Tibetans Set Endangered Animal Pelts Ablaze, Rousing Chinese Ire

DHARAMSALA, India, February 24, 2006 (ENS) - Tibetans responding to an appeal from their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to conserve wildlife by not wearing fur-trimmed clothing, burned a large pile of pelts Monday in the main square of this Buddhist pilgrimage town. The Dalai Lama resides in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile.

The bonfire that consumed tiger, leopard, fox, and otter skins was one of many lit across four Chinese provinces with Tibetan populations to burn the fur-trimmed clothing. The burnings have angered Chinese officials.

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Clothing trimmed with animal skins is burned in Dharamsala on Monday. (Photo courtesy Wildlife Trust of India)
The Dharamsala event was organized days after the screening of a video depicting the mass burning of animal skins on the streets of Tibet. The video, clandestinely brought to Dharamsala, was shown on February 17 at the main temple of His Holiness in the presence of reporters and more than 1,000 Tibetans.

The footage shows thousands of Tibetans gathered in the Kirti Monastery in eastern Tibet throwing traditional Tibetan dresses lined with animal fur into a giant fire.

An estimated $75 million worth of animal skins have been burnt in eastern Tibet alone, said Lobsang Choephal, a monk who smuggled video footage of the burning out of Tibet.

Nagpa Tsering who brought the footage to Dharamsala from his associates at the Nepal-Tibet border said Chinese authorities are confiscating photographic materials from people who wanted to take pictures of the fires.

In April of 2005, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and Nobel Peace Prize winner, launched the Tibetan Conservation Awareness Campaign with the Wildlife Trust of India and the Care for the Wild International, secular conservation groups.

The Dalai Lama appealed to all Tibetans to stop wearing traditional clothing decorated with wildlife skins during the Kalachakra ceremony held in January 2006 in Amravati, southern India.

His Holiness asked them to inculcate love and respect towards all living beings and to conserve wildlife. He said, "When you go back to your respective places, remember what I said, neither use, sell nor buy wild animals, their products or derivatives."

Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (Photo credit unknown)
The campaign has been welcomed as a Tibetan contribution towards wildlife conservation and actually implements existing Chinese environmental laws and regulations. But the Chinese authorities perceive it to be primarily a public demonstration of allegiance to the Dalai Lama, and they have cracked down on the bonfires.

Chinese authorities in Rebkong, in the remote northwestern province of Qinghai, banned the burning of wildlife skins in the main courtyard of Rongwo monastery on February 12, just hours before the event was to take place.

Regardless of the ban and the Chinese troops seen patrolling alongside police in places where skin burning events have taken place, the campaign has been effective.

Few people can be seen wearing fur-trimmed garments in the Rebkong region, although it is festival season, perhaps because they do not wish to risk public ridicule.

TibetInfoNet, based in Germany, reports that a couple wearing skins was chased along the street by monks from the Rongwo monastery who were teased them, telling them they "looked like animals."

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A photographer documents burning of fur-trimmed clothing in Ngawa. (Photo courtesy WTI)
The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) says in Ngawa Prefecture in Sichuan province more than 10,000 people burned three truckloads of endangered animal skins. "Police were unable to prevent the burning, due to the large crowd. Eight people including two Chinese and six Tibetans were arrested here. This is considered to be the largest collection of animal skins burnt in the last fortnight," WTI said.

Campaign activists have advised the public to avoid provoking the authorities and instead to burn skins without drawing official attention. In a response, Chinese authorities have sent messengers to villages ordering that skins should not be burned.

Still, bonfires to burn wildlife skins have occurred on the streets of Amdo, Rebgong, Labrang, Golok, Karze, and Lhasa. A Khampa trader who sells rare animal skins in the Lhasa market torched his store in front of a large crowd.

The campaign to burn fur-trimmed garments has spread to four out of five Chinese provinces with Tibetan populations - the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu.

An organizer of the Dharamsala bonfire views the fashion of wearing skin-trimmed garments as a corruption of Tibetan culture as a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet since 1949.

"Usages of endangered animal skins by the Tibetans should be viewed as a curse handed down by the Chinese consumerist's culture to those who have been flamboyant in the pretext of a false identity," said the organizer, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. "Tibetans never used animal skins to such extravagance that it might have led to the extinction of a species."

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Young Tibetan man wears clothing trimmed in tiger skin at the horse festival in Litang, Sichuan province, August 2005. (Photo by Belinda Wright courtesy WPSI/EIA)
According to an AP report posted on the website of the Tibetan government in exile, Tibetans plan to intensify their campaign to end the use of endangered animal skins and furs after the Tibetan New Year, or Losar, on February 28.

Care for the Wild International Chief executive Dr. Barbara Maas said, "Thanks to His Holiness' dedication to this issue and the honesty and openmindedness of the Tibetans, the Kalachakra was not only a deeply meaningful Buddhist event, but will also make a genuine difference by saving the lives of countless wild animals."

Before the Chinese invasion, a strict ban existed on the hunting of wild animals in Tibet. But in the past 50 years, wildlife on the Tibetan plateau has declinedAmerican explorer Leonard Clark wrote of Tibet in the 1940s, "Every few minutes we would spot a bear, a hunting wolf, herds of musk deer, kiang (wild ass), gazelles, big horned sheep, or foxes."

Today, the trophy hunting of endangered species is actively encouraged, according to the Mumbai-based group Friends of Tibet. Rare Tibetan animals, such as the snow leopard, are hunted for their pelts which fetch large sums on the international market, the group said, adding that a permit to hunt a rare Tibetan antelope is US$35,000, an argali sheep permit costs US$23,000, and large numbers of antelope, gazelle, blue sheep and wild yak are poached by hunters to supply meat to markets in China and Europe.

In 2005, the Environmental Investigation Agency, based in London, said the tiger trade "has been spiralling out of control for five years; each year huge consignments of skins have been seized in India, Nepal and China, many of which have provided evidence indicating the ongoing involvement of Tibetans."