TIGER BONE WINE
Brian K. Weirum
Tales - NEPAL
The man next to me was flossing his teeth with a
blunt, rusty blade which looked like the cutting end of a wine opener. Dirty faced children were clambering over his
shoulder to see what was happening in this cramped room. A lone guard stood near me at the door with a
rifle languishing at his side, seemingly unconcerned and oblivious to the crowd
that was pressing into the room. Across
the courtyard another guard stood with his back to an open door. He was holding his rifle at arms length with
one hand and reading a magazine held in the other.
I was in a small room on the second floor of a building
which was hard to discern whether it was under construction or seriously
falling apart. I suspect a bit of both
was true. Rods of steel protruded up
from floors to support walls that didn’t exist.
There were as many bricks and holes visible as white plaster on the
crudely white washed building.
The room was furnished with a bench, one chair, and a lone
desk in the middle. The desk was empty
except for two round glass paperweights and a red phone inside a wooden
box. Bags of rice and flour lined the
floors and hung crudely atop a single filing cabinet.
Beneath us, inside a central courtyard, scores of men
crowded towards the gate to see what was happening in the room above. In a separate enclosure several women were
sitting over pots, cooking rice. A lone
woman and child were screaming protests in Nepalese. The woman was in jail for poisoning her
husband to death and as there was now no one to care for her family her child
was consigned to share her fate.
My shirt was strained dark with sweat which ran down my
chest, occasionally fogging my camera and dampening my notepad. The heat was stifling. There was no breeze. Almost, it seemed, no air. It was May and the monsoon rains had not yet
come. I was in the jail in Bharatpur, a
small town in the Nepalese Terai, a vast expanse of jungle, forests, and farm
land along the southern border of Nepal.
The Terai was once one of the most inhospitable places on
earth- being home to the healthiest of malarial mosquitoes. Today it is host to a tenuous relationship
between people who have flocked down out of the Himalayan mountains in search
of better agricultural land and several large National Parks which have been
set aside to preserve and protect a vast array of indigenous wildlife-
including the Royal Bengal tiger, the Indian one horned rhinoceros, leopard,
gaur, wild elephants, sambar, chital (spotted deer), wild boar, sloth bear,
cobra, python, countless other animals and a vast array of bird life.
How I got into this unlikely scenario is to reveal a look
into a deadly game that threatens to rid the jungles and forests of Asia of one
of the earth’s most magnificent animals.
* * *
I had driven the length of Royal Chitwan National Park with
Chuck McDougal, longtime friend and resident Nepal tiger expert, to meet with
Tika Ram Adhikari, Deputy Warden of the park.
Tika Ram, a 36 year old wildlife worker from Lamjung in central Nepal,
was one of several people putting together a very aggressive anti-poaching
effort. Chuck spoke very highly of his
dedication and we wanted to hear how his work was progressing.
Though there are many problems facing the tiger and other
endangered species- loss of habitat, population pressure, economic development,
and the lack of will of tiger habitat nations- the most immediate threat facing
the tiger is poaching to satisfy the market for traditional Chinese medicine.
We met Tika Ram at his office in Saurah on the Eastern end
of Chitwan National Park. It didn't take
long for me to see that this man was indeed a very courageous and dedicated
individual. His tale depicted a
one-sided war but he was undeterred and spoke with almost mischievous glee
about his battle with the poaching organizations. In somewhat broken English he
told me over lunch.."I don't care about my life. How to catch tiger and rhino poachers at the
site- this is my hobby."
He had a list of 72 suspected individuals who were being
monitored by 7 people in his employment.
This 'employment' amounted to payment of a small amount of Nepalese
rupees to keep tabs on the movements of suspected poachers and traffickers. For example, one man was being paid 500
rupees ($10) a month to watch a fellow named Som Lal Kami who was known to have
killed 3 rhinos with spears after snaring them in a trap. There was now a tacit agreement between the
Nepal army stationed inside the park and the Warden's office to 'seriously
detain' this Mr. Kami if he ever ventured into the park.
There seemed to be two major smuggling/poaching
organizations. One based in Pokhara and
one based nearby in Narayanghat. The
identity of the ringleaders were known but they were difficult to
apprehend. Like everywhere else in the
world- bribery, influence peddling, and big money kept those at the top
Tika Ram told us that he himself was under surveillance by a
man who allegedly was employed as a cook in a neighboring tea house at
Saurah. He had been sent by the
Narayanghat poaching ring to keep tabs on the Warden's activities. So they were both spying on each other in
this rather dangerous game. The stakes
were high. Bones for a full grown tiger
could get up to $1000 US and a rhino horn could command as much as $10,000 US
Rewards had been made commensurate with the profits to be
gained. Up to 50,000 rupees were now
being offered ($1000) for information leading to the arrest of those involved
in the poaching and trafficking of endangered species. Fines and penalties for killing tigers had
now been raised to equal that of the rhino.
