The Forgotten Children

© Simrika Sharma / WWF Nepal

“This is probably the first time someone came to our house asking about us and not our husbands.” With these words, Motimaya Praja, 30 years of age, began her story as the wife of a poacher.

In January 2015, two years after fleeing Nepal, her husband, Raj Kumar Praja, was tracked down in Malaysia and extradited to Nepal a month later. Raj Kumar is accused of killing 19 endangered one-horned rhinos, and is currently facing a jail term of 15 years in Bharatpur, Chitwan.

Motimaya got married to Raj Kumar when she was just 16 years old. Their house is in Kalikhola of Korak village, inhabited primarily by indigenous Chepang people, who are well known for their skills in hunting. Raj Kumar’s family had migrated to Korak 35 years ago.

While her husband serves time in prison, Motimaya and their two children are left to fend for themselves. Her small village house is not descriptive of the millions of rupees Raj Kumar is reported to have earned selling rhino horns. “Whatever money he must have made, he never brought it home,” says Motimaya.

Motimaya has faint memories of the times she spent together with her husband. He stayed away from home, almost all the time. She says she was even unaware of what Raj Kumar was up to until the security personnel started showing up at her home repeatedly, looking for her husband.

Motimaya visits her husband only two times in a year. “I cannot find the time to meet him,” she says. “I need to do everything by myself here – from looking after the children, to doing the household chores and making money to make ends meet. Our village is also without motorable roads so it is quite inconvenient getting out every now and then.”

© Simrika Sharma / WWF Nepal

Adjacent to Motimaya’s house, lives her sister-in-law Leela Kumari Praja who has a similar story to tell. Leela’s husband (and Raj Kumar’s elder brother), Dal Bahadur Praja, wasn’t directly involved in poaching but was arrested for being an accomplice six years ago.

A mother of three, Leela suffered a tragic loss of one of her children while her husband was still in custody. She feels there should be a difference in the penal system when it came to a poacher and an accomplice. “While I condemn the actions of my husband in being an accomplice to poaching, all I know is that my husband never killed a rhino hence he shouldn’t have been sent behind bars for ten long years,” she exclaims.

Being the wife of a poacher or an accomplice makes us live with a constant stigma, Leela laments. According to her, people from outside the village have the notion that everyone residing in Korak is a rhino poacher. “The actions of our husbands have made us social outcastes. We consider ourselves the forgotten children of society,” she adds.

© Simrika Sharma / WWF Nepal

Motimaya and Leela speak for the many families in Korak that have been left abandoned, and having to face consequent hardships such as lack of guardianship, difficult finances and social exclusion. The change in social dynamics in the village is also another factor. In Kalikhola alone, three houses have converted to Christianity as they feel more included in that community. A poacher’s wife left for employment in the middle-east leaving her children to fend for themselves. Children of three families whose fathers are in prison have taken to drugs.

According to Dharma Raj Lama, secretary of Kaminchuli Biodiversity Conservation Society, a group carrying out various conservation activities in Korak“, what looms large over the people of Korak is the probability of the poachers’ children becoming the second generation involved in wildlife crime considering they have traditional knowledge in hunting and are unemployed and may therefore choose poaching as an easy way to earn money. He feels ignoring this situation could pose threats for the future.

He considers awareness and inclusion as primary tools to help address this, by building their understanding as well as engagement in biodiversity conservation while building their acceptance in society.

Madhav Khadka, Manager of the Wildlife Trade Monitoring unit at WWF Nepal reiterates this point. According to him, package programs that enhance the understanding of the community on the significance of conservation and engage them in livelihoods opportunities are essential for the people of Korak.

So far, through the Corridor and Bottleneck Restoration Project (CBRP) of the Terai Arc Landscape program of the Government of Nepal and WWF, a few conservation initiatives such as agro-based farming, skilled-based trainings for the youth, establishment of Community Based Anti-Poaching Unit and eco clubs have been carried out in ward numbers 5 and 6 of Korak. But there clearly is a lot more that can be done.

“So far we’ve only had fingers pointed at us. If we were to be lent a hand in conservation, we would happily walk this journey together,” claimed Motimaya with a glint of hope.