Tag Archives: crime

Already CNN Hero, a Nepali Blazes a Unique Path

Pushpa Basnet with Sanu (left), the first child she met and rescued from prison life eight years ago . Fourteen month old Pushpanjali (right) is her youngest ward. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa Basnet with Sanu (left), the first child she met and rescued from prison life eight years ago . Fourteen month old Pushpanjali (right) is her youngest ward. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa Basnet’s home, like many places in Kathmandu, is hard to find. I had to call her several times for directions as I drove into the dust-caked northern part of Nepal’s capital city, navigating the ubiquitous ruts created by road construction, the jams from overloaded buses dropping passengers in mid-lane and the sea of motorcycles oblivious of any traffic rule. Finally I found the right turn into the narrow alleyway that led to a black gate. Pushpa was waiting there, a young woman all smiles, her black hair in a tight bun, a baby in her arms and children tagging behind.

I have reported from and volunteered in many orphanages in Africa and South Asia and often felt they were defined by a tangible sadness if not despair.  For a stranger entering this home for the first time, the warmth was unmistakable. Pushpa, 29, founded and runs a home for children who have one or both parents serving long prison terms. She lives with her 45 wards that range from 14 months to 18 years in a simple three-story brick house without running water.

In Nepal, a country whose major claim to fame is as home to Mt Everest and great trekking, Pushpa is different.  She is a CNN Hero 2012.  I had wanted to meet her in part to see what made her a ‘hero’ and what a CNN Hero does after they have won their award.  I left a few hours later feeling that I had met an extraordinary woman with unusual inner strength, humility, smarts and a seemingly endless amount of love and positive karma to share. If heroes are made on a battlefield, Pushpa’s is far from the world’s attention. She is not a media star in Nepal. But she is a star in this home. She is Mamu, a very unusual mother.

The children at ECDC, a home to children of Nepali prisoners, greet visitors.

The children at ECDC, a home to children of Nepali prisoners, greet visitors.

Pushpa’s organization, the Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC), houses the children of prisoners and pays for their education. But this is just the bare bones of what happens here. By her own admission never a great student, Pushpa says she found her calling in 2005 after she was temporarily suspended from school and began to visit prisons as a social worker. One of the world’s poorest countries, Nepal lacks a social safety net that can help the children of prisoners. As a result, if the child has no guardian, it must go live in prison or on the streets.  In 2007, Pushpa started a residential home with just two children. Through a complex legal guardianship process, Pushpa has now brought 32 girls and 13 boys here from 22 prisons. Most of them are between ages 4 and 8. She also runs a daycare center in Kathmandu prison.

Pushpa focuses on children whose parents are serving long sentences for crimes such as drug and human trafficking and murder. Herself a product of boarding school, Pushpa created her home on a similar model. The children live in impeccable though Spartan dorm rooms. The small ones sleep two to a bed for physical and emotional warmth. “Hugs are very important,” grins Pushpa who grabs her little ones to ruffle their head or exchange a kiss. Prizes of ice cream outings are given monthly to the cleanest rooms. Everyone studies together on floor cushions in the evenings. They have four meals a day of dal and rice with homemade pickles made by the gallon by Pushpa. They can afford meat  (chicken) only once a week.

The dormitory rooms are immaculate and Spartan.

The dormitory rooms are immaculate and Spartan.

Like all Nepalese, Pushpa and her staff adapt to the ubiquitous shortages. Road construction means no running water for months now. There is no central heating but she has no money for propane heaters so in the winter it is early to bed. With 12 hours a day of no electricity, she has used her CNN funds to buy solar panels and her inverters feed the critical rooms: the night bathroom light, study hall and the kitchen. The funds have also helped her buy two solar broilers where I saw beans busy simmering as well as a long metal dining table with benches so everyone eats together.  Every four days she goes through one 15Kg propane cylinder for cooking. She usually hoards (like everyone else) 25 cylinders at a time but today she has only five left due to an unforeseen shortage in the Kathmandu Valley. “I’ve hoarded wood,” she assured me. “If we can’t find propane, we’ll cook with that.”

