After rangers at a World Wildlife Fund-funded wildlife park were accused of killing a 24-year-old Nepalese man earlier this month, the leading conservation charity said it would “advocate for the diligence “in the investigation.
The case bears a striking resemblance to another alleged murder in Chitwan, highlighted in a BuzzFeed News survey 2019 in the beloved mega-charity funding of guards accused of human rights violations. The series led WWF to review its human rights policies, commission an in-depth internal review of its practices, and pledge to take “prompt and appropriate action” to address any “deficiencies found by the review.”
Raj Kumar Chepang died on July 22 after being tortured by members of the military who help patrol the park, reported the Kathmandu Post.
The week before Kumar’s death, he and his friends were briefly detained by the military for picking up Ghongi, a type of snail considered a delicacy, the Post reported. His father told the newspaper that Kumar complained of “physical discomfort” after the military released him and later that week he went to hospital, where he died. Police said they were awaiting the autopsy report which will confirm the cause of death.
A friend who said he was also detained told the newspaper that the soldiers beat them and also forced them to carry heavy logs and do 100 push-ups. The Nepalese army denied having tortured or beaten them.
WWF is “very disturbed by these reports” and has “contacted government authorities to understand the events that took place and to insist that they be properly investigated,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We understand that the government of Nepal has opened such an investigation.”
“In our ongoing dialogue with government officials, WWF has stressed that conservation should never come at the expense of human rights and well-being,” the WWF spokesperson added. “WWF has been and intends to remain in close contact with the government of Nepal and advocate for due diligence as it investigates these events and takes appropriate action to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Chitwan National Park did not respond to a request for comment.
Several human rights groups have launched their own investigations, which will also probe the park’s alleged involvement in the forced eviction of an indigenous colony living near its borders. Chitwan officials set fire to two huts, one of the organizations said in a press release, and destroyed eight more with the help of elephants, leaving villagers homeless amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“WWF must seriously investigate this matter and ensure family justice,” said Praveen Kumar of THRD Alliance, one of the groups investigating Kumar’s death.
“The army only cares about animals,” said Birendra Mahato, president of the Tharu Cultural Museum and Research Center. “They are also supposed to support the local people, but they don’t really want to support marginalized communities.”
BuzzFeed News a previously detailed WWF’s decades-long support for armed guards combating poaching in Chitwan National Park. Meanwhile, indigenous villagers accused the guards of beatings, torture, sexual assault and murder. Park officials confiscated their firewood and vegetables, they say, and forced them to work without pay.
In 2006, several anti-poaching guards in Chitwan were charged with murder after arresting Shikharam Chaudhary without evidence and allegedly torturing him to death. Subsequently, WWF field staff in Nepal took action – not to demand justice, but to push for the charges to go away. When the Nepalese government abandoned the case months later, the charity declared it a victory in the fight against poaching. WWF Nepal continued to fund the park and work closely with rangers accused of his murder.
WWF Nepal then hired one of them to work for the charity. He presented a second, Kamal Jung Kunwar, a special anti-poaching prize. By this time, Kunwar had written a revealing memoir detailing how he used waterboarding as an interrogation technique.
Kunwar’s photo appeared in a January 2020 WWF Nepal blog post on the charity’s ongoing work to combat poaching. WWF deleted the post after BuzzFeed News requested comment.
WWF Nepal website says Chitwan National Park is funded in part by the United States Agency for International Development. USAID did not respond to a request for comment by press time. The charity does not disclose how much money it spends on anti-poaching paramilitary forces and law enforcement.
American taxpayers have spent millions of dollars funding for WWF-backed forces in areas where guards have been accused of rape and murder, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. Some of the funds went to parks where the WWF knew the guards were accused of brutal abuse against local villagers – and not the international poaching hubs who the association says are its target.
The BuzzFeed News investigation revealed a pattern of abuse in national parks, not only in Nepal but across Asia and Africa. Senior executives World Wildlife Fund had personally examined detailed evidence that anti-poaching forces funded by the charity raped and tortured innocent people, but continued to support those forces.
The series sparked a bipartisan investigation and legislation that would bar the government from giving money to international conservation groups that fund or support human rights abuses. It has also prompted reviews by the Government Accountability Office and Home Office, as well as separate government investigations in the UK and Germany.
In April 2019, WWF appointed Navi Pillay, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to chair its own investigation into the abuse allegations. The panel originally planned to release its findings by the end of 2019, but did not do so. The panel did not respond to a request for comment.