?’” said Indira Bote, a resident of Patihani. “They tell us we should go to school and take up other professions. But they don’t provide us with the resources to be able to do that.”
Other fishermen said even when they had the required permits to fish in the rivers, park rangers and soldiers routinely harassed them and confiscated their goods. It’s reached a point where villagers have stopped going to the park to avoid confrontation.
“We don’t go there, they don’t come here,” said Jaya Mangal Kumal, a community leader from Yogitol.
Anti-poaching efforts, conservation experts say, have also primarily focused on prosecuting locals, who are usually hired by powerful poaching syndicates to do their bidding in exchange for a miniscule amount of money and are at the bottom rung of the criminal network.
“The fight against poaching mostly punishes lower-level actors, often poor local and indigenous peoples, who are then portrayed in the media as members of a powerful and influential criminal network,” said Shradha Ghale, a journalist who has long been covering these issues. “Most reports also don’t explore why these people do what they do.”
Another issue, experts say, is the lack of representation of indigenous peoples in positions of power which adversely leads to their voices being ignored.
In Chitwan, for example, there are 22 buffer zone user committees. These committees were established to make conservation more participatory and inclusive by giving them certain powers to decide how best to spend the revenue earned from the park.
According to a 1996 regulation, the committees are entitled to 30 to 50 percent of the national park’s annual income. The committees get to decide how to allocate the budget they receive from the park. The guidelines in the regulation state the committee should spend 30 percent on community development, 30 percent on conservation activities, 20 percent on internal income and skill development, 10 percent on conservation education and 10 percent on administrative expenditure.
While members are elected to the committee through an election, the process isn’t as democratic as it sounds, local residents told the Post.
“It’s impossible for a person with no political or economic influence to get elected as president of a buffer zone management committee,” said Lalit Kumar Chaudhary, president of the Tharu Welfare Society.
An analysis of the leadership makeup of Chitwan National Park’s buffer zone management committees shows that less than 10 percent of the chairpersons are from indigenous communities.
Many community members also expressed discontent with the way conservation agencies like WWF have turned a blind eye to incidents of human rights abuses. Locals, activists, and representatives of Tharu, Kumal and Bote communities, said they have never had any direct relationship with the organisation, despite the conservation agency promoting itself as working closely with communities.
“We’d be lucky if they came and talked to us,” said Kumal, the community leader. “They have to consult us, educate us, teach us. They don’t say anything.”
Individuals who were approached by representatives from the organisation said the only time they were contacted by WWF was 12 years ago, when the organisation wanted them to drop Shikharam’s case against park officials.
“I didn’t trust them, I didn’t think they would keep their word,” said Shiva Narayan Chaudhary, head of the indigenous society. “And as expected, after the case was resolved, they never came back to the community.”