By Navin Singh Khadka
BBC News, Kathmandu
Nepal contains some of the most famous national parks and conservation areas in the world - but their animals are now in peril.
Rhinos are being killed for their horns
The country's political transition has marked a sharp increase in the poaching and trafficking of endangered species.
With all eyes and ears on the current peace process ushering Maoist rebels into mainstream politics, conservationists say the stage has never been better set for this illegal trade in animals.
The government's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) has confirmed more than 20 rhinos were killed for their horns in national parks and wildlife reserves in the nine months after the government and the Maoists began the peace process.
In the same period, different government agencies have seized around 20 tiger skins, 10 leopard skins and nearly 50kg of tiger bones in different places including the capital, Kathmandu.
Unofficial figures on rhino poaching are much higher, and several conservation organisations believe that almost all of the 80 rhinos in Babai Valley in western Nepal have been poached.
"From recent limited field studies, we have received reports that animal sightings in some national parks have gone pretty much down," said DNPWC's director-general, Shyam Bajimaya.
Such reports have fuelled fears that poaching of other endangered species, such as snow leopard, musk deer, red panda and black buck, among others, may also have gone up, but there has been no detailed field study.
"Rhino poaching has made headlines because poachers normally do not take away the carcass of rhinos, and people find them," says Mangal Man Shakya, chairman of the Wildlife Watch Group.
"In the case of other endangered species, such as tigers and leopards, poachers take away everything and no-one knows about it."
Perhaps that could be the reason why the DNPWC has been able to maintain better records for rhino poaching - 150 killed in the last eight years.
Tigers have been poached for their pelt and bones
Conservationists like Shakya say they are more worried about the release of poachers from jail - even before they have completed their sentences.
"Nearly one-and-a-half-dozen poachers have been released in recent times through cabinet decision, all in the name of celebrating the restoration of democracy in the country," says Shakya.
King Gyanendra was forced to restore the parliament, ending his direct rule, last April, following nationwide protests by seven parliamentarian parties and Maoists.
A government spokesman and minister of state for forests, Dilendra Prasad Badu, told the BBC that previous laws on nature conservation had some pitfalls.
"Therefore, our ministry has already made amendments categorising poaching as a serious crime. As a result, four poachers have already been arrested," he said.
But officials at DNPWC say pressure from parliamentarians to release more poachers has been mounting.
"Resisting such pressure in this transitional period is proving to be increasingly difficult," said a senior official at the DNPWC.
Wildlife officials search sites where tiger bones might be buried
If poachers are really being released under political pressure, they have a reason to return to the national parks and conservation areas: there is hardly any presence of security agencies.
DNPWC officials say poaching has gone up because, unlike during the 10-year conflict, neither government forces nor Maoist rebels now carry out patrols in the protected areas.
"Before, both sides used to carry out patrols against each other in national parks, conservation areas and forest areas - and that made poaching difficult," said Tikaram Adhikari, an official at DNPWC.
"Now, since there is no such patrolling from both the sides, poachers have become quite active."
Among Nepal's 16 protected zones, which make up almost 20% of the country's land area, all national parks and some wildlife reserves had previously been protected by the government army.
But an upsurge in the Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 led to drastic decreases in the number of security posts because the army personnel manning them were deployed to fight the rebels.
In Chitwan National Park, for example, the number of security posts dropped from 34 to seven during the insurgency.
Such posts are yet to be re-established, although the armed conflict has been declared over.
"Without such posts in place, we have not been able to conduct our patrolling in national parks and conservation areas," says Bajimaya.
Some poachers, like these here, have been arrested
Although state minister Badu said the government was forming a special task force to prevent poaching, the caretaker government is more occupied with the peace process that has ended the insurgency in which more than 13,000 people were killed.
"Time and time again, whenever there has been political uncertainty in the country, wildlife conservation has been one of the biggest casualties," said World Wildlife Fund Nepal chief, Anil Manandhar.
"This time, it has become even clearer and what we need now is to focus on wildlife traders."
As a result of this, Wildlife Conservation Nepal's series of stings and undercover operations has led to the arrest of more than 15 poachers in the past year.
Prasanna Yonjan, chief executive officer of this conservation organisation, said: "These operations indicate that the wildlife trade has certainly gone up in recent months."