Big cats under threat: Tiger, tiger, burning bright

The Tibetans are setting fire to tiger skins and other exotic furs after the Dalai Lama personally called on his people to stop the trade in endangered animal pelts. Tibet has become the world's leading market for the contraband, as Justin Huggler reports

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A rich and unusual smoke has been drifting into the Tibetan skies. People have been emerging from their homes and burning furs and animal skins. Onlookers have gathered to watch as Tibetans burned tiger skins worth as much as £6,000 in the streets. Many have given up their chubas, traditional robes adorned with tiger skins that can cost the equivalent of two years' wages for the average Tibetan, and watched happily as they went up in smoke.

In one town, it is said you can see the smoking ruins of tiger skins and other furs along the roadside. These scenes are not part of some exotic ritual. They are part of a major new environmental drive among Tibetans that could prove decisive in whether the tiger survives in the wild, or is driven to extinction.

They come after the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, personally intervened and called on his people to stop the trade in wild animal skins. Because, almost unnoticed by the outside world, Tibet has become the world's leading market for contraband tiger skins.

Environmentalists now believe the Tibetan skin trade is as influential as Chinese medicine in driving the demand for tigers. It is the market for tiger skins in Tibet that has ravaged the wild tiger population in India in recent years. Environmentalists are warning that the tiger is on the verge of extinction after it emerged last year that large numbers have disappeared from India's wildlife reserves - under the noses of game wardens.

News emerged yesterday that tigers are missing from yet another Indian reserve, this time Buxa, in West Bengal. Some Indian wildlife experts are warning there may be as few as 1,200 tigers left in India.

Shops in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, openly display tiger skins for sale, despite the international ban on the tiger trade, and the fact it is illegal under Chinese law. Environmentalists have proved a direct link between the disappearing tigers of India and the skins on display in Tibet.

Which is where the Dalai Lama has stepped in. Last month, thousands of Tibetans streamed into India. Around 7,000 were allowed to come by the Chinese authorities. But thousands more came without permission, braving an arduous trek across the Himalayas in the harshest winter conditions, struggling through Nepal, which is in the grip of civil war, and then travelling for hundreds of miles to south India.

They were coming for the Kalachakra, one of the most important festivals of the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. Because this year's was the 30th Kalachakra the present Dalai Lama has presided at, and because it was being held at the site of the original Kalachakra centuries ago, exceptionally large numbers of Tibetans made the journey.

The Dalai Lama seized the opportunity to deliver a stark message to the vast crowds from inside Tibet. Wearing animal skins and furs was, he said, against Buddhism. He said he had been "ashamed" at photos which emerged from Tibet recently showing Tibetans wearing robes covered with tiger skins.

"When you go back to your respective places, remember what I had said earlier and never use, sell, or buy wild animals, their products or derivatives," he told the crowds. Observers who were at the festival said they had rarely seen the Dalai Lama so passionate. His words clearly hit home: many Tibetans who were there said they would burn their fur-trimmed robes as soon as they returned home.

On 31 January, two weeks after the end of the festival, the first report emerged from Tibet of someone burning furs. The movement quickly snowballed, and there have been incidents of fur burning across Tibet. It is not only tiger skins. Traditional Tibetan chubas (gowns) are also lined with leopard, otter and fox fur, and there have been instances of all of them being burnt.

Reports from within Tibet say that over the past two weeks the price of tiger skins and other furs has dropped drastically. "It's testimony to the extraordinary influence the Dalai Lama has on Tibetans in Tibet," says Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet. "It shows the importance of his direct communication for Tibetans." The growing controversy over the skins has provoked intense debate on the internet chatrooms that have become the main centres of discussion between Tibetans inside Tibet and those living in exile, cut off from each other by the political situation.

"It is utterly disgusting that Tibetans are involved in [this] heinous business," wrote one person on www.phayul.com. "Thanks to all Tibetans inside ... and outside Tibet who are working day in day out to increase the awareness on how sinful it is to use animal skins," wrote another.

The development has been welcomed by conservationists. Debbie Banks from the Environmental Investigation Agency, the international campaigning organisation that exposes environmental crime, said: "While it is really heartening to see former consumers cast off and burn their tiger and leopard skins, we also need to see the Chinese and Indian governments take action. They must invest in professional enforcement and co-operate with each other to crack down on the criminal networks controlling the trafficking of skins. This illegal trade is the biggest threat to the survival of India's wild tigers and if no action is taken, it will mark the end of the tiger."

