Indian Tigers Poached for Sizzling Black Market in Skins

LONDON, UK, September 23, 2005 (ENS) - Skins of wild endangered tigers from India are being openly traded in China and the Tibet Autonomous Region on a scale that "triggers real fear over the future of the wild tiger," say two conservation organizations after an undercover visit to the region in August.

Investigators with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) have just returned to the UK from their fact-finding mission with video and still photographs documenting what the groups call "a massive increase in the availability of tiger and leopard skins in Lhasa."

In the 46 shops surveyed in Lhasa, 54 leopard skin costumes, known locally as chubas, and 24 tiger skin chubas were openly displayed. Seven whole fresh leopard skins were presented for sale and, within the space of 24 hours, investigators were offered three whole, fresh tiger skins.

Belinda Wright, WPSIs executive director, said, "This is the first time that the sheer scale and seriousness of the problem has been exposed. The volume of skins openly for sale is shocking. It is a thriving, uncontrolled market, which may explain the increased poaching of tigers in India that has left at least one tiger reserve devoid of tigers and four others almost empty."

chuba

Young Tibetan man wears a tiger skin chuba at the horse festival in Litang, Sichuan province, August 2005. (Photo by Belinda Wright courtesy WPSI/EIA)
Only an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 wild tigers of all five sub-species remain in the wild anywhere in the world today.

The two groups obtained footage revealing the size of the market for the skins of endangered tigers and leopards, including the rare and endangered snow leopard many of them used for costumes and ceremonial events.

At a press conference in Delhi Thursday, they showed video shot at festivals across the Tibetan plateau this summer showing Tibetan officials, a teacher and children wearing clothes made out of tiger skin.

The investigators attended two major horse festivals in Litang and Nagchu, and two county-run horse festivals at Koluk and Sangshung in the Tibet Autonomous Region between August 1 and August 30. They found many people, including organizers and officials, wearing costumes decorated with tiger and leopard skins.

The garments had been bought within the last two years and the traders "categorically stated" that the tiger skins had come from India, the groups said.

On September 2 the Royal Nepal Army seized five tiger skins, 36 leopard skins, 238 otter skins and 113 kilograms of tiger and leopard bones in the Rasuwa district of Nepal, bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

The EIA observes that these large seizures of tiger, leopard and otter skins in India and Nepal indicate the existence of highly organized criminal networks behind the skin trade. "They operate across borders, smuggling skins from India through Nepal into China, and continue to evade the law," the group said in a statement today.

In Chinese shops, skins are so plentiful, no one would guess these animals are endangered.

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Whole fresh leopard skins openly displayed for sale in Linxia, Gansu Province. August 2005. (Photo by Belinda Wright courtesy WPSI/EIA)
In one street alone in Linxia, China, more than 60 whole snow leopard and over 160 fresh leopard skins were openly on display with many more skins rolled up in the back, said the EIA investigators. They also found over 1,800 otter skins, which are also used to decorate costumes.

Debbie Banks, EIAs senior campaigner, said, "In the last five years, the international community has seen the trade in tiger and leopard skins spiral out of control. If this trade continues unabated for another five years, it will be the end for the wild tiger."

"It is imperative that the Indian and Chinese governments stop this trade now, before time runs out," she warned.

EIA and WPSI are appealing to the Tibetan people to stop wearing endangered tiger and leopard skins, and urge international organizations to support awareness initiatives to get the message to consumers as fast as possible.

The number of skins on sale indicates a lack of awareness among consumers about the plight of the tiger, and the urgent need for targeted enforcement to stop traders from smuggling and illegally selling the skins of tigers and leopards.

Banks said people wearing skins at the horse festivals "were not aware of the plight of the tiger and did not know where the tiger and leopard skins came from other than a shop or dealer in Lhasa or Linxia," she told ENS.

"Nor did they make a connection between the skin they were wearing and the fact an animal was killed purposely to decorate their costume. They did not automatically see that they were responsible for an animal's death," said Banks.

"Buddhist teachings will have an effect on many of these people its a matter of getting those messages out," Banks said, referring to the Buddhist prohibition on the taking of life.

"You might recall in April this year the Dalai Lama released a statement calling upon Tibetan people not to engage in the trade or use of tiger and leopard skins," Banks said. "The irony is that its very difficult for this message to reach the people wearing skins in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai Provinces of China and the Tibet Autonomous Region."

Banks said tiger conservationists are exploring the possibility of approaching lamas at a local level to encourage Buddhist teachings to be spread, and also "looking at the role of Tibetan celebrities to appeal to the younger generation who are wearing skins, since for them wearing tiger and leopard skin is a sign of family wealth and status."

The people trafficking and selling skins know what they are doing is illegal, and they know the tiger skins are coming from India. Banks said, "These are the people who control the trade and are the ones that professional enforcement authorities need to focus on." EIA and WPSI are calling on the Indian government to immediately establish a professionally-led enforcement unit to target the wildlife criminals who are controlling the trade, and the Chinese government to undertake enforcement actions to stop the smugglers and traders of tiger and leopard skins.

Sunday is International Tiger Day and events are planned all over the world to draw attention to the illegal trade in tiger products.

All species and sub-species of tigers and leopards are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species on Appendix I. These species are threatened with extinction and CITES generally prohibits commercial international trade in specimens of these species except by permit for scientific research.

The Environmental Investigation Agency is online at: http://www.eia-international.org

The Wildlife Protection Society of India is found at: http://www.wpsi-india.org