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In February, when government officials and representatives from 13 Asian countries met in Kathmandu, Nepal, for a week-long symposium on preventing poaching, they rallied behind a single, ambitious goal: reaching zero poaching.
The symposium, Towards Zero Poaching in Asia, marked the launch of a coordinated push to eradicate the poaching of tigers, rhinos and elephants—the first such region-wide effort. Hosted by Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, WWF, the Global Tiger Forum, National Trust for Nature Conservation and the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network, the symposium also showcased the concept of a Zero Poaching Toolkit designed to help participating countries achieve that goal. Discussion of tigers and rhinos was front and center.
Once common throughout Asia, tigers have plummeted from a population of about 100,000 a century ago to as few as 3,200 in the wild today. The continent’s widespread poaching crisis is the biggest threat to their survival. Rising wealth in Asian countries has fueled a black market in which every part of the animal—from bones and pelt to testicles, claws and even whiskers—is sold for various purposes across Asia.
All three subspecies of Asian rhino also live under the constant threat of poaching. And with populations of under 100 and 60 respectively, the Sumatran and Javan rhinos simply can’t withstand the loss of even a single animal.
The discussions in Kathmandu highlighted the plight of Asian elephants (poached for their ivory tusks) as well, while shining a renewed spotlight on the threat to a host of lesser-known species such as pangolins (scales and meat), musk deer (scent glands), sun bears (meat and gallbladders) and pythons (skins).
"When people think about poaching, they often first think of the African rhino and elephant," said Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, while presenting at the symposium. "However,…species in Asia are far more at risk from extinction unless we increase measures against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade."
As the only Asian country that's hit the zero poaching mark thus far, Nepal made a fitting host for discussions about how to reverse that grim reality. The Himalayan nation has achieved 365 days without a single poaching incident not once, but twice: in 2011 for rhinos, and for 12 months ending in February 2014 for rhinos, tigers and elephants.
In proving that zero poaching is possible, Nepal has also proven that economic and political might aren't requisites for success. The country has little of either compared to neighboring behemoths like China and India. Its entire GDP of $19.3 billion is barely higher than the estimated $19 billion value of the global illegal wildlife trade. Instead, Nepal's victories stem from the political will to systematically address poaching. Its success can be linked directly to how the country's communities, rangers, army, police and judiciary are all motivated to address the problem in every link of a sophisticated crime chain.
"Poaching is an organized, professional business," said Diwakar Chapagain, deputy director of wildlife trade monitoring for WWF-Nepal. "To stop it, antipoaching must be the same."
At the symposium, Nepal's multipronged approach was introduced as a zero-poaching framework that other countries could adopt. The Zero Poaching Toolkit—developed by WWF, the Nepali government and other partners—sets out best practices organized around a simple metaphor: effective antipoaching work is a bridge between the present poaching crisis and a poaching-free future.
Six key types of enforcement make up the pillars supporting the bridge: assessments of on-the-ground monitoring efforts; use of the best available technologies; adequate training and welfare for rangers; engagement with local communities; sound judiciary processes for prosecution; and information sharing between regional and transnational partners.
The metaphor reflects what Nepal's government has learned through experience: no one pillar is a higher priority than the others. Community-based antipoaching squads in rural regions have proven to be just as crucial to protecting the country's wildlife as have dedicated government support and well-established investigation practices. Neglecting any one pillar weakens the whole bridge.
The breadth of presentations at the symposium reflected that reality. Officials from Nepal's army shared that their troops had patrolled more than 100,000 square miles in 2014. TRAFFIC's James Compton explained how poaching was just one link in the chain of wildlife crime—and how the trade and demand links had to be addressed in conjunction with enforcement in parks. Technology experts outlined new SMART software for monitoring patrols in the field, along with new surveillance technologies that could be deployed to support antipoaching operations. Representatives from ranger groups such as the Southern Africa Wildlife College talked about the vulnerabilities and training needs of rangers.
And as delegates discussed the importance of transnational cooperation, it was happening in real time as well: the Nepal Police announced the arrest of Rajkumar Praja, the country's most-wanted rhino poacher. The arrest, made in Malaysia, was the rewarding result of cooperation among Nepal's police, Malaysian authorities and INTERPOL.
At the meeting’s close, representatives from all 13 participating countries announced their adoption of the Zero Poaching Toolkit—and resolutions to immediately begin elevating the importance of antipoaching efforts, expanding transnational collaboration, and strengthening support and training for rangers, frontline staff and prosecutors. Zero poaching, initially celebrated as just one country's success, is now an aspiration shared continent-wide.
"WWF is proud to have helped lay the foundation for Asia to achieve zero poaching, both at the symposium and over the many years of our work to protect wildlife across the region," said Barney Long, director of species conservation at WWF-US. "We are now working towards one common mission—the end of poaching in Asia—and I am confident that if we work together, Asia will succeed."