[Rupees 50,000-100,000 ($1,000-$2,000) and 5-15 years in prison].
After lunch Tika Ram asked us if we wanted to go to the jail
in Bharatpur to question two of the arrested poachers. This caught me totally by surprise. Chuck and I caught each other’s eye, and
realizing this was too great an opportunity to pass up, off we went in an open landrover.
En route to the jail we stopped at a narrow dirt lane. Tika Ram pointed out a white two storied
house on the edge of the forest north of the main E W highway in Nepal. This was the home of Chij Kumari, a lady
known to be the supplier of a poison
called 'fikum' which, mixed with DDT., was being used to kill tigers by a new
and devious method.
Villagers who lived on the edge of the park were 'given'
free cows and water buffaloes on the understanding that they should allow their
animals to stray into the periphery of the Park. If any of their animals were killed by a
tiger they to immediately contact a certain person. The carcass of the killed animal would be
laced with poison, and the tiger would die when it returned to finish the meal. After a kill, tigers generally drag their
larger prey off into the high grass and eat their meals over a period of
time. The tiger would then be buried and
its bones dug up at a later time and transported via the smuggling circuit to
another destination. The villagers could
then keep the remaining animals as their own.
Had we not been anxious to get to the jail, I'm sure Tika
Ram would have suggested that we pop on over to her house and ask to talk to
her. This was his attitude when talking
about all the miscreants in this affair.
He had no qualms whatsoever about spontaneously getting 'in the face' of
these people to let them know he was on their trail. This, indeed, was how the idea of going to
the jail came up.
Our host during this interview was the head jailer, a Mr.
Sharma. He was a handsome man with a
cleanly pressed shirt which almost mocked the muggy disarray in which I found
myself. He was wearing a colorful
‘topi’- the traditional national hat of
Nepal. His attitude varied from bored
insouciance to open amusement at some of the questions and answers. The red phone rang a few times and all was
still as he briefly conducted his jail business, then, with a polite nod of the
head, acknowledged that Tika Ram could continue the interview with a Ram and
Rom Bahadur Kami.
Sita Ram was dressed in thongs, shorts, and a loose fitting
multi-colored striped shirt. His hair
was closely cropped, slightly graying, and had a drooping mustache which went
well with the sneering scowl permanently etched on his face. In an instant I knew that..”He did it!”
Sita Ram had been caught in a sting operation digging up
tiger bones at the Park Headquarters in Kasra Durbar. A tiger had been found dead and it was
decided to put the carcass to good use.
Via the information network, Sita Ram was approached and asked if he
would dig up the bones and get them to an isolated school yard known to be a
meeting place for the poaching trade.
Throughout the interview, he denied this charge, saying he just happened
to be there, but did admit to being involved in three previous incidents of
bringing bones up from India to that remote school yard. When confronted with the names of heads of
known poaching rings, he admitted only to the existence of the organizations
and said he had never heard the names of the leaders. Sita Ram had not been formerly charged for
this crime as yet. If convicted he was
facing a possible sentence of 15 years in prison and a fine of Rupees 75000
($1500). He pleaded with Tika Ram for
understanding, claiming to have a son that needed his fathership. With primitive plea bargaining, it was
suggested that if he provided helpful information about the poaching
organization some understanding could be reached. [I’ve been told that he is now out of prison
and a paid informant in the anti-poaching war.]
Rom Bahadur Kami was tall and thin. He wore loose fitting broken sandals, a pair
of shorts, and a brown khaki shirt hung over a dirty white undershirt. He, too, wore a colorful Nepalese
‘topi’. Unlike the unpleasant demeanor
of Sita Ram, Rom Bahadur carried himself with a dignified air and his face,
though stern, occasionally offered a kind smile.
Rom Bahadur was arrested in a raid on a house where 44 rhino
hooves and two horns were confiscated.
That represents 11 dead rhinos.
Word had been spread through the local village of Bibinagar that a buyer
was interested in rhino hooves. A
response came back that there, indeed, were rhino hooves available but the
buyer must also purchase an expensive and highly prized rhino horn. A deal was cut over several days of
negotiating. As the park rangers came
into and through the suspected house the scene turned into something out of a
Keystone Cop film. People and rhino
evidence began flying out windows and doors and holes in the roof. Eight people were arrested in this
incident. No conclusive results or hard
evidence was obtained in this conversation with Rom Bahadur.
