Smuggling of medicinal herbs, wildlife parts rampant via Urai border point in BajhangThe remoteness of the area has encouraged smugglers to use the route to carry out illegal trade across the border, locals say.
The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent nationwide lockdown imposed March onwards brought all activities across the country to a standstill. But what flourished during this period was illegal trade across the Urai border point in Bajhang district, say locals. The Urai border point connects Nepal with Tibet in China. Despite the border being sealed by the Chinese government back in January amid Covid-19 concerns, the smuggling of medicinal herbs and wildlife parts continued.
Pasang Lama, a medicinal herb trader and a local of Dhuli in Saipal Rural Municipality, Bajhang, says the smuggling of medicinal herbs began in April and picked up in June.
“Yarsagumba, ban lasun, katuki and rato chyau, among other precious medicinal herbs, are being transported to China illegally. Nepalis at Taklakot in Tibet are working with Chinese traders to smuggle medicinal herbs across the border areas,” said Lama.
Last year, the Chinese government had opened a road from Taklakot up to Urai border point.
“Nepali smugglers used the route to transport medicinal herbs on mules, yaks and sheep while some also used porters up to Urai. Tibetan businessmen drive up to Urai to receive the consignments,” said Samden Lama, another local of Dhuli.
Eight months ago, the local administration in Bajhang had put a complete ban on the collection of medicinal herbs amid Covid-19 fears. But by May, yarsagumba collectors had left for the highlands to collect the precious herbs for a lack of alternate source of income. Soon the local units in Saipal, Chhabispathibhera, Durgathali and Bangul allowed the collection of yarsagumba after repeated demands from the locals. But the Division Forest Office did not give traders permission to transport yarsagumba collected during the restriction period out of the district.
Dan Bahadur Surmeli, chairman of Bajhang Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the office did not leave the locals with a choice so they began smuggling the collected yarsagumba to China.
“The government should have made other arrangements for the traders to legally export yarsagumba out of the district,” Surmeli said.
According to locals, more than a quintal of yarsagumba has been transported to Tibet from Urai border point this season. Tashi Lama, a resident of Saipal, said, “Smugglers collected yarsagumba from the district and transported the herb to the border area via Saipal Rural Municipality. The quantity could be more than a quintal.”
In the last fiscal year, the Division Forest Office in Bajhang collected around Rs 6 million revenue from the export of around 200 kilograms of yarsagumba. This year, the office has not collected any revenue on yarsagumba exports, which makes all yarsagumba exports illegal, according to the forest office.
Karna Bahadur Khati, acting division forest officer in Bajhang, says his office has been informed about the illegal export of medicinal herbs to Tibet via the Urai border point but no measures have been taken yet to stop such activities.
“Our office has not allowed any businessmen to export medicinal herbs and we have heard that yarsagumba, among other precious herbs, is being exported to China,” he said. “However, we can’t take any immediate actions because of the geographical remoteness of the area. We don’t have the human resources to reach the border area and confront the smugglers.”
Saipal Rural Municipality, the country’s biggest and arguably one of the most remote local units in terms of infrastructures, borders China. Until 2000, a temporary security post of Nepal Police used to be set up in Kalanga, some two kilometres south from the Nepal-China border, every year for seven months from April to October. The temporary police post was displaced during the Maoist insurgency in 2000. Another border police post in Dhuli in the rural municipality was also shifted to the district headquarters, fearing attacks from the Maoist rebels. The border police post in Dhuli was reinstated after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. But the temporary police post in Kalanga has not been reestablished yet.
According to Bahadur Lama, who has been operating a hotel in Urai near the Chinese Border Security Post in Lupu, Tibet for the last nine years, the border point of late is being used to smuggle not only medicinal herbs but wildlife parts, including tiger pelts and bones and musk deer parts, as well.
“The Nepali authorities have done little to stop illegal trade through this border point. There are no security checks, making it easy for smugglers to operate,” he said.
Back in 2012, Bajhang Police had seized around 35 quintals of red sandalwood from Rithapata village in the district. The precious wood was being smuggled using 86 porters, all locals of Bajura district. The same year, 50 quintals of red sandalwood had been smuggled to Tibet, said police. Since then, incidents of red sandalwood smuggling had not been reported in the district by the authorities or the police. But the locals say that the smuggling never stopped.
“I saw around 40 quintals of red sandalwood being transported from Bajura to Tibet with the help of 123 porters in 2016. Last year, 35 quintals of wood made its way across the border carried by more than 100 porters from Dailekh,” said Padam Lama, who owns a hotel in Bainsa of Tibet.
With the closure of Tatapani border in Sindhupalchok and heightened security in Rasuwagadhi and other border points, smugglers have started frequenting the Urai border point since security is lax in the area, says Jagat Tamang, secretary of Kailash Trade Association. “Urai border point is not closely guarded as other international border points so smugglers find it easy to trade here,” he said.
The people’s representatives of Saipal have urged the authorities to immediately reinstate the temporary police post in Kalanga to control smuggling.
“About 95 percent of smuggling will be controlled if a security post is established in Kalanga. It is difficult to use other trails to reach Tibet,” said Rajendra Dhami, the chairman of Saipal Rural Municipality.
It takes around three days to reach the Nepal-China border from the police post in Dhuli, which is around 30 kilometres towards Nepal from the international border.
“Even if the police are informed about smuggling incidents, it will be difficult for them to reach Urai from their police post in Dhuli,” said Dhami. According to him, he has submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs and Law of the Sudurpaschim Province to establish a temporary security post in Khalanga.
“It is becoming increasingly necessary to reestablish a police post in Kalanga to control the smuggling of medicinal herbs and animal parts,” said Dhami. “The unchecked smuggling of animal parts has encouraged poaching in the forests of Bajhang.”
Addressing the concerns of the people’s representatives and locals of Bajhang, the federal government plans to set up a border outpost of the Armed Police Force in the district. The Armed Police Force is also preparing to establish a border outpost in Dhuli village. APF Deputy Superintendent of Police Damodar Dhodari recently made a field visit to Dhuli to set up an outpost.
“There is no human settlement above Dhuli. Preparation is underway to set up a border outpost in Dhuli, as it will be difficult to manage logistics for the APF in the border area. We have to opt for Dhuli and not Khalanga because it is very expensive to transport rations and other goods there due to its remoteness,” said Chief District Officer Kamalraj Bhandari. He, however, said a temporary post of the APF could be set up near the Urai border area in summer and the post could be shifted to Dhuli in winter.