Pushpa used some of her CNN award money to buy solar inverters as well as this solar broiler where she is cooking beans. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

Pushpa used some of her CNN award money to buy solar inverters as well as this solar broiler where she is cooking beans. (copyright Donatella Lorch)

As much as possible, she wants her children to have a normal life. Aside from paying their school fees, Pushpa has hired a Tae Kwon Do (one of Nepal’s major school sports) teacher to come to the house and train. Painting is also a key activity. One girl, whose father died of an overdose and whose mother is serving a 25-year sentence for selling and using “Brown Sugar,” (heroine) has nerve damage that makes it difficult to speak but Pushpa encourages her drawing talent. And on weekends, everyone heads out for a hike to a nearby hill to play games and fly kites. This is Pushpa’s favorite time. “This is the one place I can be myself and just run around,” she explained. On holidays, the children return to the prisons to stay with their parents.

Pushpa must compete with Nepal’s orphanages for funding. With foreign adoptions suspended, orphanages are overcrowded and underfunded.  Pushpa’s biggest challenge is finding a permanent home. So far, ECDC has moved five times. Her CNN prize money has gone towards buying land to build her dream “Butterfly Home.” She is now fund raising for the $400,000 she needs to build the home and make it a reality. At times, serendipitous encounters, are magical.  Coming back from his honeymoon, her brother chatted with a fellow plane passenger who was coming to visit orphanages she was supporting. Today, this woman supports 23 of Pushpa’s children with $3,000 a month. Of the children Pushpa has raised since 2005, 120 have left and 25 of the parents remain in contact with the school. Pushpa continues to pay for many of their school tuitions.  Fourteen of Pushpa’s wards were abandoned by their parents after leaving prison but the kids continue to live at ECDC.

There is a circle to Pushpa’s life.

Sanu, the little eight-month-old who first grabbed her clothes and smiled at her in 2005 is now nine years old and still lives with Pushpa. Sanu’s mother served a sentence for killing her abusive husband but was turned away by her own family after being released. She is now also living at ECDC.  In halting English, Sanu tries to explain her situation: “I have an original mother and I have Mamu, a mother who gives me everything.”

Over a year ago, Pushpa was handed a 45-day-old girl by policemen. The baby’s mother had just been burned to death by her husband for failing to make him an omelette. The father is serving a 10 year sentence. The little girl, Pushpanjali, is now 14 months old and Pushpa has been given complete guardianship. At lunchtime, the older children feed and look after younger ones. But every spare moment when she can grab her away, Pushpa is picking up Pushpanjali to nuzzle and hug her.

Brazen Rhino Poaching Hits Kenya Hard

Naibor, the largest white rhino on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kenya. Photo by OWS

Naibor, the largest white rhino on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary, in Kenya. Photo by OWS

Naibor was a gentle fellow, the largest and oldest white rhino living on the Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary (OWS) overlooking Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. His horn was three feet long, and he was a favorite of rangers and visitors. But earlier this month, in broad daylight, armed men got through the electric fence and shot Naibor dead with an AK-47 within earshot of a ranger’s post. Both his horns were hacked off before the poachers fled.

OWS mounted a massive tracking operation with police, rangers, tracker dogs and a helicopter, but the poachers escaped into dense bush. The dogs found the small horn stuffed down a hole, along with shoes and a shirt, and they later identified five soldiers from a nearby army barrack. The soldiers were arrested and then released due to lack of evidence, police said.

Naibor, after the poachers attacked. Photo by Phil Mathews

Naibor, after the poachers attacked. Photo by Phil Mathews

In the same week, five other rhinos were killed 150 miles north on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of the best-managed private conservancies in Kenya. The poachers used automatic weapons and escaped through rough terrain. The dogs lost their tracks in Isiolo, a hub for the illegal wildlife cartels, for weapons and explosives smuggling, al Shabaab networking and human trafficking.