Judy Mills of the Campaign against Tiger Trafficking called the effort "an organised response to an organised crime."

Undercover investigations by Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WSPI) revealed the extent of the tiger skin trade in Tibet and her photographs of Tibetans wearing tiger skins shocked many. "News of the disastrous consequences of the skin trade and His Holiness the Dalai Lama's condemnation of the use of skins appear to be spreading across the Tibetan region," she said.

Just 100 years ago, there were 100,000 tigers in the world. Today, the number left in the wild is between 5,000 and 7,000, but those figures were complied seven years ago from figures supplied by governments which have since been discredited. Wildlife organisations now fear the real number may be closer to 3,000.

India has the last sizeable population of tigers left in the wild, accounting for more than 60 per cent of the world's tigers. But the alarm was sounded after it emerged last year that tigers were disappearing from India's forest reserves at an alarming rate. At a wildlife reserve called Sariska the authorities were forced to admit that all the reserve's tigers had vanished.

In the controversy that followed, it became clear that tigers were missing from reserves all over India. In the latest development, it emerged only yesterday that Buxa tiger reserve can account for only four of the 27 tigers it is supposed to have.

One of India's most respected tiger experts has said that the country would be lucky to have 1,200 tigers left. In most cases, it is clear that the disappearance of the tigers is the direct result of highly organised poaching. The underfunded wildlife authority simply does not have the manpower or the finances to mount effective patrols. In some cases, there have been allegations the poachers may have bribed wardens to turn a blind eye.

The link between the market for tiger skins in Tibet and poaching in India first emerged in 2000, after Indian police seized a crate of skins as it was being smuggled out of the country. Inside, they found the skins had been identified with Tibetan markings.

What emerged from the investigation that followed is that the illegal trade in tiger skins is a highly sophisticated operation. Tibetan merchants travel to India to view the skins of tigers killed by the poachers. They choose the ones they want - but they do not take the risk of transporting them across the border themselves. The skins are marked to show which merchant they are headed for, and are then transported into Tibet via Nepal, where the lawlessness caused by the civil war makes it easy for them to slip through.

Last year a team from WSPI went to Tibet undercover to investigate the extent of the trade there. What they found shocked them. Tiger and leopard skins were openly on display in Lhasa's Barkhor shopping area. The shopkeepers openly told the investigators that the skins had come from India.

One tourist who contacted the wildlife organisation spoke of seeing an entire crate of leopard skins stacked on top of each other.

Trading in the skins of tigers and other endangered species is illegal under Chinese law, but there is no enforcement in Tibet. There is a local tradition of wearing tiger skin-trimmed robes, but only in rural communities in one area of Tibet.

Environmentalists say the recent craze for the robes has been driven by a different, urban section of Tibetan society. While most Tibetans are still poor, in the cities there is growing wealth, and that has fuelled a fashion for the robes.

"This newfound trend has less to do with old customs than with new money," said Dawa Tsering, head of WWF China's Tibet programme. Environmental investigators found that it was not only Tibetans who bought the tiger skins. They were told that Chinese people were travelling to Tibet specially to buy tiger skins to decorate their homes.

Lhasa has become known as the place to get a tiger or leopard skin on the black market, and the environmentalists were even told that Europeans had come to the city to buy the skins - even though being caught returning with one to a European country could get you in serious trouble.

For the Dalai Lama, who has been committed to environmental causes for many years, and who has lived in India since he fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the photographs which emerged of Tibetans wearing tiger skins proved too much. He has spoken out against the wearing of furs before, but at this year's festival he was direct in his condemnation.

Although it appears that it is the Dalai Lama alone who has the moral authority to turn Tibetans so dramatically against the animal skins, his involvement is causing trouble with the Chinese authorities, who continue to regard the the exiled spititual leader as a threat despite his calls in recent years for rapprochement.

Most of the burning incidents so far have been spontaneous, but Tibetan environmentalists were planning a large organised gathering today to burn more. But by last night it was not clear if the event would go ahead, after the Chinese local authorities called an urgent meeting on what they described as an action by the "Dalai clique".

Tseten Gyal, a Tibetan involved in organising the gathering, has been questioned by state security agents, despite saying that he is only trying to protect the environment, and is not involved in political activities.

"The Chinese have spoken of the importance of environmental protection and that is what the Dalai Lama's message addresses," says Ms Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet. "Although this may be of concern to local authorities, I'm sure the main Chinese authorities understand that he is expressing the same environmental concerns they have addressed."

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