Activists Rally to Stop the Slaughter of 500,000 Animals at a Nepal Religious Festival

The ritual sacrifice is thought to bring prosperity and protection from evil. In the U.S., meanwhile, 25 million animals are killed each day for food.

(Photos: Shruti Shrestha/Reuters)

Oct 7, 2014· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Some 500,000 water buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens, pigeons, and mice are slated for mass ritual slaughter next month during a Hindu festival in southern Nepal.

Opponents of the killing, sensitive to the issues of cultural and religious expression, are fighting the killing on legal rather than moral grounds.

“We don’t want to be preachy,” Nuggehalli Jayasimha, managing director of Humane Society International/India, said in a telephone interview from Ahmedabad, India. “We want this mindless killing to stop, but we are a local Indian group working in another country with its own culture.”

Every five years, hundreds of thousands of religious devotees gather at a temple in Bariyarpur, a village near the Indian border, where many bring an animal to sacrifice during a two-day bloodletting dedicated to Gadhimai, the Hindu goddess of power. The act is believed to bring prosperity and protection from evil. The next festival is set to begin Nov. 28.

By all accounts, it is a gruesome sight.

“Over 500,000 animals are sacrificed in a span of two days, making it the largest animal sacrifice event in the world,” according to a statement from HIS/India. “Buffaloes are herded into a cramped ‘arena.’ They are tortured, beaten and then decapitated in front of large crowds and fanfare. Some have their shins broken in order to weaken any resistance.”

Jayasimha said the estimate of 500,000 animals was confirmed by the temple’s chief priest, Mangal Chudhary Tharu.

“The people who are childless and sterile, beaten by life from all aspects, troubled by illness and diseases visit here,” he wrote to Jayasimha in an email. “They come here, make their wishes and [then] get relieved of all troubles. That is the reason why so many people come with animals to sacrifice.”

Anne Mocko, an assistant professor of Asian religions at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., said Western criticism of Nepalese culture is inappropriate.

“It’s hard to understand at first,” said Mocko, who spent years in Nepal. “But it plays into an international, intercultural power dynamic.”

Mocko said she is a vegetarian and dismayed by watching animal sacrifice. “But I also worry about my position as a privileged Westerner telling non-Western people they’re barbaric and need to be civilized.”

And, she noted, Nepalese consume far less meat than people in the United States, where some 25 million farm animals are slaughtered each day, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

“Nepalese families will kill an animal by themselves and look the animal in the eye, which is something Americans don’t do in allowing the violence they cause,” said Mocko.

Given such cultural complexities, Jayasimha said opponents have turned to law enforcement—on both sides of the Nepal-India border—to stem the slaughter.

In Nepal, animals brought into the country must undergo a period of quarantine, and they must travel in a humane manner, accompanied by a medical certificate. None of those laws is observed during the festival, said Jayasimha.

Animals are sometimes forced to walk hundreds of miles to reach the temple, he said, while others are tied to car roofs or crammed into minivans. They are often deprived of food or water along the journey. “They’re malnourished and barely able to stand,” he said. ”Many die before they can be sacrificed.”

So far, the Nepalese government has not responded to HIS/India’s demands that it enforce national law.

The Embassy of Nepal in Washington did not reply to requests for comment.

India shares some responsibility. An estimated 70 percent of the animals sacrificed are illegally brought from that country; virtually none have health certificates and the export and transportation permits required by Indian law, according to HIS/India. In some Indian states, it is illegal to export livestock.

(India is no stranger to animal sacrifice. A mob in Bhopal last month attacked volunteers from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who were trying to persuade Muslims not to kill goats as part of a holiday observance.)

The Indian government has been more responsive, Jayasimha said. The Department of Border Management has ordered officials to prevent the movement of animals—through tougher enforcement and confiscation—across the border to the festival. A similar order in 2009, however, did little to stem the tide.

Now global activists are turning to the court of public opinion.

“Please direct the District Livestock Services and local police to work with the Animal Welfare Network of Nepal to establish an Exclusion Zone around Bariyarpur village two weeks prior to the festival, and to enforce Nepal’s Quarantine Act and Animal Transportation Guidelines,” reads an online petition from HSI. Another petition appears at Change.org.

Will change come? Jayasimha said some members of the festival’s organizing committee are supportive of ending the mass sacrifice but not ready to speak out.

“They’re all sympathetic, but off the record,” he said. “They know this is wrong and the whole world is looking at them.”