These brazen attacks show that the battle against rhino poaching is neither straightforward nor a guaranteed win.  When I asked a well-known Kenyan conservationist what he thought needed to be done to save the rhino, he hesitated. “How does it get stopped?” he asked rhetorically.“I stay awake at night asking myself that question.”

Though rhino poaching is not new to Kenya, the market for rhino horn has grown massively, along with its price.  In a country where the average person lives on about $2 a day, it’s almost impossible to protect a jewel attached to a lumbering weak-eyed giant wandering placidly through the bush.

In the 1970s, illegal hunting for rhino horn reduced Kenya’s population of black rhinos from 20,000 to about 300. For ten years, as many as five rhinos were killed every day.  But even with reduced numbers, rhino poaching continues.  South Africa, with about 20,000 rhino, loses two a day. Kenya, which now has fewer than 600 rhinos country-wide, lost more than 20 in 2012.

Rhino horn is worth more than gold. While the gunmen who kill the animal may only receive $10,000-20,000 dollars, by the time the horn gets to its biggest market, Vietnam, where people believe it can cure cancer, a gram of horn powder can cost $65,000.

Lewa, with 62,000 acres of windswept hills, scrub land and savannah, is one of my favorite places. Once a cattle ranch, it became a wildlife conservancy in 1995 and is now a global model for community-based conservation—a tourist destination, home to 350 species of birds and 70 mammal species including lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and cheetah. It is also a leader in rhino preservation—home to 10 percent of Kenya’s black and 14 percent of its white rhino.

Keeping rhino is not for amateurs. The cost of protecting wildlife nearly doubles with black rhino present. Lewa has established a veritable army to protect its animals—and it is expensive.  Encircled by an electric fence, Lewa has 150 armed rangers, surveillance teams, radio operators, dog handlers, a fence maintenance team, night guards and aerial surveillance. The conservancy works extensively with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and—critically—with local communities, which provide labor, and informers.

So who poached Lewa’s rhinos? A massive investigation is underway in the conservation community. Several people told me that only locals or former employees—including possibly employees charged with rhino security—would have known their way in and out of the ranch. Lewa officials describe the rhino as a ‘Kenyan national asset’ and warn that attacks could escalate across Kenya.

Another reason rhino are vulnerable is that their horns are so portable.  Elephant tusks need to be moved by vehicle, but rhino horn can be hand-carried. “Rhino horn, like drugs, counterfeit currency or illicit diamonds, is a high-value black-market product that, once it leaves the hands of the poacher, is moved through a series of couriers, onto godfathers coordinating these activities,” explained Ian Craig, Lewa’s founder, in a speech to American zoo-keepers. Slipped into a shoulder bag, the horn probably left Isiolo by car and then Kenya by plane within hours of the killings.

While elephant poachers are often caught with tusks, in Kenya only twice have police caught someone with rhino horn.  Without the horn, prosecution is nearly impossible. Moreover, anti-poaching laws offer little deterrence, as penalties are grossly outdated. Magistrates know little about wildlife crime.  Most poachers get charged with misdemeanors. Fines are paid immediately, in cash. One poacher has been arrested, fined and released five times. High-level corruption may be partly to blame, as there is certainly enough money to go around.  And if there is no corruption, there may simply be indifference:  the Kenyan Minister for Wildlife has yet to issue a statement about the recent poachings.

Paula Kahumba, executive director of WildlifeDirect, which blogs to support conservationists, argues that no African government has invested the resources needed to stop poaching. “The truth is that the demand for ivory and rhino is so great that you can’t save it on your own,” Paula says, adding that KWS has its heart in the right place but does not have the wealth or manpower to investigate and prosecute. “The wildlife laws are inadequate given the scale of the problem. We are talking to the government trying to convince them to use the Economic and Organized Crime Act in Kenya.”

It is difficult to know how this will end.  It is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons.’  We are collectively richer with rhino, but for many of the poor, individually, it is better to kill the rhino and market its horn—even if, in the end, there are no rhino or rhino horn left over.  For a desperately poor breadwinner, one horn can make all the difference between feeding and educating children, or consigning them to a life of poverty as well. It is not a fight that conservationists alone can win.