Two hours later I looked around the room. The novelty of our visit had evidently worn
thin. We were alone. No curious and precocious children. No armed guard at the door. I stood near the door and as Rom Bahadur
began to glance outside from time to time my paranoia had me wondering if I
should try to stop him if he made an attempt to flee across the rice fields
into the forest. The guard who had been
at our door was now down under the shade of a large banyan tree. His rifle was laying on the ground and he was
playing caroms with the young children.
The other guard across the way had dropped his magazine and was
dangerously close to nodding off on top of bayonet affixed to his rifle.
Our visit was now old news. We
thanked Mr. Sharma for his hospitality, pulled in behind a bullock cart, and
ate dust all the way out to the main highway.
* * *
Tiger Bone Wine is thought by millions of people to be an
elixir of life. To ingest the tiger is
to gain its power and vigor. In the
1980’s a factory in Taiwan, an island which has never had an indigenous tiger
on its shores, was using 2000 kg. of tiger bones a year to bottle 100,000
bottles of Tiger Bone Wine. That figure
accounts for the death of at least 200 tigers.
Products from tiger bone are not limited to wine and tonics. Powders, ointments, pills and plasters made
from tiger bones are also thought to have medicinal value.
Ancient beliefs and customs threatening the tiger are not,
however, limited to bones. Tiger penis
soup is thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Eyeballs rolled into pills are thought to cure convulsions. Whiskers are thought to be a protection
against bullets. The tail mixed with
soap is believed to cure skin disease.
The hair when burnt drives away centipedes. Sitting on a tiger skin can prevent fevers
caused by evil spirits. Claws worn as a piece of jewelry are said to give
courage and protection from sudden fright.
And ribs should at all times be carried as a good luck talisman.
No animal has been graced with a greater aura of power and
majesty, both in myth and reality, than the tiger. Ironically it is this prodigious mantle of
respect which is threatening to lead it down an inexorable path to extinction.
With no proven medicinal value, the strong belief in the
efficacy of tiger medicines may soon lead to the disappearance, forever, of
this magnificent animals from the forests and jungles of Asia.
The Royal Bengal tiger, found mainly in India, Nepal,
Bangladesh, and Bhutan is being vigorously hunted because the Siberian and
South China tiger are too scarce to supply the market demand for tiger
products. With the recent changes in the
former Soviet Union, the magnificent Siberian, or Amur tiger, has been
slaughtered at such a pace to almost preclude its survival. Of the original eight sub-species of tigers,
three have become extinct in our lifetime and two more may never see the 21st
The once thriving National Parks of India and Nepal have
become shopping malls to satisfy illicit markets in Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea,
China, and Japan. Several renowned tiger
reserves in India have suffered catastrophic losses since 1989 and several
tiger populations monitored by McDougal in Nepal suffered 40% losses in the
years between 1989 and 1991 alone. Tiger bones have been found at the airport
in Delhi; tiger cubs were found smuggled
through the Bangkok airport; and bags of
tiger bones were found at a remote postal office in the Humla district of
northwest Nepal. In August of 1996, a
Tibetan in the town of Taklakot ( a small town near the base of Mt. Kailas on
the remote Nepal-Tibetan border) told me of a man in jail in the Ngari region
town of Ali for trying to barter tiger bones for ‘shahtoosh’-the wool from the
endangered Tibetan antelope. Nepal
clearly lies on the smuggling route of the tiger's path to extinction.
* * *
On the road back to Saurah we stopped briefly to cross a
small stream just before entering a massive sal forest. The setting sun was now a massive ball of
flames balancing on top of the distant trees.
The intensity of the heat had been mercifully tempered by shade and an
occasional breeze. A langur monkey was
perched above us cradling a small baby in her arms. A spotted deer drank from the stream. Far off on the edge of the forest the Indian
Cuckoo was singing its maddeningly
repetitious yet melodious refrain. All
was becoming very still. The jungle was
preparing for the night.
I asked Tika Ram why he was so dedicated to this often
dangerous and thankless work. My
question seemed to surprise him and he was quiet for a moment. His arm then swept across the horizon
gesturing to the smooth flowing Rapti River; the 20 foot high green and golden
brown elephant grass; the dense riverine sal forest; and on to the massive
white snows of the Annapurna Himal in the distance. "The grasses and forest cover burn and
are reborn every year,” he said. “I
never feel like this is an old area. I
am always excited when I see the park as it is always changing. If we don't do something and the tiger and
rhino are forever gone from our forests- then what is the meaning of this