Illegal Skin Trade Pushes Asia's Big Cats to the Brink

BANGKOK, Thailand, October 8, 2004 (ENS) - Wild tigers are vanishing, and the tiger skin trade is "spiralling out of control," finds a new report based on extensive field investigations by an international environmental organization.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) warns that "a sophisticated network of criminal masterminds" is driving the tiger skin trade in urban and cross-border areas of India, China and Nepal.

In the year 1900, there were an estimated 100 000 tigers worldwide. Just a few years ago, wildlife experts were estimating wild tiger numbers at around 7,000. Today, the EIA says, "there are probably fewer than 5,000 wild tigers across an ever shrinking range."

Released as delegates from 166 countries are gathered in Bangkok for a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the report, "The Tiger Skin Trail," shows that while seizures of tiger and leopard skins have taken place, they have not disrupted the criminal networks controlling the skin trade.

skinTiger skin rugs like this one are in demand among wealthy Europeans and Chinese. (Photo courtesy Wildlife Trust of India) This report by the London based investigative organization reveals flaws in enforcement cooperation between the entities through which the skins are smuggled - India, China, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and Nepal.

On a remote road in the west of the Tibet Autonomous Region (Tibet), in October 2003, customs officers at a temporary checkpoint made a discovery that reveals the scale of the illegal skin trade.

In a single consignment officers recovered the skins of 31 tigers, 581 leopards and 778 otters. The skins came from India and were on route to Lhasa, capital of Tibet, a major hub for the trade.

The single largest seizure of big cat skins to date, it confirmed the role of Tibet as a key location for the smuggling, distribution and use of these skins.

Debbie Banks, EIA’s Tiger campaign leader and an author of the report, said, "Detailed field investigations reveal the existence of well organized syndicates trafficking tiger and leopard skins between India, Nepal, Tibet Autonomous Region and China.


Indian officials with confiscated tiger and leopard skins and poachers' guns. Khaga, India, January 2000. (Photo courtesy Fatehpur Forest Department)
A single tiger skin can sell for as much as US$10,000, the EIA learned. Traders in Tibet have told EIA investigators that they sell tiger and leopard skins to wealthy Chinese and Europeans, and the skin is used locally as trim on traditional costumes in Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang.

EIA investigators found that many of the skins seized by authorities have been expertly tanned and cured so that they can be folded and smuggled between cloth or wool; a large number of seizures have been made in Northern India, home to communities of skilled tanners.

"Tibetans are associated with many of the seizures as couriers and suspected buyers," the EIA reports. "The individuals that have been arrested tend to be the middlemen, the couriers and the tanners. Huge sums of cash are often recovered at the scene, and some of the individuals obtain legal representation from big city lawyers beyond their means, indicating significant financial influence behind the trafficking of skins."

While India, Nepal and China have made some seizures of contraband skins, Banks says "it is clear that, far from being deterred, the organized criminal networks have continued unabated."

The judiciary has acted swiftly in seizure cases in Nepal, but the penalties were too weak to deter people from engaging in the lucrative trade.

"Tigers poached in India are ending up as luxury decor in the homes of wealthy Chinese, and are often smuggled through Nepal," said Banks. "The huge seizure in Lhasa shows that effective enforcement is possible. We call on the three countries to intensify their efforts and to join forces to halt this trade, and for the CITES meeting to fully support such measures."


A tiger skin for sale in a shop in Tachilek, Myanmar (Photo by Chris R. Shepherd courtesy TRAFFIC)
At the CITES meeting on Thursday, India, Nepal and Bhutan reported on their conservation efforts and cooperation. Afghanistan and Bangladesh, both tiger range states, asked for financial and technical assistance.

The European Union and China suggested adopting a decision and the Secretariat agreed to prepare one, a move that the EIA supports.

The Secretariat introduced its report on the trade in Asian big cats, recommending that a meeting of the CITES Tiger Enforcement Task Force be convened.

The Secretariat said that "killing and illegal trade in Asian big cats" remains "a significant problem."

The Secretariat recommended the establishment of specialized enforcement units and emphasized the need for greater support for enforcement in general.


Bengal tiger cubs, both tawny and the more rare white coloration (Photo courtesy 5Tigers)
The CITES Secretariat said it is aware that the activities of some professional dealers in specimens such as skins and bones give cause for concern, as mentioned by the Tiger Mission Technical Team, but says registration of these dealers would not be an effective way in which to tackle such concerns.

Dealers who act as middlemen facilitating the acquisition of specimens without taking possession of anything pose a difficult monitoring problem, the Secretariat said.

The Secretariat issued a formal Alert, bringing the attention of Parties and law enforcement agencies to the activities of and methods used by unscrupulous dealers in tiger and leopard skins, bones and teeth.

Conservationists hope these measures can take effect in time to keep Asia's big cats from extinction. "If the remaining populations of wild tigers and Asian leopards are to survive this current onslaught, renewed political will is required in India, Nepal and China to tackle the obstacles to effective enforcement," said Banks. "They need to work together to stop the illegal skin traders before it is too late."