Two years after fleeing the country as the police closed in, Rajkumar Praja was finally tracked down in Malaysia in January and extradited to Nepal this week, where he faces a lengthy spell in jail for rhino poaching and trafficking in rhino horns.
Praja’s capture is another cause for celebration in a country that is leading the way in the fight against wildlife crime. The government of Nepal – through its enforcement agencies and collaboration with local communities and conservation partners such as WWF – has achieved remarkable success in recent years in the fight against poaching, particularly by dismantling criminal networks operating both inside and outside protected areas.
“The capture and jailing of Nepal´s most wanted poacher shows how serious the government is about tackling wildlife crime and how determined it is to ensure that poaching kingpins, like Rajkumar Praja, pay for their crimes,” said Anil Manandhar, Country Representative of WWF Nepal.
Back in 2013, Praja, the ringleader of a major rhino poaching network, managed to escape when the Nepal Police, with the support of the Nepalese Army and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, arrested more than a dozen members of his criminal gang – implicated in the killing of 19 rhinos over six years in the world famous Chitwan National Park.
Praja fled the country and disappeared. Sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail for rhino poaching and trading internationally in rhino horns, Praja was the subject of an INTERPOL Red Notice – or international arrest warrant requested by the Nepalese authorities.
After many months on the run, Praja was finally tracked down and arrested in Malaysia in January – following close collaboration via INTERPOL channels between the Nepalese and Malaysian authorities. He was found in possession of a fraudulent passport issued under a false name and was subsequently extradited back to his homeland on February 8th to face justice.
“What we have achieved with the arrest of Rajkumar Praja is a testament to how law enforcement agencies can utilize INTERPOL resources to share information and coordinate beyond national boundaries to combat transnational organised crime,” said DIGP Hemant Malla Thakuri, Director of the Nepal Police Central Investigation Bureau.
Praja, who is now in custody in Chitwan, was a target of INTERPOL’s Operation Infra Terra in 2014. As INTERPOL’s first global fugitive operation focused on environmental criminals, Infra Terra targeted 139 fugitives wanted by 36 countries for crimes, including wildlife trafficking, illegal fishing and logging, and trading in illicit ivory and rhino horn.
Other high-profile targets of Operation Infra Terra, who have been arrested as a result of the global operation, include suspected illegal ivory trader, Ben Simasiku, and Feisal Mohamed Ali, the alleged leader of an ivory smuggling ring in East Africa.
“WWF Nepal congratulates the Nepalese and Malaysian governments and INTERPOL for their work, which shows that wildlife criminals can run but they can´t hide,” said Manandhar. “Poaching still remains a threat to Nepal´s endangered wildlife, but Praja´s arrest is another major step on the road to zero-poaching.”
Twice since 2011, Nepal has registered 365 consecutive days of zero poaching – when not a single rhino, tiger or elephant has been poached. In February, at the end of a major regional conference in the capital, Kathmandu, on zero poaching, Chitwan National Park was the first protected area in the world to be successfully accredited under the Conservation Assured Tiger Standards (CA|TS).
Now Praja’s arrest has struck another powerful blow against wildlife crime in the country – illustrating how organised wildlife crime can be tackled by working collaboratively at local, regional and international levels.