After guards at a wildlife park funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature were accused of killing a 24-year-old Nepalese man earlier this month, the leading conservation organization said it would campaign for “diligence” in the investigation.
The case bears a notable resemblance to another alleged murder in Chitwan highlighted in a 2019 BuzzFeed News investigation into the beloved megacharity’s funding of guards accused of human rights abuses. The series prompted WWF to revise its human rights policy, commission a comprehensive internal review of its practices, and promise to take “swift and appropriate action” to address any “deficiencies uncovered by the review”.
Raj Kumar Chepang died on July 22nd after allegedly being tortured by army officers helping patrol the park, the Kathmandu Post reported.
In the week before Kumar’s death, he and his friends were briefly arrested by the army for collecting ghongi, a type of snail considered a delicacy, the Post reported. His father told the newspaper that Kumar complained of “physical ailments” after the army released him and went to the hospital later that week, where he died. Police said they were waiting for the autopsy report, which would confirm the cause of death.
A friend who said he was also detained told the newspaper that the soldiers beat them and forced them to carry heavy logs and do 100 push-ups. The Nepalese army denied torturing or beating them.
WWF is “very concerned about these reports” and has “contacted government agencies to understand what has happened and to urge that they be properly investigated,” a spokesman told BuzzFeed News. “We know that the Nepalese government has launched such an investigation.”
“In our ongoing dialogue with government officials, WWF has emphasized that nature conservation should never come at the expense of human rights and well-being,” added the WWF spokesman. “The WWF has endeavored to stay in close contact with the Nepalese government and to exercise due diligence in investigating these events and taking appropriate steps 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 into the park’s alleged involvement in the forcible displacement of an indigenous settlement near its borders. Chitwan officials set fire to two huts, one of the organizations said in a statement, and destroyed eight others with elephants. Villagers were homeless in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
“WWF needs to seriously investigate this case and ensure family justice,” said Praveen Kumar of the THRD Alliance, one of the groups investigating Kumar’s death.
“The army only cares about animals,” said Birendra Mahato, chairman of the Tharu Culture Museum and Research Center. “They are also supposed to support the local population, but they are not serious about supporting marginalized communities.”
BuzzFeed News previously detailed WWF’s decades of support for the armed guards fighting poaching in Chitwan National Park. During this time, indigenous villagers accused the guards of beatings, torture, sexual assault and murders. Park officials confiscated their firewood and vegetables and forced them to do unpaid work.
In 2006, several anti-poaching guards in Chitwan were charged with murder after they arrested Shikharam Chaudhary without evidence and allegedly tortured him to death. Afterwards, WWF employees on site in Nepal jumped into action – not to demand justice, but to advocate the disappearance of the charges. When the Nepalese government dropped the case months later, the charity declared it a victory in the fight against poaching. WWF Nepal continued to fund the park and worked closely with the rangers charged with killing it.
WWF Nepal later hired one of them to work for the charity. There was a second, Kamal Jung Kunwar, a special prize against poaching. By then, Kunwar had written a comprehensive treatise detailing how he used waterboarding as a survey technique.
Kunwar’s photo appeared in a January 2020 WWF Nepal blog post about the charity’s ongoing work to combat poaching. WWF removed the post after BuzzFeed News asked for comment.
The website of WWF Nepal states that Chitwan National Park is partly funded by the US Agency for International Development. USAID did not respond to a request for comment at press time. The charity does not disclose how much money it spends on anti-poaching paramilitary forces and law enforcement agencies.
American taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to fund WWF-backed forces in areas where guards have been accused of rape and murder. This is evident from documents received from BuzzFeed News. Some of the funds went to parks where WWF knew guards were being charged with brutal abuse of local villagers – not the international poaching kingpins they are targeting, according to the charity.
The BuzzFeed News investigation found a pattern of abuse in national parks not just in Nepal but across Asia and Africa. Top executives at the World Wide Fund for Nature had personally examined detailed evidence that charity-funded anti-poaching forces raped and tortured innocent people but continued to support those forces.
The series spurred bipartisan investigation and legislation that would prohibit the government from giving money to international conservation groups that fund or support human rights abuses. It 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 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to chair its own investigation into alleged violations. The panel originally planned to publish its findings by the end of 2019, but did not. The panel did not respond to a request for comment.