August 6, 2017
Since last July, many people have called me to enquire where I have been. Upon listening to my response, many have been horrified and flooded me with rapid-fire questions: What happened? How did it happen? When will you be free? What’s the actual story? In fact, my answer to their question has been quite surprising, and anyone would panic after hearing it: I have been spending a lot of time in prison. More precisely, I have been visiting prisons around Nepal, meeting with people who have been arrested for participating in illegal wildlife trade (IWT). My research, in collaboration with Jacob Phelps and Gary Potter at Lancaster University, aims to understand trends in IWT arrests, and the motives behind people’s participation in illegal trade.
To date, I have interviewed 116 prisoners across 7 different prisons throughout Nepal. Nepal has been increasingly assertive in enforcing its wildlife laws, particularly focusing on the conservation of charismatic species such as tigers and rhinoceros. Some evidence suggests that it is also succeeding, celebrate zero poaching of rhinos in Chitwan National Park since 2011. And, now enforcement focus is expanding to tigers and elephants too. All these efforts, however, have also resulted in growing prison population of people arrested for their involvement in IWT.
This took me across Nepal, to prisons with the largest populations of IWT prisoners, chosen based on the existing arrest records, and in consultation with Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), and Department of Prison Management (DPM).
Conducting research in prison is itself a challenge. It was not easy to convince DNPWC and DPM to give consent to conduct this research. In fact, it took several of visits, follow-ups and clarifications to each level of officers. After the permission from central level was granted, we also needed approval from the Jailer of each prison. In most of the cases, the jailers were not ready to allow us in prison, as they were not convinced that research could be done in a prison setting. At last, overcoming all these complications finally we made into the prison to start our work. This was in addition to all of the research ethics reviews we conducted via Lancaster University.
Prisons and prisoners weren’t new to me, as I had already visited some of them during my MSc thesis and other research. But, this time, I interviewed prisoners for hours, which I never one before. I was excited and nervous too because my first challenge was to win their trust. I had to explain the project, gain their consent, and make them feel comfortable talking with me about their involvement in IWT activities and their journey, from their personal life to jail.
The interviews focused on collecting information about the wildlife harvesters and traders’ background, socioeconomic status, peer group, knowledge of regulations, and motives for participating in trade. Also, we explored the impacts of those activities, and resulting prison sentences, on their family life and livelihoods. Furthermore, we tried to understand the association between their roles and motivations, species traded in last five years, and current offence, including the source, route as well as the destination of the wildlife parts.
Initially, I thought that many prisoners will not be ready to talk with me and that even if they did talk, that they would not reveal their real stories. So, I started with very informal chats with the respondents, like talking about my upbringing, education, and the motive behind this research; along with explaining our structured Participant Information Sheet that formed part of our ethics protocol. The approach really worked, and I listened to many hours of interesting stories, many depicting a bitter, real picture of their participation in IWT, arrest and life in prison.
It will take some time to come up with the final results, but some of our initial findings have already surprised us, and we have had to reject some of our initial hypotheses about roles, motives and relationships within IWT. We are currently working on data analysis, with hopes that our results will help make for more effective and equitable enforcement-based responses to IWT.
(I have written this blog after spending a year interviewing IWT prisoners in Nepal and it was originally published in Tropical Environmental Change and Policy Lab